Sri Lanka is never short of political dramas of varying intensities, ranging from comical to serious, the latest being the verbal conflict between the SLPP and the UNP. Some disgruntled SLPP seniors pretend that they will not vote for the upcoming 2024 budget to be presented by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Minister of Finance, to the parliament soon.
SLPP MP and ardent Rajapaksa loyalist Prof. Ranjith Bandara, taking part in a television debate on Thursday, claimed that the SLPP had not been involved in preparing the budget at all, and was not therefore in a position to decide whether to oppose or back it. The SLPP is apparently trying to hold President Wickremesinghe in suspense and pressure him to appoint some of its district leaders to the Cabinet. Will it go so far as to torpedo the budget if it fails to have its demand met?
‘Interesting times’
“May you live in interesting times!” is considered an ancient Chinese curse, where ‘interesting’ is a euphemism for ‘chaotic and uncertain’. In this sense of the term, Sri Lankans are living in very ‘interesting’ times. The Executive and the Legislature are at loggerheads with the constituents of the ruling coalition clashing openly, and the economy is still in bad shape. Foreign currency reserves are woefully low, and there are staggering debts to be repaid after being restructured.
The country’s economic concerns took precedence over politics for once owing to the aggravation of the economic crisis last year, compelling even some of the sworn political enemies to join forces to sort out the economy. But now signs are that politics is regaining dominance over the economy with the SLPP trying to consolidate its control over the government by undermining the position of President Wickremesinghe in a bid to recover lost ground on the political front in time for the next election expected next year.
Group dynamics and system anomalies
Group dynamics in the ruling coalition and their impact on the present politico-economic situation are of interest and warrant a critical examination, but the focus of this comment is on some systemic aberrations and anomalies bearing on the current affairs of the state.
The unfolding political situation is not without historical analogues to it in some respects, but it has some anomalous and unique aspects that make it all the more interesting and worth analysis.
Numerous are the arguments for and against Sri Lanka’s presidential form of government, which was introduced in 1978. Theoretically, in a presidential system, the Executive President is both the head of state and head of government, and he or she is independent of the legislature as to his or her policies and acts, to a large extent. The executive presidency is believed to be based on the principle of separation of powers; it is said to bring about political stability, especially under the proportional representation system, which generally leads to weak governments. Some of the main criticisms of the executive presidency is that the President becomes so powerful that he or she tends to be autocratic and his or her actions result in clashes among vital state institutions, and this kind of disharmony affects economic planning adversely. These arguments for and against the Executive Presidency are tenable and compelling if Sri Lankans experience with it is anything to go by.
Sri Lankans have had first-hand experience with the standard merits and demerits of the executive presidency over the past 45 years or so. When it was introduced, it was touted as an institution that was essential to ensure political stability and accelerate economic development. It remained a textbook case until 2000 because the political parties headed by the Executive Presidents had parliamentary majorities notwithstanding the political anomaly in 1994, when President D. B. Wijetunga’s party, the UNP, lost control of the parliament; President Wijetunga and the then newly-elected Prime Minister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga however got on well and the latter became the President a few months later.
Systemic flaws become obvious
It was in 2000 that serious flaws in the presidential system became obvious. President Kumaratunga’s party, the SLFP-led People’s Alliance, failed to secure a clear majority, at that year’s parliamentary polls, and her government collapsed the following year, when the UNP-led UNF caused mass crossovers and captured power at the general election that followed.
President Kumaratunga was the Head of Government, but she and the UNP’s parliamentary group clashed bitterly, with the latter undermining the former openly. Eventually, Kumaratunga sacked the UNF government and regained control of the parliament. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, elected in 2005, augmented his parliamentary majority by engineering crossovers from the Opposition. He went on to muster a two-thirds majority by leveraging the defeat of the LTTE to win the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2010.
Some political observers argue that there is a remarkable similarity between the current administration and the Yahapalana government (2015-2019). After the 2015 regime change, President Maithripala Sirisena did not have a parliamentary majority, and for legislative support, he was dependent on the UNP, which enabled him to secure the much-coveted executive presidency. Their relationship turned sour, and they broke ranks in 2018. President Wickremesinghe is also dependent on a bunch of ‘strange bedfellows’ (read the SLPPers) for parliamentary support. The political marriage of convenience between the UNP and the SLPP is on the rocks; speculation is rife that they will part company sooner or later. But President Wickremesinghe, unlike President Sirisena, whose power to hold an early parliamentary election was limited by the 19th Amendment, is now in a position to dissolve the parliament anytime, and can exercise this power in case the SLPP defeats his budget; he can continue to hold office until the latter part of next year. But an early general election is likely to leave him without a parliamentary majority and land him in the same predicament as President Sirisena. Thus, both sides can be considered evenly matched. Interestingly, Wickremesinghe, who lost his own seat at the 2020 general election, where his party was reduced to a single National List slot, has come to be on a par with the SLPP, which obtained an overwhelming mandate to govern the country but squandered its political fortune.
Meanwhile, it is highly unlikely that the SLPP will carry out its veiled threat to shoot down the budget even if President refuses to allocate some more Cabinet slots for its MPs, for such a course of action will be tantamount to plain political suicide for a party, whose approval rating is extremely low. Hence, the SLPP dissidents who have sided with President Wickremesinghe, such as Nimal Lanza, are daring the SLPP leadership to defeat the budget. Similarly, it is advantageous for President Wickremesinghe to ensure the continuation of the current dispensation because he now has a parliamentary majority. The two sides are likely to agreed to a compromise formula and ratify the upcoming budget, without committing collective political hara-kiri. But the systemic flaws and anomalies that bring about dysfunctional governments and politico-economic instability will not go away.