Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks during a news conference after the local government election in 2017.?

The stinging rebuke delivered by the country to the two main parties in government is indeed that – things cannot continue as before, promises have to be kept and the people have to be taken into the confidence of the government through constant, cogent and coherent communication. It is not a wholesale repudiation of the government or of the reform agenda of 2015.  It is also worth noting that in almost half of the local bodies no single party has won an overall majority, although the combined anti–UNP vote prevails in most councils.

No reform agenda can succeed without delivery on promises and communication with the electorate; certainly not if the opposition is ceded the space to define and distort issues to its advantage.  Moreover, the government of the day however constituted and this one is historically one of a kind, has to sing from the same hymn sheet and most importantly the same hymn.  The two parties have to sink their differences and recommit themselves to what brought them together in the first place, in the eyes of the electorate.  The sordid accusations and counter-accusations witnessed in the last phase of the campaign, in particular and the open attempts thereafter to hold the UNP and its leader solely responsible for the electoral debacle, Constitution and the fact of faring worse notwithstanding, casts serious doubts on the political maturity of political leaders. Given that since 2015 the two main parties of government have been voluntarily in government together, the cumulative impact of all of this is to bring into question the credibility of the institutions of parliamentary democracy, thereby, paving the way for populist authoritarianism and worse.

It is fast approaching a month since the election and the issue dominating public discourse is the fate of the prime minister and the current composition of the government.  He said that he would continue as per the law and the constitution. He has also admitted responsibility for the defeat and effected a re-shuffle of the UNP ministers in the Cabinet – albeit one, which many believe, shies away from the problem at hand.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party with Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena during a ceremony to swear Wickremesinghe as the Sri Lanka's new prime minister in 2015.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party with Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena during a ceremony to swear Wickremesinghe as the Sri Lanka’s new prime minister in 2015.

A key outstanding issue in this regard is the portfolio of Law and Order, which the Prime Minister has taken over temporarily. That handing it over to Field Marshal Fonseka is the preferred option of some on the grounds that he would instill the fear of God and perhaps retribution too in the hearts and minds of the corrupt, is being resisted on the grounds that he may well be disposed to ensuring that ends justify means and ends are all that matter. The issue is yet to be resolved. That it should and without delay is reinforced by the recent spate of ethnic and religious violence in the Kandy district.

The Prime Minister has also stated that a new leadership of his party will be developed for the future – a not too distant future of provincial, presidential and general elections. There are those who are consumed with déjà vu about all of this, within his party and within government. For them the anti- UNP vote and by extension the anti-government vote is essentially an anti–Ranil vote. They will not rest until they see the back of him. As in the regicide of Duncan, their position is –“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well, it were done quickly”.

The Prime Minister’s statement to the media after the election, however, suggests that the leadership of the party will not change for the duration of the term of the government.  The President may have unwittingly contributed to this by openly entertaining the replacement of the Prime Minster, thereby uniting the UNP.  The media reported him seeking legal and constitutional advice on his options if any in this regard, given the constraints of the 19th Amendment and its recalibration of the relationship between the executive and legislature – a recalibration, which the President does not seem to comprehend even though he was party to it in 2015.

Whilst placing the predominant responsibility for the electoral defeat on the Prime Minister, the President must, on account of his determination to be rid of him, shoulder the responsibility for the prevailing uncertainty and instability regarding government.  The perception is of government in limbo or paralysis even after the President appears to have been reconciled to continuing to work with the incumbent Prime Minister. The latter’s position, however, is not on the face of it, absolutely secure in that there is talk of a no-confidence motion in the legislature against him.  This uncertainty is no good for the country.  The President who seems to have initiated and sustained uncertainty over the position of his Prime Minister, but now seems reconciled to continuing as per usual, must make that abundantly clear and get on with the task of governing. This in turn requires the two of them agreeing on a minimum consensus and action plan for the remaining term of the government and most importantly communicate this to the country at large.

Remembering dead or missing journalists at a 'Black January' vigil held in 2017.
Remembering dead or missing journalists at a ‘Black January’ vigil held in 2017.

Can they re-commit themselves-as some of us think they should – to the reform agenda of 2015 and get on with it?  There isn’t much time to be sure but is there an alternative?  Limping along will only reinforce the arguments for a general as opposed to a presidential election, an option the Rajapaksas, I surmise, would welcome and work towards since it would resolve the problems of vertical and horizontal succession within the family and from their point of view, firmly ensconce Mahinda Rajapaksa as a post 19th Amendment Prime Minister.

In all of this, constitutional reform, the new social contract expected by the many who voted for regime change in 2015, will probably be jettisoned.  A new electoral system may be in the realms of possibility rather than of probability.  As to the rest, the government has to get its act together, re-establish commitment and ensure minimum consensus in policy, command, control and communication in and of action.

The natural flights of the human mind may well be from hope to hope and in more than that spirit, the situation is redeemable.

Dr. Saravanamuttu is the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA)




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