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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Two years into office, UNP-SLFP coalition government is in sixes and sevens

Colombo, August 21: It’s been two years since two of Sri Lanka’s largest political groupings – the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – signed a MoU to cohabit in the government for two years to give “Good Governance” in place of the nine-year corruption and violence-ridden rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

At the end of the stipulated period of the alliance, a rough audit will show that the coalition government has much to its credit, though from the electoral prospects point of view, it leaves much to be desired, given the hype surrounding its advent to power and the hyperbolic promises it had made at election time, writes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.

By all accounts, the coalition will survive beyond the stipulated two years, if only to keep the common rival, Rajapaksa, away from power. But the government is in sixes and sevens. The regime as a whole, as well as the two main parties in it, are torn by internal contradictions which have, many times, threatened the coalition.

The Promises

The 10-point MoU signed after the August 17, 2015 parliamentary elections, envisaged the rapid development of the economy; bridging of the gap between the haves and the have-nots; creation of one million jobs; formulation of a program to increase revenue; strengthening democracy; ensuring the Rule of Law; establishment of Independent Commissions in accordance to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed earlier; and giving a new Constitution to strengthen democracy, human rights and promote ethnic and religious reconciliation which had taken severe blows during Rajapaksa’s rule.

The MoU also aimed at the abolition of the preferential votes system and the introduction of an electoral system combining the First-Past-the-Post System (FPP) with the Proportional Representation (PR) system. It promised a Right to Information Act and a judicial crackdown on corruption and financial crimes.

On international relations, the MoU said that the government will be equidistant from the world powers and maintain good relations with all, especially, the West, India and China.

Credit Side

The “Good Governance” government, backed by a “Rainbow coalition” comprising a variety of communal/ethnic parties, has established Independent Commissions to oversee the work of various branches of the State including the Executive and Judiciary and determine top appointments in them.

It has given the country a Right to Information Act; has reached the penultimate stage of drafting a new constitution; and is on the verge of bringing about key changes in the election system through the 20th. Amendment.

On the international and human rights fronts too, it has brought about a sea change. Abandoning the blatantly anti-West, anti-India and pro-China policy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it has gone in for a balanced foreign policy giving key economic projects to India as well as China.

By co-sponsoring, with the US, a resolution on Human Rights and alleged war crimes at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and taking some key steps towards reconciliation with the minority Tamils, the government headed by President Maithripal Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has won over the West very substantially.

The European Union (EU) has restored to Sri Lanka its GSP-Plus trade concessions. The UNHRC has given Sri Lanka more time to implement the promises it had made in the joint resolution.

Domestic Failures

However, there is significant downside which the government will ignore only at its peril. While it has restored Sri Lanka’s high international standing, and it is maintaining good ties with both China and India, it has abysmally failed to fulfill its promises to its domestic clientele.

Although its contribution to the restoration of democracy cannot be denied in as much as the media is free; there are no political murders and state-sponsored abductions; and the Security Forces do not harass the Tamils in the North; what the people are more concerned about are bread and butter issues. Their primary requirement is a government which governs and not a government which appears to be anarchic all too often. In the war-affected Northern Province, the Tamils, other than the political class, are still demanding their due in terms of economic rehabilitation, including land, houses and jobs.

Given the reduction in public spending due to lack of funds and the enormous burden of debt left by the Rajapaksa regime, trade and job opportunities have not grown since 2015. Political confusion and contradictions in the top echelons of the government have adversely affected the functioning of the bureaucracy and generated public disillusionment.

Shifting policies on foreign investment have discouraged foreign investors. Policy confusion and policy paralysis have forced various interest groups and trade unions to resort to strikes and demonstrations affecting the investment climate in the country.

Division of Labor Goes Awry

Under an informal agreement between the UNP and SLFP, economic affairs were handed over to the UNP as it has had a tradition of better economic management. The apex body for economic matters has been the Cabinet Committee on Economic Matters (CCEM) chaired by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

But the government’s tax and other economic proposals made according to the capitalist development model has not gone down well with the people and also the local business community.

The Framework and Concessional Agreements with China on the Hambantota port, giving the port to China for 99 years with an 80% stake at first, and then bringing it down to 70%, and not less than 50% as the nationalists demanded, was opposed both outside and inside the government.

Given the unpopularity of the CCEM’s decisions, President Sirisena recently set up a National Economic Council (NEC), a body of experts under the President, to give directions to, and whet the policies of, the CCEM. It remains to be seen if the CCEM and the NEC will work in harmony.

Earlier too, the President had to intervene to retire the controversial Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran in 2016 and to institute a Presidential Commission in January 2017 to inquire into the bond scam in the Central Bank under Mahendran’s watch. Incidentally, Mahendran was Wickremesinghe’s man.

Parties Divided Within

Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have been having troubles within their parties.

Sirisena is the President of the SLFP, but the bulk of the party workers and voters are with former party chief and President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Given the clashes between the UNP and SLFP on administrative and economic matters, many SLFPers who are with Sirisena have been urging the latter to end the MoU with the UNP and join hands with the SLFP headed by Rajapaksa to form an SLFP government.

But Sirisena is at odds with Rajapaksa from whom he had broken away at the end of 2014 just before the January 2015 Presidential election to be the Joint Opposition candidate. Against that background, he will not entertain any rapprochement with Rajapaksa. However, Sirisena has pleaded for time until December 31 to decide on the MoU issue.

The contradictions within the ruling parties along with the lackluster performance of the government, has made Sirisena reluctant to hold the long overdue local bodies elections and also to commit himself to holding three Provincial elections due in September and October this year.

Disturbed by the slow action on the investigations into the 87 corruption cases against the Rajapaksas and their cohorts (allegedly at the best of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe), the President is now thinking of establishing a Special Court to try such cases.

Crisis in UNP

As regards the UNP, its links with the Central Bank bond scam led to the resignation of Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake. Most recently, a top UNP leader and Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, an ardent Sinhala-Buddhist-Nationalist, publicly criticized the UNP leader’s deal with China on the Hambantota port and declared that he will not rest until the port is taken back by the government.

This led to 70 UNPs wanting to move a No Trust Motion against Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. The entire Working Committee of the UNP censured him for his anti-party/government activities. Wijeyadasa is expected to either resign or be asked to go, soon.

However, the danger in Wijeydasa Rajapakshe’s getting out is that he might mobilize the Buddhist clergy, including the Mahanayakes of Malwatte, Asgiriya and Ramannya orders, against the government.

And that will only benefit the Rajapaksas, waiting in the wings to come back to power on a Sinhala-Buddhist-Nationalist platform.

(The featured image at the top shows the General Secretaries of the SLFP and UNP, Duminda Dissanayake and Kabir Hashim, signing the MoU on two-year cohabitation)



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