Colombo, July 18: The United National Party (UNP)-Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) coalition which came into being in 2015 with the laudable objective of giving “Good Governance” in place of the corruption-ridden and arbitrary nine-year rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is struggling to survive in the third year of its five year term, writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Express.
The coalition’s fate is to be decided by December 31, when the agreement creating it expires.
President Mathripala Sirisena, who heads the SLFP faction which is with the government, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who heads the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) are keen to continue the alliance till the next elections in 2020.
But the SLFP faction which is with the President is eager to break away and go with the SLFP which is led by former President Rajapaksa.
This faction feels that the alliance with the UNP is costing it the allegiance of traditional SLFP voters who are very largely with Rajapaksa.
With elections to the Sabragamuwa, North Central and Eastern Provinces likely to be held at the end of the year or early next year; and with the moral obligation to hold local bodies elections; SLFPers currently with the President are nervous about facing the electorate which is moving towards Rajapaksa with every passing day because of the non-performance of the coalition government.
They want Sirisena to tie up with the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition in parliament and set up an SLFP-led government with some defectors from the UNP-led UNF. If the President rejects this proposition, they would rather sit with the opposition either as part of Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition Group, or separately as independents.
Alarmed by the turn of events, Sirisena last week, appealed to his disgruntled party men to stay with him at least till the expiry of the UNP-SLFP pact on December 31. He promised to set matters right in regard to governance by then. But so far, the dissidents have not reacted to the President’s plea, thus sustaining speculation about the country’s political future.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe made a fervent plea to sustain the coalition for the cause of development and sustenance of the gains Sri Lanka has made both at home and overseas thanks to the coalition.
The coalition had dismantled the authoritarian structure set up by Rajapaksa; restored media freedom; made enforced disappearances a thing of the past; took major steps towards ethnic reconciliation by co-opting the Tamil National Alliance (TNA); and got the international community to shed its hostility to Sri Lanka.
Yes, the government has failed miserably on the economic front, despite getting back the GSP Plus trade concessions from the European Union. But Wickremesinghe is confident that if Sri Lanka does not slide back into the ways of Rajapaksa, and if the intended reforms are carried out, FDI will flow and set the economic wheels moving.
As for President Sirisena, he desperately needs the coalition because he feels that a break up will bring Rajapaksa back into power even if he cannot become President. Sirisena has even said Rajapaksa’s coming back could be life threatening for him. His only complaint against the UNP is that it is not moving strongly against the Rajapaksas in the corruption cases against them. He has openly accused Wickremsinghe of having a secret deal with Rajapaksa.
While the pro-Rajapaksa elements in the Sirisena faction want to fight the coming local and provincial elections in coalition with the Rajapaksa faction, Sirisena’s core supporters want to fight independently of the Rajapaksa faction and the UNP.
They hope that in this way, they can portray themselves as genuine SLFPers who, unlike Rajapaksa acolytes, are democrats at heart desiring good governance, lasting peace and reconciliation in the island, and friendship with all countries.
But neither the UNP nor the SLFP faction with Sirisena have much to show by way of economic development and responsible governance. Economic progress has ground to a halt due to policy inconsistencies, an inability to take timely decisions, and a general political and bureaucratic inertia pervading the State.
Failure on the economic front could result in the Rajapaksa group scoring above the UNP and the SLFP (Sirisena) in the local and Provincial elections, especially in the local elections.
In these elections are held prior to December 31 and the results go against the SLFP and the UNP, the coalition between the two will become untenable.
Parliament cannot be dissolved and fresh elections called because of a constitutional bar, but power may pass into the hands of the UNP-led UNF which is the single largest entity in parliament. Of course, the UNF will have to get a few defectors to give it an absolute majority. And when that happens, President Sirisena’s power will be dented.
The UNF and the SLFP (Rajapaksa) see this as a welcome prospect. The UNF will get a free hand to rule and show its prowess in governance. But the SLFP (Rajapaksa) is confident that the UNP-led UNF government will alienate itself from the Sinhalese majority community by its pro-West and pro-minority policies by the time the next elections are held in 2020.
According to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), whether the coalition will survive or not will be seen from the progress made or not made in the constitution-making process.
“If the two parties come to an agreement between now and December 31, the coalition will stay. If they don’t, a break is inevitable” said M.A.Sumanthiran, spokesman of the TNA.
“The interim report of the Steering Committee is to be discussed on Thursday. If a consensus on the constitution emerges, then there is hope that a new constitution will see the light of day. It will also indicate a national consensus on it as all parties in parliament are involved in the Steering Committee,” Sumanthiran said.
But going by the proceedings of the Steering Committee so far, a consensus is unlikely. Both factions of the SLFP are against drafting a new constitution. They want only some amendments to the existing constitution. And they have the backing of the Mahanayakes in this. President Sirisena has also said that a new constitution will not be finalized without prior consultation with the Mahanayakes.
This assumes that the UNP is wholeheartedly for a new constitution. But this assumption may not be valid. It is noteworthy that, to date, no UNPer has actively campaigned for a new constitution. The UNP may well be sitting on the fence especially after the Mahanayakes expressed their opposition to a new constitution. Being a Sinhala-Buddhist party itself, the UNP cannot be dismissive about the perceived sentiments of the Sinhala-Buddhist community.
If both the UNP and the SLFP oppose a new constitution, the chances of the coalition surviving become brighter. However, the political advantages of this can be offset by the alienation bought about by its poor performance in the field of governance and economic development. In that case, electoral calculations will intervene to lessen the chances of the coalition surviving beyond December 31.
(The featured picture at the top shows former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena sticking together despite differences)