By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Colombo, November 19: Maithripala Sirisena’s Presidency, which ended with the swearing-in of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the Sri Lankan President on Monday, will go down in history as one of the most controversial, unstable and nonfunctional in the history of Sri Lanka.
The Sirisena Presidency showed the utter unsuitability of the system of cohabitation between disparate political forces in government, given the type of constitution Sri Lanka has, and the political culture prevalent in it.
Governance under the dual leadership of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was marked by an absence of communication and consultation between a directly elected Executive President (Maithripala Sirisena), and a Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremesinghe) who enjoyed majority support in parliament.
There were ideological clashes between them, which stemmed from the fact that they belonged to two different political streams and parties rooted in two different ideologies. Inter-personal cultural and psychological conflicts complicated matters. These factors affected decision making and the implementation of decisions.
No wonder, the “Good Governance” government, formed with great fanfare and public expectations in January 2015, became a “Good for Nothing” government in the eyes of the majority of Sri Lankans in less than five years. Therefore, the defeat of the ruling United National Party’s Presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa, at the hands of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the November 16 Presidential election by a margin of 1.3 million votes, came as no surprise.
The reasons for such a dismal end lay both in the political culture and the constitution of Sri Lanka. Lanka’s political culture (as in the rest of South Asia) is marked by greed for power and destructive competition. The Lankan constitution itself gives room for clashes and conflicts between the two centers of power.
When the directly elected, constitutionally powerful, Executive President and the Prime Minister enjoying majority support in parliament belong to the same political party or alliance, there is little or no scope for clashes and the government will run smoothly by and large. But when they belong to two different parties or are wedded to two different political agendas or ideologies, clashes are bound to occur, especially when personality and cultural differences also come into play.
Such clashes between the President and Prime Minister occur in countries where there is a hybrid constitution as in Sri Lanka where a directly elected Executive President has to co-exist with a Prime Minister who enjoys majority support in parliament which has control over the government’s purse strings.
In a parliamentary system, on the other hand, possibilities of such clashes are minimal because it is the Prime Minister who has de facto power and the President is only titular. Sri Lanka has a hybrid constitution which is neither fully Presidential nor fully parliamentary. The 19 Amendment of 2015 only added to the tension by curbing the powers of the directly elected President with a popular mandate, while giving more powers to a Prime Minister not directly elected by the people.
Although the directly elected President Maithripla Sirisena agreed to the enactment of the 19A, he soon found it be an unbearable shackle, an instrument undermining his legitimacy derived from popular support in a direct election.
The President and the Prime Minister could be elected at different times with different mandates as was the case in 2001. At that time, President Chandika Kumaratunga had come one mandate in 1999, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had come with a contradictory mandate in 2001. Kumaratunga was elected to fight the LTTE, while Wickremesinghe had a mandate to seek accommodation with the LTTE with international help.
Initially, President Kumaratunga allowed Wickremesinghe to govern as he pleased but she soon discovered that Wickremesinghe had a tendency to ignore her. He signed the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE without showing the draft to her. At a later stage, even as the LTTE violated the CFA more than 3800 times, Wickremesinghe was studying a draft LTTE proposal for self-government in the Northern Eastern provinces which smacked of de-facto independence from Sri Lanka. It was then that Kumaratunga used her powers as Executive President to take away three key ministries from Wickremesinghe and then decided to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections
Wickremesinghe’s alliance got defeated in those elections because of a nationalistic upsurge among the majority Sinhalese against a soft line towards the terrorist-separatist LTTE. Wickremesinghe paid the price for not taking the President along when he contemplated key decisions.
After a long period of political cohesion under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, cohabitation was thrust on the political parties in Sri Lanka after the January 2015 Presidential and August 2015 parliamentary elections.
President Sirisena came from one background and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe came from another, though Sirisena was the candidate of the Joint Opposition led by Wickremesinghe’s UNP.
After the 19 th.Amendment of 2015, the Lankan constitution complicated matters by reducing the powers of the President and increasing those of the Prime Minister and the parliament. Though the President had supported the 19A he soon felt powerless and unable to influence government decisions even though he too had a popular mandate to function as he deemed fit. The Independent Commissions had also taken away some of his key powers.
The Prime Minister and his cabinet were functioning as they deemed fit without consulting the President. Cultural and personality differences hampered communication between the President and the Prime Minister. Key agreements with foreign powers were contemplated without consulting the President. The leftist President disapproved of some economic decisions. He also disliked genuflecting before foreign organizations on the issue of human and minority rights.
Where ever he could, the President would countermand the government’s decisions. The net result was that the government was afflicted by a policy and administrative paralysis.
The resultant alienation from the people led to attempts by Sirisena to acquire more power or dismiss Wickremesinghe to enable him to run the show on his own on populist and nationalistic lines.
Having decided to take charge and even seek a second term, Sirisena wanted more time to implement his left wing nationalistic policies. He wanted a six year term, for which he was elected. But the judiciary said that as per the 19A of 2015 his term would be five years. He then tried to replace Wickremesinghe with a more amiable and pliable UNP person such as Sajith Premadasa and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. But when both declined the offer of Premiership, Sirisena made his old rival and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa Prime Minister in October 2018.
But Rajapaksa could not show majority support in parliament despite help from the President. Sirisena had prorogued parliament to enable Rajapaksa to cobble a coalition, but UNP MPs refused to cross over. And when the judiciary ruled that the dismissal of Wickremesinghe was unconstitutional, Rajapaksa resigned.
Therefore, the second experiment at cohabitation also crashed. The lesson to be learnt is that given the confusion in the constitution, and the competitiveness and partisanship which marks Lankan politics, co-habitation of disparate political groups and personalities is bound to fail.
This is so when both parties or power centers have equal constitutional and political legitimacy. For cohabitation to work, it is essential that one of the two power centers will have to have decisive superiority over the other, both in constitutional and political terms.
In Maharashtra State in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance broke because both had emerged as powerful entities from the October 2019 State Assembly elections. Both wanted the Chief Ministership. The political logjam over this issue resulted in the imposition of Governor’s Rule. Earlier, when the BJP was the dominant group in the State Assembly and the Shiv Sena was junior partner, the alliance had worked smoothly.