By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, September 27: Now that Sajith Premadasa, Minister of Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs and Deputy Leader of the ruling United National Party (UNP) has been nominated (unanimously and unconditionally) as the party’s candidate for the November 16 Sri Lankan Presidential election, the question that crops is how long the camaraderie between the Leader of the party Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Presidential candidate, Premadasa, will last.
And should Premadasa go on to win the Presidency, will the two be able to cohabit till the next parliamentary elections in mid-2020? The question is pertinent given how Wickremesinghe was balking at giving Premadasa the nomination.
Though no formal statement has been made in regard to the status of Wickremesinghe with Sajith as President, UNP sources say that there is a tacit understanding that Wickremesinghe will continue as Prime Minister at least till the next parliamentary elections.
It would have been churlish on the part of Sajith and the people around him not to give Wickremesinghe a place befitting his status and contribution to the party over a long time. Driving him out on the eve of the election will have damaged the party’s unity and its electoral prospects.
But cohabitation between two bitter rivals, with both holding key positions in the government, will necessarily be problematic as past experience with cohabitation shows.
First of all, it has been proved that there can be no cohabitation between people or political forces of equal strength. Secondly, cohabitation is not possible if there is no genuine commonality of interests or ideological goals. Ranil-Sajith cohabitation will fail the commonality test.
It is also clear that Ranil considers himself superior to Sajith in many ways. The Prime Minister is undoubtedly superior in political and administrative experience, having been Prime Minister several times and held various portfolios over a long period. But Sajith makes up for the lack of political and administrative experience by his “common touch” and an instinctive feeling for the masses which Ranil lacks sorely.
Ranil has knowledge of world history and contemporary international and economic affairs and has practical experience of interacting with key world powers over decades, something which Sajith cannot claim.
And again unlike Sajith, Ranil can claim to have a consistent ideology (modern and liberal), while Sajith has no clear idea. However, it is pointed out that Sajith has very experienced persons as his second-in-command such as Malik Samarawickrema and Mangala Samaraweera who will advice him.
Like the leopard, Ranil will not change his spots. He will continue to be arrogant, aloof and arbitrary in his decision making as he has been under the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena. The cohabitation government will be crippled if Ranil does not take the backseat and let Sajith rule.
However, it is argued on Sajith’s behalf that once Sajith becomes President, UNPers will flock to him rather than Ranil, because Sajith will be Executive President having more or declared that he has no intention of abolishing it. Sajith also has the option of sacking Ranil if the conflict comes to a head.
Past experience shows that cohabitation between differently oriented groups or individuals who see themselves as competitors rather than collaborators does not work.
Under the 1978 constitution, Sri Lanka has had three hybrid governments: (1) the Wijetunga -Kumaratunga administration, (2) the Kumaratunga-Wickremesinghe administration, and (3) the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe administration.
Of these, only the 1994 Chandrika-Wijetunga cohabitation was eventless as President Wijetunga’s UNP was on the decline vis-à-vis Chandrika’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with little chance of winning the 1995 Presidential election.
But trouble arose when Ranil became Prime Minister after the December 2001 parliamentary elections and Chandrika remained President having won the election for the second time in 1999. While Ranil was committed to initiating a process of political and military accommodation with the LTTE with international mediation, for the sake of peace and economic development, Chandrika viewed it as an abject surrender to the terrorists.
Irked by Ranil’s unilateral moves, Chandrika used her Presidential powers to take over the Ministries of Defense, Interior and Information in 2003. This crippled the cohabitation government and fresh parliamentary elections were held in 2004.
Mercifully there was no need for cohabitation when Mahinda Rajapaksa became President in 2005 as he managed to sue up a strong government by engineering defections from the UNP. He won the 2010 Presidential elections handsomely, riding on the war victory wave, thus obviating the need to cohabit with the next largest political parliament in parliament.
To overthrow Rajapaksa in the 2015 elections, the UNP-led opposition had to form a rainbow alliance, and put up the neutral and unambitious Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate.
But Sirisena turned out to be what no one expected him to be. Despite his promise to serve only one term as President, he developed long-term political ambitions. He bitterly complained of non-cooperation from a haughty and non-communicative Prime Minister Ranil. Sirisena routinely countermanded Ranil decisions. The UNP-SLFP cohabitation, formed with hype and hope in 2014 cracked with the SLFP opting out.
In October 2018, Sirisena sacked Ranil and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. But this move crashed due to lack of numbers in parliament and an adverse Supreme Court ruling.