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Sunday, 14 June 2015

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Effective Govt based on political reality:

The election manifesto of the alliance of political parties that supported the candidacy of President Maithripala Sirisena highlighted a 100-day plan after which Parliament would be dissolved and fresh elections called. After the passage of 150 days since the election of President Sirisena, the Government formed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be running out of steam. The imbalance between a ruling party which has much less seats in Parliament than the opposition has begun to take its toll.

The engine of the Government in terms of parliamentary numbers is small, and cannot pull the load any more, especially when the terrain is getting uphill. This is causing frustration among the general population who want the Government to take charge of problem-solving in all areas of economic, social and political life.

The problem faced by the Government has become evident in the difficulties being faced over the appointment of the Constitutional Council which was to be set up under the 19th Amendment.

This body will be the most prestigious and important institution of state, vested with the power to select those who would ensure that other institutions of the state, such as the Judiciary, Police, Public Service and Elections Commission are non-partisan and would maintain the independence of those key institutions. According to the 19th Amendment, the appointments to the Constitutional Council would be primarily the responsibility of the President, Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition with the leaders of the smaller parties also having an input.

A fortnight ago it seemed that the appointments to the Constitutional Council were on track, with the names of those who were to be members announced. However, the choice of the three Civil Society representatives has not been ratified by Parliament. Due to the failure to appoint the Constitutional Council there is a deadlock where it concerns appointments to key state institutions. It makes the Government seem impotent.

An example is the Bribery Commission which has been in the news over the past several months as it has received a plethora of complaints against members of the former government who are now in the Opposition.

One of the Bribery Commissioners has resigned but cannot be replaced because the Constitutional Council is not yet constituted. Therefore, the Bribery Commission remains without a Commissioner and is not fully functional.

The lacuna that has beset governance is not limited to institutions of state. It also has implications for Government policy. The Government which has a ruling party with only a minority of members in Parliament cannot pass legislation unless the much larger Opposition in Parliament agrees. The parliamentary opposition has little or no incentive to cooperate with the Government as its interest lies in weakening the ruling party and showing it to be ineffective.

Positive change

This has a negative impact on all areas of governance, not least the economy. In the past fortnight, the stock market, which is a barometer of economic performance, has been slumping. The economic dividend that was expected after the replacement of the former Government has yet to materialise. This is taking the gloss off the achievements of the new Government.

Among the main achievements of the new Government that need to be protected is the sense of freedom that the general population and the Government system now enjoy.

They are free from fear that arose from the arbitrary use of state power. The passage of the 19th Amendment has created the basis for a new political culture.

The proposed 20th Amendment to reform the electoral system seeks to further secure the new political culture and form one of the bases of the President's election manifesto.

President Maithripala Sirisena has announced his intention to seek the passage of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution as a priority. The reforms envisage an electoral system in which the majority of parliamentary seats will be obtained on the first-past-the post system, while keeping to an overall proportional outcome. The experience at elections held under the present proportional system with a preferential voting option has been negative.

A considerable amount of work and compromise has gone into the preparation of the new electoral system. Most of the parties, including the small and ethnic minority parties have expressed their willingness to go along with it. However, today the differences between the political parties, including the small parties, make the passage of the 20th Amendment seem to be an uphill prospect.

The UNP is concerned that the 20th Amendment will be used to delay the speedy dissolution of Parliament which was part of the President's election manifesto. The small parties are concerned that the emphasis on the first-past-the-post system will be disadvantageous to them as compared to the proportional system.

It is in the interests of the Opposition to continue with the present parliamentary configuration for as long as possible, and till April 2016 when the term of the present Parliament lapses. This is on account of their fear that they will not be a part of Parliament again, and their hope that the present Government becomes less popular with the passage of time. Their interest lies in having the general elections later rather than sooner.

Unique feature

It needs to be noted that the passage of the 19th Amendment itself was not easy. There were many opinions and vested interests involved in the process of decision-making. At times, it seemed that the 2/3 majority needed for Constitutional change would not be found. The passage of the 19th Amendment was only made possible by the cohabitation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who heads the present UNP-led Coalition Government with President Sirisena who heads the SLFP Opposition who persuaded their respective party members to give their support to the constitutional amendment.

This same political configuration exists today. The trust and appreciation of each other's strengths that the President and the Prime Minister have so far demonstrated in each other gives the hope that seemingly intractable deadlocks and conflicts of interest can be overcome to provide a similar successful outcome in the case of the 20th Amendment.

The unique feature that President Sirisena has brought into national politics is to act in the national interests and not in his personal interest or for a partisan purpose.

This was seen when he gave unwavering leadership to the passage of the 19th Amendment, which reduced the powers of the over-strong Presidency. His statesmanship was also seen earlier, when he kept his election-time promise to appoint UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister if he won the Presidential election.

After winning the election, and becoming all-powerful, President Sirisena gave deference to morality, and to the fact that it were the UNP voters who by and large had voted him to office. President Sirisena is again demonstrating his capacity to stand above the siren call of partisan politics by turning down the demand of his party members who wish to pass a vote of No-Confidence in Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

SLFP's erstwhile champion

The partisan interest of the SLFP is to unseat Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the minority UNP-led Coalition Government that he leads. But it is in the national interest for the country to have an effective Government that is based on the present political realities, and not those that existed five years ago in 2010, when the present Parliament was elected.

The defeat of the SLFP's erstwhile champion, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the Presidential election in January this year was due to the corruption that alienated the politically aware sections of the population, and the ethno-nationalism that alienated the ethnic minorities.

The body politic needs to be cleansed of these two ills, and the process has only begun and it must be permitted to continue. The pursuit of consensus to pass the 20th Amendment must not stand in the way of elections for a new Parliament. The overriding value of elections and new Government leadership was seen best at the Presidential election on January 8 this year, which has transformed life in the country. What is in the national interest is to stabilise the current thrust of governance.

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