‘Outright Opportunism’, is thy other name ‘national government’?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

By the very definition, ‘politicians’ are an ‘opportunistic’ breed. Greater the success of the individual or the party, more ‘opportunistic’ they would have been than the rest. Whether true or not of ‘matured democracies’ (!), this norm has been true of Sri Lanka since Independence. And as the nation celebrates yet another Independence Day, 4 February, the incumbent Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is busy, telling the nation and the rest of the world, how better or worse it has been than all predecessors, in this particular department.

According to media reports, Wickremesinghe’s UNP has written to Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya that they are planning to form yet another ‘national government’, after the unmitigated disaster of what they called the ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU) at the turn of the twin polls of 2015. Along with them, their civil society backers and supporters from before the twin polls, and those that looked uncomfortably askance the other way round, when they mocked at the ‘yahapalana’ system that they vowed to usher in, after replacing the incumbent Rajapaksa regime, which was anything but ‘reformist’.

Politicians being politicians, and by definition ‘opportunist’, what are the civil society leaders from the 2015 past going to say this time round, as the UNP leadership is busy putting together a new GNU, if only to exploit their own 19-A clause to have a larger Cabinet than otherwise promised? And are they too going to sing the politicians song and blame it all on President Maithripala Sirisena, for ‘destroying’ the first GNU, by sacking Wickremesinghe first, and dissolving Parliament, not long after.

It may suit the conscience of both segments of Wickremesinghe backers to stop with the Supreme Court verdict that thankfully ‘restored democracy and parliamentary norms’, when the weakest of all ‘Executive Presidents’, barring the late D B Wijetunge (1994-95), acted more unilaterally than anyone before him had dared. It only showed that the electoral weakness — and not the strength — of the incumbent that mattered in his acting arbitrarily, by mis-reading and mis-interpreting the Constitution for the rest of the nation and the world to hear, listen – and act upon.

Unholy alliance(s)

Clearly, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe marriage of inconvenience was the most selfish and opportunistic of all political marriages since the advent of Independence, and more so the Second Republican Constitution. Both wanted power, and the incumbent Rajapaksas rolled out as many reasons and justifications as they can pick up from the basket and show it up to a willing nation, ready to devour anything anti-Rajapaksa. It was at least so in terms of the anti-Rajapaksa voters, whose ranks did not remain constant or as low as it was in the post-war presidential polls of 2010.

The irony of elections 2005, 2010 and 2015 was this. The UNP’s Sinhala voters, unlike what is often believed, were the ‘decisive voters’, not the Tamils, as understood and acknowledged otherwise. In all three elections, the Tamils were sworn against the Rajapaksas. In 2005, they were supposedly so even without knowing him, but even while knowing Wickremesinghe and his UNP, which was at the centre of the infamous anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. The rest, as they say, is history – both post-83 and post-05.

In 2005, we are now told that the LTTE forced the Tamils from casting their vote only because they feared that if allowed, they would vote anti-Rajapaksa, and for Wickremesinghe in the presidential polls. In 2010, post-war and sans the LTTE, the Tamils voted the war-time commander Sarath Fonseka against war-time President Rajapaksa. In 2015, it was Sirisena, the Acting Defence Minister at the conclusion of the war, against incumbent Rajapaksa.

It is thus obvious that the Tamils have been a ‘constant’ in the presidential polling pattern as far as their inherent antipathy towards the Rajapaksas are concenred. The Muslim voters, who were not exactly anti-Tamil but most definitely anti-LTTE, came around once they were sure that the Rajapaksas had done with the LTTE.  The Rajapaksas too contributed to the Muslims turning against their leadership, by not putting down the BBS when required.

Despite temptation to the contrary around the time of Sirisena making Mahinda R the Prime Minister in the place of Wickremesinghe in end-October 2018, the Muslim voters and hence their political leadership have not been swayed fully. This only means that the UNP’s ‘Sinhala voters’ are the unsure component in the set UNF scheme, and they need to consolidate that component, and not the Tamils or Muslims – or, prima facie, so, but only up to now.

Dramatic exit

The timing of the UNP’s urge to come up with another GNU cannot be under-estimated. They have failed the Tamils and the TNA on the promised political resolution. Despite being the unassigned B-Team of the UNP and the Wickremesinghe leadership, whatever the reason and justification, the TNA cannot be seen as continuing on this course, if they hoped to salvage their dwindling reputation and vote-share within the Tamil community, between now and the twin-polls to the presidency and Parliament. That is, granting that they could wait out the Northern Provincial Council polls that too became due late last year.

To try and appeal to the Tamil voters, and at least get heard by them, if not listened to, the TNA has to make a dramatic exit from the UNP-UNF camp. It is now, or has to be never. The Budget could be an occasion, though only recently, they felt satisfied that the party would have a role in deciding on the ‘development works’ in the North and the East, which the Government would also treat as a single unit in this exclusive context – and, not otherwise.

The Wickremesinghe-led UNP-UNF Government is surviving on the critical ‘outside support’ extended by the TNA. If the latter were to pull out, the Government would have to go, and the Rajapaksas would have their parliamentary polls, which alone Mahinda claimed he wanted early on – possibly even before the presidential elections, if he could help. That was at least the justification and demand he proffered while joining hands with Sirisena, to topple and replace Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister – to disastrous consequences, however.

Kicking the crutch

Where does it all lead to? The Wickremesinghe Government does not want to face the parliamentary polls other than when due. That is after the presidential polls that are due by December this year, and not really before mid-August 2020. No marks for guessing why they do not want the provincial council polls that are long overdue in many Provinces, one after the other.

The UNP-UNF hopes to win the presidential polls, hoping that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance, if at all it’s still one, will not survive until then, and they may have more than one candidate with brighter chances of victory. Or, at least that seems to be their hope and calculation.

To make things possibly easier for them, they want the presidential polls first. They seem to forget, Mahinda R lost the presidential polls even as an incumbent, that too with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, in 2015, until the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena duo unrolled their effective game-plan.

Be it as it may, for them to have a majority, if not majoritarian Parliament, the UNP-UNF wants to ensure that they have the numbers. The TNA is not as trustworthy as it used to be over the past four years, and for no fault of anyone other than that of the Tamil voters from 2015.

Making up numbers for the UNP-UNF without the TNA’s ‘outside support’ means that they need to split the SLFP, if not possibly the Rajapaksa-centric SLPP-JO. Cabinet berths are the price to pay for having a section of the SLFP/SLPP-JO on the UNP-UNF side.

Wickremesinghe’s very own ‘yahapalana’ 19-A dictated that they can have only so many Cabinet ministers, if it was an ‘ordinary government’, but more if they name it a ‘national government’. If there is a farce that is more so than the Constitution Council, it is this, it is this.

All that a Government with a majority in Parliament has to do to offer more Cabinet berth as bribe for those ready to cross over, is to get a resolution passed that it’s a ‘national government’, Amen! That, according to media reports, is waiting to be taken up later this week.

The hitch remains. And it could blow on the face of the Wickremesinghe Government. First and foremost, can they count continuously/continually on the TNA, that too when the current efforts are to get kick out the ‘crutch’? If the Government cannot now count on the TNA to vote in favour of a ‘national government’, would they begin the poaching process even before the ‘national government’ is formed?

That way, and possibly that way alone can the prospective ‘cross-over’ MPs vote in their own Cabinet berths? If that is not ‘outright opportunism’, both for the ‘defector MPs’ and the UNP-UNF Government what is better — or, worse than that one? There was/isone difference, of course.

Those that were in power who engineered defections of the kind before the incumbents, including Mahinda R, did not talk about ‘yahapalana’ of any kind. Nor did they come up that was as pretentious as 19-A, whose main purpose was to deny the Rajapaksas – both father and son, Mahinda and Namal – a chance at the presidential polls.

Now, the Wickremesinghes of the world are having the cake and eating it, too. An ‘yahapalana’ Government without a truly national government, even of the 2015 variety! Then again, the SLFP-JO majority was with the Rajapaksas, not with Sirisenas. Less said about the present the better. But then, the self-appointed civil society leaders would continue to sing praise of the Wickremesinghe leadership and of the UNP, as if the rest of them alone are the bad boys in town. Amen!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)