Dilemmas of a coalition government, two years later

By Dr. Ram Manikkalingam (Sunday Times}

The National Unity Government with Maithripala Sirisena as President and Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister has lasted for two years. How much longer will it last, given the policy, political and personal dilemmas that bedevil it?

The coalition that governs Sri Lanka came together to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa. And it has stayed together because Mahinda Rajapaksa is down, but not out. He is still the glue that holds the coalition together. Political differences between the UNP and the SLFP are sometimes papered over, and at other times exaggerated with the objective of keeping Mahinda Rajapaksa out.

The coalition will have to steer a course between Wickremesinghe’s liberal individualism and Sirisena’s social democracy.Image result for coalition government cartoon

While sufficient to win elections, and survive two years of muddling through in office, this anti-Rajapaksa glue is insufficient to see the coalition through what is likely to be its most critical third year of 2017. Now the honeymoon is over, an overarching strategy is required to address three critical areas – democratic reform, national reconciliation and economic transformation.

While each of these areas is hard enough on its own, addressing all three simultaneously is particularly challenging. Meanwhile Rajapaksa and his followers are waiting in the wings for this coalition to fail.

Democratic reform

Democratic reform is high on both the political and popular agenda. Mahinda Rajakaksa was voted out despite having more political, economic and military power than any other previous leader in Sri Lanka.

Indeed, it is this very context that brought the coalition together to make the case against Rajapaksa – centralising political, economic and coercive power in the first family.The case was easy to make, because Rajapaksa made it himself, believing that it helped him accrue and secure power. He did not shy away from using blandishments, threats and sometimes outright coercion to get his way. If you cooperated you became rich and powerful, if you did not you became poor or worse. The people came together to elect Sirisena. He was the anti-charisma candidate — self-effacing, quiet and consensual.

Democratic reform has three elements — reduce presidential powers, strengthen parliament and fortify independent institutions.Image result for maithri-ranil coalition government cartoon

While the presidency under Rajapaksa was associated with autocracy, the presidency under Sirisena is associated with maintaining a political balance between factions and opening up space for different voices. And from a political point of view, it is precisely Sirisena’s perch on the presidency that enables him to control the levers of the SLFP relegating Rajapaksa to a secondary role. If the presidency is to be done away with, there is a risk that a party with a political majority in Parliament could ride roughshod over other views whether political, ethnic or economic. At the same time the presence of the presidency presents the possibility of a single individual like Rajapkasa using it to thwart democracy. We need Sirisena at the helm of the Presidency to keep Rajapaksa at bay in the short term, but we also need to do away with the Presidency to keep the likes of Rajapaksa away, in the long-term. This is the first dilemma faced by the coalition.

National reconciliation

A second key platform of the national unity government is national reconciliation.
To address this, the government has set up an Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, released land, engaged the Tamil community and initiated a process of autonomy and accountability.

In addition, the government has taken critical symbolic steps, such as the singing of the national anthem in Tamil.

While many areas of national reconciliation have been welcomed by a wide range of Sri Lankans, some areas are politically controversial. These include accountability for war crimes and greater autonomy for the Northern and Eastern provinces.

Accountability for past crimes is important to many Sri Lankans, particularly victims of the war. A decent political dispensation with the political power to manage provincial affairs is important for the future of many Sri Lankans, including Tamils and Muslims. Raking up the past may aggravate polarisation and political conflict, delaying rather than accelerating reconciliation.

Pursuing both accountability and devolution runs the risk that neither will be implemented, as the political controversy over war crimes overwhelms the political effort to get autonomy. Similarly, pursuing autonomy for the Northern and Eastern provinces first, runs the risk that the delay would make it harder to get accountability for war crimes.

Here the government, war affected communities and Sri Lankans, as a whole, will have to choose between pursuing accountability or autonomy. Doing both may not be feasible in a tricky political climate. The second dilemma the national unity government faces is should it pursue accountability, at the risk that this might delay, if not, defeat autonomy. Or should it pursue autonomy, which risks delaying and even denying accountability.

Economic transformation

The third dilemma the government faces this year is how to combine growth and equity.
The national unity government inherited a “bubble economy”. The Rajapaksa administration had a simple strategy to deal with the economy. Borrow to create jobs for the lower and middle classes by growing the public sector and create wealth for the rich by giving them contracts to invest in infrastructure.

The international and domestic private sector paid off the former political leadership for business contracts and investment deals. While the deals were flawed and the investments were risky (for Sri Lanka) money flowed. And those who played the game with the former first family got richer. There was growth. But the poor and middle classes benefited as well. This was a short-term strategy and it worked for as long as it lasted, i.e., until the bill was due. And the bill has come due just as the national unity government is entering its third year.

The government is faced with a difficult policy dilemma. Cut spending and balance the budget to satisfy international lenders and investors, or increase spending and invest in infrastructure to address poverty and stimulate the economy. The former will make the government unpopular during a year when it is aiming to make radical reforms that require the support of the people. And the latter is unsustainable in the context of debts coming due and fewer lenders willing to lend.

Balancing between factions, parties and policies

These three policy dilemmas will invariably play out in the political tensions of a coalition government in its third year in office.

In Sri Lanka, overall authority lies in the hands of the President, who is both the Head of State and Head of Government. At the same time, the machinery of the state — the running of the ministries and the bureaucracy — is the job of the Prime Minister, who is first among equals in the Cabinet. When the President and the Prime Minister are from the same political party with a majority in parliament, political power in the party and in parliament closely maps the hierarchy in the state structures, i.e., the Prime Minister will also be reporting to his or her party leader.

But when the President and the Prime Minister are from different parties, this is not the case, as in Sri Lanka. Here Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is a party leader in his own right and has to deal with the pressures from his own party and constituency, even as he has to report to President Sirisena, in his capacity as Head of Government and Head of State.

Similarly, President Sirisena has to deal with the pressures of his own party and constituency even as he has to work with and consult the Prime Minister under whose leadership his own party is subordinate in parliament. This creates a complex political dynamic where the President and the Prime Minister have to work together to address the concerns of the country, and sometimes work at cross purposes to pander to their political parties. They have managed with the Prime Minister dealing with the nitty gritty of governance and the President rising above the political fray, but entering it when an issue of good governance is at stake.

It would of course be naïve to ignore the political reality that even as they work together, they represent and fight for different political parties and constituencies. And even as we expect them to co-govern as national leaders in a national unity government, we must also expect them to compete as rival leaders of two of the largest political parties in the land vying to govern.

Despite political differences, dilemmas and distractions the coalition continues to rely on President Sirisena as “balancer in chief”.

Just as he won the elections by balancing diverse forces, from the SLFP and the JHU, to the UNP, the TNA and the SLMC. President Sirisena will have to balance between the SLFP and the UNP on democratic reform, national reconciliation and economic transformation.

In each of these areas the President will have to balance the individual-oriented capitalism of the UNP with the state-oriented socialism of the SLFP.

The coalition will have to steer a course between Wickremesinghe’s liberal individualism and Sirisena’s social democracy. Much of the policy and political controversies we have witnessed, from the clash over the VAT, the leasing of public facilities to private companies, even the governorship of the Central Bank and economic policies, more generally, reflect these differences.

So far the personal, political and policy partnership between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has held despite the vicissitudes of coalition politics. Can this partnership stand the test of the third year of yahapalanaya, helping the national unity government reach its third anniversary in January 2018?

If it does, irrespective of whether we have succeeded in achieving all the desired reform, Sri Lanka would have become a country with a different style of politics — more democratic, more flexibe and more effective — demonstrating that simultaneously collaborating and competing with each other is possible in a way that benefits the whole country. We would have changed our political culture.

(The writer is Visiting Professor, University of Amsterdam & Member of the Board of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation.)