There seemed to be a real prospect of a break-up of the National Unity Government in the sequence of events that followed the poor showing by the government parties at the local government elections of February 2018. The unsuccessful attempt of President Maithripala Sirisena to remove Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from his post followed by the departure of 16 SLFP members from the government added to this likelihood. It seemed that the UNP and SLFP led by these two protagonists would go their own ways. But the anticipated break-up of the government has not yet taken place and now it seems it is not likely to take place.
Contrary to negative expectations the UNP and SLFP have continued to remain together, albeit with reluctance in the absence of bettering their prospects by going forward separately. The president and prime minister have been meeting in dialogue that has been promoted by some of the senior members of their respective parties. As a result there is a renewed prospect that the two parties will be able to overcome their differences and stay together, at least until the term of office ends at the close of next year. However, until the two parties find a way to reach agreement on their roles and responsibilities within the government, and on powersharing arrangements, there will continue to be mistrust and rivalry which will give rise to an unhealthy environment for governance.
The value of the continuation the National Unity Government is its continuing willingness to address the unresolved issues of the war and to reach out to the ethnic and religious minorities in a spirit that is responsive to their concerns is what distinguishes it from its predecessor. The former government showed itself unprepared to address the unresolved issues of the war, and approached the ethnic and religious minority communities from a national security perspective. It tended to see them from a national security perspective as a source of present and potential threats to be neutralized rather than as equal citizens of the country to be protected and nurtured no less than the members of the ethnic majority.
The most positive feature of the leadership exercised by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is that they continue to stand by the principle that the ethnic and religious minorities are part and parcel of Sri Lanka’s plural society and their concerns are legitimate. This was most recently seen in the correction that took place when a Muslim was appointed to a ministerial position that overlooks Hindu religious affairs. As a result the ethnic and religious minorities are able to live today with a greater sense of security.
The approval given by the cabinet of ministers to the establishment of an Office of Reparations is evidence that the UNP and SLFP under their present leaderships are willing to address the tragedies of the past, which is the most important challenge to sustain to the future. The Office of Reparations is one of the four reconciliation mechanisms that the government promised to the international community and to the country at large as part of the solution to the problems created during the previous three decades of war. It is reassuring to note that the UNP and SLFP and their leaders continue to be on the same page in respect of one of the most important issues that brought them together in a winning combination at the presidential and general elections of 2015.
This positive feature is has previously been reflected in the passage of new laws such as the 19th Amendment to the constitution, and the laws on the Right to Information and Office of Missing Persons and the establishment of mechanisms to implement their decisions, with the latest being the Office of Reparations. These are examples of consensual decisionmaking between the two parties. Where consensus has been obtained the government shows an extraordinary ability to push important laws through parliament. The passage of these laws is significant since it puts in place a framework of good governance that will serve the country well in the longer term.
On the other hand, the weakness of the government is that on too many occasions there seems to be ad hoc decisionmaking by individual ministries that are then shot down by others in the government. One recent example would be the proposal by the Ministry of Rehabilitation that reparations should be paid to families of the LTTE. This proposal is not part of the legislation pertaining to the Office of Reparations. It is an entirely separate, even if laudable, proposal made by an individual minister. But because it has been made at the same time as the appearance of the legislation on setting up the Office of Reparations it is being seen as part of the new mechanism although it has not been discussed within the government.
A similar phenomenon was seen in an earlier proposal to permit women to purchase liquor which was vetoed by the president to the disappointment and anger of those who stand by gender equality. This type of decisionmaking that is done unilaterally by one part of the coalition government without the consent of the other parts, and vetoing by one party of the proposals of the other party give the impression of a government that is not governing effectively. The government needs to dispel the impression that it is not governing due to the contradictions within itself which gives rise to the dangerous yearning for a strong government that can make the trains run on time.
There is a need for greater consultation within the government before new proposals are made by ministers. As this is a coalition government comprising two major parties and several smaller ones, there is a need to have discussions and to reach consensus before publicizing the proposals. This may slow down the process of decisionmaking. But more than speed alone, it is the implementation of decisions made that gives credibility to the government. The government needs to show that once it makes a decision it will carry out that decision and that it has the political will to do so. There is also a more fundamental need to agree on a framework for governance by the two main parties up to and beyond the next presidential elections scheduled for end 2019.