One of the many videos circulating on social media is that of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe where, in a brief video clip he can be seen saying, “Politics is more than chess. It is team work like cricket. You must have stamina for a marathon. It is also a hard game like rugger. And it is a blood sport like boxing.” This is a statement that few other politicians in Sri Lanka’s political firmament would make. To them politics would be about patronage, thuggery and somehow or other getting more votes into the ballot box. They would know of no other politics. The present political situation in the country is one in which politics needs to be conducted tactically, strategically and with the interests of all in mind. Every piece on the political chessboard matters, most of all the king.
To most politicians the next few months will be seen as a time in which different political parties will jockey for power, individual and collective alliances will be forged and elections that will yield a new composition of parliament will be held. After he reappointed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, President Maithripala Sirisena said that most people thought that a fresh election was the best solution. But a more visionary politician could make the next twenty months that are available till general elections fall due in August 2020 the most decisive in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history. It is the last available time period for the UNP and SLFP that worked together for the first time in history to continue to work together. It is through their collaboration that the most vexed and intractable of the country’s problems, its ethnic conflict that gave rise to nearly three decades of terror and war, might be resolved.
In 2015 when President Maithripala Sirisena won the presidential election and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s party emerged as the single largest party in parliament, and they formed the National Unity Government, their partnership was a promise of great things to come. The most hopeful of these was a solution to the national question. This is a problem with enormous historical baggage and emotional undertones that has eluded answer because the party in opposition has invariably used it to attack the party in government. But in 2015 the two main parties were to be in alliance for five years to come and so the hope arose that together they would do what others had tried on their own to solve but failed. The names of those legendary leaders who tried on their own and failed include S W R D Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake, J R Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunga.
However, the hope of a solution to the national question that had bipartisan support seemed to have ended on October 26, 2018 when the president plunged the country into political crisis by withdrawing his party from the National Unity Government and arbitrarily sacking Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. It will be difficult for those who supported the National Unity Government to forgive President Sirisena for his dramatic intervention that toppled the government. They would be confirmed in their opposition especially so after the Supreme Court ruled that his act of dissolving parliament was unconstitutional and therefore illegal. His most recent act of reappointing Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would have alienated the other half of the population. It is verily a dream that President Sirisena can be part of a solution today.
On the other hand, President Sirisena’s actions over the past seven weeks, and their acceptance by wide swarths of the population, are a testament to the power of the presidency and to the belief of people in the legitimacy of the president’s actions. Presidential elections are not due for another year. This is a considerable period of time in which the president’s power can be made use to achieve positive results that are in accord with national problem solving. It would be better for the government to work together with the president than in opposition to him or while waging a cold war against him. There are unfinished tasks from the pledges of 2015 that need to be delivered on. These are in good governance, economic development and most of all in national reconciliation.
The most important of the unfulfilled promises to be delivered on is to find a just and lasting solution to the national question. In summary this is about ensuring that decisionmaking power is shared fairly between the ethnic majority and minority communities. The door to the solution will remain open as long as the major political parties are willing to work together to find the solution. Prime Minister Wickremsinghe made it clear during the political crisis that providing a political solution and enshrining it in constitutional law is a priority for him. The TNA votes in parliament during the crisis provided the majority needed to show President Sirisena that Mr Wickremesinghe was entitled to be appointed as prime minister.
The TNA leadership has been criticized for being more concerned about the prime minister than about the Tamil people. But their contribution to the preservation of democracy goes beyond the personal. TNA leader R Sampanthan’s speeches in parliament were about the importance of the constitution and the Rule of Law to the country as a whole and to minorities in particular. They were words and sentiments that need to be heard and heeded by the nation.
During the next year the government needs to address the national question and provide a constitutional solution to it. This would require a 2/3 majority in parliament and approval by the people at a referendum. The support of President Sirisena would be necessary for both these mileposts to be a reality. The president has the clear support of at least 20 MPs in parliament and possibly even more if he were to become a partner with the government. It is reported that these 20 MPs would like to join the government headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena has not objected to this. The president’s support for the constitutional reforms would also help to reassure the general population that these reforms are in the national interest- and that they are about doing justice to the ethnic minorities and are not about dividing the country or giving in to foreign interests as stated by the opposition, including former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
President Sirisena needs to be appreciated as a political leader who is responsible enough not to wish to break the democratic system by defying the law and democratic conventions. He heeded the verdicts of the judiciary and appointed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe although he had repeatedly said he would not appoint him. He swallowed his pride for the sake of the country. Although he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he did not order them to suppress his political opponents. He did not declare a state of emergency which would have given him additional powers. Instead he ensured that freedom from fear prevailed even as the country lurched from one political crisis to the other. It is reported that President Sirisena has agreed that the SLFP he leads will form an alliance with the SLPP headed by former president Rajapaksa to contest future elections together. Therefore, it can be seen that the president is also a potential bridge between the government and the opposition.