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Reason and Unreason in Sri Lankan Politics

31 August 2015 05:17 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Addressing a major national public policy forum in Colombo prior to the parliamentary elections, President Maithripala Sirisena emphasized the need for formulating and implementing rational, evidence-based national policies in all sectors in order to address critical issues in the country. He went even further and requested the experts, intellectuals and other knowledgeable persons in the country gathered at the forum to make concrete proposals to facilitate the formation of the Cabinet of Ministers on a scientific basis. He made these pronouncements in front of a number of political leaders representing diverse political parties in the country who were present at the event. On the other hand, what is happening in the country today with respect to the formation of the new government does not seem to have little to do with the above pronouncements. 

 The recently-concluded parliamentary elections were  keenly contested by two political alliances and several smaller parties and groups. The UNP-led alliance secured 106 seats while the SLFP-led alliance won 96 seats. Though the former does not have an absolute majority, it has the right to form the new government, unless the UPFA can demonstrate that it could put together at least a simple  majority with the help of smaller parties. The two alliances had their own election manifestos or policy documents so the voters had the opportunity to vote for the party that they felt had put forward better policies. So, the party that has secured more parliamentary seats has a right to form a government and obligation to implement the policies that they presented before the voting public. The policies that the main Opposition  alliance presented to the public have been rejected by a majority of voters. Yet, the present efforts on the part of the President and others are aimed at forming a national government that brings together the two largest parties, though it is clear that a large section of the UPFA is bound to remain outside the government. and the latter is likely to become the main Opposition in Parliament. Being the main Opposition, what is left of the UPFA  is likely to campaign for its own policies in opposition to those of the government. in other words, there is not going to be a national unity government that can pursue a set of national policies and goals without facing a major challenge from the Opposition.

 The argument in favour of a national government is based on the fact that the President’s election manifesto had a proposal to form  a national government after the parliamentary elections. Yet, the recently-concluded polls were not contested on a common manifesto that promised to form a national government.

Having contested the elections on two very different election manifestos, the UNP-led alliance and the SLFP cannot now claim that they are going to pursue a common agenda. Since the constituent parties of the new government are going to remain distinct and are more than likely to perceive each other as political rivals, it would be natural for them to consolidate their power bases using the resources and institutions that come under their purview. This would make the pursuit of broader objectives of a national government  a virtual impossibility. Ministers are more than likely to politicize the institutions coming under their control and divert resources to their own supporters and  areas. This would naturally undermine good governance and prevent the formulation and implementation of rational public policies. Though Ministries should not function in isolation but collaborate with those that have overlapping functions and responsibilities, competing ministers are highly unlikely to do so. This would make the achievement of national goals a near impossibility.

 So, even short-term objectives of a so-called national government are highly unlikely to be achieved, let alone  longer-term national goals. Working within a coalition government comprising political parties that do not share a common vision or a set of uniform policies, rival political factions are likely to work at cross- purposes in dealing with critical national issues. Yet given the seriousness of such issues, the country can ill-afford to leave them aside, to be addressed by a future government. What is required today is a government that can come up with a set of clear national policies and mobilize human and financial resources to implement them. While the coalition government that is being considered is bound to lack any unity of purpose or direction, we will have to brace for a long period of political instability and its consequences. This is not what the people who voted for a radical departure from the governance style we had in this country until recently demand from the elected leaders, in particular, the President and the PM. As it is well known, all is not well with the country’s economy, the education system, the health sector, inter-community relations, income distribution, public transport, etc. There are pressing issues in all these areas and the need of the hour is to come up with plans and strategies to deal with them. A government of convenience formed entirely on the basis of political considerations,  with scant attention being paid to national priorities of sustainable development, national unity and quality of life of the masses can make the situation worse. Given the balance of power in the country today, a coalition government is inevitable. But, the coalition should be formed by people who subscribe to  a set of national objectives  and wish to pursue a shared vision for the country, not by a motley collection of individuals who pursue their own personal political agendas. The latter is not what the hapless masses deserve at a time of great uncertainty and socioeconomic trouble. The change of regime at the beginning of the year instilled in the minds of many a sense of hope. It is the responsibility of enlightened political leaders to ensure that such hopes are not dashed  pushing them into the hands of anarchic forces in different parts of the country. 
 
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