However, the way the National Government is being conceptualised and explained raises some fundamental questions about its possible political consequences for democratic governance in this country.
One of the most interesting themes to have emerged in the present political debate in Sri Lanka is the idea of Jaathika Anduwa, or National Government.
The concept of National Government is not a new one. The credit for its retrieval in the current political context of Sri Lanka goes to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
However, the way the National Government is being conceptualised and explained raises some fundamental questions about its possible political consequences for democratic governance in this country. This article is an invitation to re-think and re-craft the idea, within a clear framework of democratic commitment.
The concept of National Government has a specific genealogy in Sri Lanka. It was first mooted in the early 1960s when the SLFP government was facing a continual challenge from trade unions affiliated to the Leftist parties. The idea came from some Right-wing elements of the SLFP as well as the UNP. Then, it was soon forgotten when the SLFP and Leftist parties formed a coalition government in 1963.
Nonetheless, there was a key idea embedded in the concept of National Government, from its very inception: it is not a coalition government between a major party and several smaller parties.
It meant by definition the coming together of two main and opposing parties – the SLFP and the UNP – in a moment of major national crisis, in order to resolve the crisis.
Thus, the ‘national’ character of this form of government has been conceived in the sense of the SLFP and UNP forming a ‘nation unity government.’
Once again the proposal for a ‘National Government’ emerged in 1971, soon after the JVP insurgency. The proponent of the idea at that time was the uncle of the present Prime Minister – J. R. Jayewardene, who was the UNP’s deputy leader at the time. JRJ assured Mrs. Bandaranaike that his party would extend its fullest support to restore stability and quell the insurgency and proposed the ‘National Government’ as the mechanism for the unit between the two parties.
Mrs. Bandaranaike dismissed JRJ’s proposal, because she deeply mistrusted her political opponent’s intentions.
Now, what Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been proposing is a new form of ‘National Government’ in which all parties of Parliament come together to form the government.
And this is supposed to happen after the next Parliamentary election. Although the exact reasons for this proposal and its exact objectives as well as mechanisms are not very clear, and media reports about them are somewhat confusing, some measure of clarity can be constructed on the following points:
At the next Parliamentary elections, parties will context separately either as individual parties or as coalition formations.
All parties in Parliament will form the new government, thereby making it ‘national’ to mean ‘all parties in Parliament’, and not just one by the SLFP and the UNP.
In the new National Government, cabinet and ministerial positions will be distributed among all parties.
Those MPs who do not get cabinet positions will be made members of ‘executive committees’ consisting of MPs.
In this National Government, there will be no Parliamentary Opposition.
If this project of a National Government materialises after the next Parliamentary elections, it will mark a clear shift in Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary and representative politics.
In fact, it will replace the venerable competitive model of democracy with what political theory calls a “consensus model.” Its fundamental drawback is the erasure of Parliamentary opposition in favour of elite consensus.
Once the Parliamentary Opposition is incorporated into the ruling alliance, it will invariably carry the possibility of turning itself into a new model of ‘elected authoritarianism.’
In fact, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s descriptions of the nature and shape of the proposed National Government do not allow us to speculate otherwise.
Does Sri Lanka deserve to be shifted from one model of authoritarianism, the forward march of which was halted by the electorate only three months ago, to another under a different bunch of politicians?
Why a National Government?
In his justification of the project of National Government, Mr. Wickremesinghe has asserted that it (the National Government) was the best way to inaugurate a new political culture, leading to all parties working together to resolve national issues. It will surely create a new political culture, but it would hardly be democratic. The essence of democracy is not consensus, but competition; not unity and uniformity, but diversity and pluralism.
The kind of new political culture Sri Lanka does need calls for other qualities – violence-free political competition, exercise of political power not leading to abuse of it, ruler’s accountability to people, corruption-free governance, acceptance of diversity, pluralism and multiculturalism, and openness of the political system are some of the key features of a better political culture for which we all should strive. A National Government is hardly necessary for a new political culture of this kind.
Meanwhile, there is one potentially serious event that is likely to require some kind of consensus among a majority of political parties. That event is the release of the UNHRC report on Sri Lanka in coming August. As we can safely speculate, even not knowing its contents, that report is very likely to re-polarise Sri Lankan politics, re-opening the political stage for hardliners and extremist forces of all hues.
The management of the fallout of the UNHRC report will require a consensus alliance between the government and opposition parties for a limited period, on a specific agenda.
Perhaps, it would be more beneficial to the country if Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe strategised with fellow political leaders how to manage the domestic political fall out of the UNHRC report, rather than day-dreaming of a National Government.