Governance between the elections: Drawing lessons for the new National Government in Sri Lanka

With the election results of no absolute majority to either of the parties in Parliament, the United National Party (UNP) that secured simple majority has invited all parties to form a national government. The whole concept of national government has never been a successful model in the history of Sri Lankan politics; hence it is imperative for all stakeholders (president and the parliament) to draw lessons from the history: both in Sri Lanka and outside.

What is a national government? Working definition for contemporary Sri Lanka

A National Government in a Sri Lankan context means a government established based on a “supply and confidence” agreement and it will never be an idealistic model of having the support of all the parties for the policy that are presented in Parliament. In fact, under the supply and confidence agreement, the parties in parliament will commit to support the UNP in a national policy framework and to ensure they don’t vote against a budget (supply) or in a “no confidence” vote (confidence). However, this does not limit the space for the parties in the national government to disagree to the policies of the other parties or openly criticise them.

Setting the agenda

A majority of Sri Lanka has not given a mandate to any of the manifestos presented by the parties. The inability to secure an absolute power by either party in Parliament also means that people do not wish to be governed by the policy frameworks presented by them. Setting the agenda for the new national government therefore is the utmost important task for them at this moment. This would have once again taken a different shape if President Sirisena had presented a vision for the country and a framework to achieve them within the next 5 years. Given the mandate requested from the people at the presidential election was for a short-term agenda as a base for bringing the country back to democratic pathway, it is imperative for the new national government to set their agenda under the leadership of the President.

Policy Focus

The most important rationale for setting a common agenda is to have a common policy focus for the nation. If the hyper-partisan nature of the parliament that we experienced during the first 7 months in the then ruling government continues, we will not be able to progressively move forward as  a nation. This will also limit us to strictly political side of policy: short-term thinking and “what have you done for me?” mentality. Indeed, the policy focus rather than four or five years then is more likely to be limited to just few months and a constant state of “how this plays” will continue. Everything will them be seen through uncertainty.

Beyond my agenda

One could always question the fact, whether Sri Lanka actually had a “national government” or will have one? If we say that we had one in the first seven months of the year, one cannot accept the opponent to agree to run the agenda of the government: “my agenda”. While it could also be different in a presidential election, it shall definitely not the case when it comes to a general election. The main party of the national government, UNP cannot expect all others to agree to run “their agenda” as the people has neither given a mandate to run the country under that. Hence, the importance of agreeing for a common agenda is vital.

Intra-party cohesion

An agenda on a functioning national government will further need to maintain intra-party cohesion, particularly among the two main coalition parties: UNGGF and UPFA. The ‘National government’ during the last seven months in Sri Lanka was an utter disorder mainly due to the break-away wings of the UPFA that never entered into a “supply and confidence” agreement as I call it. The President as the head of the coalition and the SLFP holds a significant responsibility in maintaining the intra-party cohesion if he wishes to see successful deliverables from the new national government. I wouldn’t see any successful deliverables based on a national government, if it is merely based on the shared MoU.

Managing Parliament: Relationships

I assume this would by far be the strongest theme and a lesson learnt from the government between elections. Managing the parliament and trusting relationships through respect was a failure during the last few months of the previous parliament. Prime Minister holds the responsibility in this regard and one cannot expect him to humiliate the opposition members in the chamber and then expect them to vote for the laws. It is imperative for the Prime Minister to be reminded that, if we are serious about the whole concept of a national government, the members in the opposition although they are seated on the other side of the parliament are also members of his government. In addition, for the sake of democracy constructive criticisms should be accepted and the opposing views arising due to ideological differences between the parties also need to be taken into account.

Consensus

To be successful in a national government, I believe leaders need to take a more transactional approach and genuinely seek consensus in a hung parliament for the interest of the nation. The purpose of a national government would be lost if there is no room for consensus development. Hence, it is also imperative to have a strong back channel negotiation process to complement the parliamentary process. The information regarding any development is expected to be shared among all MPs regularly and openly as consensus cannot be entered without a proper information sharing mechanism.

Concluding remarks

The list may look idealistic for Sri Lankan politics in a snapshot. However, if the country is serious about forming a national government (instead of a coalition government with the support of few parties) it is imperative for such an arrangement is principle based. Unless we put forward an effort to draw lessons from the government in the first 7 months towards re-strategizing the coming years, Sri Lanka will continue to be in an anarchic situation where addressing the key issues: the national question and the economic development will be limited to a mere dream.

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