Friday, August 21, 2015

The 'jathika' and 'vijathika' of coalitions


On August 24, 1931, the then prime minister of Britain Ramsay MacDonald attempted to resign over a disagreement with his own party with how the country's finances should be handled. His king, George V, advised him to form a coalition, one which would obtain representation from all parties, including his own (Labour).

That coalition, referred to as the "First National Ministry", was dissolved just two months later, only to be resurrected following a General Election. The reason was simple. The economy was in a slump, in no small part due to the Great Depression. There was a need for a coalition and a good one too.

By 1945, more than 20 years later, Britain saw or rather underwent five more coalitions, the most crucial of which was headed by Winston Churchill during the Second World War. Characteristically, every party involved played a role.

What's notable here is that these coalitions weren't formed for nothing. There were reasons and all too often a national interest was at stake. In none of these instances were democracy deficits and good governance issues. Crucial outcomes were warranted and for this all parties needed to get together. Even if it meant the absence of that cornerstone of any functioning democracy, an opposition.

Well, it's confirmed. A National Government will be set up here. We don't know who's to be represented and who's to opt out. A true National Government can only come with the participation of every party and ideology, including those who espouse federalism, nationalism, capitalism, communism, and yes, even anarchism. For that to happen though, two questions need to be asked: is there enough provision in the Constitution for that and if so, do we really need to go ahead?

Two commentators debated on this on MTV's Newsline the other day. Bandula Jayasekara, diplomat and writer known for his outspokenness, was more accommodating. Rusiripala Tennakoon, trade unionist and political analyst, was more critical. He named names and flipped unturned stones. More importantly, he went on to answer the above two questions and that with tact and objectivity.

His take was based on two premises.

The first. Constitutionally speaking there are provisions and guidelines for forming a National Government here. Specifically, Article 45 states that the president, having consulted the prime minister if necessary, can appoint non-Cabinet Ministers from the Parliament and that these Ministers are then answerable to the Cabinet. This amounts to a National Government or coalition.

The second. Such a coalition can be effective only if the constituent parties (including the head of the alliance) subordinate themselves to a national interest. Such an interest is birthed by a national crisis, including financial meltdowns (as with the MacDonald era) or a war (as with the Churchill era). An interest which "sweeps off" party politics, therefore, can only arise through a crisis. Such crises are rare.

Having laid these out, Tennakoon asked a question: do we really need a National Government?

Consider this. There's no war. The economy's doing fine, at least relatively. We have a serious democracy deficit but then again so does almost every other country. We are not in Lebanon and for this reason we don't really need consensual politicking which robs an opposition from the people. Sure, we've been told that there's to be rhetoric-less good governance in the days and months to come, and judging by the people elected into Parliament that seems to be true.

Do we need a coalition for that though? On the face of it, maybe. Maithripala Sirisena is president and also leader of the SLFP. Ranil Wickremesinghe, his foremost backer in the January election, is prime minister and leader of the UNP. Forget other parties. Forget other party leaders. For the time being, an alliance between these two means, as a sine qua non, a coalition.

But what's it all about? As Tennakoon rightly pointed out, a National Government must subordinate itself to a national interest. What do we have here? For the past six months, all we saw was one party playing second fiddle to the other! A farce? Well, almost. Not surprisingly, how both parties conduct themselves in relation to each other for the next 60 months will be judged on this basis.

Right now, here's what counts. Coalitions aren't just formed. There are forces that breed them. More importantly, history shapes and chisels the right moment for their formation (and of course their split). It's ridiculous therefore to expect them to be made for a (perceived) need to ensure good governance.

Put it this way: those who script in a "jathika" into a coalition while castrating a headless opposition and thereby perpetuating party-politics are actually "doing" a "vijathika".

No, I am not suggesting that this is where Sri Lanka is heading. There's every reason to pin faith on the UNP and the program it's carrying. Then again though, do we really need a National Government for this? Let's not forget, after all, that without a viable and strong opposition (the UPFA meets this easily) neither good governance nor democracy can be sustained for long.

If such coalitions are formed to ward off crises, which need unconditional and across-party-line support, then a virtual absence of those crises would ruin democracy if we still opt for a coalition government and what results is an opposition-less parliament. History has shown what happens in that context, both here and elsewhere. Best not to tempt it.

Rusiripala Tennakoon has made a point, hence. A very good point. So good that it merits assessment.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at