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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2586

Sri Lanka's Jumbo Cabinet, Vakarai and the President's Political Moves

Dr. Siri Gamage - University of New England, Australia

Significant political and military moves in Sri Lanka during the last month flowing into diplomatic and international activities by the government indicate that the President of Sri Lanka and his team has made certain calculations and decided to forge new political links culminating in an expanded 'power block' to rule the country from the beginning of 2007.

These calculations and moves are grounded in the island's political, military, diplomatic and international realities. As the leader of the country, the President has to deliver on many fronts including the conflict with the LTTE, economy, social services, and general administration. Anyone in his shoes has to move the political process and the country along with him towards achieving the national goals as defined by his own party and the grand coalition of minor parties that he is leading.

By any measure, the current coalition has to be recognized as the jumbo coalition in Sri Lanka's post-independent history that any political leader has forged. When a jumbo cabinet of the magnitude of 53 is announced, it is natural that various criticisms are emerging about not only its size but also about the costs of maintaining such a large cabinet.

However, these critics have to keep in mind that the President is leading the country in unusual times and extra ordinary measures have to be taken to lead the political and administrative processes in such times. He is operating within the existing political, legal and parliamentary frameworks and if he has to offer cabinet and non-cabinet portfolios to forge such a grand coalition in order to achieve national goals including finding a solution to the devolution of power issue, he is entitled to do so. The critics have to give him a reasonable period of time such as a year or so before jumping into harsh criticisms. People in Sri Lanka will now expect results from the grand coalition. The President and the government perhaps know about this.

Coalitions of political parties are inherently unstable, difficult to manage in the long run, and can unscramble at the earliest sign of detecting a change in the mood of the people. They can also unscramble due to the unhappiness of some members representing minor parties which can develop as a result of the way the President communicates with them, distributes the responsibilities and resources, and deals with the national and provincial issues. As much as the President and his team make political calculations, others in his coalition also make calculations all the time.

However at this very time, it seems that the majority have agreed to be a part of 'Mahinda coalition' for various pragmatic reasons. This gives an excellent opportunity for the President to make his next political calculations and decisions from a position of strength rather than weakness. For example, he should now make a move to finalize the much talked about political solution to the north and east issue, get the approval of the grand coalition he has formed, present it to the parliament and obtain majority approval. In the process, the government should consult the LTTE in an appropriate venue regarding the proposed solution and seek its views, ie. Perhaps via the peace negotiations if they re-start. If not, at least it is possible for the government to send the proposals via the Norwegians to the LTTE. Whether the LTTE takes them seriously and send a reply is up to the LTTE. Such a move will enhance the government's credibility in the eyes of the nation and its international friends. If he requires a two thirds majority in the parliament to effect changes to the constitution, and he lacks this, he may wish to consult the people on the solution by way of a referendum.

There is every indication that the President is serious about finding a politico-military solution to the North-east issue sooner rather than later. The All Party process to evolve a solution is progressing, and a blue print with 'southern consensus' can be expected in the near future. If this can be achieved during 2007 with the grand coalition being held together still, it can be a milestone in Sri Lanka's democratic political process. Moving to release a solution with southern consensus sooner than later will serve his own political standing and future as well because of the untenability of a grand coalition forged from minor parties with so many agendas in the long run e.g. Jathika Hela Urumaya, the Tamil and Muslim parties, break away UNP reformist group. The possible hostilities from the JVP can also be significant.

If the setting up of a grand coalition and jumbo cabinet was for the purpose of finding solutions to national problems in extra ordinary times, the people will forgive the President electorally, when the time comes for elections. On the other hand if the stalemate situation without a consensual solution continues for a year or more, then his coalition can face the same fate that previous coalitions met, i.e. minor ethnic parties including the reformist UNP group can move back to the UNP. However, this would perhaps require the change of UNP's current leadership. Within the grand coalition there are minor parties, particularly minority ethnic parties, known to change their color depending on who is in government. No doubt that the President is fully aware of this reality. Safeguarding of UNP's future is his last worry.

One can argue that a small cabinet is easy to manage, economical and viable. However, in a situation where the political system and parties have been fragmented, it is not possible to entertain the support of these minor parties without offering areas of governmental responsibility to their leaders and the associated rewards. One could argue that the President has democratized the cabinet by expanding it and including as many interests as possible, ranging from ethnic, provincial, party political to caste and class. The real test of this representative democracy comes when key decisions are to be made on national issues while keeping the representative cabinet and the government intact.

There are other observations one can make about the nature of the cabinet itself. From a gender equality point of view, one has to ask the question - how many women are there in the cabinet? Is it a cabinet dominated by men? The answer is unfortunately yes.

Secondly, no single cabinet minister - other than the President and perhaps the minister of foreign affairs - seems to hold powerful ministries. The overwhelming majority seem to hold responsibility for one subject area only. While this was necessitated to accommodate the UNP reformist group and other minor parties that joined the coalition this year, a deeper look at this decision shows that there is a significant political calculation embodied in the decision as well. Namely, the new cabinet does not allow anyone else other than the President himself to concentrate power in extra ordinary measure.

In the long run, particularly when it comes to the next round of Presidential and parliamentary elections, this ensures that there will be no serious contenders to the top job with a substantial command of public authority. In a political system where the patronage is highly relevant, the lack of several areas of responsibility by other ministers also ensures lack of patronage power. Thus the possibility of building a voter base by other ministers diminishes. The portfolio of foreign ministry does not allow for building voter bases by the relevant minister, as he has to be away from the country most of the time and engaged in international affairs.

In the medium to long term, the greatest threat to the President's recent political moves can come from his own party, if not from the grand coalition he forged. Firstly, when ministers are appointed without much substance (subject wise), power and resources it diminishes the credentials and credibility of the given minister in the eyes of his/her voters, as well as political opponents.

As reported in the media already, there are rumblings by a few ministers in the current cabinet. Secondly, if the 'real decision making power' is reserved for only a few of his close mates rather than the full cabinet, this can lead to the development of frustrations among cabinet colleagues. A truly consultative and representative decision making process via the cabinet and parliamentary processes are still required to make everyone happy.

As we have seen in the past, the position of the President and the powers that goes with it does not really allow for such a cabinet and parliamentary process. The President needs to be aware of this in every political move he makes. If he settles down to exercising his authority coming from the definition of his position alone, and does not give regard to the aspirations of many of the constituencies of the current grand coalition, then he can contribute to the development of a dissenting group and the politics can revert to the adversarial one that existed earlier. He needs to be aware that he is heading a government in transitory times.

Parties and the public need to be aware of any authoritarian tendencies that can develop in such extra ordinary times as well. For example, the governing coalition can mount an argument to say that until the war with the LTTE is finished, the position of President and the grand coalition should continue. This can mean a few more rounds of Presidential elections with the same system. People in the country are seeking political reforms in the entire system including changing the Presidential system of governance introduced in 1978. Irrespective of who held the position since then, it has only contributed to political fragmentation and conflict even though at times it has served as a stabilization force as well.

Given the soundings by the President and his ministers in the new cabinet, putting aside their ideological baggage and being aware of the ground realities, the LTTE also has an excellent opportunity to negotiate with the government, enter the political mainstream and be a part of the grand coalition. I am pretty sure that the President and his team will entertain a serious but reasonable proposal from the LTTE for political cohabitation and power sharing. If implemented, this will mean the departure of some minor parties currently in the government but the situation will still be manageable - due to the enormous political and cultural capital that the LTTE will bring into the coalition. Such a move needs to be made by going beyond petty charges and counter charges, as well as in a spirit of reconciliation. LTTE will be able to obtain several key ministries in the government and perhaps a Vice Presidential role.

Necessary climate has to be created by the LTTE by stopping attacks on armed forces, police and civilians. Given the acrimonies existing in the minds of Sri Lankans based on the political past, there will be a lot of resentment to such a move from the north and south. Nonetheless, such a move to forge a link between the grand coalition led by the President and the LTTE is not beyond the capabilities of the current Sri Lankan political process. If the LTTE does not grab this political opportunity, the military moves will continue and more people will be displaced while the strength of LTTE will also diminish nationally and internationally. Some would say that this is also a desirable outcome. Perhaps not many can disagree with such a situation as other Tamil parties and personnel are emerging to take the leadership in the affected areas.

In the last analysis, people seek solutions to their problems including the cost of living, education, employment, housing, infra structure development, displacement, social services, and so on irrespective of who is in power at a given point in time. The people all over the country hold these aspirations, in particular those affected by the armed conflicts between the government forces and the LTTE. Rather than returning to the adversarial politics that characterized the country's previous past, it is better to move ahead even with a jumbo cabinet and a political solution to the north and east issue while reforming the Presidential system of governance to meet public aspirations in a political democracy such as Sri Lanka's when the sun is shinning.

In Sri Lanka, there is a saying that 'it is like putting frogs into an empty vessel' (gembo muttiyata danava vage). Implication of this saying is that when some frogs are put into the vessel, others already in it jump out requiring the person putting frogs to keep doing it without stopping. If he stops the activity, then the vessel will be empty. The President's challenge seems to be something like this. In the best of scenarios, he may be able to keep the government intact (and the vessel full) by putting new members in the cabinet when others may leave. He needs to be able to keep a close watch and an exact count at all times to ensure that there is a majority in the vessel. This will not be difficult in 2007 or even 2008 but the egg can unscramble as the country gets closer to the elections, especially in a context where an extra ordinarily large cabinet with diverse interests/agendas have been sworn in to the dissatisfaction of some members in the governing party and the intelligent public.

Dr. Siri Gamage – author of this article is a Senior Lecturer, School of Professional Development & Leadership, Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies, University of New England, Armidale NSW Australia 2351.

- Asian Tribune -

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