Groundviews

Delicate Balancing Act for the New President

Photo via Sky News

Normally, a newly elected President has a honeymoon period within which he/she has some breathing space after a hectic election campaign conducted under extremely stressful and challenging circumstances. It appears that the newly elected President Sirisena does not have even this privilege as he has to spring into action immediately on many fronts. Most importantly, he has to look after ‘the national interest’ as the executive President of the country while also entertaining a stream of MPs from the UPFA who are offering their support to his 100-day program post-election. Additionally, he has to keep the common opposition coalition intact at least until the 100 day program is completed and the set goals achieved. Added to this is the high level of expectations created among various sectors of society including trade unions, universities, those who were marginalized and alienated by the previous regime and the rest. There seem to be some uneasiness developing among societal elements that supported President Sirisena over such expectations and the cross overs of MPS from the UPFA post-election. Thus he is faced with a delicate balancing act that needs to be managed with wisdom, far-sightedness, cooperation and patience.

Looking at the developing situation, there seems to be a significant dilemma before the new President. On the one hand, to achieve the constitutional changes promised during the campaign, he needs to obtain 2/3 majority in the existing parliament of 225 members. To get the support of at least half this number plus one, he has to entertain MPs and former ministers- some of whom achieved notoriety on various grounds – who offer their support following the new President’s invitation in Kandy last Sunday. On the other hand, he cannot allow the credibility of the opposition coalition and himself to evaporate that quickly by accepting MPs and former ministers who were the subject of ridicule during the election campaign by the common opposition due to their reported actions and behavior when in government under the leadership of the former President. Yet on a broader level, reconciliation is a great virtue in a Maithri Palanaya where animosity needs to be replaced by compassion and forgiveness. How far the constituent parties and groups of the common opposition now in government as a whole will adopt such a stance is not certain at this early stage.

Thus the balancing act the new President has to perform is fraught with tenuous conditions to say the least. If he goes for sheer pragmatism and feasibility of the 100-day program, he has to entertain MPs and former ministers without distinction until he reaches the magic number in the parliament. If he goes for the new government’s credibility and be true to the principles of good governance that were promoted during the campaign, he has to ‘pick and choose’ those who are lining up in droves at his door to support him after the election. Under the latter option, the President and the coalition of parties supporting him has the option of dissolving the existing parliament and go for parliamentary elections before 100 days – if he cannot obtain the support of a 2/3 majority in parliament without those MPs whose image have been tarnished by corruption allegations, mischief, anti Yaha Palana behavior etc. However, this option involves a big gamble politically. Yet it is sensible in terms of the credibility of new government and the trust people placed on it in the last election.

Before parliamentary election however, President Sirisena will have to strengthen the SLFP base around him to be in a competitive situation against other parties. Here he has an advantage because of incumbency. But the UNP and Jatika Hela Urumaya will also have the same advantage. State media, unlike during the election campaign, can be either on his side or play a neutral role as in a free media environment. Many MPs of his own party, particularly those who are expressing support after the recent election, will be looking to capitalise on the incumbency factor without doubt. Whether the SLFP led by the new President goes for the parliamentary election in April as a separate party or in a coalition is another important issue to consider. But at the present moment the President’s focus is on the 100-day program and the proper functioning of the government. Appointment of members of the cabinet yesterday as a temporary measure until parliamentary elections are held in April is a noteworthy development.

In this context, the stance of the JVP is perfectly understandable and sensible. It knows that the egg can unscramble anytime when the competitive politics re-start in view of the parliamentary elections. Parties that fought Rajapaksa Presidency will want to look for electoral advantage in a future parliamentary election. As a third party whose agenda is not predicated on an over-attachment to a free market economic development doctrine and advocating ethnic and racial harmony, the JVP stands to gain much in a future parliamentary election. Its leader is a highly articulate speaker in public meetings that can attract the attention of those voters who are frustrated with the policies and programs of both major parties, the SLFP and the UNP. JVP in fact released its vision and policy platform much before the announcement of the last Presidential election and its leaders met various sections of the civil society to educate them on the same. In a sense, JVP is an election-ready mode looking for further substantial grassroots support including from the working class.

Ideally, if President Sirisena is able to secure the promised changes within the 100 day program without tarnishing his image as a true champion of democracy, good governance, anti-corruption and waste, anti nepotism, etc. by excluding notorious characters from the previous government, that is the best outcome for millions of voters who supported the common opposition. However, in the world of realpolitik this may be hard to achieve without some medium term compromises. He may need the counsel of his close colleagues every step of the way in making such medium term compromises. Though he now has all the powers of the executive Presidency, it should not be business as usual when it comes to governance during this interim period. The paradigm change that he and his colleagues promised together with a change in the political culture need to be visible on the ground to preserve credibility of the new government in the long run.