The strange MOU between the UNP and the SLFP
Posted on August 25th, 2015

By C. A. Chandraprema Courtesy Island

In 1994, the day after the August parliamentary election, this writer visited the then president D. B. Wijetunga at President’s House in the Colombo Fort. When I entered the conference room of the president, Mr Dharmadasa Banda, a minister of the then UNP government was having a conversation with DBW. If my memory does not fail me, Mr P. G.Wilson the private secretary to president Wijetunga was also in the room at that moment. Minister Dharmadasa Banda was suggesting to the president that a national government be formed. The SLFP led People’s Alliance had got 105 seats in parliament and the UNP had got 94 seats – a difference of just 11 seats. But in my presence president Wijetunga turned down Minister Banda’s national government proposal, saying, “The whole country wants this lady”. Those were his exact words!

So, bowing to the people’s will, president Wijetunga invited Chandrika Kumaratunga to form a government as her party had got the highest number of seats in parliament. Furthermore, president Wijetunga did not try to force the PA to give ministries to the defeated UNP. President Wijetunga could have done anything he wanted – it was after all he who had the power to appoint the prime minister and ministers. If he appointed some UNP parliamentarians as ministers, the PA could have done nothing. But like a true democrat, president Wijetunga took a step backwards and gave the PA a free hand to select its Cabinet. When Chandrika Kumaratunga’s PA was in turn defeated at the 2001 December parliamentary election President Kumaratunga, too, took a step backwards and gave the UNP a free hand to appoint its Cabinet.

In November 2003 however, CBK seized control of the finance, media and defence ministries which shows that she took a step backwards in December 2001 only because she had been frightened by the UNP victory and when she managed to screw up the courage to do her usual thing, she made her move and seized control of the three ministries mentioned earlier. Later she dissolved that parliament after just two and a half years. But at least she was democratic enough to get her seizure of three ministries endorsed at an election which her party won. Democracy depends on unwritten protocols as much as it does on written laws. Going by past practice Ranil Wickremesinghe should have been invited to form a government and allowed to distribute ministries as the winning party wished. If RW had wanted to share some of the ministries with other parties including the UPFA, that should have been done only at the UNP’s discretion.

Third party intervention

There should be no need to ‘negotiate’ between the UNP and the SLFP to decide on the ministries they were to share. The UNP won and the SLFP was defeated. The SLFP and its UPFA allies should sit in the Opposition. If the UNP was willing to offer then some portfolios then at that stage the UPFA/SLFP can decide among themselves to accept or reject the offer. But that is not what we are seeing here. We are seeing a third party, the president presiding over negotiations between the UNP and the SLFP on how ministries should be allocated. It is after a period of 20 years that the UNP has come back into power. The 30-month government of 2001-2004 cannot really be counted because it was cut short halfway. This time however that will not happen because parliament cannot be dissolved until the lapse of four and a half years. So the basic tenets of democracy require that those who have been in the wilderness have to be given a free hand to govern otherwise that will be a distortion of the people’s mandate.

We may disagree vehemently with some of the actions of the UNP such as using the FCID to persecute political rivals. Leaving that very important matter for later, the distortion of the people’s mandate is what should occupy our thoughts at this moment. It is not just in relation to the UNP that the people’s mandate is being distorted – the same thing is happening in the UPFA as well. The most recent incident being the appointment of several defeated candidates to parliament through the national list. While defeated candidates loyal to president Sirisena have made it through the backdoor to parliament in that manner, leaders of political parties like the LSSP and the CPSL which have been long standing partners of the UPFA have been kept out. Internal democracy within political parties or alliances may be more a figment of the imagination than a reality in this country. But what has been happening in the UPFA is extreme by even the standards that we are used to.

We may be excused for leaving aside the verbal and written statements made by Maithripala Sirisena before polling day despite the effect they may have had on potential UPFA voters, because there have been earlier instances of party leaders working to defeat their own party as what happened at the presidential elections of 1982. It is the misfortune of the political party in question to have leaders like that. Leaving that aside, the sacking of the secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA on the eve of the parliamentary election, the sacking of 13 members of the SLFP central committee on the day of the election for the president to wrest control of his party’s main decision making body, the continued sackings of SLFP representatives on the UPFA executive committee in order to wrest control of that decision making body, and the inclusion of several defeated candidates on the national list because of their loyalty to the party leader are all actions of the kind that no political leader in this country has engaged in before.

The arbitrariness shown towards the SLFP and UPFA have now been extended to the UNP as well because the victor has been forced to negotiate and bargain with a faction of the defeated party for portfolios. This is not a situation that will conduce to the promotion of democracy in this country. President Sirisena may be able to claim that it was his guerrilla attacks on the UPFA that enabled the UNP to win a slim majority. But it was the UNP vote that made him president and his first loyalty is to the UNP voter who made him what he is. If you remove all the SLMC, ACMC and Tamil Progressive Alliance votes from the 5 million votes that the UNP got at this election, you can see clearly that well over two thirds of the 6.2 million votes that Sirisena got were solid UNP votes. Therefore after winning 106 seats in parliament, the UNP should not be forced to negotiate for a share of the power with the UPFA. But, that is exactly what is happening.

An MOU distorting people’s will

Has anyone read the memorandum of understanding signed between the UNP and the SLFP last Friday? One would think that when two political parties are about to get together to form a national government, the MOU signed between the two partners would be full of political compromises and agreements. Any such MOU should be full of political details such as the number of ministries that will be held by the respective partners, and possibly some mention of the subjects that would be handled by the partners and that kind of thing. It may also have a list of top priority matters that the national government intends to handle. But when we read the MOU that was signed on Friday, most of its contents are what one would see in an election manifesto.

Why is it necessary to have clauses about the rights of women and children and about increasing the budget allocations for education and health in an MOU between two political parties? It even says that government owned land under the Swarnabhoomi and Jayabhoomi schemes will be allocated on a freehold basis to the present recipients. These are all matters that were dealt with in the manifestos of the UNP and the UPFA. This MOU is full of verbiage about irrelevant matters which have been dealt with in the election manifestos of all political parties. There are only two or three important political matters dealt with in that MOU.

The first is that parliament should be convened as a constituent assembly to bring in a new constitution with a hybrid first past the post and proportional representation system and to ‘review’ the executive presidency and to give more powers to parliament. The other two important political points in this MOU is that the national government will last only two years (and can be renewed on mutual agreement) and during this two year period, crossovers from one party to the other will not be allowed. The day this MOU was signed, a pro-UNP website reported in a headline news story that the clause calling for the abolition of the executive presidency had been dropped from the MOU by the SLFP side. They blamed Nimal Siripala de Silva for this. When looking at the background to what has been happening, it is clear that the MOU has been signed only for three purposes the implications of which raise serious questions for democracy in this country.

The first motive appears to be to prevent the abolition of the executive presidency as promised by the UNP in their manifesto. The second is to limit the term of the government to just two years. Saying that crossovers will be held back for only two years puts the UNP-led government on notice because about 20 of the MPs elected on the UNP ticket are not UNP but members of affiliated parties and groups who can easily shift sides. If these 20 MPs shifted sides and joined the UPFA which has 95 MPs, the latter will be able to form a government. If you view president Sirisena’s moves to wrest control of the SLFP and the UPFA in this context it is easy to see which way things are moving.

The UNP won the election just as well as the winning parties in 1994 and 2001, yet it does not have a free hand in appointing ministers. Then an MOU has been signed which gives the UNP some relief in terms of the block on crossovers for two years, but the limit of two years once again puts the UNP at a disadvantage because they were elected for a five year term which has now been effectively truncated and the question of what happens after the first two years, left hanging in the air. Most importantly, this MOU prevents the UNP from abolishing the executive presidency which would have immensely strengthened the hand of the UNP. We are seeing strange manoeuvres taking place, none of which is conducive to promoting democracy. When the 19th Amendment was whittled down by Sirisena loyalists to prevent the abolition of the executive presidency, the UNP said nothing. Wijedasa Rajapakshe even went on record as hailing the truncated 19th Amendment as equivalent to the Magna Carta. Well, now the UNP is also feeling the effects of the local Magna Carta! The arbitrariness that was applied to the SLFP and UPFA is now being applied in equal measure to the UNP. The big question is what are they going to do about it?

One Response to “The strange MOU between the UNP and the SLFP”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    Well said!!

    SLFP ministers are given USELESS ministries. Will they just do servant work for their UNP masters?? They should reject these useless ministries and demand useful ones UNP jokers have.

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