Pitfalls in the Gota-Ranil diarchy

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The UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe replaced Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, and Basil, Chamal, Namal and Sasheendra Rajapaksa quit from the Council of Ministers. But on the other hand, Gotabaya Rajapaksa remained Executive President retaining the humongous powers of his office. 

Therefore, what Sri Lanka got as the result of the struggle is a hybrid Government, a diarchy with two centers of power:  the Executive Presidency under Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the one hand, and the Prime Ministership under Ranil Wickremesinghe on the other hand. They also belong to two different political parties – the President is from the majority SLPP and the Prime Minister is from the opposition UNP. The challenge now, is for these two to work cooperatively.  

It is believed the President and the Prime Minister have entered into an unofficial deal to work together to bring about political stability and pull the economy out of the deep crisis. But past Sri Lankan experience in political cohabitation in the top echelons of the Government has not been encouraging.

In the early 2000s, cohabitation between then President Chandrika Kumaratunga (SLFP) and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) was rocky, resulting in the President’s taking over key ministries in 2003. Defence, Interior and Information ministers were taken over on the grounds the Wickremesinghe Government had recklessly entered into a peace process with the LTTE negating the sovereignty of the country in the North and East. Kumaratunga was also opposed to the West-backed Norwegian-led peace process on the grounds that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty was being traded for a US$ 4 billion aid package from international community.

Kumaratunga’s nationalist card paid dividends in the 2005 presidential election which Wickremesinghe lost. From 2005 to 2014 end, Mahinda Rajapaksa ruled comfortably without sharing power with any opposition party. But the next regime (2015 -2019) was a totally different kettle of fish. Though the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe combo was placed on the seat of power by a popular mandate, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe began to work at cross-purposes. Firstly, Sirisena belonged to the SLFP and Wickremesinghe to the UNP. They had different ideologies and political agendas. A clash of personalities complicated matters.

While Wickremesinghe was keen on curbing the powers of the Executive Presidency and increasing the powers of the Prime Minister and Parliament through 19A, Sirisena wanted to and did exercise the powers of the Executive President making use of the ambiguities in the 19A. The Prime Minister on the other hand carried on as if he had all the power. But his decisions would be countermanded by the President. Dialogue was conspicuously absent. The consequences of the lack of coordination and consultation were numerous, but what spelled ruin for both was the ham-handed manner in which intelligence from India on the possibility of suicide attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019, was handled by the system. A government in disarray did not have a system to handle the intelligence and take preventive action. President Sirisena had not even been inviting PM Wickremesinghe to National Security Council meetings.

The breakdown of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe diarchy led to the victory of the SLPP’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the 2019 Presidential poll and to the triumph of the SLPP-led alliance in the 2020 parliamentary Elections. The widespread shortages that arose coupled with an unprecedented forex drought, led to mass revulsion against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his clan.

The popular 50-day ‘Gota Go Home’ campaign led to the exit of PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and the entry of Wickremesinghe as PM once again. There were strong reasons for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for inviting Wickremesinghe to take charge as Prime Minister. He had the ability to bring in foreign financial assistance and also reasonable constitutional changes. The duo had also agreed to an arrangement whereby the President will be a virtual rubber stamp and the PM will be the decision-maker.

But this arrangement appears to be coming under strain. The President, who had been lying low, is now active, pronouncing policy, meeting officials and issuing orders, apparently without consulting the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister too is making statements on issues, ordering officials and laying out plans for economic, political and constitutional reforms. There is no indication that there is a jointly worked out strategy in all this. For example, both have announced different plans for the involvement of youth, professionals and the youthful agitators in governance. As a result, the public are confused about the Government’s revolutionary plan for youth and agitators’ involvement and what involvement of such non-elected people will mean to governance based on Elections.

Both the Executive President and the Prime Minister are speaking to foreign leaders and donors and publicizing these conversations, making people wonder if there is a division of labor at all between an all-powerful Executive President and the Prime Minister who is answerable to parliament.

Looking at the conduct of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it looks as if  he is unlikely to shed his powers as Executive President. Wickremesinghe, who stood for the dilution of the executive powers of the President and wants the office itself abolished and replaced by a ceremonial Presidency, has now diluted his stand in order to concentrate on ending the economic crisis first. But it looks as if even his bid to get a diluted 21A passed has come up against heavy odds.

If the road is made hard by the clashing demands of the political parties, the Executive Presidency with all its powers might remain. This would be to the advantage of the incumbent, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A weakened Wickremesinghe might not be able to give effect to his policies. In that event, sources in the UNP say, Wickremesinghe might quit.

This could either lead to the emergence of a single, strong center of power or to disorder at the top. In case the latter situation is the outcome, the economic crisis might worsen and international donors might wash their hands of Sri Lanka. Therefore, apart from taking steps to put the economy back on its feet, the crying need of the hour is for the President and the Prime Minister to avoid the mistakes of past diarchies and work out a cast-iron system of mutual consultation in evolving policies, and cooperation and coordination in the implementation of policies.

By P.K.Balachandran