Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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UPFA gets two MPs and a popular movement ejects Mervyn

Posted by harimpeiris on August 12, 2010

President Mahinda Rajapakse and the UPFA succeeded in luring over to government ranks, UNF MP’s Prabha Ganeshan and Digambaram, two up country Tamil MP’s from the Colombo and Nuwara Eliya districts, bringing to 147 the government’s majority in the house. With UNP MPs Abdul Cader, Ranga Bandara and Sri Ranga Jeyaratnam being publicly unhappy campers in the opposition fold, the government is all but assured of its one hundred and fifty members or two thirds of the House. This without counting the SLMC members who are also being wooed and if history repeats itself, Rauf Hakeem may also face in miniature form, what his fellow old Royalist and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe faces in the UNP. With this move, the initiative towards constitutional reforms that strengthen executive presidential powers may get a new lease of life, though President Rajapakse who has an acute political nose, is sensing that this would be unpopular in the country, though possible in parliament.

A presidential view of parliament

All past popularly elected executive presidents of Sri Lanka have, rather like the old medieval kings of England faced problems with their elected parliaments. President JR Jayawardena though enjoying a five sixth majority in parliament, had to govern with letters of resignation of his MPs in his possession and this prior to the Supreme Court upholding the independent conscience rights of MPs. His successor President Premadasa famously faced an impeachment motion in Parliament, while President Kumaratunga had the misfortune of losing her parliamentary majority through a midterm general election and facing unchartered waters in an uneasy cohabitation arrangement. Sri Lankan presidents though powerful have had an uneasy relationship with parliament. President Mahinda Rajapakse is no different. Despite having first sibling Chamal ensconced as speaker of the house, President Rajapakse realizes that Parliament does pose a popularly elected locus of power independent of the Presidency and it is an institution he has to work with. The President’s influence within Parliament has to stem solely from a political party framework, namely through the SLFP and that grand party’s stalwarts are silent, while smaller extreme ethno nationalist administration partners such as the JHU and the NFF grab the limelight and seemingly dominate if not monopolize the President’s trust. Hence the concerns of controlling parliament solely through the SLFP / UPFA party structure.

Mervyn gets the boot

Further as this article is being penned unconfirmed reports on web sites claim that the government or rather the president as the appointing authority has removed deputy minister Mervyn Silva from his portfolio while the SLFP reportedly has withdrawn his membership of that party. Now Mervyn Silva’s conduct has been outrageous for awhile and he has on previous occasions got away with various acts unacceptable in a civilized society. However, he politically lived to fight (literally) another day. This time though the situation was different and Mervyn has reportedly received the due reward for his action.

Now as the story first broke, the government’s initial reaction was not the outrage felt by the general public or the ordinary citizenry, but rather a copy of what happened after his rampage at the Rupavahini Corporation , where the spotlight was turned on the Rupavahini staffers who defended their institution with tins of paint. In this instance Government spokesman Kheliya Rambukwella claimed that no action could be taken against the minister since no complaint had been lodged. If this was the best excuse the government spokesman could come up with, he gets top marks for keeping a straight face but low marks for credibility. Sri Lanka would be the only country in the world in which you can break the law in the glare of media publicity and in the presence of law enforcement officials and as well as get away with it. Yes Minister Silva was breaking the law, by obstructing a public officer, through criminal intimidation and causing simple hurt. Moreover though he did something unpardonable, he publicly dishonored a man ( a junior public official) deliberately, pre meditatively and for a reason and in a manner unprecedented under normal circumstances in Sri Lanka.

Samurdhi officers organize Island wide

The government expected this outrage like Mervyn’s previous one to fade quickly from public consciousness. What it didn’t bank on was that Samurdhi was a very large national service present throughout the country and is not (unlike the single location and mere one thousand strong Rupavahini Corporation Staff) and that the Samurdhi union would have the backbone to not only stand up to the government but mobilize island wide on the issue. Now the Samurdhi union correctly read a political space to oppose deputy minister Mervyn Silva on his outrageous conduct without criticizing or attacking a popular president. A generous public will still concede that President Rajapakse is a benevolent ruler surrounded by a few bad eggs. They went after one of them, when he overreached himself. As the Samurdhi union organized island wide agitations and wowed to continue them until there was action taken against Mervyn Silva, the political costs of keeping Mervyn was becoming too high for the administration. Mervyn needed to be jettisoned to keep the administration on an even keel and steer it out of troubled waters.

Showing Mervyn the door

The media reports of Mervyn’s sacking are unconfirmed as this article is being penned. But even in the event the reports are wrong, the action of asking Mervyn to leave the government is undoubtedly the right thing to do. The move might have been prompted by popular dissent of the vast Samurdhi union but it’s a very necessary step in the right direction.  The move also shows that the administration is sensitive to its populist appeal amongst its core constituency of the rural and suburban Sinhala polity. When they all got agitated over the deputy minister’s actions, it was time for him to go.  Now Mervyn is likely to be rehabilitated and quite quickly. Expect a cabinet reshuffle when the President formally commences his second term in November 2010 and Mervyn may well be back. But his period out in the cold is salutary for him and for any others tempted to follow his style. President Rajapakse will gain political credit for not condoning outrageous and unacceptable conduct from members of his administration. Hopefully the new found trend of accountability would continue in the Sri Lankan polity in the future.

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