Suddenly it seems like the unity government is back to the business of governance. Whether it’s good or bad is another story altogether. July started with talk of the UNP-SLFP coalition breaking down as some SLFP ministers threatened to leave and the President lashed out at the UNP. However, towards the end of the month, it was making progress and taking tough action on a number of fronts. It’s as if the government’s got its ‘Red Bull Wings’ on and trying to cover its weaknesses with a few trending wins.
So far the unity government has been blamed for attempting to make everyone happy and ending up making no one happy. In attempting to balance policies between the UNP and SLFP, many initiatives have been delayed. The Hambantota Port deal was earlier delayed after major public protest led by the JVP and the so called ‘Joint Opposition’. The amended Inland Revenue Act has been delayed by opposition from within the Inland Revenue Department.
The government continues to face these protests and yet it is forging ahead with them; including the so called ‘nationalisation’ of the Neville Fernando Hospital. It’s as if the PM and President have given up on trying to make everyone happy. To understand what is happening, its helps to look at why governments end up trying to make everyone happy.
Lack of preparedness
Governments can be caught off guard at times with no prepared plan of action. Natural disasters usually have this effect, with the government having to apologize for the delayed action taken to help the affected population. This happened in May of both 2016 and 2017 – the ‘we just didn’t expect that much rain’ was heard loudly.
It’s the same when the opposition comes out with one detail about a proposed bill that sparks some public outcry. A few angry speeches by a few civil society leaders and a couple of public protests later, the government retreats to the drawing board. Government MPs become reluctant to publicly vote for a bill that can be used against them by the opposition ahead of the next election.
The clear cut example of this happening is in USA over the repeal of ‘Obamacare’ by the Republican party. With so many millions of Americans facing cuts to health care support, some Republican Congressman and Senators have voted against the proposals coming from their own party. Having put forward ambitious promises to cut back on Obama’s policies, the Trump administration appears have been caught unprepared on how to actually do that.
At points where it has been caught off guard, a government feels pressured from all sides. In response it is no wonder that ministers lash out at the media for abusing the freedom granted. Because at such points the media appears to be setting the agenda by providing a loud voice to opposition.
A coalition government is most likely to have to accommodate a variety of policies and opinions. That includes finding a balance between the UNP’s private sector oriented and the SLFP’s public sector oriented economic policies. And despite promises of a ‘social market’ agenda, no real specific plans have been presented in terms of specifics of policy and timelines. The PM’s economic statements seem to be ever changing from five year plans to three year ones, with no real progress made on them.
This has meant that the government has had to randomly accommodate whatever aspect poses the greatest impact on public opinion. The game becomes day to day survival of minimal government credibility and survivability.
When governments invoke “patriotism” frequently its usually to shore up public support and to delegitimize the opposition. We’ve seen that happening during the previous regime, in USA under President George W. Bush and in Tukey under President Erdogan. When supporters of the government are ‘patriots’ and opposition is in effect composed of ‘traitors’, the love for one’s country becomes equal to one’s government. Or so they think it works.
Having beaten the ‘patriot-traitor’ dichotomy, the unity government faces the issue of being unable to deflect or delegitimize its opposition forces. The corruption mantra has worn off with the corruption allegations on certain members of the current government.
The government’s tough stand on the strike at the Petroleum Corporation might signal a shift in its approach on this. It’s trying to portray opposition forces as being against the wellbeing of the average Sri Lankan in opposing the reforms the government is undertaking. How effective this might turn out to be will be reflected in the upcoming (and ever delayed) local government and provincial council elections.
Claiming public opinion
Governments love reminding us of the election results. The previous regime managed the election calendar in such a manner that every year there would be at least one local/provincial election. Deploying state resources in a limited geographical area, it pushed for a thumping win to prove public opinion was on its side. And it excelled at using events like ‘Deyata Kirula’ to boost local economic conditions prior to those elections to improve public sentiment.
The unity government too is probably looking at how they can improve public sentiment to at least a limited extent before moving into the local elections. After all there is nothing better than an election win to wave around and claim that the public is with the government. Of course, things are complicated with the UNP and Sirisena’s SLFP both looking for gains, alongside the Joint Opposition and JVP. Given that the ongoing protests allow the Joint Opposition and JVP to claim public opinion, an election that even shows no clear winner will favor the unity government. After all that would mean the UNP and SLFP are stuck with each other in local governments and provincial councils, regardless of whether they like it or not.
On the run up to the local and provincial elections, the thing to watch is whether the government can sustain its ‘wings’. That looks like an impossible task, with Minister Ravi Karunanayake walking a tightrope and anti-SAITM protests continuing. While it is nice to have hope of at least limited good governance, most Sri Lankans are running empty on expectation and high on frustration.
This article was originally published on the Weekend Express newspaper on the 4th of August 2017.