WITH a 108-member Council of Ministers in a Parliament of 225 members, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has created a dubious world record. On January 28, the island-nation of less than 20 million people qualified for entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest Ministry in the world. The creation of the large Ministry, involving the induction of 18 defectors from the main Opposition group, the United National Party (UNP), and 10 from smaller parties, marks the return of rank opportunism in the country's politics.
Mindless rivalry between the principal national parties - the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP - has been the trademark of the country's politics in the past 56 years. This is one of the reasons for a solution to the ethnic conflict being elusive for over three decades. Most of the other political and economic ills afflicting Sri Lanka can also be traced to the game of one upmanship practised by these parties.
By luring Opposition parliamentarians with ministerial ranks and benefits, President Rajapaksa has proved right the critics of the self-serving nature of Sri Lanka's political class. The development is particularly tragic because it was in October 2006 that the two national parties agreed to strive for consensus on national issues, including the ethnic question.
It was welcomed within and outside Sri anka as a landmark pact with the potential to herald a new era of peace and development. But the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two parties, which identified six main issues for cooperation, is finished. In a symbolic gesture, members of the UNP tore up the agreement in protest against the swearing-in ceremony of the new Ministers, reinforcing the perception that the island-nation is a `graveyard of pacts'.
The polarisation of the polity bodes ill for the country, happening as it does at a time when the armed forces are engaged in a war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north and the east, when the humanitarian crisis has hit a new low and the international community is getting restless over the inordinate delay on the government's part in coming forward with a political package on devolving power. The President's initiative through the All Parties Representative Conference (APRC) for a `southern consensus' (a common understanding on the ethnic conflict among all the national parties which have their support base among the Sinhala majority) has suffered a blow.
Rajapaksa's supporters have offered a curious thesis that the crossovers from the UNP were imperative to provide the government the numbers for a simple majority and free it from the hold of the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Before the general elections in November 2005, Rajapaksa entered into an alliance with the JVP on the promise of abrogating the Norway-brokered 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE.
As a party supporting the Rajapaksa government from outside, the JVP has been pressuring the President to honour the commitments he had made to it. This was one of the reasons for Rajapaksa seeking the support of the UNP and its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Of course, Wickremesinghe, a former Prime Minister, had his own compulsions to team up with Rajapaksa.
Politically, he considered the understanding with the UNP to be the best bet to hold in check some UNP parliamentarians who were desperate for office. Besides, as an architect of the CFA, Wickremesinghe is convinced that political dialogue and negotiations are the only means to settle the ethnic issue. He believed that the MoU could save whatever was left of the "peace process". He has been proved wrong and is today faced with one of the biggest challenges in his political career.
The ruling party's argument in favour of the defections is devoid of any merit. The minority government will not gain a majority as the UNP defectors have decided to retain their party membership.
The truth is that the Rajapaksa government has more to lose than gain from the inductions. Honouring the MoU with the UNP would have meant the support of its entire group of 63 parliamentarians. Rajapaksa might have pleased 18 defectors, but he has ended up antagonising the remaining 45 UNP members. Moreover, there is already some grumbling in the defectors' camp over sharing of portfolios.
For reasons best known to him, Rajapaksa was never enthusiastic about the MoU and his managers were busy stirring trouble in the Opposition behind the scenes. The Supreme Court judgment that annulled the merger of the north and the east is a case in point. Despite clear hints from the UNP that it would consider supporting any legislative measure to provide for the merger, the Rajapaksa government showed no interest.
In the long run, Rajapaksa's bid to engineer a majority in Parliament through inducements will prove counter-productive. The absurdity of the situation could be gauged from the fact that every single parliamentarian on the government's side is now a Minister and ironically, most of them are unhappy. The ruling party general secretary and a Minister, Maithripala Sirisena, went on record saying that he was ashamed to be a Minister in a jumbo Cabinet.
Several others are agitated or unhappy with the exercise. Leaders such as Mangala Samaraweera, who has been relieved of the Foreign Affairs portfolio, and Anura Bandaranaike, shifted from Tourism to National Heritage, could emerge as rallying points for disgruntled elements. The two Ministers boycotted the Independence Day ceremony as well as the traditional presidential reception on February 4.B. Muralidhar Reddy