We in Sri Lanka are less familiar with the famous quotations of Otto von Bismarck (1815 to 1898), Prussian Prime Minister, Founder and Chancellor of the German Empire, than, say of Winston Churchill. This, no doubt, is due to the fact that we were a colony of Great Britain as she was then known during the last chapter of our colonial subjugation. Yet people do know something that Bismarck said, in most instances at least the first part of the sentence ``politics is the art of the possible, the attainable the art of the next best although ignorant of the source and the time. This is no doubt the conundrum President Mahinda Rajapaksa, with two magnificent election victories under his belt, is faced with today as he wrestles with the problems that inevitably confront the victor of a general election. He has to balance the claims of those who helped bring him into power as well as the interests of the nation in tasks such as cabinet making and allotting what subject to whom.
Rajapaksa is on firm record that he will not saddle Sri Lanka with the obscenity of a 100 plus cabinet that we had before the last bunch of ministers went out of office. But many of those who made his victory possible have cheques to cash and the president, who one contributor to these pages has rightly described as a man whose greatest gift is his ability to reach out to people - something that neither of his challengers in two elections this year can credibly claim, now has to resort to ``the art of the possible. He has to do what is attainable and that will entail the next best. Yet it would be useful for him to cogitate of the work that has been done by the indomitable Dr. A.C. Viswalingam of the Citizens Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) and his colleagues in the Organization of Professional Associations (OPA) on the question of rationalizing the groupings of subjects under ministries when he sets about the formidable task of cabinet making in which he must surely be already engaged with various contenders jostling for plum positions.
The groupings that CIMOGG/OPA have presented is just 25 which many will agree is an ideal number for a cabinet in a country of our size and population. But that is obviously neither possible nor attainable. Rajapaksa will have to resort to the next best and we hope that he will stay with the 40-strong cabinet that has been mentioned. The chances are that there will be as many deputy ministries. Given the work that has to be done to achieve poverty alleviation and national development which are the top priorities, unpopular measures including disappointing contenders for office will have to be tken. That is something the president can do without affecting the political stability the country has been blessed with as a result of the size of his victory. Another Bismarck saying that ``people never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election will also strike a chord in the minds of the voters whose poor turnout on April 8 was a clear indication of election fatigue a sickness with the system that politicians infected them with during the last two years.
It would have cost the taxpayer far less than it did if all the provincial elections were held on one day. But no, that is not how the game is played. The incumbent government chooses the area in which it is strongest and demonstrates its strength, concentrating all its resources as well as those of the State in winning a great victory. Then it goes on to the next best and so on until the list is completed with the vasi paththata hoiya principle working in its favour. But the Northern Provincial Council election is yet to come and the only question there is whether Mr. Douglas Devananda will make a risky putsch or the chief ministry. The fact that the opposition, thanks to the efforts of Mr. Mangala Samaraweera and the JVP, was able to rattle Rajapaksa by throwing General Sarath Fonseka against him, was no mean achievement. Although there are supporters of the UNP who like to think that Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe would have done better and that he and his party, whose leadership he will continue to hold, took the right decision, many more are of the contrary view. Fonseka, though trounced, did much better than any other opponent Rajapaksa might have faced. Certainly the presidential election was contentious and its result has been challenged. But even the many irregularities that did occur in the full public gaze cannot be reasonably interpreted to have altered the eventual outcome. Whoever the bigger war hero, Rajapaksa or Fonseka, the majority chose to give the incumbent a second term.
General Fonseka, no doubt, found President Rajapaksa an easy commander-in-chief to deal with in fighting a war in which, as the general has repeatedly said, the army paid a tremendous price. So did ordinary Tamil civilians who bore neither truck nor allegiance to the LTTE which was liquidated with its hierarchy, once believed to be invincible, sent to the other world. But once the war was done, if we are pardoned for reverting to Bismarck, there was no question of Rajapaksa behaving like ``a gentleman and a half with an army commander he saw as a gentleman. It was then a case of what Bismarck said he would do with a pirate by being ``a pirate and a half as Fonseka has discovered to his cost. Yet he has got himself elected to parliament, with a considerable number of votes of aficionados who credit him for his wartime role as well as what the JVP was able to deliver to his ticket and he will no doubt take his oaths in the House before this cruelly hot month of April is past. Those of us who look to the legislature for our entertainment will have some treats before us.
But it is time that the courts, right from the apex downwards, look inwards on the questions of defection of MPs and implement the spirit of the law on this matter. As we said last week, the people voted for a party first and then expressed three preferences for the various candidates it fielded. We cannot continue the fiction that those contesting on the UNP ticket, for example, and even entered parliament on its national list, could serve the Mahinda Rajapaksa cabinet claiming membership of the green party. To do anything right constitutionally, including correcting the skewed electoral system, the president surely will have the two thirds majority he needs with support from the opposition. Remember the 17th amendment was passed unanimously and even then Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, served on the first Constitutional Council.
So let us not have chicanery but instead as good governance as is possible, the least corruption and even a modicum of efficiency on the way the government is run. Those who served on the OPA committees on proper groupings of subjects under ministries belonged to a public service which we remember with nostalgia. President Rajapaksa has under PR nearly achieved what JRJ did under first-past-the-post. Let him not seek a two thirds majority which the voter did not give him. We must not forget the tyrannies we had with such majorities in the past in 1970 with the United Front government and JRJ s five sixths majority of 1977. Many would agree that those were the two worst governments that Independent Sri Lanka ever had.