By Jehan Perera –
The sudden recommencement of the constitutional reform process after a break of over six months coincides with JVP’s proposed 20th Amendment to the constitution which would abolish the executive presidency in its present form. The parliamentary steering committee which is headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have instructed its experts committee to submit a paper for consideration within two weeks. If the 20th Amendment were to become law it would mean the diminishing of the president’s role in governance and a corresponding enhancement of the prime minister’s power. It would also do away with the need for a national election for the presidency, as the president would be elected by parliament. This would present a scenario that could see the evolution of a new partnership between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The problem with the present constitutional arrangement under the 19th Amendment is that both President and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are constitutionally vested with power that they can use to counter each other. The health of the national unity government is determined by nature of the relationship of these two personalities who head their respective parties. At present they are both contenders for the position of executive president when elections fall due in November 2019. Such a scenario was not foreseen in 2015 when President Sirisena was the common opposition candidate who pledged to be a one term president. In the absence of a new partnership agreement, their relationship is likely to deteriorate further to the detriment of the government. The failure of the president and prime minister to arrive at a mutually satisfactory accommodation is the worst-case scenario for the government.
The electoral setback encountered by the government parties at the local government elections of February 2018 has made them acutely aware of challenge that will confront them at the forthcoming presidential and general elections in the next 18 months. They are also aware of the need for actions that would restore the trust and confidence of the electorate in their ability to deliver positive results. But so far despite the passages of three months since the local government elections little appears to have changed. On the contrary the government has increased the prices of petrol and gas which has directly increased the economic burden on the people who were already complaining about the paucity of economic dividends to them from the government. How the leaders of the government address the 20th Amendment would give an indication of whether they will work together or not and will have implications for unity at other levels of society.
There are two challenges that the government needs to overcome. One is that the processes of change it has initiated are too slow. Although land is being returned, those to whom it is returned need economic resources, housing and livelihoods which is not forthcoming. Although the government has committed itself to increasing the number of Tamil speaking police personnel in the Tamil majority areas, in some of them there is hardly a single Tamil speaking officer. Although the Office of Missing Persons has been set up, and has started public meetings, it is not yet equipped to deliver on its mandate of locating the missing persons. Due to this the moderate Tamil parties wo are allies of the government are losing ground in the north and east to the more nationalistic ones as witnessed at the local government elections.
The second challenge to the government is to communicate to the people and explain to them what it is planning to do and what it actually is doing. In his speech to Parliament after it recommenced sittings on May 8, the president pointed out to the plethora of achievements of the government which have gone unnoticed. These included passing the amended Act to establish a National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol in March 2015, the National Drugs Act adapted in March 2015, and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution adapted in May 2015 which reduced the powers of the presidency. In addition, the Right to Information law to empower the citizens and the establishment of the Office of Disappeared Persons and the Witness Protection Act to ensure transitional justice and co-existence are also in place.
The president also pointed out that on the tangible economic front, during the period 2015 to 2018, a land area of 40,475 acres has been released from the use of the military and this amounted to 85% of all the land occupied by the military during the war period in the Northern and Eastern provinces. In addition, there is an ongoing programme to provide ownership of one million land plots to people and to restore and repair 800 small tanks in the North Central Province, 1400 small tanks in the Northern Province, and 350 small tanks in the Uva Province. Another 18 laws related to economy were adopted with the desire of effectively to manage the inherited Rs. 10 trillion debt burden and to enhance state revenues.
Many of these achievements are not common knowledge to the general public. The failure to communicate on the part of the government is due to the disunity within the government which resulted in three government spokespersons being appointed who often spoke differently on the same topic. The opposition is also utilizing the democratic space that the government provides to widen the pre-existing rifts between the religious and ethnic communities by stoking up nationalist fears. The growing dissatisfaction of the general population towards the government could be attributed to the lack of unity within the government when it comes to problem solving. By way of contrast the opposition parties are united in denouncing whatever the government does.
The problem for the government is that due to the internal divisions, the processes they have commenced continue without delivering anticipated outcomes. These include the strengthening of the judicial system to take on corruption cases but without decisive action that show the government’s political commitment to put an end to corruption. Another example would be the national reconciliation process in relation to the ongoing constitutional reform process. Although the government is returning more and more land to those who were dispossessed during the war and has set up the Office of Missing Persons to address that burning issue, this has not satisfied those who want to see evidence of the government’s political commitment to the political rights of the ethnic minorities to self-government and to the greater devolution of powers.
The political space opened up by the government over the past three years has enabled political parties and civil society to engage in public activities without restriction. On the one hand, this has increased the divisions in society, as manifested in the public activities that commemorated the last day of the war on May 18. On the other hand, one of the most positive features of the present time is the interest that civic groups at the community level have in working for social issues. The marked improvement in the human rights situation and the opening of political space has meant that they are no longer afraid to mobilise their energies on behalf of their communities whether in the north and east or elsewhere in the country. It is unfortunate that they are not receiving messages and direction from those at the top of the political hierarchy that reaching out to those of other communities is also a priority. The political leadership at the national level need to set an example of being united so that the work for ethnic and religious unity is more powerful than the work for disunity.