By Jehan Perera –
The parliamentary committee headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that was established to look into the provincial delimitation report has requested that they be given a further two months to submit their recommendations for electoral reform. The Prime Minister had assured that steps would be taken to avoid loop holes that might delay provincial elections further. These assurances are a repeat of what has been promised for the past several months since provincial elections were first postponed. With this further postponement there is no prospect of provincial council elections being held this year. Even in the optimistic case of the parliamentary committee deciding on a final set of proposals in two months the process of legislation through parliament, and calling for nominations, would take the elections to the month of March 2019 if not later. By then the focus will be on presidential elections.
The delay in holding the provincial council elections will only postpone the day of reckoning for the government alliance in the event that its current state of disunity continues. If the UNP headed by the Prime Minister and the SLFP headed by President Maithripala Sirisena were to contest the provincial elections separately, as they did the local government elections in February, the outcome is not likely to be any different. At the local government elections, the SLPP headed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated the divided government parties by a comfortable if not large margin in a majority of local government bodies. Whether this was a protest vote against the government, or due to the charisma of the former president, is less relevant than the fact that this outcome is likely to be repeated at the provincial council elections. The government’s concern would be the knock-on effect on the presidential election that will follow.
Up to now all indications are that the two government parties are set to go their own ways, and to their likely mutual downfall. Recent public statements of President Sirisena on issues of governance have been at embarrassing variance with those of the rest of the government. An illustrative example would be his stated desire to go to New York and address the UN General Assembly to extricate Sri Lanka from the commitments the government made in Geneva in October 2015 before the UN Human Rights Council. These commitments to human rights and to transitional justice won the support of the international community. But the government has failed to convince the majority of people in Sri Lanka, including it appears the President himself about the value of these commitments. The president has also given indications that he opposes investigations into possible crimes committed by senior members of the Sri Lankan security forces, even where those crimes were committed off the military battlefield.
It is possible that President Sirisena’s unhappiness with the Geneva commitments of the government and the ongoing police investigations and prosecutions of senior military personnel is due to his belief that he is heeding the sentiments of the majority of people. Unfortunately, the country is presently suffering from a dearth of leaders willing to take the people into their confidence and tell them what needs to be told. Instead of truth telling and public education, the differences between the president and the government on issues of international relations, human rights and accountability are so wide that it seems that the government alliance is set to go their own ways. However, the task of a true national leader is to lead the people to support the implementation and practice of good governance and human rights on a sustained and long term basis in a way that is in the best interests of all in the country.
The delay in conducting the provincial council elections offers the government alliance the time and space to negotiate a working relationship before the crucial presidential elections set for November 2019. Improving the working relations between the two parties, and their two leaderships, is more possible in the short time remaining before the next presidential elections than, for instance, boosting economic growth or succeeding in constitutional reform that meets with the acceptance of all parties and communities. On the positive side in terms of improving relations, President Sirisena is no longer openly trying to undermine Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as he did with during the local government elections, nor are the SLFP members of the government openly criticizing their UNP counterparts in the government.
In January 2015 when the then opposition alliance triumphed at the presidential elections there was anticipation of a best case scenario in which there was the prospect of broad-based support for a reform agenda that encompassed good governance, economic development and national reconciliation. But given the different ideologies and constituencies of the two alliance partners, this required a conscious effort on their part to plan together and decide together. The failure to deliver on the reform agenda of 2015 has undermined the government’s credibility with the general public. Its inability to function cohesively, getting embroiled in corruption scandals, combined with slow growth of the economy, has created the impression of a weak and ineffectual government. However, the continuing strength of the government is that its reform agenda of 2015 remains popular with those who voted for change in 2015.
The government continues to have a major advantage over the opposition in being the proponents of the reform agenda of 2015 to which the opposition has no answer other than to claim that the reform agenda will lead to the division of the country. Even though the economy is growing slowly, there is a discernible improvement in the Rule of Law and in inter-ethnic reconciliation. The opposition’s campaign against the government is based on negativism. At this time the opposition is unable to convince the intelligentsia that is indeed has a positive vision of a country in which human rights will be respected, corruption will be reduced and the independence of institutions from political interference will be assured. Instead the opposition preys on the fears of the masses of people against those of other communities and against the international community.
Last week I was in Moneragala and Hambantota, two of the traditionally poorer parts of the country which have been strongholds of the SLFP in the past, and presently are dominated by the SLPP headed by the former president. In discussions with community leaders who had supported the change of the government in 2015, it was evident that they continued to stand by that reformist vision. They said that the rationale for bringing about the coalition for reform in 2015 still remained. They said that the main slogan of the opposition, which was negatively influencing the thinking of people, was that the war victory secured by the former government was at risk of being given away through politics by the present government. An example would be the allegation of the former president that the government is planning to have two legal frameworks for the country, one for the north and another for the south, which would pave the way for the division of the country according to him.
Most of the community leaders in Moneragala and Hambantota who support the agenda for reform said that the continuation of the UNP-SLFP alliance was the best option for the future despite its infirmities in the present. What they wanted was for the two parties to collaborate again, from the beginning, as they had once done in 2015. But this time they wanted the two parties to really collaborate to implement the commitments of 2015. It is not only community leaders at the grassroots level who support the implementation of the 2015 agenda for reform. Last week I shared these thoughts with students at a Master’s degree courses on peace studies at the university. The participating students included those from all walks of life including the security forces. In their questions and comments it was apparent that they too wanted the reform agenda of 2015 to prevail. Like the community leaders they wanted the country to be reunited in mind and heart and not only in territory and not to go back to the days where the Rule of Men was the path taken rather than the Rule of Law.