By Jehan Perera –
Already there are incipient signs of disagreement within the government. In his speech inaugurating the first session of parliament after his election, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recommitted himself to the development of the country. He said, “I, together with my Government, stand committed to honour the trust of the people and implement the programme of developing a prosperous nation that we promised to them.” Along with the safeguarding of national security, the need for fast tracking of the development process would be a primary concern of the general population. Both national security and even development became compromised during the last year of the previous government. The Easter bomb attacks were a shocking indicator how national security had become lax. The devastation of the bomb attacks which made headlines throughout the world was a body blow to the country’s development as tourists and investors alike began to keep away.
Although the first month of the new government has had many positive features to it, these have been mostly at the symbolic level, such as the surprise visits the president has been paying to government institutions to exhort them to perform their duties. But on the ground not much has changed. Prices of essential commodities such as basic vegetable and pulses have been increasing significantly which has caused problems to consumers with less income. The government has also announced that major development projects will need to be put on hold until the latter part of the year due to financial constraints. In view of the governmental shortfall, the private sector which can make the difference between having investments and no investments can pay an important role to boost the development process. But they need to feel confident that the government has a consistent legal and policy framework in place before they sink in large investment funds.
Unfortunately some of the government’s recent actions will not inspire confidence that the government is focused on implementing consistent policies. By its arrests of former government leaders on flimsy charges it is giving the impression that it is tailoring policies to fit a political agenda, most likely the forthcoming general elections that the president has stated can be held as early as April. Indeed, these actions are being denied by ruling party politicians who say it is not them that gave the orders and it is either a conspiracy or the police acting on their own.
To most politicians nothing would be more important than winning their seats at the elections, and also ensuring that their side wins the election with a maximum number of seats. They would therefore tend to engage in actions that have short term gains in mind even at the cost of the country’s long term future. This would be contrary to the vision of President Rajapaksa who has already secured his election and now seeks to transform Sri Lanka’s polity to take it to the next level of development.
There are several negative actions currently taking place that could potentially detract from the positive motivations of the government in seeking to enhance national security and promote development. The first is that when the government is seen to act by targeting its political opponents, it creates an impression that the government is no different from the governments that came before and also targeted their political opponents by bending the laws. If the government is seen to be having a cavalier disregard of the law this will create a disincentive to those who might wish to invest their goodwill and economic resources in promoting Sri Lanka’s development process. The president’s vision of rapid economic development as the solution to the country’s problems, including its ethnic conflict, will become more difficult to achieve under these circumstances.
Although the recent arrests of leading members of the opposition UNP are being justified as law and order measures, they come across as being targeted measures to weaken the main opposition party in the run up to the general elections. The common factor behind the arrests of former Ministers Champika Ranawake, Rajitha Senaratne and Ranjan Ramanayake is that they were in the front line of campaigning for the UNP at the presidential election and are among the best public speakers that the party has. The second common factor is that the charges leveled against them, for which they have been arrested, are relatively small as compared to the alleged crimes of others in both the government and opposition against whom charges are not being pursued with the same degree of interest.
The charge against former minister Ranawake concerns a matter that was dealt with legally and in court over three years ago. It involved a vehicle accident in which a racing motorbike hit his official vehicle from behind on a regular road that such racing motorbikes are banned from traveling on. The charge against former minister Senaratne is that he organized a media conference where two persons testified that they had driven vehicles that abducted and killed people and also engaged illegally with the LTTE. The charge against former minister Ramanayake is the most trivial of all, and is that he had not renewed the license of the firearm provided to him by the government for his protection. During the search of his house, the police had also discovered several tapes of conversations with police officers in regard of corruption issues members of the present government were allegedly involved in when they formed the government prior to 2015.
In his speech at the inauguration of the new term of parliament, the president said, “The success of a democracy rests upon the Constitution. The 1978 Constitution, which has since been amended on 19 occasions, has given rise to many problems at the present time because of its inherent ambiguities and confusions…We can solve this problem through constitutional reforms that will establish a strong executive, legislature and an independent judiciary that can ensure the sovereignty of the people.” Unfortunately, the constitutional amendments that have been proposed are only likely to achieve the reverse. One of them seeks to replace the 19th Amendment of 2015 that was explicitly designed to give more independence from political interference to the judiciary, public service and police, among the state institutions.
The second constitutional amendment being proposed is to replace or amend the 15th Amendment of 1988 which reduced the minimum cut-off point for political parties to obtain representation in parliament from 12.5 percent to 5 percent in an electoral district. This reduction in the threshold number of voters that a political party needed to obtain to gain seats in parliament permitted a greater inclusiveness for ethnic, religious and ideologically based minorities. One of the important beneficiaries of this constitutional amendment has been the JVP, which has a strong countrywide presence, but their vote base hovers between 5-10 percent at the district level.
On the other hand, increasing the cut-off point to 12.5 percent will significantly reduce the numbers of ethnic, religious and ideological minorities from gaining access to parliament. It might make the JVP not get a single seat at all. Tamil and Muslim politicians outside of the North and East, and especially the recent Indian-origin Tamil people, might not be able to get seats either. It will increase the representation of the big parties at the expense of the smaller ones. Instead of making their arguments democratically and non-violently in parliament, these minorities will be forced to go outside of parliament, to the streets or underground, which is a recipe for violent contestation.
On the occasion of his inauguration in Anuradhapura, where the earliest battles to preserve the country’s unity were fought, President Rajapaksa made a poignant speech. He said he had won the presidential election on the votes of the Sinhalese majority. He expressed his disappointment that the ethnic and religious minorities had not voted for him to the extent he had hoped. But he promised to be the president of all Sri Lankans, including those who had not voted for him. Due to his election victory in November 2019, the president enjoys a significant moral and political power. It ought to be his destiny to lead Sri Lanka on the right path instead of permitting partisan politics to lead the country astray, as it led his predecessors astray.