By Jehan Perera –
The change of government that took place in 2015 gave rise to much hope that the new government would solve the most intractable problem that the country faces, and resolve the ethnic conflict that has been a festering sore from the time of Independence in 1948. It is not as if sincere efforts at problem solving were not made in the past. But a notable feature of past attempts at ethnic problem solving was that they were made by one of the two major political parties, while the other remained in opposition. The lesson of history is that the party in opposition always did its best to scuttle the efforts of the party in government in order to come back to power using unleashed emotions of nationalism. The failed solutions of 1957 (Banda Chelva Pact), 1965 (Dudley-Chelva Pact), 1987 (Indo Lanka Accord), 2000 (Chandrika Constitution) and 2002 (Ceasefire Agreement) provide a dismal testament to this reality.
In 2015, however, the two parties that had been instrumental in scuttling the efforts of ach other to solve the problem joined hands for the first time in a coalition government. As a result they enjoy a 2/3 majority in parliament. The victories notched up by the government at the presidential and general elections were made possible by the near unanimous support given to them by the ethnic and religious minorities. Therefore the conditions today are propitious for a political solution that has been the aspiration of governments of the past, but which were not as fortunately placed with a coalition of the two major political parties as at present.
Unfortunately the early optimism is now giving way to discouragement as the government comprising the two major political parties appears to be pulling in two directions. It is not only with regard to the solution to the ethnic conflict that this phenomenon is observable, but also with regard to other issues such as economic development and investigations of financial crimes coming from the past. The most serious loss would be in regard to finding a mutually acceptable solution to the ethnic conflict, and which has a bipartisan consensus behind it that could deliver the 2/3 vote in parliament. Unlike issues of economic development, inter ethnic relations generate strong emotions within people that could suddenly turn against the government.
As a part of its solution to the ethnic conflict, the government had planned to present a draft constitution to parliament at the beginning of the New Year. However, the government has been unable to even discuss the six sub-committee reports on reforms of different sections of the constitution which have been entrusted to groups of parliamentarians. There appears to be too much dissension about the reports to discuss jointly in parliament what they say. It also appears that even the members of the sub committees were not fully in the know even about the reports they were expected to have compiled but which in fact had been done by expert researchers. The main problem appears to be the inability of the two main political parties to trust their members to fall into line.
One of the main fault lines of the present period is that there is more than one power centre in the national polity. There are at least three power centres. The first is the UNP which is led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The second is the SLFP led by President Maithripala Sirisena. The existence of these two power centres within the government means that each can check and balance the other though at a cost in terms of time and in reversals and inconsistent decision making. This has been seen in some issues such as the appointment of a new Central Banker, on Chinese-led economic development in Hambantota and taking a position on the issue of foreign judges for war crimes courts. The third power centre is the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The existence of these power centres also gives more flexibility to parliamentarians to threaten to leave their sinking ship and to seek fresh partnerships, whether personal or institutional. The position of President Sirisena is unenviable as his party members always have the option of joining the Joint Opposition where the majority of SLFP parliamentarians are now housed.
With regard to constitutional change those SLFP members who are part of the government have laid down their principles of constitutional change from which they have said they will not budge. Several SLFP ministers have stated their party’s position in respect of the proposed constitutional changes to be: The SLFP will ensure that the foremost place is given to Buddhism; The unitary status of Sri Lanka will be protected; The SLFP will not support any Constitutional change that requires a referendum; There will be no change to the Executive Presidential system; There will be no merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces; Devolution of power will only be through the fuller implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The problem with these positions is that they are not different from what exists today. There is a need for new principles if there is to be a genuine effort to resolve the problem.
The present time when the government is composed of the two major political parties in coalition, is widely regarded as the best time in which to solve the hitherto un-resolvable ethnic problem. Other issues such as electoral reform, the form of the executive presidency and economic development, important though they be, can be taken up later. All of these latter problems are matters that even a government formed by a single political party can tackle because they are not problems that generate the same amount of emotion as the solution to the ethnic conflict has the potential to generate. In resolving the ethnic conflict there is a need for the government to ensure that the three power centres that exist today become a single power centre so that cohesive decision making can take place. The main task of the present government and the purpose for which it must continue to exist is to solve the intractable ethnic conflict.
The preferred way for the three power centres to become a single one would be to have mutual agreement amongst the three of them through some form of joint leadership, such as decision making by a leadership council. However, the Joint Opposition has shown no inclination to agree to work together with the government to resolve the ethnic conflict. On the contrary the Joint Opposition seems determined to whip up ethnic nationalism for their electoral advantage. This has got to be contained. The sudden movement forward in long delayed criminal and financial fraud cases suggests that the government has at last decided to throw down the gauntlet to confront those in the Joint Opposition and eliminate them as a power centre.
In addition, ensuring that the three power centres are consolidated into one necessitates that any negative polarity between the President and Prime Minister should cease. They need to find a way of ensuring that future rivalries, especially in the context of the next series of national elections scheduled for 2020, do not become an obstacle to their unity of purpose today. Only then can the ethnic conflict be resolved in the near future. Political circumstances, and the fraternal ties of fighting the presidential election together, have enabled them to work together when it really matters, such as in passing the national budget. It is essential that these two leaders should work together as one. If they are of one mind, their parties will have no choice but to follow, as there will be no more multiple power centres to go to.