By Jehan Perera –
Sri Lanka’s three year journey with a national unity government comprising the two major national political parties is in doubt. The unity arrangement whereby the two traditional rivals shared power was always a contested one. Both parties felt they deserved better and each felt undermined by the other. They had different political visions, one more grounded, the other more cosmopolitan, and so deciding together was different. This was also the government’s strength, as it brought in a better balance, but decisionmaking was always slow. The local government election that they kept on postponing for more than two years has been the government’s undoing. When the government finally held those elections, the two main partners, the UNP and SLFP, turned against each other to give victory to the SLPP.
Shortly after the local government elections, civil society activists from several districts around the country took part in a meeting organized by the National Peace Council. What was encouraging was that these civic leaders were not disheartened but prepared to continue with their work for inter ethnic harmony, national reconciliation and economic development. They did not see the election result as directly negating their work. They saw the government’s poor electoral performance as a result of its failure to honor the mandate it had received in 2015 for good governance, anti-corruption, strong state institutions, economic development and inter ethnic justice and reconciliation.
Among the reasons identified for the election debacle was the government’s failure to put a stop to corruption and to take action against those with allegations of corruption. The denial by each side of the corruption of their own was seen as a trap from which the country needed to extricate itself from but which the government had failed to do. Another reason given was the failure to address the problems of the poorer sections of the people even while striving to cater to international expectations. An example given was the ban on asbestos sheeting which is used as roofing material by those with limited incomes, the reduction of the fertilizer subsidy and the replacement of the free school uniform by a voucher system. From the north came the observation that the failure to reduce the military presence symbolized the slowness of change and the possibility of a relapse into another era of impunity.
A lot of hope was pinned on the relationship between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This hope must continue. Though they are very different in many respects they both promised to be committed to good governance and to inter-ethnic reconciliation. It was in the battle against corruption that they both failed unable to shed the past, deal with the past and put a stop to the excesses of the present. But to their credit during the three years that they stood at the helm, the government ruled with a light hand. This has been a tremendous relief to the people who have experienced the chilling fear of governmental impunity with many governments of the past. With the loss of fear came labour strikes, doctors strikes, students strikes virtually every day, which spilled onto the roads and undermined the respect for those in government.
The local government elections that stand s the immediate cause of the current political crisis epitomized the best and worst of the government. In postponing the elections for various reasons, the government showed that it did not really want to battle for the hearts and minds of the people. There was the alienation of those who take decisions from the top-down, who seek to reach a modern society while the reality of people’s lives is lost sight of. The government did not have a message of local development that inspired the voters. On the other hand, the elections were the most peaceful and free in decades. The electoral system, with its mixed first past the post and proportional representation and the 25 percent women’s quota represented the modernity to which the country needs to aspire.
Today the election commission is struggling with the technical complexities of the new electoral system. As in any new system there are teething problems. But there is no doubt that the election commission is being left free to find the answers independent of political interference. During the election period the police behaved with independence and arrested ruling party politicians and supporters as well as those from the opposition if they violated the election laws. All this happened because the country had a government that ruled with a light hand. In the not so distant past, ruling politicians used to sit in the chairs of the Officers in Charge of police stations and give them orders. There is a need to appreciate the freedom that those who dissent can enjoy, including media freedom to be severely critical of the government. There is no sense of menace in the air. These positives are invisible, unlike the roads and infrastructure that are visible, but are no less real.
The existence of the national unity government has also held the hope that the country would be able to tackle the most formidable problem of the past that has divided its multi ethnic and multi religious population. Foremost amongst these is the need to find a power sharing solution to the ethnic conflict, for which the country has been searching from the time of SWRD Bandaranaike in the 1950s, and even before, from the time of GG Ponnambalam in the 1930s. With President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the helm there was (and still must remain) the hope of a political solution that is fair by all. The ideal would be for them to continue to work together. It has been pointed out that if they contested the local government elections together, rather than separately, their combined vote would have been greater than that of the SLPP.
At the present time there are reports of negotiations taking place at the highest levels of the polity to resolve the conflict that has torn into the very heart of the government. The question is whether the solution that emerges will be one that keeps the mandate that the government received from the people in 2015 alive. There is a need for reconciliation to take place within the government itself as manifested in the reports that President Sirisena intended to replace Prime Minister Wickremesinghe due to pressures on him from within the ranks of his party. There is a need on the part of the leaders of the government who now appear to be at loggerheads to remember why they were elected to power and to keep the promises they made at that time.
The government’s ability to move forward on controversial issues of reconciliation may well be crippled. The SLPP led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which outperformed the ruling parties, has been hostile to the government’s reconciliation process as dividing the country and sacrificing it to foreign forces. Prior to the election, and for the past three years, the country was making slow progress in dealing with issues concerning the previous three decades of war and the larger ethnic conflict. The government needs to recommence the reconciliation process, starting with those aspects on which there is a general consensus in society. These include strengthening state institutions, tackling the problem of corruption and showing greater care for the marginalised in society, whether for reasons of ethnicity or poverty.