By Jehan Perera –
It was the post-presidential election period that began in January this year that saw dramatic changes in the polity. The fear of government backed death squads and mob violence was totally eradicated to the relief of political dissidents and ethnic minorities who had been under threat. These positive changes at the ground level were accompanied by the major political reform of the 19th Amendment which divested the presidency of much of its arbitrary power and strengthened the system of checks and balances. However, in the aftermath of the general election in August a sense of stagnancy in government became pronounced. For the past three months in particular there had been a sense of drift in the government. The main slogans centering on good governance that had propelled it to victory at two successive elections held in January and August appeared to be in abeyance.
In addition, in the past few weeks the polity became focused on infighting between members of the government on issues of corruption and conflict of interest. There was no change in the country that could capture the popular imagination except for the government’s co-sponsoring of the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. On the one hand this eased the tensions that Sri Lanka had with the Western countries and paved the way for its return to their economic fold. But this agreement was a double edged sword as it was also attacked by the political opposition as being a betrayal of those who had fought against the LTTE. The visit of US Ambassador the UN, Samantha Power, to Sri Lanka at this time when the world is focused on what is happening in the Islamic countries and Europe is an indication that Sri Lanka is being given a special status and may even obtain extraordinary US support as a result. Ambassador Power is known as a close confidante of US President Barack Obama.
In this context there have been two developments that have given the government a new impetus. One is the announcement of the budget which has made concessions to the masses of people. Those living on the margins cannot appreciate long term investments which will bring them economic benefits in the longer term. The reduction in the price of basic foodstuffs and cooking gas will give an immediate boost to their purchasing power. It can also politically stabilize the government and create the space for it to take more controversial political decisions, such as necessitated by the co-sponsoring of the Geneva resolution which calls for a plethora of political reforms.
The government’s announcement that it will be going in for constitutional reform is also likely to generate positive sentiment amongst the people. In its announcement the government has highlighted the need to abolish the executive presidency and to change the electoral system. Both of these propositions are generally accepted by the general population. Although a more long term view would note that the problem of centralized government existed even before the promulgation of the present constitution in 1978, most people see the presidency as the root of the over-centralization of power that took place in the country and got worse as time passed. The second reform that is sought is that of the electoral system which is presently based on the proportional system of voting with large districts as electorate.
Such a focus on constitutional reform can reassure those who voted for the government on the basis of its promises of good governance. They have been disappointed that the government has not been following up with zeal and punishing those whom it has accused of corruption and impunity. The problem for the government is that the Rule of Law to which it is committed is a slow process as it calls on the prosecutors to first build up a strong case which is backed by concrete evidence. Experience from other countries shows that anti corruption cases against those who are powerful in the polity can take a long time. In countries such as Philippines and Indonesia which had authoritarian and corrupt governments for long periods, it took many years before the money stolen in a corrupt manner was located and brought back. Not all the money could be brought back. In addition criminal cases where the legal right of defense is available to those accused can take a long time. This same phenomenon is also likely to occur in cases of war crimes and human rights violations. Countries such as Indonesia and Cambodia took as long as a decade to four decades for prosecutions to be completed.
In contrast to the long time frame of legal prosecution the government leadership has chosen a short time frame of six months within which they hope to complete the task of constitutional reform. In implementing constitutional change the government leadership appears to be banking on the fact that it enjoys a 2/3 majority in parliament due to the formation of the National Unity government. This government is jointly led by President Maithripala Sirisena who heads the SLFP and by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who heads the UNP. The teaming up of these two political parties, which have traditionally been bitter rivals, is unprecedented. The uniqueness of the present time may suggest that the maximum use be made of this opportunity.
On the other hand, if too much stress is placed on the partnership it is possible it may collapse and bring down the government. This was the fate of a previous government headed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. When the draft constitutional bill of 2000 was rejected in parliament, her government collapsed. Therefore the stakes are high with regard to the success of the constitutional reform project. There could be several pitfalls ahead. To begin with, the executive presidency is not universally rejected. It is the one electoral institution in which the entire country will vote as a single electorate. Whether voters are in the North, South, East or West, they all have to vote for one set of rival candidates. This provides an invaluable focus for national unity in a country which is divided on ethnic, religious and regional lines. By way of contrast in parliamentary elections, voters will vote only for candidates from their area. They will not be considering the candidates in other areas. This means their perspective will be limited to their own region and will not embrace the country as a whole, unlike in the case of election of the president.
The creation of a new constitution will also bring up the issue of devolution of power and of inter-ethnic power sharing. These have been highly contentious issues in the past that brought down governments by generating uncontrollable nationalist sentiments on all sides of the ethnic and religious divides. So far there has been little or no discussion about a post-war political settlement. The formation of a new constitution can lead to this discussion coming to the fore again. The hope will be an elite consensus between the president and prime minister who represent the two major political parties, and the leaders of the small parties that represent the different ethnic and religious minorities, which transforms itself into a sustainable political solution.
On the positive side it appears that the government’s plans to engage in constitutional reform enjoy the support of the small parties also. The TNA, SLMC and JVP have not come out strongly to criticize the government of having made its announcement of constitutional change. They have not criticized either the process or the short time frame of six months. This may suggest that there is an informal agreement amongst themselves regarding the forthcoming constitutional changes. What binds them all together is their commitment to good governance, the linchpin of which is accountability, ascertaining the true state of affairs and engaging in reform. This is what is lacking in the wider world today, where those who make decisions are not held responsible for what they do. The visiting US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power made it known that the United States supports Sri Lanka because it is a positive example of a country in which good governance has a broad support from all sections of the polity and is therefore sustainable.
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