By Jehan Perera –
The Supreme Court’s decision to deny leave to proceed in the eight cases filed before it regarding the dissolution of parliament and the date of the general election places a great responsibility in the hands of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Supreme Court’s decision means that he remains the sole national repository of the people’s mandate until such time as the general elections are held and a new parliament is elected. Although speculation centres around a date in August for those elections, the vicissitudes of the coronavirus, and the possibility of a second wave of infections even as the country opens up, make it possible that dates decided at this time may have to be disposed of at a later time. In the meantime, Sri Lanka would remain in a limbo without a functioning parliament with the present order continuing indefinitely. One of the important functions of parliament, to act as an oversight body and be a check and balance on the executive, will be in abeyance. The responsibility for governance is on the executive at present.
The constitutional framers, acknowledging the central role of parliament in the democratic system, gave only a maximum of three months for the country to be governed without a functioning parliament. However, this is a matter that government strategists may be discounting as part of a new world order in which the East is ascendant and the West is on the decline. Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage in a pioneering article titled “Post-Covid 19 international Order: Will a new world emerge?” has written in favour arguing, “A case in point is, once again in Sri Lanka, where, even without an elected sitting parliament, the President, Prime Minister and a small group of cabinet ministers have been running the campaign to contain and combat Covid-19 very efficiently with the support of technocrats, officials, scientists and the military.”
The deeper significance of parliament stems from the fact that its 225 members in the case of Sri Lanka are meant to represent the interests and loyalties of the 16 million voters who cast their votes and select those who will best represent them. These votes are drawn from diverse backgrounds, rich and poor, salaried and daily paid, urban and rural, belonging to different ethnicities and professing different religions. President Rajapaksa was mindful of this reality when he delivered his inaugural speech after being elected as president. He addressed the nation from the Ruvanvelisaya in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, which is of immense historical and religious significance to the Sinhala Buddhist section of the population. In his speech he noted that his victory was due to the votes of the ethnic and religious majority, but he would represent all Sri Lankans as president. The president could also have highlighted the historical fact that the king built a monument for Elara and decreed that he should be honoured even in defeat which would also have been a symbolic affirmation of his desire to bring the political losers on board.
The challenge to anyone of representing the diversity of Sri Lanka’s population is formidable. Sri Lanka is a country that experienced three decades of internal war in which the chief protagonists came from different ethnicities and religions. This protracted war lay waste to parts of the country, stunted its developmental potential and caused immense human suffering. It was preceded by three decades of political conflict between the leaders of the different communities which continues to this day. Following the welcome end of the war the country has become increasingly susceptible to inter-religious conflict. The country now has to face up to the challenge of the Covid virus and the economic changes worldwide which also impact on Sri Lanka.
The diversity of Sri Lanka that has led to violent conflict and to large scale loss of life is not only the result of ethnic and religious strife but also due to social and economic conflict. This was seen twice in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, first in the early 1970s and again in the late 1980s two left-inspired insurrections brought the country to a virtual standstill at times and caused tens of thousands of deaths. The absence of violence and appearance of peacefulness in Sri Lanka today must not beguile anyone to think that these problems are over for all time. If sections of the people feel that they are not being included in decision making, and that decisions being made exclude them, there can grow an alienation of heart and mind that cannot be stopped by more security measures and more intelligence gathering alone.
The ongoing riots, mass mobilization and political unrest in the United States shows that ethnic and race-based conflicts that have economic roots as well, need constant attention if they are to be kept peaceful. The growing gap between the rich and the poor in that country, where in some corporations the highest paid gets more than 300 times the salary of the lowest paid, deep seated inter-ethnic and racial prejudice, reduced levels of trust in government institutions, and the deliberate manipulation of all the above for political advantage are being used there to sow discord and move the US to greater instability and discord. One of the more noteworthy features of the crisis in the US is that President Donald Trump has been rebuffed even by the present and past leaders of the armed forces for seeking to exploit this situation.
An analysis by former senior US government conflict experts who issued a call for immediate action to address significantly worsening conflict dynamics in the United States makes the following observations: The US today is home to a range of significant including rising economic elitism, political exclusion and social marginalization. The economic reality for most Americans is that income has not kept up with the cost of living where essentials including health care and education are being denuded and privatized. Laws regulating institutions and tax rules drives wealth to a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans leaving the majority in the country with stagnating salaries especially among the non-white population. They influence long standing prejudices by stoking so-called “white vulnerability” which argues that whites are losing out to other groups. We need to be mindful of what is happening in the United States and not permit the seeds of alienation to grow in our country. We also need to take inspiration from the United States and see how its society, at every level, including its military, have been rising to uphold minority rights.
Unlike in the US where President Trump’s popularity appears to be on the wane, President Rajapaksa’s popularity in Sri Lanka has been on the ascendant. His track record of providing leadership to the war victory over the seemingly invincible LTTE in 2009 has given him credibility with the majority of the people. Much is expected of him and the government, especially after the experience with the last government which promised much but soon became too disunited to deliver on their promises. In this context, there appears to be popular support for the president’s unorthodox appointments of military personnel to high positions of authority. The president has been appointing both retired and serving military officers to a host of powerful positions including to ministries, state institutions and to presidential task forces. It is important, however, that the civilian services do not feel disempowered and downgraded as a result.
Many if not most Sri Lankans are convinced that president Gotabaya Rajapaksa is efficient, effective and wants the best for the country and in that context his out-of-the-box appointments may be viewed favourably. However, the fact that these appointments of retired and serving military personnel who are almost all from one ethnic and religious community can become a matter for concern in the context of the absence of parliament. A functioning parliament could have represented the ethnic, religious, social and economic diversity of the country’s people and their needs and aspirations. In its absence there is need for the president to ensure that a special effort is taken to consult with those who give leadership to the minority communities and non-mainstream social and economic interest groups. Pluralism in governance will be needed to reduce the gap and pave the way to a better future. There needs to be due deliberation with all sections of opinion for the best truth to emerge.