By Jehan Perera –
The release of another 29 acres of land under military control in Jaffna to civilian owners is a signal that the government remains committed to the reconciliation process it embarked upon in January 2015 when it came to power. The high point of the government’s commitment came nine months later in October of that year when it went beyond expectations in co-signing the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka. Its predecessor in government had considered previous UN resolutions on the subject to be anti-Sri Lanka and to be necessarily opposed and rejected. The new government turned this negative approach around on its head. The problem, however, has been that the government’s implementation of its commitment has subsequently been slow. This has given rise to doubts about the government’s commitment to the reconciliation process.
With the holding of local government elections looming on the horizon, the present circumstances are not the best for the government to allay these concerns. The results of these elections will be seen as a vote of confidence in the performance of the government midway in its tenure. The clearing of the path to conducting the long delayed local government election is almost complete. The delay in holding these elections was due to a combination of factors. This included the need to redemarcate local authority areas which had been gerrymandered by the previous government which sought to manipulate electoral areas usually by altering their boundaries to gain an unfair political advantage at elections. But it was also evident to the electorate that the government was procrastinating for reasons of its own, which included a reluctance to face the electorate in the midst of the many controversies it has been embroiled in.
One set of controversies that the government would wish to distance itself from at this time will be the ones pertaining to the constitutional reform and transitional justice processes. Both of these go to the heart of ethnic nationalism and its attendant high emotions. The opposition has denounced the proposed new constitution as paving the way for the ethnic division of the country and denounced transitional justice as being an insidious means to punish war heroes. In former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his colleagues in the Joint Opposition, the country has the most potent combination of charisma and leadership who can use narrow ethnic nationalism to lethal effect. This suggests that constitutional reform and transitional justice related matters will not be the focus of governmental attention in the run up to local government elections.
At the present time all attention is being focused on the forthcoming local government elections. While the constitutional reform process is likely to come to a halt at this time, at least in the public view, a government victory will give it the confidence it can prevail at a referendum which will need to be called sooner rather than later. On the other hand, a breakdown of the constitutional reform process will be a political defeat for the government whether or not it wins at the local government elections. It will also be a big blow to the Tamil parties, and voters, whose support was decisive in bringing the government to power. It is constitutional change that will ensure that the ethnic and religious minorities are not dependent on the goodwill of government politicians and their temporary policies, but on guarantees that come from more permanent law.
Both public opinion polls and prevalent public opinion on the street shows that most of the population believe constitutional reform is important, not least because the present constitution is defective and needs to be changed in a comprehensive manner. From the time that the present constitution’s executive presidential system was first subject to abuse, academic and civil society opinion formers have critiqued the constitution and called for its replacement. Therefore, the popular movement to change the present constitution has a much longer history than the government’s present bid to formulate a new constitution.
The three day parliamentary debate on a report on constitutional reform by a select committee of parliament was extended by a further two days reflecting the interest of parliamentarians in the subject. On the positive side there was a broad consensus among all the parties that the matters that were being debated were important to the country, and needed to be discussed at length. The general thinking in the country is that the coalition of the two biggest parties in the government provides the best opportunity to address the unresolved problems of the past, particularly the ethnic conflict. They have a stable 2/3 majority in parliament on their own. There is agreement that this is the time to address problems that cannot be neglected any longer.
However, there was no consensus on the positions taken by the different political parties on the substance of the options for constitutional reform during the debate. This includes the issues of federal power sharing, the units of devolution, executive presidency and the incorporation of some aspects of international legal standards. The steering committee report itself did not present final conclusions but a series of options. The challenge will be to bridge the gaps on some key issues. But as these are controversial and can generate strong emotions, it is most likely that these issues will be placed in cold storage until the elections are over. At present the negotiation process is at a standstill as all the parties are focusing their attention of forthcoming local government elections, which will be a test of their popularity.
A fresh opportunity for significant progress will come in the immediate aftermath of the local government elections providing, however, that the government wins them. It is believed that voters are disgruntled with the government’s slow performance in most aspects of governance and especially with regard to the economy and they will be oriented to voting against the government. On the other hand, it is also believed that voters are pragmatic and will cast their votes to those who are in control of the state, as they can expect patronage from them. The failure of the Joint Opposition to team up with the SLFP component of the government for purposes of the local elections will diminish the prospects of an opposition victory. The failure of the Joint Opposition bid to break up the National Unity government by getting the SLFP component in it to withdraw will mean that governmental power and the opportunity to provide patronage will remain in the hands of government ministers and parliamentarians.
After the local government elections are completed in February 2018 the government will be able to refocus its attention on controversial issues such as constitutional reform and transitional justice. The important March 2018 sessions of the UN Human Rights Council at which a report back from Sri Lanka will be necessary will add to the urgency for positive change. Issues to be dealt with at that time will include the full establishment of the Office of Missing Persons, presentation of draft legislation on the promised Office of Reparations and Truth Seeking Commission, and further progress in terms of release of land and prisoners. In addition, success at the local government elections may pave the way for the referendum on constitutional changes that are ratified by parliament.