By Jehan Perera –
There was no governmental celebration of its second year anniversary. Government leaders scarcely mentioned it. However, civil society leaders who had been in the forefront of the movement for good governance in the run up to the elections of 2015 organised a public meeting in the form of a “satyagraha” to remind the government of the promises it had made two years ago. However they also had many positive outcomes to acknowledge. Chief amongst them would be the improvement in relations between the ethnic minorities and the government and the reduction in the level of fear of the state. The 19th Amendment, which was the high point of the 100 Day programme of the new government has ensured a separation of powers between the arms of government. There has also been the passage of legislation that will have a positive impact on the polity over the longer period, such as the Right to Information Act which has the potential to make the government more transparent and accountable.
While the civil society leaders organized the public event to be an occasion to hold the government to its promises, the limelight was taken by the very politicians whom they had come to remind of the promises to be kept. Several government ministers who are leading advocates of good governance within the government attended the public event and received extensive media coverage. This was a reminder to civil society that it was the politicians more than they who had the power to make change happen directly that impact on the lives of people, for which reason the media gave them priority. The ability of civil society activists who uphold the values of good governance to work in collaboration with the politicians in power was a positive indication that their cause was not a lost cause. The readiness of ruling politicians to join the civil society platform is a legitimization of the positive role of civil society.
Despite the unmet promises and compromised nature of the government many if not most in civil society continue to seek to engage with the government. They seek this engagement because they see no alternative to the present government in terms of reaching the goals spelt out in the promises made by those who lead the government. So far the parties in opposition to the government, who would be the alternative to the government, shown no interest in the values of good governance, meeting international standards and upholding human rights. These were all violated during the period of the last government. But today the leaders of the former government will simply deny that they violated the norms and values of good governance. The Joint Opposition leaders in particular show no sense of remorse for the excesses of the past. They have also failed to come up with an alternative plan for problem solving and good governance.
Civil society urgings to the government to deliver on its promises notwithstanding, the decisions that the government takes will be determined on political considerations. The government will endeavour to secure its voter base while seeking to weaken that of its political opponents. Unlike civil society which can, and ought to, demand that good governance promises should be kept, political leaders will not wish to go beyond what is possible and detrimental to their political interests. As the third year of the Government of National Unity formed by the coming together of the UNP and SLFP commences, the question is what can and will it do to deliver on the promises it made during the last elections. The challenges it set could have been better achieved if taken at the tide two years ago in the manner of the 19th Amendment and Right to Information Act which were developed and concretised in the early stage of the government’s tenure in office. It is generally better to do difficult things when one’s moral stature and credibility is higher rather than when it comes lower.
Initially after an election there is euphoria and hope that the new government will deliver something better for the people than they currently have. The government’s commitments in terms of solving the ethnic conflict, changing the electoral system and putting an end to sky high corruption would have been subjected to less interference had it been done earlier in the government’s term rather than later.
Recently the government has come in for criticism on account of corruption and conflict of interest issues relating to the Central Bank bond scam. The foreign minister resigned as a result. However it is unlikely that the government will go on a path of prosecuting its own members. The question is whether it will even prosecute its political opponents successfully. In a similar manner where constitutional reform is concerned the government cannot seek to go beyond the unitary state or the present formulation of Buddhism as having the foremost place if it wishes to stay on in power.
Unfortunately, the promises made by the government are harder to deliver on now. The most disappointing failure of the government has been with regard to putting an end to the ethnic conflict and proceeding from a divided past to a shared future. The government of national unity has presented just this opportunity. Both the UNP and SLFP during their previous tenures of government have come up with solutions to the ethnic conflict based on the principles of power sharing and devolution of power. The problem has been that what each of these parties is able to propose when in power, they have been even more prepared to denounce when they are in the opposition. On this occasion when they are together, there is every potential for them to propose a joint solution through negotiations between the Tamil representatives and those from the government.
Given the history of the ethnic conflict, and the urgency in finding a solution to it, a special effort is required in this regard. It would be a wasted opportunity if the Government of National Unity is unable to work out a workable solution to the ethnic conflict as well as to issues of day-to-day concern to the ethnic minorities, especially to the people of the North and East, such as the return of land from military control, and the finding of missing persons. The leaderships of the ethnic minority parties, in particular the TNA, which represents the majority of Tamil people of the North and East, have gone out of their way to be trustful and accommodative of the government and its concerns. The failure of the government to deliver on its promises to them is pushing them into a disadvantageous position with regard to retaining the support of their electorates.
The TNA has recently started to openly lobby the international community to get them to pressurize the government to deliver on its promises. They are being pushed to this position because their collaboration with the government is not yielding the results they expected. The government’s slow pace in tackling the problems of war affected people is severely impacting on the confidence that the Tamil people have in the government. Although the government passed the law regarding the setting up of an Office of Missing Persons, it has still not operationalised it, although a year has passed since the law was first passed in parliament. It appears that the government’s reluctance stems for concerns by some section of the polity who are afraid of the truths of the past emerging.
The growing disillusionment of the Tamil people with the TNA for its support of the government can lead them to consider other alternatives. At the recently held cooperative society elections in Jaffna, the EPDP prevailed in some areas, including the prestigious Nallur area, which is a warning to the TNA that it is not only political rights but also improvements on the ground that people are seeking. The EPDP’s consistent strength over the past two decades has been its commitment to solving problems of people on the ground. The problem for the TNA which focuses on obtaining political rights for the Tamil people is that it has not been successful while on the ground the people feel that they are not benefiting from the government’s development programmes. The decision of the government to build 50,000 brick houses after months of protest against the earlier decision to build steel-prefabricated houses could redeem the situation to some extent. Delivering benefits to people on the ground will need to be the government’s path of survival as well as that of its political allies.