By Jehan Perera –
During the Uva provincial council election last month the President Rajapaksa thanked the visiting Chinese President for having bestowed economic assistance on the country and reduced the price of petrol and electricity. This time there was no Chinese President to share the credit with. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa directed that the price of cooking gas should be reduced. The government is aware that economic considerations loom large in the minds of the majority of the electorate. During his ongoing visit to Jaffna and the Northern Province, the President is making major offerings to the people, of land, jobs and subsidized motor cycles, to mention but a few. Despite the high level of economic growth reported by the government, economic hardship badly affects the life of the masses of the people. If the economic concessions at the Uva elections were a precedent, the package of economic benefits to the electorate at this time points to imminent elections.
It is said that astrologers have warned the President that his star is on the wane and will wane faster after March of next year. This is not a particularly stellar prediction. Most political commentators in media and general life are in agreement that the government’s popularity is on the decline, which is not surprising as the Rajapaksa-led government has been in office for nearly ten years. The results of the Uva Provincial Council election were a confirmation of the fall in popularity. Whether it is written in the stars or not, the sooner a presidential election is held the better it will be for the government. This makes early January, which is the earliest in which an election can be held, the most likely time. However, there is one serious problem that arises, and that is the pre-planned and agreed upon visit by Pope Francis to Sri Lanka for which the Catholic Church has been making preparations.
It would be a major disappointment to the Catholic community if the visit does not go ahead due to the government’s electoral compulsions, and this can be politically disadvantageous to the government. There is reportedly a one month window before and after elections that the Vatican wants, so that a papal visit does not figure in national political discourse. If the government is mindful of this concern then the next earliest it can have the elections are in March. While any delay in holding the elections would tend to be unfavorable to the government on account of its declining popularity, there is an important factor that can come into play to boost the government’s electoral prospects. This is the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva at which the report of the UN investigative team into war crimes in Sri Lanka will be taken up.
The holding of a presidential election in the looming shadow of the UNHRC meeting in Geneva can become a plus point of electoral mobilization to the government. The UN investigation has been described by the government as an international conspiracy against itself and the unity of the country. Many if not most of the majority Sinhalese population will subscribe to this notion. Therefore it a presidential election campaign is held just before the outcome of the UNHRC meeting in Geneva is finalized, and with an axe threatening to fall upon the government, it will be able to mobilize the nationalism of the people to its electoral advantage. The question once again, as it has been in all of the post-war elections, is whether nationalism will get priority over those other issues at which the government is at a disadvantage.
The close electoral contest that the government experienced at the Uva elections would alert it to the fact that economic concessions by themselves will not suffice to address the concerns of the electorate. It may therefore be more than a mere coincidence that the President’s announcement of a reduction in the price of cooking gas came parallel with an anti-NGO poster campaign. On the same day that the President’s concession to the economic problems faced by the people was announced, posters appeared on the streets of major towns asking “Why is the NGO Gang afraid of the President?” As the answer was not provided for in the posters, it can reasonably be surmised that these posters will be followed in the succeeding days by others which will provide answers.
The attack on NGOs reflects the concerns of the government leadership. With the passage of more than five years since the end of the war the government is finding it increasingly difficult to justify the government’s approach to governance on the basis of national security. One of the few sectors in society willing to challenge the government has been the NGO sector. Many of the top leaders of the government have had close associations with the NGOs. Some were members of NGOs, either as volunteers or as staff. Others worked alongside NGOs in campaigning against previous governments. President Rajapaksa is well known for his abortive bid as an opposition parliamentarian to carry files of human rights cases to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva which was foiled by alert immigration officials. As in the past, with previous governments, the NGO sector continues to be willing to challenge the government.
The government appears to be following a two track strategy in dealing with the NGOs. Many if not most NGOs do positive work at the community level which has given them credibility with the people and made them into opinion formers who can influence the way the people vote. In fact these community level NGO leaders have more credibility than the government’s own agents at the community level, such as Samurdhi coordinators, who act in politically partisan and non-transparent ways. The government’s first track, and the more constructive one, is to commence engaging in dialogue with the NGOs. The dialogue so far has been with a small group of NGOs and has led to a positive interaction which is still in its incipient stage. They have already raised issues of having to get prior approval from government authorities to do their work and also of government surveillance of their activities, which intimidates civil society participants and stymies the discussion of issues of governance and human rights.
On the other hand, the media has reported that the government is planning to amend the Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act under which most NGOs are registered. A final copy has now been passed by the Legal Draftsman and will shortly be submitted to Cabinet. It is reported that under the amendments, NGOs will have to register annually with the Secretariat or lose the right to receive foreign funds and conduct local monetary transactions. They will also have to submit reports and sign Memorandums of Understanding with the Government. According to the government’s NGO Secretariat, the government will allow two weeks for public observations once other routine procedures were completed. The draft has been discussed with relevant officials including those from the Ministries of Justice and Social Services, State Intelligence and the Central Bank. But it has not been discussed with the NGO sector. The NGO Secretariat is quoted as saying that “There is no need to ask the NGOs because this is a law that is being enacted in the interests of the country.”
Today there is uncertainty regarding the mandate civil society has in Sri Lanka. The government recently issued a circular which is ambiguously worded and is potentially highly restrictive. This circular appeared to be targeted at the advocacy and human rights NGOs, which work with high profile groups such as the media and the international community. There are currently two opinions within the NGO community. Some believe that NGOs need to engage with the government in order to create space for themselves to do their work. They also hold to the position that civil society organisations should not affiliate themselves to political parties, or the government of the day, and that they must remain independent. However, others believe that civil society needs to work together with the opposition and stand up against the government to achieve political change. It is this latter position that is serving to strengthen the government’s second track, which appears to be one of discrediting NGOs and driving them out of the public sphere during the election campaign period to begin with.