By Jehan Perera –
At the presidential elections held in January this year Sri Lanka made its initial transition away from authoritarian rule in which ethnic nationalism was utilised to deliver repeated electoral mandates. The victory of the coalition of parties led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the General Elections on August 17 will ensure that the changes brought about at the presidential election will be sustained. The majority of Sri Lankan voters reaffirmed the choice they had made in January when they voted in President Maithripala Sirisena and rejected the siren call of narrow ethnic-based nationalism. The main significance of the latest election verdict is that it paves the way for transition to take place in two key aspects of governance. The first is that will consolidate the changes that have taken arbitrary power away from individuals and vested them instead in systems.
The question at the general election was whether the change that had taken place after the January elections would be reversed. The sustainability of the reformist good governance process lies in the fact that virtually all the political parties have agreed that the systems of government need to be strengthened. The second important transition that the country has taken as a result of the general election is the shift away from the governance approach of the UPFA period that saw the escalation of militarization in a state that suspected conspiracies against itself and the targeting of ethnic minorities as potential enemies of the state. There is now a need to journey towards a society that is truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious in its decision making and its choices.
The result of the general election ensures that the process of transition will not be reversed any time soon. Even though the UPFA challenge to the new governing coalition was very strong during the elections, now that the result is in, their challenge appears to have collapsed at least for the time being. Members of the defeated opposition are gravitating to the leadership of President Maitripala Sirisena who occupies the presidency of the SLFP as well as being chairman of the larger UPFA coalition. Bereft of a popular mandate, the twice defeated former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has little in tangible terms to offer to keep them loyal to him. It appears that many in the opposition would be interested in joining the new consensus government to be formed by the signing of an MOU by the UNP and SLFP.
The agreement signed by these two parties after the elections is to work together for two years on several identified areas of good governance. They include addressing corruption issues, taking the country on a fast track of economic development, safeguarding fundamental freedoms and protection of the rights of women and children. The MOU reflects the consensus that exists in society regarding good governance. This can pave the way for constitutional reform which will not be controversial, and which the new government can do without facing opposition. There are several unfulfilled pledges in the government’s 100 day programme that it can start to implement. Chief amongst these would be establishing the bipartisan Constitutional Council with members drawn from both the government and opposition and also from civil society.
The importance of the Constitutional Council is that it is the body vested with the authority under the 19th Amendment to appoint the members of the various independent commissions, most notably those pertaining to the judiciary, police, public service, bribery and corruption commission, human rights commission and elections commission. These institutions of state are of the greatest importance where it concerns establishing a system of checks and balances in limiting the powers of the elected politicians. During the UPFA period many ruling politicians and their supporters ended up behaving with the impunity associated with royalty in the feudal ages. They could pillage, rape and even commit murder with no action being taken against them.
President Sirisena’s readiness at the beginning of his term of office to reduce his own powers in the national interest was an act of statesmanship that has few parallels in Sri Lanka, and even internationally. There is reason to believe that his continuing commitment to good governance will ensure that more structures for checks and balances will be in place soon. These reforms would include making a renewed attempt to pass the 20th Amendment which is about having smaller electorates more accountable to voters, and passing the right to information law which would give the general public access to governmental documents. The lack of transparency in the governmental system was brought to light during both the presidential and general election campaigns, with revelations of massive corruption in government contracts that took place in the past without any transparency at all.
Another area of reform in the area of governance that will need to be tackled is that of inter-ethnic relations and the devolution of power. This was the key theme in the election campaign of the Tamil parties in the North and East of the country. Although the winning party, the TNA, is considered to be a moderate party on account of its willingness to engage in dialogue and trust-building with the government, it campaigned on a platform of greater autonomy and federalism for the North and East. In contrast to other issues of governance, which relate to central government institutions, the issue of devolution of power is one on which there is much less consensus in the country. It is to be noted that those who got the largest numbers of votes in the defeated UPFA opposition were those who took stands against the devolution of power.
The issue of ethnic nationalism continues to be alive in the country even though the inability of the UPFA to make it a winning formula at two successive elections suggests that it is receding as a force. It has been in existence since the 1950s when the SLFP was formed and utilized the power of language-based ethnic nationalism to trounce the UNP at the general elections of 1956. The past ten years of UPFA rule was primarily based on ethnic nationalism with the general population being constantly exposed to a barrage of anti-minority propaganda. Therefore there is a need for the government to commence an immediate programme of public education on the issue of inter-ethnic relations and the options for a political solution that would address the roots of the conflict. This could be done alongside civil society organisations to prepare the ground for future reforms that are necessary to resolve the conflict in a sustainable and mutually acceptable manner.
In the meantime, efforts to win the trust and confidence of the ethnic minorities need to continue. The visit paid by President Sirisena and former president Chandrika Kumaratunga to the former war zones of the East to give back land taken over by the military to the people shortly after the election indicates that the government is on the conflict-resolving track. The fact that President Sirisena is both on the side of the government and opposition presents a unique opportunity for problem solving. It will mean that when the government and opposition sit together to discuss how to deal with even contentious problems, they will be sitting together and not necessarily as adversaries. They will not be engaging in negotiations in which one side must lose in order for the other side to gain, but in problem solving where each side’s concerns are taken into account so that all sides can gain. This must not only be a wish, it can become reality.