By Jehan Perera –
The opposition political rally held by supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa last week in Matara is being described as the largest such rally so far. Over 75 opposition parliamentarians amounting to one third of the numbers in Parliament attended the event. The SLFP contingent amongst them who constitute the vast majority, attended the rally in defiance of the decision taken by the SLFP hierarchy including President Sirisena that no member of the SLFP should take part in a campaign to bring back the former President as the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate at forthcoming general elections. Time and again President Sirisena has declared his unwillingness to permit such a comeback. But he has been unable to prevent his party members from attending the rallies that are being held primarily to support such a comeback.
The continuation of the campaign to bring back the former President into government is an indication of his fighting instincts and political resilience. It is also due to the weakening of the political campaign against him after the presidential election, which saw the former President’s opponents go all out against him and his government. But now there is an increasing tendency to gloss over the charges of corruption and other abuse of power that are alleged to have taken place during his presidential period. Although several leading members of his government, including one of his brothers has been taken into judicial custody following charges of corruption, the legal proceedings that have followed have been desultory.
The opposition campaign once again shows signs of resorting to divisive ethnic nationalism. At the Matara rally the former President had a statement read out to the assembled gathering in which he warned that the gains of the war victory secured under his leadership were in danger of being lost. He said his government had defeated the LTTE in 2009, but the present government was paving the way for its revival. He alleged that out of 159 army camps in the Jaffna peninsula 59 had been removed and that the government was in the process of releasing some LTTE cadres in custody at present. He added that the present government’s pro-Ealam foreign policy would have to be defeated or the country would be in danger and pledged his willingness to come back to active politics to safeguard the nation.
After winning the presidential elections, President Maithripala Sirisena’s reputation as a politician with the instincts of a statesman gained prominence. In recent days, however, the President appears to be preoccupied with gaining control over the SLFP of which is the party president, and especially over its parliamentarians who are refusing to cooperate with even the measures that stand to the President’s credit, such as the implementation of the 19th Amendment. One of the most important changes that the 19th Amendment sought was the appointment of independent and non-partisan organs of the state to carry out their functions without fear or favour. But the Constitutional Council which is the linchpin of this new system of governance has been rendered dysfunctional by the refusal of the parliamentary majority to approve its members.
In addition, the President’s efforts to woo his party members away from the former President are proving to be less than successful. Many if not most of them owe their political existence to the former President. In a time of uncertainty, with general elections looming, they are likely to hedge their bets and see which side prevails. This would account for their decision to attend the political rallies organised by supporters of the former President. The interest of individual politicians is to be re-elected. However, the people’s interest is different from that of the politicians who wish to be re-elected. It is in their interests, and in the national interest, that corruption and abuse of power be weeded out and the new system put into action.
During the presidential election campaign, President Sirisena exposed the corruption and abuse of power that had taken place under the previous government and was leading the country towards economic decline. He appealed to the electorate’s desire for change and promised good governance. This yearning for good governance continues to exist amongst the general population. The problem is that they are now, five months after the presidential elections, they are getting disillusioned at the impotence of the present government, and its failure to take decisions and deliver tangible results that they can benefit from. The main reason for the government’s slow pace is that it does not enjoy a majority in Parliament and cannot take the decisions that need to be taken.
The expectation that the change of government that took place with the presidential election of January 2015 would lead to a sharp break with the past has been brought into question by the recent political developments. The most urgent need in the country is to have a new Parliament that reflects the change that took place at the presidential election. The continuing uncertainty as to when general elections are to be held is weakening the credibility of the present government as it cannot act decisively without a parliamentary majority to back it. The country appears to be trapped in a political quagmire. The visible sign of this is the continuing deadlock in Parliament about the appointment of the Constitutional Council and the passage of the 20th Amendment.
On the one hand, President Sirisena is setting much store on the fact that he promised to change the electoral system from the present proportional system based on preferential voting to a mixed system with both proportional and first-past-the-post aspects. However, reaching consensus on this has become difficult as the SLFP and other parties have agreed on a 255 seat parliament, while the UNP continues to insist on retaining the present number of 225. It is doing this even at the cost of alienating the small and minority parties, which want a larger sized parliament in which they will have better representation. The UNP is insisting that its refusal to accommodate the other parties is the higher cost of maintaining a larger parliament. But there is also a belief that the UNP is apprehensive that the passage of the 20th Amendment, and the formulation of a new electoral system, would give the opposition a further reason to ask for a delayed general election, which will be detrimental to the UNP-led government.
The UNP cannot afford a delayed election not only because it is unable to govern effectively without a parliamentary majority. There is also a sword of Damocles that hangs over the government in the form of the UN war crimes report that is due to be released in mid-August. The release of this report, which is meant to promote human rights and accountability in Sri Lanka, will provide an issue to be exploited by the opposition forces that are using the power of nationalism as one of their main weapons. They will be hoping to regain the position that they lost in January through a comeback in delayed post-August elections. In these circumstances, the best way forward for the UNP would be to agree to any formulation of the 20th Amendment presented by the opposition that has the support of the small and ethnic minority parties. This would empower President Sirisena to dissolve Parliament having achieved his major election promises with the confidence to cleanse the SLFP of those who have been corrupt and abused power.