By Jehan Perera –
The passage of the second reading of the budget by a 2/3 majority in Parliament is an indication that the National Unity Government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe continues to be strong. Although the SLFP component of the government headed by President Sirisena is divided, with a majority of the members not voting in favour of the budget, a sufficient number of them voted in favour of it giving the government a comfortable majority that exceeded 2/3 of those present and voting. The government was also able to obtain the support of the ethnic and religious minority parties to bolster its majority. This will boost the confidence of the government when it comes to the question of constitutional reform which it has flagged as its priority after the passage of the budget.
A second notable feature of the budget debate was the accommodative attitude of the government leadership to the concerns of those who felt that their interests had either been insufficiently considered or been adversely affected by the budget proposals. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe proposed and accepted last minute changes to the budget. The government had sought to raise revenues and to reduce expenditures to bridge the budget deficit. But both of these requirements would have been disadvantageous to some sections of the population. Therefore instead of standing firm as required by the imperatives of economic rationality, the government has sought to buy time for itself by exploring the option of a very large loan from the IMF that would help to bridge the budget deficit.
The most important need from the national perspective would be to ensure that the government stays in power in order to achieve the reforms it pledged at the presidential and general elections held earlier this year. At those elections the rampant corruption and abuse of power in the country of the previous government, and the looting of economic resources that emptied the treasury were highlighted and solutions based on the principles of good governance were promised. However, the opposition that draws its strength from the nationalist leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa continues to remain a potent threat. The former president continues to have a special place in the sentiments of the Sinhalese ethnic majority on account of the military victory obtained during his period over the hitherto invincible LTTE.
The ability of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to neutralize the appeal of the former president and to keep the National Unity Government viable will be crucial to the direction that the country takes. Any rift between these two leaders or weakening of their holds over their respective political parties will threaten the stability of the government. The 2/3 majority in parliament that their unity has brought is crucial if Sri Lanka is to embark upon successful constitutional reform in order to get out of the vicious cycles into which it fell in the past due to weaknesses in the constitution and supreme law of the land. One of these was the over-powerful presidency that enabled the president to govern even outside of the rule of law. The other was the inability to ensure genuine sharing of decision making power between the ethnic majority and minorities.
The most protracted vicious cycle that the country has experienced is the ethnic conflict that led to three decades of war. Now for the first time, there is a consensus at the highest level of leadership from the two main political parties and also with the ethnic and religious minorities. This has never been the case before. On previous occasions, the political solutions that enlightened leaders of the government presented were opposed by those in the opposition, even when those solutions were a variant of what they themselves had proposed when they had formed the government. The National Unity Government headed by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe presents a unique opportunity that needs to be taken forward to the long term resolution of the ethnic conflict. The iron frame of such a solution will be a constitutional settlement. It needs to be one that lays to rest the fears of the ethnic and religious minorities that there could be a backsliding in the future.
The government has set itself a six month time frame to reach a constitutional settlement and to promulgate a new constitution. The main pillar of the proposed new constitution would be the reform of the executive, which is currently seen as being about abolishing the executive presidency. The executive presidency has been the main instrument by which power was over-centralised and the independence of state institutions such as the judiciary and public service was undermined and in which the devolution of power to the provinces was negated. Other pillars of the new constitution would be the replacement of the present proportional electoral system with a mixed system that includes first-past-the post representation. Neither of these two constitutional changes is likely to be overly controversial with the general population as there is a consensus that fundamental changes to them are necessary.
On the other hand, a major problem is likely to arise with regard to the solution to the ethnic conflict. On every occasion in the past beginning in 1957 when a solution was agreed to by the Prime Minister and leader of the major Tamil party, known as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, the solution was opposed. There was street mobilization by the opposition that led to riots and pogroms. In both 1957 and 1987 when the 13th Amendment was passed which devolved power to the provinces, there were even revolts within the government that destabilized those governments and made it difficult to implement the agreements. After the LTTE took the upper hand in the Tamil militancy, it became a formidable obstacle to a negotiated political solution.
On the present occasion, however, there are three factors that stand in favour of a political settlement. The first is the military defeat of the LTTE after which the parliamentary vote of the Tamil people went in vast numbers to the politically moderate TNA. The LTTE aimed for a maximalist solution that approximated a separate state. They opposed any solution that gave the central government power over the North and East that they claimed as the Tamil Homeland. The Interim Self Governing Authority they proposed had provision for two governments and two militaries and showed no abiding interest even in a federal solution that shared power between the centre and provinces. By way of contrast, the TNA leadership has repeatedly pledged their willingness to negotiate a solution within a united Sri Lanka based on power sharing arrangements.
The second factor in favour of a solution to the ethnic conflict is that the National Unity Government is headed by two of the most non-racist political leaders this country has ever seen. They are supported and backed by a strong group of likeminded leaders, most notably former President Chandrika Kumaratunga who has emerged as the peace builder and trusted problem solver within the government. The third factor is closely related to the second, and is based on the trust and goodwill that the leaders of the ethnic and religious minority parties have in the present leadership of the government. What exists today is a never-before-obtained confluence of factors and a unique opportunity that needs to be prioritised. In these circumstances it would be advisable to put aside anything that could jeopardize this unity. In this context, the postponement of local government elections scheduled for March 2016, which falls within the six month time frame of constitutional reform, and which pits the UNP and SLFP against each other needs to be given consideration.