By Jehan Perera –
The government is proceeding with its 100 Day programmme that President Maithripala Sirisena presented as part of his election manifesto. This plan promised a national government and new cabinet with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as its Prime Minister after the presidential election. It also contained a promise to change from a presidential to a parliamentary system, to repeal the 18th Amendment, to come up with a 19th Amendment to the Constitution, restoring independent commissions, setting up a national advisory council and also presenting an interim budget. The detailed plan also included setting up a special investigatory mechanism to probe corruption and passing legislation on right to information and a new health policy.
Previous presidents made big promises that they did not keep and their promises ended up being seen as gimmicks simply to win votes and the election. Viewed in the context of promises made by previous governments, the 100 day programme is impressive in both the national consensus it has obtained and also in being implemented. The first promise that was fulfilled was the appointment of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. The promise to establish a National Advisory Council has been fulfilled by the appointment of a National Executive Council thought still without the civil society representation that was promised, but it still is an impressive body having the participation of virtually the entire range of mainstream political parties, including the ethnic minorities.
The unity between the several political parties that constitute the National Democratic Front (NDF) government has been holding better than expected. During the election campaign an unfavorable comparison was drawn between proven stability of the UPFA government headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which appeared set to remain in power for another generation at least, and the uncertain combination of opposition parties that were challenging him. There was, and remains, a concern that the opposition alliance would be too unlike-minded for governance to take place effectively. The alliance includes members of political parties that have been severely critical of one another and who come from different ideological persuasions and ethnic communities. But their political fight together against a most formidable political foe seems to have brought them together in bonds of unity and trust.
After the presidential elections there has been an exceptionally smooth takeover of the reins of government by the political parties that constitute the NDF government. One of the key factors in the smoothness of the transition of power has also been President Maithripala Sirisena’s readiness to keep to his pre-election promises. During the election campaign President Sirisena recognized that his voters would come largely from the main opposition party headed by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and promised to appoint the UNP leader as Prime Minister. By way of contrast, the once powerful UPFA is today in shambles and its former leaders are being discredited with more and more revelations of corruption, violence and even of seeking to abort the presidential election outcome when they knew they were losing. The law and the unfettering of the media from the thrall of fear and self-censorship are dispelling the myths of the past about their claims of patriotism and national interest.
President Sirisena’s decision to appoint Ranil Wickremasinghe as prime minister within minutes of his own oath taking as president lay to rest any apprehension of conflict between the two leaders. There was a possibility that once elected, and vested with the plenitude of powers of the presidency, President Sirisena might renege on his promise and seek to take control over the new government himself. But the working relationship between the president and prime minister, and the division of responsibilities between them, has so far been very good to all appearances. There has been an appearance of honor and realism on the part of the president who was elected with mainly UNP and ethnic minority votes and an acknowledgment of the debt owed. This positivity and an attitude of power sharing and team work that did not exist in the former government permeate the structure of new government at the present time.
An example would be Minister Sajith Premadasa’s acceptance speech of his ministry when he said that at the forthcoming general election, whatever the outcome would be, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would remain prime minister. The past conflict between these two leaders of the UNP threatened to sink the party during the long stint in the opposition, but now they seem to have overcome it in government. Another example would be Minister Navin Dissanayake’s speech when he assumed office as Minister of Sports and Tourism. In welcoming his deputy Vasantha Senanayake the minister said that he would have a free hand in doing his work honorably. He said this would be unlike his own experiences as a minister in the previous government. Most of the senior leaders of the former government who crossed over to the opposition, including President Sirisena himself, complained that they had no scope for independent decision making within the highly centralized structures of the former government.
The willingness of those within the new government to share power with one another and work as a team is a refreshing break from the past. The previous president centralized more and more power in himself and his close associates. As a result there was a lack of transparency in their dealings, but also a lack of creativity. The former government engaged in giant infrastructure development of roads, ports, airports and building of offices, hotels and apartments, but with little or no participation by other actors in the polity. Therefore the benefits seemed to accrue primarily to a few and not to all. In the present government, on the other hand, each minister is vested with authority in his or her own sphere. As a result reading and listening to the news has become interesting because there is something new and creative being done, or being promised, by different members of the government.
Diversity is a source of strength as it offers the possibility of different solutions to different challenges. The diversity within the government is a source of strength as it represents the diversity of the people of the country. The power sharing that is taking place within the new government and the ability of political parties with differing ideologies and ethnic constituencies to work together is a sign of unity in diversity. When such political parties can work together in the government, no significant section of the people are likely to feel marginalized and left out and so they are less likely to rebel against the government.
To its credit, the government is also addressing other crucial problems that it did not include in the 100 day programme. During the election campaign, there was one significant issue that they did not talk about in any depth. This was the ethnic issue. This left the space open to the propagandists of the former government to exploit it to the maximum and without adequate rebuttal. During the past ten years, nationalist (and racist) ideology was dominant due to the former government’s use of all propaganda tools at its disposal, especially the state media. This propaganda got very much worsened during the run-up to the presidential elections when the propaganda got more vile and venomous. The former president and his campaigners showed highly dramatized versions of events of the past on national television and at their campaign rallies. They made maximum use of anti-LTTE and war propaganda to cause fear and hatred in the people. They showed no concern at all for the unity of the people.
However, soon after the elections, the government has been moving swiftly to address this lacuna. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera immediately flew to India to obtain Indian support to address the contentious issues of a political solution to the ethnic conflict and also to deal with the UN probe into war crimes. He said that the government had the political will to push through a solution, so there was no more need to form committees and to deliberate on what the solution should be, as this had been done several times over. He also said the government was committed to implementing the 13th amendment on devolution of powers to Tamil-majority areas, but would start discussions with all parties after the next parliamentary elections. In addition, the government has sent the country’s top international diplomat, and former UN Under Secretary General Jayantha Dhanapala to meet with the UN Human Rights Commissioner in Geneva to seek a better solution to the war crimes issue.
The UN inquiry got under way due to the failure of the previous government to undertake such an inquiry itself. There was no credible national investigation to ascertain the truth of what had happened. However, by refusing to engage with the UN on the issue, the government escalated the conflict with it. This was a conflict with, essentially, the rest of the world that it was destined to lose. It is when national processes fail that international processes kick in. The change of government in Sri Lanka has given the new government a window of opportunity, and a breathing space, to hold a credible national investigation. There is a need to be responsive to the concerns of the Tamil people who were the main victims of the last phase of the war to know the truth, and of international demands for accountability.
But there is a need to tread this ground carefully. Putting the house in order is a cooperative and considered task. Although the government that spread nationalist fear and hatred is gone, there is a need to heal the wound they left in the body politic and which will continue to exploit. The nationalism that the former government aroused was not a Sri Lankan nationalism that would unite the people but one that was based on extreme ethnic nationalism that divided the ethnic communities. This gained the former President the majority of Sinhalese votes in the rural areas in particular. This is a divide that needs to be healed as it is liable to be exploited again during the run up to the general elections that are due in June. There is also a need for a more holistic public education campaign that would sustain the positive changes that have occurred.