By Jehan Perera –
The delay in the announcement of the ruling party’s presidential candidate continues. There are reports of negotiations and breakdown of negotiations within the UNP. The open disagreements within the ruling party may be contrasted with the decisiveness of the main opposition party, the SLPP. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was granted the party leadership and nominated his younger brother Gotabaya to be the presidential candidate of the SLPP. Thereafter he announced that he himself would be the prime ministerial candidate at the general elections that would follow. Such decisiveness fits well with the current emphasis in the country on the need for a strong leader to address the many problems in the country.
The UNP’s protracted decision making highlights the absence of a one-man show there. The absence of a towering figure who enjoys both supreme power and mass appeal like the former president has meant that there is more scope for inner-party conflict within the UNP. The challenge will be to channel the present struggle within the UNP in a direction that is in the best interests of the party and the country at large. Ironically, their main challenger, the SLPP, may have shown a formula, which is to announce its presidential and prime ministerial candidates together, as one package. It is for the wisdom of the UNP leadership to find the best combination of their leaders to meet this challenge. The fact that time is being spent on this process is not necessarily a disadvantage if it leads to a win-win outcome.
According to the election law the presidential elections need to be held between November 9 and December 9. The legally mandated campaign period is four to six weeks and nominations of candidates must take place 16-30 days prior to the campaign period. With the likely election date towards the end of November or early December, this leaves time till October for the presidential candidates to be nominated. At the last presidential election held in 2015 President Sirisena’s nomination came at only a few days before nominations closed about six weeks before the elections. There are advantages in having a shorter election campaign, as it leaves the candidates with less opportunity to make mistakes or to be critiqued by their opposition.
The keen interest being taken in the presidential nomination is that the presidency continues to be a powerful institution, even with the reduction of its powers by the 19th Amendment. In addition to the powers vested in the president by law and the constitution, the president can also wield tremendous moral authority by virtue of the fact of election by the country acting as a single electorate. The powers of this office need to be used for the good of the people and not merely for self-aggrandisement or for helping colleagues and friends. The president needs to be a person who is willing to spearhead unpopular but necessary reforms.
Among the hardest of the unpopular but necessary reforms that the country needs to undertake are ones pertaining to relations between the ethnic and religious communities. This has proven to be extremely difficult to do, as the failure of negotiations, agreements and constitutional reforms over the past several decades have shown. Beginning with the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957, all such agreements have failed to get off the ground due to the fear and suspicion of members of each ethnic and religious community against the others. The inability to fully implement the 13th Amendment to the constitution also derives from this fear and mistrust that power that is devolved may be misused.
If Sri Lanka is to take a leap forward into a new dynamic of development, it needs to overcome its legacy of ethnic and religious conflicts. It needs a political solution to them. But so far the leading protagonists in the presidential competition have yet to make a firm declaration about what their policies will be in this regard. So far what the people have heard is that national security will be the number one priority. This can mean that ethnic and religious minorities who are seen as not being part of the polity, due to their wish to preserve their own ethnic and religious identity, may be viewed as national security threats and subject to national security measures.
During the past four years Sri Lanka took a turn for the better in terms of its inter-ethnic relations. The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe gave leadership to the bid for a new constitution more than any government since President Chandrika Kumaratunga tried to promote a power-sharing constitution to resolve the ethnic conflict. There was considerable optimism and reason for hope, but this ended with the April 21 Easter Sunday bombings which turned the clock back in terms of inter-community relations. There is need for leadership now to put back the reconciliation and peacebuilding process back on track.
In the past four years, the government agreed to implement a series of reforms aimed at resolving the ethnic conflict. These included constitutional reform but also a process of transitional justice in which the human rights violations of the past would be investigated, the perpetrators of any such crimes to be prosecuted and for compensation to be given. However, it is not enough to put forward plans and set up institutions. It is also necessary to give visionary leadership that is capable of taking the people along on the journey with the government. This leadership needs to have the ability to win the trust of a majority of people, not only of one ethnic or religious community, but of all communities.
In other words, the leader who can lead Sri Lanka out of its internal conflict that led to three decades of war is one who must necessarily enjoy the confidence of a majority of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians which are the main communities in the country. It is not good enough to have a leader who enjoys the support of the majority of the Sinhalese, if that leader does not also enjoy the support of the ethnic and religious minorities, and vice versa. Only a leader who enjoys the confidence of all sections of the people can lead the country safely to a political solution without creating a backlash from disaffected hardliners in any of the communities.