By Harim Peiris –
The political opposition in Sri Lanka seems freshly energized if recent events are anything to go by. The UNP has formed some form of a broader opposition coalition through the “Viroda Vipakshaya” and released a draft constitution as a discussion document for public and civil society debate, while the JVP galvanized by the economic issue of the electricity rate hike is seeking to mobilize support. General Fonseka, the united opposition’s presidential candidate in 2010, succeeded in getting his democratic party recognized by the Elections Commission, thereby changing the political opposition landscape at a time when there is considerable speculation in political circles that the proposed 19th amendment to the constitution will not only reduce the powers of the provincial council but also reduce the presidential term from six years to five years and thereby enable presidential elections early next year, with only a loss of one year in the incumbent’s current term.
However, there are several important strategic political policy issues that General Fonseka and the democratic party particularly needs to decide on as it surveys the opposition landscape and explores its options, chooses its policies and decides on its course of action.
So here are some political perspectives for General Fonseka and his Democratic Party.
1. Challenge the UPFA and not the UNP
General Fonseka, as you survey the political landscape, it is tempting to act on the belief that the UNP and its current leadership maybe more a part of the problem rather than part of the solution. There is strong suspicion among political circles that the UNP will only go so far in challenging the regime, but pull back in time to not cause too much damage, a belief reinforced by its lackluster performance during the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and the lack of a continued challenge on the issue, currently pending before Courts and potentially having an unconstitutional interloper as a purported new Chief Justice. However, the weaknesses of the UNP should not be a problem for the Democratic Party and instead actually poses an opportunity for it, by creating a political space by which you may benefit. If people are unhappy with the government and the UNP, you stand to gain. A direct political assault on the government will be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the electorate, while attacking the opposition will seem opportunistic. Let the UNP sought out its own internal matters.
2. Focus on the President’s governance and not him (or his family) personally
It is important for a political opposition to resonate with the public. President Rajapakse is still popular with his key rural Sinhala constituency, which accounts for a vast bulk of the national electorate. However, due to governance and the political costs of incumbency, there is some popular disquiet regarding the regime. Disquiet does not equate to dissent or disaffection, so try and calibrate the arguments against the regime to fit the public mood and then slowly you can move the opinion forward. For instance, even the regime’s vilification of you, did not really resonate with the public and you were only becoming a rallying point for the opposition, hence your early release.
3. Consider carefully presidential election options, CBK is around
Learn from President Rajapakse’s mistakes, he only started losing friends once he came into high office, from Mangala Samaraweera to yourself, powerful friends parted company due to reasons that Lord Acton, famously explained about power corrupting and the natural consequences of absolute power. Our constitution bestows near absolute power upon our president as even the UNP has come to realize and is now recommending its abolition. The 18th amendment has only added to that power by removing the few democratic constraints on absolute power. So learn from President Rajapakse and don’t lose political friends and allies, especially not while in opposition. Prime Minister Rajapakse was all things to all people and only flexed political muscle once ensconced in power and certainly not while an aspirant to it, in the very nominal post of PM or as leader of the opposition.
There is considerable speculation in political circles of the proposed 19thamendment to our constitution which would remove police and land powers from the provincial councils and also reduce the presidential term by one year to enable early presidential elections next year. This will catch you and the rest of the opposition completely unprepared and also enable the regime to go to the electorate before its stock falls lower. However do consider your options carefully, the temptation to seek a hurried rerun of the 2010 campaign would be strong but may not be the most politically viable. A combined opposition candidate is needed to seriously challenge the regime and since Ranil obviously believes and his astrologers seemingly concur that his tryst with destiny would be later rather than sooner and certainly not in 2014 or 2015, consider the political merits of the only other beneficiary of the 18th amendment, a lady who never lost either of the two presidential elections she contested and bowed out gracefully at the end of two terms. She has recently more publicly expressed angst about the direction the country and the party her parents founded are headed in.
4. Give leadership to a post war reconciliation that is robust on security but generous on rights
Despite you leading the war effort as the head of the Army, the minorities of the North and East, both the Muslims and the Tamils, led by the SLMC and the TNA backed you fully in the presidential election of 2010 and resulted in handsome wins for you in those districts. You have the credibility as a war winning general to be generous on political, democratic and human rights, while being robust on security. There is a legitimate issue as to whether peace time Sri Lanka needs a bigger defense budget than war time Sri Lanka and actually only you can credibly engage in that debate. On the various other issues in the former conflict area of the North, such as high security zones, new cantonments and the displaced, which will come to the forefront as the Northern Provincial Council election approaches, you are well placed to engage credibly on those issues. Seek a dialogue with the pro government minority and left parties, including the EPDP, the TMVP, the CP, the LSSP and the Muslim parties, all of whom have political positions at variance with the JHU and the NFF variant of absolutism, which seemingly drives the Rajapakse regime and can provide some opportunity to create new alliances and find common ground.
Anyway you served Sri Lanka well leading the military during wartime and you could and should play a role in serving her in public life in peace time.
* Harim Peiris‘s writings may be accessed online http://harimpeiris.com