- Created on 31 August 2015
Within a week of former government’s second electoral defeat, this time at the general election, two senior representatives of the United States paid a rare joint visit to Sri Lanka. They were the first representatives of foreign powers to visit the country after the elections. They came even before parliament has met and the new government has been formed. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was one of only three ministers to be appointed at the time of their visit. The speed of his appointment may have been due to the rapport he has demonstrated with the hitherto alienated sections of the international community. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Sri Lanka after the presidential election and referred to him publicly as a friend. It can only help that Sri Lanka is viewed by the US positively at this time and not negatively.
The visit of US Assistant Secretaries Nisha Biswal and Tom Malinowski was a reconfirmation of the importance that the world’s dominant power places in Sri Lanka. At the height of the Rajapaksa presidency in 2009 when the confrontation between the former government and the US-led international community was building up, a visiting US Senate delegation recommended that Sri Lanka was too important a country for the US to lose. This was when the United States was leading the campaign to compel the Sri Lankan government to accept an international investigation into human rights violations in the last phase of the country’s internal war. The Rajapaksa government responded by mobilising anti-West sentiment both within the country and internationally to protect the Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to conduct investigations into itself.
- Created on 24 August 2015
At the presidential elections held in January this year Sri Lanka made its initial transition away from authoritarian rule in which ethnic nationalism was utilised to deliver repeated electoral mandates. The victory of the coalition of parties led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the General Elections on August 17 will ensure that the changes brought about at the presidential election will be sustained. The majority of Sri Lankan voters reaffirmed the choice they had made in January when they voted in President Maithripala Sirisena and rejected the siren call of narrow ethnic-based nationalism. The main significance of the latest election verdict is that it paves the way for transition to take place in two key aspects of governance. The first is that will consolidate the changes that have taken arbitrary power away from individuals and vested them instead in systems.
The question at the general election was whether the change that had taken place after the January elections would be reversed. The sustainability of the reformist good governance process lies in the fact that virtually all the political parties have agreed that the systems of government need to be strengthened. The second important transition that the country has taken as a result of the general election is the shift away from the governance approach of the UPFA period that saw the escalation of militarization in a state that suspected conspiracies against itself and the targeting of ethnic minorities as potential enemies of the state. There is now a need to journey towards a society that is truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious in its decision making and its choices.
The result of the general election ensures that the process of transition will not be reversed any time soon. Even though the UPFA challenge to the new governing coalition was very strong during the elections, now that the result is in, their challenge appears to have collapsed at least for the time being. Members of the defeated opposition are gravitating to the leadership of President Maitripala Sirisena who occupies the presidency of the SLFP as well as being chairman of the larger UPFA coalition. Bereft of a popular mandate, the twice defeated former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has little in tangible terms to offer to keep them loyal to him. It appears that many in the opposition would be interested in joining the new consensus government to be formed by the signing of an MOU by the UNP and SLFP.
- Created on 17 August 2015
Elections in a democratic polity provide an opportunity to assess the mind of the people. They are superior in gauging public opinion in comparison to any opinion poll which is necessarily of a sample of society only. During the last phase of the election campaign, there were reports of opinion polls that showed a last minute surge for the opposition. This countered previous surveys that showed a comfortable lead for the government. These coexisted with still other surveys that claimed the opposite. The choice of the electorate at this general election would provide an invaluable insight into the priorities of the Sri Lankan voter, especially whether they are moved more by emotion than by rationality. This applies both in the North as well as the South.
In the North, the main issue is whether the voters will support Tamil nationalism, and a confrontational posture against the government that is elected, or an accommodation with the government. The northern Tamil dominated electorate will have a choice of parties that are prepared to work with the government as well as those that are more geared to opt for confrontation and have the support of the separatist section of the Tamil Diaspora. Emotion might dictate confrontation but rationality suggests moderation, especially after the tragic experience of three decades of war. An indication of the strengthening of the post-war ethos of reconciliation is the entry into the electoral battle of rehabilitated LTTE cadre amongst whom the best known is a former bodyguard of the slain LTTE leader.
In the rest of the country, the main line of contestation is between the personality-based politics of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who has headed the opposition campaign on the one hand, and the good governance promise of those who governed the country for the past seven months on the other. A positive feature of the new order is the conduct of the elections by the election authorities. Unlike the presidential elections which took place under the former president’s government, there has been no significant abuse of either state resources or one-sided violence perpetrated against political opponents. Instead there has been a general observation of the election law by the contesting political parties and aspirants for parliamentary seats. These elections can be said to be the cleanest and fairest in a long time.
- Created on 03 August 2015
There are two attributes of election manifestos. One is for a political party to place its vision for the future and programme of action to achieve it before the electorate. Virtually all political parties have revelled in making excessive promises during election time. The election manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena during the presidential election in January was different. As it focused on a 100 Day Plan, its promises were realistic. Many of the promises made have been implemented to a substantial degree. The main achievement was the passage of the 19th Amendment which reduced the president’s powers and strengthened the independence of institutions, such as the police, judiciary and public service, which are essential features of a well governed society.
The second attribute of an election manifesto is to provide the political party that forms the government to be able to refer back to its electoral mandate and justify its activities in the future. This would be especially applicable to those actions that are in the national interest, but are not so popular with the country’s people. Examples of this are hard to come by in Sri Lanka although there are examples from other countries. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, apart from promises such as to even get rice from the moon to fulfil election manifestos, hardly any political party is willing to inform the electorate about the bitter medicine that is needed to resolve problems that adversely affect society.
- Created on 27 July 2015
The nascent rejuvenation of institutions since the change of government was demonstrated in an unexpected manner with the apprehension of a white van. These vehicles have obtained a notoriety that peaked during the last years of the war with the LTTE. The circumstances under which this particular white van came to light had all the classic features that made the white van an object of fear and intimidation during the previous decade. It had false number plates. It had army personnel in it. t was being driven in a manner that caused the policemen on duty to decide to stop it, and the occupants had behaved in a sufficiently suspicious manner to prompt the police to thereafter search the vehicle. This led them to find a pistol that belonged to none of the occupants of the van.
During the previous decade there were constant reports of the existence of white vans and their possible connection with the security forces of the state, but this was strenuously denied by them as well as by government leaders of that time. But although there was no official confirmation of their existence, and only repeated denials, the accounts of the white vans and their doings by those who claimed that their family members or colleagues had been taken away in them became a legend. They were much like ghosts that so many are afraid of, but which most have never seen. But we have heard so many stories of ghosts that many of us cannot help but believe they must indeed exist.
This time around, however, seven months into the new good governance programme of the new government the white van was caught beyond doubt. Now we can be sure that it exists, and not only one but possibly a large number of them. The fact that the policemen on duty felt themselves to be sufficiently empowered to stop a white van, question its occupants and publicise the event is something new. It is a new and welcome development. According to media reports, and police statements following the detention of the vehicle, the army personnel apprehended in it have denied that they were on any underground mission. They have said that they were on a routine journey, and the pistol that was found in it belonged to their commanding officer.
- Created on 20 July 2015
Shortly after his unforeseen defeat at the presidential elections of January 2015 by an alliance of opposition parties, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa began to campaign for a comeback that was backed by more and more members of the UPFA. Although President Maitripala Sirisena made clear his unhappiness, and initially resisted the comeback bid, he finally yielded on the grounds that it was the only way to prevent the division of the former ruling party. President Sirisena’s decision to go along with the former president’s nomination to the UPFA was viewed as a betrayal of all that the joint opposition, civil society and the president himself had campaigned for at the presidential election. They had all highlighted the corruption and abuse of power that they pointed out had become a norm under the leadership of the former president and his government.
President Sirisena faced a difficult choice. If he had not given nomination to the former president, he would have fed a perception that the former president was being unfairly kept out of the UPFA and that the UPFA was being unfairly weakened. It would have enabled the former president and his allies to claim that he continued to be immensely popular and beloved of the people and that the decision to keep him out of the electoral contest was injurious to the interests of the former ruling party. This would have given an opportunity to political forces that failed to obtain representation or power at the general elections to use the former president’s name and fame and seek to get him back to a position of power through other means.
President Sirisena’s rationale for agreeing to the grant of nominations to the former president was to preserve the unity of the former ruling party. By acquiescing in the UPFA’s decision to include the former president and almost all of the members of his government, even those accused of corruption and abuse of power, President Sirisena appeared to give to the UPFA virtually everything it wanted. By following the democratic process and acceding to the wishes of the majority within the UPFA President Sirisena also effectively negated the role of undemocratic forces. Instead he permitted the former president to contest from within the UPFA and to prove his popularity and the extent to which he is beloved of the people.
- Created on 13 July 2015
President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to nominate his arch rival former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the general elections from his party came as a major shock especially to the president’s closest supporters. To make matters worse for them, the president also gave in to the demand that the former president’s allies also be given nomination despite the poor reputations most of them suffer from on account of their conduct during the previous ten years of their period of government. There was a vain hope that the president would reverse his decision at the last moment. One of the civil society groups that campaigned for the president at the presidential election in January met him and reported that he had asked them to wait until the day after nominations closed.
The belief that President Sirisena would act at the last minute to upset the former president’s comeback bid had a rational basis to it. Soon after his election victory, President Sirisena was widely reported to have said that he would have been six feet underground had he lost the presidential election. He followed up on this statement by rejecting the former president’s comeback bid as prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP. He had said that this would give an opportunity to those who had failed to win the presidential election by the ballot to accomplish their objective through a bullet. President Sirisena even prohibited members of the SLFP from attending the” bring back Mahinda” rallies organised by the former president’s supporters.
There are many theories about why President Sirisena suddenly changed his mind and gave nomination to the former president. These include inducements from China and even blackmail. But the more likely explanation is the president’s growing sense of isolation from the two major political formations in the country. By crossing over from the SLFP to contest the presidential election as the joint opposition candidate, President Sirisena lost his legitimacy with the SLFP voter base which, by and large, remained with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. But thereafter President SIrisena found to his discomfiture that the UNP-led government that he had appointed in fulfilment of his election campaign promise was making decisions without taking him into confidence.
- Created on 06 July 2015
The coalition of political parties and civil society groups that came together to ensure victory for President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections of January 2015 under the theme of good governance is no more. The distancing started soon after the formation of the new UNP-led coalition government and the implementation of the 100 day programme. Sharp disagreements began to emerge within the political parties in the government on issues such as the extent of power to be taken away from the president and given to the prime minister in terms of the 19th Amendment. The practice of good governance itself came under scrutiny due to the problem of the bond issue by the Central Bank that has continued to fester with damning disclosures coming to the fore. The inability to pass the 20th Amendment despite the commitment of the president showed the waning of his influence in parliament.
However, the desire of people of all walks of life to have a government that acts according to principles of good governance continues to find its expression in civil society. The better educated sections of the voting population especially in the urban areas, and the ethnic minorities who were at the receiving end of lawless rule continue to value good governance. The March 12 Movement, which intends to hold political parties to their promise to only nominate candidates who abide by the values of good governance, and who are not corrupt, violent or contravene basic standards of political conduct is an expression of this. During the past fortnight they have been going around the country collecting signatures to meet their target of one million. This is a declaration that has also been signed by the leaders of all major political parties, including the president, prime minister and leader of the opposition.
- Created on 29 June 2015
In their public statements those in the political firmament close to the president spoke with confidence that the dissolution of parliament was still far off. Some even said that parliament would only be dissolved next year nearer to the April 2016 deadline for the term of parliament to end. But the long anticipated dissolution of parliament finally took place last Friday. It ended weeks of uncertainty that saw financial markets plunge, economic investments being put on hold and the slowing down of investigations into the alleged acts of corruption and violations of law by members of the former government. But still when it happened, the dissolution of parliament took even the president’s close associates by surprise if anecdotal evidence is to be believed.
The sequence of events shows that President Maithripala Sirisena took the decision to dissolve parliament after it became evident that his desire to see the 20th Amendment obtain the approval of parliament was not going to materialise. The ethnic minority parties took umbrage that the 20th Amendment did not take their concerns into account. It was the ethnic minority vote that enabled the president to defeat his opponent who had sought to win the elections on tide of ethnic majority nationalism. President Sirisena acted according to his publicly stated view that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, which means that the consent of the ethnic and religious minorities too is necessary when fundamental change is being contemplated.
- Created on 22 June 2015
The demand for the dissolution of parliament is getting increasingly compelling. Civil society leaders, such as the Ven Maduluwave Sobitha, who led the movement for good governance during the presidential elections have come out strongly to insist that President Maithripala SIrisisena should use his presidential powers to dissolve parliament and hold the much anticipated general elections. Public opinion surveys and everyday conversations on the topic indicate that the general population is getting disillusioned with the present situation and agree that general elections to elect a new government with a parliamentary majority are necessary. There is recognition that the present minority government led by the UNP cannot deliver the changes that the people want for the reason that it does not command a majority in parliament. The UNP is alive to this problem and has been demanding the dissolution of parliament.
Initially in the aftermath of the presidential election it was expected that President Sirisena would dissolve parliament sometime in April in keeping with his election manifesto that laid out a 100 day plan of action which was to be completed by the end of April. However, the president has been showing a reluctance to dissolve parliament. There are likely to at least two reasons for this. The first is that prior to going to the polls, the president is keen to heal the rift in his party that has come about because of the bid by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to obtain a position of leadership within the SLFP. Along with the rest of his party, President Sirisena realises that going in for general elections with a divided party is a recipe for defeat that can undermine his own credibility as the new leader of the SLFP. He has said there is no room for two leaders.