Jubilant opposition leaders have claimed that the mandate given to the government at the previous national elections had expired with the results of the local government elections. Addressing a news briefing held at the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) office in Colombo to declare the election victory, opposition members said the government had no option but to resign. However, the two main constituent parties of the government, the UNP and SLFP have dominated the main urban centres, and if their alliance continues, they will have the power of the central government to reduce the fall out of their poor showing at the local level.
In these fraught circumstances the performance of the government parties at the local government elections puts a question mark over the reconciliation process that the country had embarked upon after the 2015 presidential elections. Prior to the change of government relations with the ethnic minorities and the international community were in a state of acute deterioration. This situation was largely reversed by the present government. During the past three years the relationship between the government and ethnic communities improved in a significant manner. The ethnic minority parties became partners of the government either by joining it or by having understanding relationships.
The main frame of the reconciliation process that the government has provided is a combination of constitutional reform and transitional justice. This is to enable a greater measure of power sharing on the one hand, and to deliver on the commitments made to the UN Human Rights Council on the other hand. The highlight of the constitutional reform process was the submission of a report on the options for constitutional reform which was presented in September last year. With regard to the commitments made to the UNHRC in October 2015, the government continued to return land taken over by the military and to amending laws relating to terrorism and to enforced disappearances. It also set in place the law for an Office of Missing Persons.
The government was proceeding along these two tracks prior to the announcement of local government elections, albeit slowly. Due to this the international pressure that had been building up against the government was relaxed and the confrontational relationship with the international community became transformed into a supportive one. However, the slow pace of reform resulted in disillusionment to the Tamil people who were the main victims of the war in its last phase. This disillusionment has found its political expression in the political rise at these elections of the Tamil Congress in the North which has been critical of the TNA for compromising too much with the government and getting too little in return.
There was hope that once the local government elections were concluded the government would restart the reconciliation process that had been put on hold during the campaign period. However, the results of the election put this recommencement into jeopardy. The opposition SLPP led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa campaigned on the theme of the government’s betrayal of the national interest to LTTE proxies and to the international community. This evoked a responsive chord amongst the ethnic majority Sinhalese electorate which turned out in larger numbers to vote for the SLPP. The danger is that this could set off a vicious cycle in which Sinhalese nationalism in the South feeds and sustains the rise of Tamil nationalism in the North.
Irrespective of changes in the government and opposition it is in the national interest that the reconciliation process should continue. There is a danger that the government will backtrack on the commitments given to the Tamil people and international community with regard to both constitutional reform and transitional justice. This could lead to erosion in public support for the moderate leadership of the TNA in the North and to a strengthening of the nationalist Tamil forces who want the reconciliation process to fail so that they can get even stronger. If the government does not deliver on its commitments there could also be an increase in the level of international pressure which would, in turn, be opposed by Sinhalese nationalism.
During the past three years the government’s relationship with the ethnic minorities and with the international community has improved greatly. In the context of failed reconciliation processes elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka became seen as a model of post-war reconciliation to be strengthened and emulated. The situation should not be permitted to regress into what it was during the period of the previous government when Sri Lanka was at the receiving end of international condemnation and economic sanctions. Internally, the ethnic minorities saw the government as an oppressor and not as a protector. Avoiding a slide towards a vicious cycle would require that the reconciliation process continues without reversal.
In the present post-election circumstances, in which the government’s very survival is at stake, it will be difficult for the government to try and continue with its present reconciliation process if there is opposition to it from the SLPP led by the former president. The landslide victories that the SLPP scored in areas in which the Sinhalese electorate predominated shows that it is too powerful a political force to be kept out of national decisionmaking on issues as sensitive and controversial as the ethnic conflict. This suggests that even as the government struggles for its political survival in the remaining two years of its term of office, it needs to constructively engage with the SLPP on the future of the reconciliation process. As a first step the government needs to identify and engage with the moderates in the SLPP.