One of the fallouts of the political crisis that occurred towards the end of last year in October was the mobilization of civil society groups that engaged in discussion and debate about the constitutional propriety of the president’s decision to sack the prime minister and dissolve parliament. As the new prime minister and his government took swift action to take control and oust their rivals from all official positions, the president’s decision seemed irreversible in political terms, but was reversed by the judiciary through reference to the constitution. This created a new interest in the constitution and its importance in the governance of the country. This interest continues four months later.
Sri Lanka enters its 71st year of Independence with political uncertainty in the air. The only certainty is that 2019 will be a year of elections. Presidential elections have to be held in November. There is a likelihood that provincial and general elections will be held either before or soon after the presidential elections depending on the calculations of the government that is in power.
The issue of the Leader of the Opposition’s position once again came to the fore when it was brought up in parliament last week by TNA leader R Sampanthan. This issue seem to have been resolved when Speaker Karu Jayasuriya issued a ruling earlier this month that the UPFA’s Mahinda Rajapaksa would be the opposition leader. Parliament, the media and majority opinion seem to have taken this decision in their stride as the right and proper one. Certainly the UPFA is much larger in numbers than the TNA, both in parliament and outside parliament, and more vociferous in their opposition to whatever the government is doing.
In March this year Sri Lanka will report back to the UN Human Rights Council on its implementation of Resolution No 30/1 which it co-sponsored in October 2015. This is not going to be an easy session for the country as there is a considerable amount of international dissatisfaction with the slow pace of progress. This report back will be important as it will determine whether or not international scrutiny of the country on human rights issues will continue or come to an end. However, during the past three and a half years the government has implemented several of the commitments it made in terms of the resolution it co-sponsored. These include establishing an office of missing persons, legalizing the international conventions against torture and enforced disappearances and returning military occupied land to the civilian population.
The east is a part of the country where the price paid by the people where the ethnicisation of politics is still a dominant factor is visible. The main road runs through Tamil and Muslim settlements which are often consecutive with a Tamil-majority area followed by a Muslim-majority one and vice versa. The difference in the level of physical development of these towns and villages becomes more evident as a result. One set is bustling and energetic, and at night the streets and shops are well lit, while the other is less so.
The failure of public opinion to function in a manner that considers all sections of society equitably can be seen in the matter of journalists who have been victims of human rights violations. There was a time when Sri Lanka was known to be one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work. Today the situation has changed significantly so that Sri Lanka is described as the best destination for international tourists to visit. That change occurred four years ago with the change of government. But ironically, all the perpetrators of the crimes against journalists remain at large.
The dispute over the position of the Leader of the Opposition is not attracting much attention. It is taken for granted by most people that the Leader of the Opposition should be from the party in opposition that is largest, which is clearly the UPFA which has 95 members of parliament. During the recent political crisis, the UPFA and its allies were able to consistently show as many as 103 MPs on their side. Therefore, it is not surprising that following the withdrawal of the UPFA from the government alliance by President Maithripala Sirisena, the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya should have selected former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to be Leader of the Opposition. By way of contrast, the former Leader of the Opposition, R Sampanthan of the TNA, is currently able to muster the support of only 14 MPs.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s announcement in parliament that the new Leader of the Opposition would be former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has been controversial. Following criticisms Speaker Jayasuriya, who had earlier played a key role in resolving the political crisis in the country, told parliament that he would soon make a statement with regard to the position of the leader of the opposition. Making a special statement in Parliament TNA leader R Sampanthan said the Speaker had not removed him from the opposition leader’s post though he had announced the appointment of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as opposition leader. This is reminiscent of the fate that befell Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe when President Maithripala Sirisena replaced him with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa but without informing him beforehand.
The social media got a boost like no other during the past seven weeks of political crisis that enveloped the country. On October 26 itself no sooner was former President Mahinda Rajapaksa sworn in as prime minister the stormtroopers of his political alliance entered state media organisations and took control. Thereafter they began to give only pro-government news and views to the nation. Most of the privately-owned media also succumbed voluntarily to the menace of the new dispensation and to the unlimited patronage they could potentially offer those who fell in line. Consequently, dissenting opinion had to take to the alternative media of websites, facebook and twitter to get the other side of the matter. Those who wished to get news and analysis that was not pro-government also had to follow suit and go to the social media.
The country being on the verge of imminent division due to envisaged constitutional reform was one of the main justifications of the backdoor seizure of power of October 26 by members of the hitherto opposition who are now members of the government. The threat they alleged came from the constitutional reform process. This is a process that has been continuing since the former government got elected in 2015, though it is now at a standstill due the political crisis. The key elements of this constitutional reform process, which was envisaged to culminate in a new constitution, have been to change the executive presidential system, obtain a new electoral system to replace the current one which is based on proportional representation, and to ensure a more effective devolution of power as a solution to the grievances of the ethnic minorities in general and to the Tamil people in particular.