President Maithripala Sirisena’s application to the Supreme Court to obtain its opinion on the length of his term came as a surprise to the general public, and evidently to most in the government. The bid for an extended term was generally viewed as a violation of his commitments, due to 19th Amendment, which reduced the presidential term from 6 to 5 years, being passed with his approval. However, the presidency is the main source of the SLFP’s power within the government. Therefore preserving the presidency is a political necessity to the SLFP and needs to be seen as such. The Supreme Court opinion that the president’s term will be five years against 6 years was a blow to the President and to the SLFP. It has highlighted the fact that the president can only give his strength to the SLFP membership for less than two years as presidential elections will now fall due in 2019.
The outcome of the forthcoming local government elections will be significant as they come at the mid-point of the national election cycle. There will be 30 political parties contesting the forthcoming local government elections. But it is the contest between three of them that is riveting. The question is who will do the best and who will do the worst out of the UNP, SLFP and SLPP. The last presidential and general elections were held in 2015 and the next are scheduled for 2020. The SLPP, which has become the vehicle for the Joint Opposition led by the former President, has been stating that voters should simply consider whether they are pro-government or anti-government when casting their votes. A poor performance by the two parties forming the government alliance would therefore be construed by the Joint Opposition as a rejection of the government and its policies on all major issues, not simply ones pertaining to local government.
When the news of irregularities in the issuance of Central Bank bonds under the newly elected government came to light in March 2015 it seemed to be another story that would end up as only a story. Many had voted for the new leaders because they promised to be transparent and non-corrupt. Human beings have a great need to believe in something good that will come in the future to sustain their hope and thereby their lives. The hope of those who voted for the new government was that its leaders would not be corrupt and they would have the capacity to lead the country to become a developed one like many countries of Southeast Asia have become in a short period. Denials of wrongdoing on the part of government leaders were therefore convenient to accept by many had who voted for change.
The recent divergence of opinion over the public funeral of a Buddhist monk who had been the chief incumbent of the Buddhist temple in Jaffna is an unfortunate example of the need for greater sensitivity, consultation and dialogue in situations of ethnic contestation. The Ven Meegahajandure Gnanaratana had been the chief incumbent of the Buddhist temple in Jaffna since 1991. He was also the chief monk for the Northern Province. The Naga Vihara temple in Jaffna is an important religious site. It is the first place of visit of Buddhist pilgrims from the south of the country who come to Jaffna on pilgrimage to other sites of historical antiquity, including the islet of Nainativu where the Nagadeepa temple is located which traditions states the Buddha himself visited. The Naga Vihara temple is also the main Buddhist temple for military personnel stationed in Jaffna.
Local elections are scheduled on 10 February 2018. Nearly 16 million persons will be voting at these elections. This will be the largest election in Sri Lankan history. These will also be the first elections under the mixed electoral system whereby 60% of members will be elected using first-past-the-post voting and the remaining 40% through closed list proportional representation. However, anticipation is that the turnout of the electorate will be less at previous ones. The last local government elections held in 2011 saw a voter turnout of 65 percent. This time around the figure is likely to be less. There is a stronger degree of voter disenchantment with the political parties.
The slowness with which the government is implementing many of the promises made to the international community in regard to human rights and justice issues that arose in the course of the war and post-war period have come in for criticism. It has led to doubts about the government’s intentions in regard to the implementation of the commitments it has made. The government’s slowness is attributed to bad faith by its human rights critics. The delay has been protracted even when it comes to setting up the Office of Missing Persons. The legislation was passed over a year and a half ago. But the institution has still to get off the ground and the commissioners have yet to be appointed.
The government’s commitment to the post-war transitional justice process can be seen in the Constitutional Council’s nomination of seven members to be commissioners of the Office of Missing Persons. As the Constitutional Council includes the Prime Minister, governmental sanction necessarily accompanies its choices although constitutional council members include the opposition and civil society. The movement forward of the reconciliation process has been in fits and starts, in particular where issues of transitional justice that involve the victims of war are concerned. But it is to the government’s credit that they have never abandoned it. This is particularly true of the office of missing persons, with its mandate to investigate any action where people went missing in any year on in any part of the country. The OMP has been constituted to be a permanent body with a standing not less than that of the Human Rights Commission.
The release of another 29 acres of land under military control in Jaffna to civilian owners is a signal that the government remains committed to the reconciliation process it embarked upon in January 2015 when it came to power. The high point of the government’s commitment came nine months later in October of that year when it went beyond expectations in co-signing the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka. Its predecessor in government had considered previous UN resolutions on the subject to be anti-Sri Lanka and to be necessarily opposed and rejected. The new government turned this negative approach around on its head. The problem, however, has been that the government’s implementation of its commitment has subsequently been slow. This has given rise to doubts about the government’s commitment to the reconciliation process.
In the run up to local government elections, the Joint Opposition has called for the withdrawal of Sri Lanka from the commitments it made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 in Geneva. On that occasion it co-signed a resolution on post-war reconciliation to which it had contributed and which was approved unanimously by the Council. This opposition demand has also come at a time when Sri Lanka has demonstrated its positive relationship with the international community on two occasions this month before the United Nations. The first was the Universal Periodic Review of the UN system in Geneva, where the government’s report on its adherence to human rights norms was scrutinized in detail by over one hundred countries out of which 88 countries also made their specific observations. The government delegation was led by Dr Harsha de Silva, deputy minister of national policies and economic affairs. The government delegation included those who had been part of the process of gathering information from a number of sources. These included consultations with civil society which were organized by civil society groups themselves.
The government took decisive action to put the lid on escalating inter ethnic violence between Sinhalese and Muslims in Gintota over the weekend which led to damage to a large number of homes, businesses and buildings estimated to be close to a hundred. The government actions included sending in police battalions, the police paramilitary Special Task Force and anti-riot squad and the military and a visit to the area by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. As a result a conflagration on the scale of the Aluthgama riots of 2014 in the neighboring Kalutara district did not materialize. It might have, if the government had not acted sooner and showed publicly that it had no sympathy with those who attacked others. The arrest of 19 trouble makers, many of whom had come from outside, and the declaration of a curfew, ensured that the violence was suppressed. However, the Muslim community which had to bear the brunt of the violence continues to live in a state of unease.