Among the key issues at stake at the local government elections will be the government’s reconciliation process which has two primary components—constitutional reform which will ensure improved sharing of power between the ethnic majority and minorities, and transitional justice which will ensure accountability for past rights violations in the context of the country’s three decade long war for separation. Although the reconciliation process is broader than these two components, and includes improvements in the day to day life of people, including economic wellbeing and return of land, constitutional reform and transitional justice are reconciliation components that have evoked considerable political controversy. A poor performance by the parties of the government alliance would be construed as a rejection of the measures in this regard taken so far by the government, in addition to a whole slew of other matters.
Until the declaration of local government elections two months ago, the government was making slow and shaky progress on both constitutional reform and transitional justice. These included a highly contested report by the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly which presented options for the most contentious issues in the constitutional reform process, including the questions of whether Sri Lanka would remain a unitary state or move in the direction of a federal state, and the foremost status of Buddhism in the constitution. Both of these options evoked outrage from nationalist sections of the majority Sinhalese population with the highest levels of the Buddhist hierarchy taking positions that it would be better not to have constitutional reform at all.
In recognition of the politically sensitive nature of the constitutional reform and transitional justice processes, and to their vulnerability to being exploited by nationalists, the government has put both of these issues on the backburner from the time that local government elections were declared. The last that was heard of constitutional reform was during the parliamentary debate on the report of the constitutional steering committee in October last year. The Office of Missing Persons which is at the centre of the current transitional justice initiatives has been in a state of limbo since its gazetting by the president in September of last year. Its commissioners have still to be appointed.
The halt to the reconciliation initiatives in the run up to elections is not surprising. The parties that comprise the government alliance are acutely sensitive to the fact that controversy on the subject of ethnicity and religion could spark of a polarizing debate to their detriment. As a result of not taking these reconciliation issues up, the election campaign does not have them as a main feature. Instead other national issues have taken the centre stage. At the helm of these is the Central Bank bond scam in which the former governor of the Central Bank and a former finance minister of the government have been implicated. This has been an ironic reversal as the government’s main campaign at the national elections of 2015, when it was in opposition, was good governance and anti-corruption.
However, the fact that the official reconciliation process is on the backburner does not mean it is not being considered as important by the government. Speaking to a Youth Parliament last week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the government would decide on its course of action with regard to constitutional reform after the local government elections. He said they would be making an effort to reduce the gaps between various proposals put forward by different groups and said “We will be looking towards devolving more powers to the provincial councils while bringing laws to prevent the division of the country.” This was an implicit acknowledgement that the divisive potential of the draft constitutional proposals which generated massive opposition from powerful sections of the polity, especially religious clergy, made it injudicious to bring it to the fore at this time.
In addition, government programmes that are directed towards reconciliation are continuing, albeit out of the political limelight. Last week the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation that functions under the president conducted a one day conference for District Reconciliation Committees appointed by the president in his capacity as Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation. The objective of these committees is to resolve ethnic and religious tensions at the community level in accordance with a vision of a plural, multiethnic and multi religious society in which diversity is recognized as a source of strength. Members drawn from all the districts of the country attended this event to reflect on their roles in the light of values of dignity, respect, diversity, equity, inclusiveness, fairness, tolerance, empathy, friendship, kindness, compassion, justice and human rights.
Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms, Mano Tittawella, who functions under the Prime Minister’s Office, addressing the meeting of District Reconciliation Committees consisting of religious clergy, government officials, police and civil society members, gave a hopeful view of the post-election scenario. He said that apart from the Office of Missing Persons which has been established in law, two more of the reconciliation mechanisms promised by the government, the Office of Reparations and Truth Seeking Commission, would be presented to parliament and to the general public in the aftermath of the elections. He added that the draft laws on outlawing Enforced Disappearances and a replacement to the Prevention of Terrorism Act would be enacted in the coming months.
The optimistic scenarios presented above will be possible if the parties of the government alliance do well at the forthcoming elections. If the SLPP, which has been hostile to the reconciliation process as dividing the country and sacrificing it to foreign forces, outperforms the ruling parties and is able to capture a majority of local government authorities, the government’s ability to move forward on controversial issues will be crippled. This will make it especially difficult for the government to move forward on the reconciliation process which the Joint Opposition has described as paving the way to the division of the country while punishing the gallant soldiers who won the war. The government’s cautious strategy of putting off issues of constitutional reform and transitional justice until after the local government elections will hopefully only be a temporary phenomenon.