The early indications from the newly elected government elected by an astounding majority is that they are serious about making a difference and in making a constructive break with the past. The hope of all Sri Lankans will be that it will also be a lasting difference and not be limited to good intentions that quickly go awry as has been the case too many times in the past giving rise to great cynicism. A sustainable democracy needs not only elections but also a solid foundation of economic and political rights and social freedoms. The hopes will be that the government ensures that the rule of law prevails, that there will be no impunity for wrongs done by those who are powerful, that personal freedoms are guaranteed, that there will be economic development that benefits all sections of the population and that ethnic and religious suspicions and hatreds diminish to give rise to a truly Sri Lankan family.
Many years ago, former Government Agent of Jaffna, Dr Devanesan Nesiah, explained northern sentiment when elections were taking place. He said there was apprehension at the possible turn of events over which they had no control. The minority status of the Tamil people would invariably mean that their future would be determined by the outcome of the power struggle in the south of the country. I was reminded of these words of Dr Nesiah during discussions organised by the Civil Society Platform in the northern towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna on the democratic challenges arising from the forthcoming elections.
Even as the election campaign comes to its penultimate phase there is a dearth of hopeful and inspiring campaign themes. The nearest that any political party has got to such a theme is the ruling party’s appeal for a 2/3 majority to give it the ability to the change the constitution. The kingpin of this campaign is the need to strengthen the hand of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who won the presidential election last November, with a large majority but continues to be trammeled by constitutional restrictions on his power.
The TNA’s political manifesto for the forthcoming general elections, which was released last week, calls for a fresh mandate from Tamil people for a federal-based solution in the form of a merged Northern and Eastern province where Tamil speaking people live in majority numbers. It stated this could ensure a lasting peace in an undivided country in the future. This is consistent with the issues of community equality that have been uppermost in the Tamil polity from the early days of Independence and later from the three decades of war. In dealing with the past, the TNA has called for justice and truth over the thousands of missing persons including persons who surrendered to the military during the final phases of the war, the need to revive the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and the Office of Reparations to provide answers and justice for the war -affected people.
The containment of Covid spread in Sri Lanka relative to other countries, including its immediate neigbours, had put the government on a strong footing to face the general elections on August 5. Since the curfew and lockdowns ended in mid-May there has been a major relaxation of tension within the country regarding the Covid virus. Even government leaders began to take the matter lightly, as evidenced in the funeral arrangements for a former minister which saw tens of thousands of his party supporters jostling at the funeral which was attended by the most senior overnment leaders. More recently President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was seen mingling with crowds of supporters at election rallies.
The government last week responded to the concerns of those countries in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva which have been taking a special interest in Sri Lanka. They had expressed their concern about the government’s position that it no longer supported UNHRC Resolution 30/1, which Sri Lanka had co-sponsored in 2015 under its previous government. Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Montenegro and the UK issued a joint statement that expressed disappointment at the abandonment of the partnership with the international community to address the harmful legacies of war and build a sustainable peace in the country. However, they stated that they remained committed to advancing the resolution’s goals of accountability, reconciliation, and inclusive peace in Sri Lanka.
There has been a trend of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa making senior appointments in which those who are outside the established administrative systems are being brought in to provide leadership and ensure effective and non-corrupt practices. As a large number of these appointments have been from the security forces this has given rise to a perception that the country is heading towards eventual military rule. There is a concern that the forthcoming general elections will be followed by constitutional changes that will entrench the military in governance as in some other countries such as Myanmar. This is unlikely to be the case in Sri Lanka as democratic traditions upholding civilian control of government are deeply ingrained in the fabric of political society.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s meeting with top staff of the Central Bank has had a mixed reception. The president admonished the Central Bank for not being adequately supportive of government policy with regard to reviving the economy. In a strongly worded speech the president demonstrated knowledge of the economic performance of other countries. He compared the assistance given by governments such as in the United States and Europe to businesses to revive the economy with facts and figures and said that the Central Bank should act accordingly. There is a need for a policy planning group drawn from the Central Bank, Ministry of Finance, private sector and civil society to sit together with the president to map out the future direction of the country. In doing so there is also a need to be mindful that all elements of the economy are interconnected with one another, and the larger society also.
The signs of elections and the short term changes that they bring are upon us today. Posters of candidates are coming up with their party symbols, preference numbers and their vote-catching mottos. Despite the difficulties that people are undergoing at the individual level due to economic hardships that personally affect them, the reality of politics today is that the electorate does not have a viable alternative to the government. The opposition has still to recover from its weak performance during the last year of its governance in 2019 when it was internally divided between former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. By way of contrast the present government gives an image of strength and competence that is reassuring to the general population.
The Supreme Court’s decision to deny leave to proceed in the eight cases filed before it regarding the dissolution of parliament and the date of the general election places a great responsibility in the hands of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Supreme Court’s decision means that he remains the sole national repository of the people’s mandate until such time as the general elections are held and a new parliament is elected. Although speculation centres around a date in August for those elections, the vicissitudes of the coronavirus, and the possibility of a second wave of infections even as the country opens up, make it possible that dates decided at this time may have to be disposed of at a later time. In the meantime, Sri Lanka would remain in a limbo without a functioning parliament with the present order continuing indefinitely. One of the important functions of parliament, to act as an oversight body and be a check and balance on the executive, will be in abeyance. The responsibility for governance is on the executive at present.