Political Commentary

Soon after his return from New York where he addressed the UN General Assembly, President Maithripala Sirisena ordered the return of all land in the Northern and Eastern provinces that are owned by the people of those areas. He issued these instructions during a meeting of the Presidential Task Force overlooking the development of the Northern and Eastern provinces. The President has instructed the Presidential Task Force to plan out a time frame and a proper structure in order to implement the project and to present its progress at the next meeting. This is in keeping with the letter and spirit of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 of October 2015. When the president announced that he would go to New York and propose a new course of action before the UN, it was assumed that he might be taking a contrary course of action. Many nationalists hoped that he might announce that Sri Lanka would withdraw its assent to that resolution that immediately became a political matter of much contestation within the country.

There is a likelihood that constitutional reform will be on the political table again. The enactment of a new constitution in which a permanent solution to the ethnic conflict would be found is one of the unmet promises of the government. At its inception in 2015, there was much optimism on this score because the government held both a 2/3 majority in parliament and was also composed of the two main political parties that had hitherto opposed each other whenever one of them had sought a solution to the problem. In the early part of the government’s tenure in office during 2015-16 there appeared to be substantial progress but this slowed down thereafter and even seemed to have fallen off the political table.

The parliamentary committee headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that was established to look into the provincial delimitation report has requested that they be given a further two months to submit their recommendations for electoral reform. The Prime Minister had assured that steps would be taken to avoid loop holes that might delay provincial elections further. These assurances are a repeat of what has been promised for the past several months since provincial elections were first postponed. With this further postponement there is no prospect of provincial council elections being held this year. Even in the optimistic case of the parliamentary committee deciding on a final set of proposals in two months the process of legislation through parliament, and calling for nominations, would take the elections to the month of March 2019 if not later. By then the focus will be on presidential elections.

The recent interventions of President Maithripala Sirisena into issues of governance brings out sharp differences of opinion within the government coalition he heads. The most significant of these is his bid to break free from the commitments made by the government to the international community with regard to issues of war time accountability for serious human rights violations. In October 2015 the newly elected government eased tensions that had been escalating between the previous government and sections of the international community and which had contributed to the imposition of economic sanctions. The European Union had withdrawn the GSP Plus tariff concession and there were indications of further sanctions to come. By co-sponsoring UN Resolution 30/1 at the UN Human Rights Council, the government pledged to embark on a wide ranging series of actions that would deal with the past and pave the way for national reconciliation.

An academic of Sri Lankan origin, Dr Minoli Salgado, recently conducted a workshop on Writing Truths: The Power of Testimony, in which key concepts in testimony studies were discussed in the Sri Lankan context with a view to developing a survivor-centred approach in the production and reception of testimonies in the country. As part of its commitment to the UN-mandated concept of transitional justice, the government has also pledged to set up a truth-seeking commission in which testimony will be given and recorded.

The past weekend saw a meeting between 120 members of district inter religious groups from Mannar in the Northern province, Puttalam in the Northwestern province and Nuwara Eliya in the Central province. Although diverse in region, ethnicity and religion, these community leaders demonstrated a high degree of goodwill in engaging with each other in private and group dialogue. Their meeting and their dialogue was a reassuring sign that that the vast majority of people in the country,

The further postponement of provincial council elections will be necessary now that the report of the Delimitation Commission has been rejected in parliament. The majority in parliament rejected the report with all 139 of those present voting against it while 86 MPs including those of the JVP, who supported the report being absent at the time of voting. The fact that no party voted in favour of the Delimitation report is an indication that all parties are wary of elections. Different political parties gave different reasons for their rejections. The ethnic minority parties felt that the proportional representation system which had previously existed offered them a better outcome in terms of the numbers of members they could get elected. The bigger parties objected to the 50:50 proportion between those elected on a first-past-the-post basis at the constituency level and those elected through the party lists as it contributed toward unstable outcomes.

The unexpected resurrection of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hope to be a third term president of the country has taken the centre stage of political debate. It also highlights the vulnerability of the rule of law. One of the memorable phrases of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the former president to cope with the international demand for accountability for war-time violations of human rights was that the Rule of Law rather than the Rule of Men should prevail if the tragedies of the past were not to repeat themselves. But to politicians whose quest for power is unlimited such principles of democratic governance may be dispensed with as and when the need arises.

One of the areas in which the present government has been underperforming is in the area of communications. Previous governments have been conscious of the importance of communicating their messages to enable the general public to be informed of their achievements. They have also acted upon that very strong political impulse. There was a cartoon in the early 1990s showing former president Ranasinghe Premadasa emerging from out of multiple television sets. This was at a time when the government had ordered all television stations existing at that time in the country to carry the government news bulletin at the same time. The plethora of television stations of today did not exist at that time and it was easier for the government to compel the few independent television stations at that time to fall into line.

With the next presidential election due before the end of next year, and with a possibility that an early election might be called even by January next year, the question of who might be the next presidential candidates is getting to the fore. There has been speculation that the felicitation ceremony for Health Minister Dr Rajitha Senaratne on obtaining an international honour was a launching pad for his bid to be a presidential candidate from the government side. The opposition has not been without its share of contestation too. The statement issued by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office that he had not yet decided on who should be the opposition’s presidential candidate, and to disregard the claims that he had already selected his brother Gotabaya, is an indication of the tensions beneath the surface which are not limited only to the government.