Political Commentary

The political debate about the proposed 20th Amendment needs to be considered in the national perspective. The JVP’s proposed amendment is intended to abolish the popularly elected executive presidency and replace it with a significantly less powerful presidency to be elected by parliament rather than by the people. Those in the political opposition are currently the most vocal in their opposition to the proposed amendment. Those on the government side have been more or less silent so far.

The JVP is proposing a 20th Amendment to the constitution which will centre around the abolition of the executive presidency. This follows on the crisis in governance that culminated in the no-confidence motion in parliament against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The background to this was the open manifestation of a power struggle between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe which highlighted the problem of having dual centres of executive power. On the one hand, the president who is directly elected by the people enjoys the position of head of state and head of government. On the other hand, the prime minister who has the support of the majority in parliament is also vested with executive powers.

While the impact on the general population is not decisive, the aftermath of the no confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Parliament has seen a potentially decisive shift in the power balance within the government alliance. This will have crucial implications with regard to the future course of the government, especially on the knotty issue of who will be the next presidential candidate of the government alliance. It is this elephant in the room that has been at the root of the failure of the two leaders to build a relationship of trust between themselves. Both have been taking pre-emptive actions against the other. One of the main causes of the rivalry between the President and Prime Minister was, and probably remains, the issue of who will be the next presidential candidate of the government in 2019.

The defeat of the no confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe by the relatively large margin of 122-76 votes in Parliament has renewed the fortunes of an ebbing government. Just a fortnight ago it was reeling under the twin impacts of the loss suffered at the local government elections held in February and its inability to nip the anti-Muslim riots the following month in Kandy in the bud. There was concern that the government had been rendered ineffective due to its internal divisions and was adrift in the ocean of politics without a sense of direction. However, by prevailing at the no confidence motion with a comfortable majority, the government has renewed the impression that the coalition of political forces that brought it to power in 2015 is still intact.

The no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be taken up on Wednesday. The no-confidence motion against the prime minister is primarily on the basis of his involvement in the Central Bank bond scam. In the motion against the Prime Minister there are 14 charges including placing the Finance Ministry under the purview of the Prime Minister with the intention of committing the bond scam, appointing Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran to the post of Governor of the Central Bank, directly involving in the Treasury bond scams, appointing a committee comprising his friends to exonerate those responsible for the scam, and misleading Parliament by giving false statements on the bond commission on March 17, 2015.

The ongoing deliberations of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva have not yielded any surprises. Delivering a joint statement on behalf of Macedonia, Montenegro, the United States and the United Kingdom during the UN High Commissioner's report on Sri Lanka, held on 21 March 2018 in Geneva, the UK said Sri Lanka is safer and freer than it was in 2015. However, it added that it was disappointed that the pace of progress has been slow. It stated that “Much still remains to be done to implement Sri Lanka's commitments. We remain concerned about reports of abuse of authority by some security officials. And multiple incidents of inter-communal violence, attacks, and hate speech against minorities are alarming and demonstrate the need for reconciliation efforts."

Any apprehension that the government would take to a more authoritarian path through the extension of the State of Emergency was dispelled by its revocation by President Maithripala Sirisena. When the president declared a State of Emergency to cover the entire country there was criticism that this was an overreaction to the problem of anti-Muslim violence as the violence was largely confined to the Kandy district and did not cross over to the other 24 districts. However, to the targeted Muslim population who live as minorities throughout the country, and to the great majority of peace loving citizens of all communities, the declaration of a countrywide emergency was primarily a reassuring signal that government wanted to make sure it would not spread.

The quelling of anti Muslim violence in Kandy took longer than anticipated. The curfew in the Kandy district continued for close on a week. A state of emergency, which gives the government special powers, and which enables the military to take on police functions, has been in effect since Tuesday. The protracted anti Muslim violence is a wake-up call about the tensions that line beneath the surface in society, which make them susceptible to abuse by powerful forces with larger political motivations. In a manner reminiscent of the prelude to the three decade-long war against the Tamil rebel movement, the sentiment is being promoted amongst sections of the Sinhalese ethnic majority is that the Muslim minority is a source of threat to their own security.

The setback suffered by the government at the local government elections has not dissuaded it from following through on its plans for national reconciliation. This is a cause for hope that the battle for national reconciliation through a lasting political solution is not yet lost, although it has got much delayed and the best time for moving forward is now gone. The government recently appointed the members of the Office of Missing Persons and is preparing to pass a new law on enforced disappearances. However, the time frames for visible action may change, with constitutional reform being pushed to the back. The political vulnerability of the government will be greatest with regard to constitutional reform that changes the nature of the state, and brings into focus the long term apprehension regarding the devolution of power.

The unexpectedly strong electoral performance by the newly formed SLPP whose chief protagonist is former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the recent local government elections was a wake-up call to the parties in government. The opposition has argued that the elections, which came a little after the mid-point of the government’s five year term, was akin to a referendum and therefore those in government had lost their mandate to govern. This argument has been countered on the basis that a local government election cannot take the mandate away from a national election. As the pressure on the government has subsided the timing of the election can be said to be a blessing in disguise. It is clear from the election results that if the parties in government had continued in the same manner, they risked being badly defeated at the next general elections in 2020.