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Political Commentary

The strident opposition to the government’s constitutional reform process highlights the regrettable fact that the country’s ethnic divide continues to be serious. The opposition is claiming that the Constitutional Assembly’s Steering Committee report is a formula to divide the country to accommodate sections of the international community. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has urged the government to abandon what he described as ‘the destructive proposal’ for a new constitution. According to him, “It has been proposed that the Sinhala word ‘ekeeya’ be retained in the Sinhala version of the proposed new constitution, while the English word ‘unitary’ will be dropped from the English version together with the conceptual framework it denotes. Thus the local population will be under the impression that Sri Lanka still remains a unitary state, but in the eyes of the international community, we will be considered a country that has relinquished unitary status.”

The release of the Constitutional Assembly’s Steering Committee report on constitutional reform gave the hope that it would be the government’s priority in the coming months. This calculation was buttressed by the government’s repeated postponement of local government elections which became extended to the postponement of provincial council elections also. The problem facing the government is that any local election would pit the coalition partners against each other, possibly to the detriment of their alliance. This led to speculation that the government would go into a referendum on a new constitution on the basis that this would be the best way to reunify the government alliance. It was argued that a referendum would impel all parties that supported the candidacy of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections of 2015 to get together again as a unified force to win the referendum.

The government has proposed that the report of the steering committee on constitutional reform will be debated in parliament at the end of the month. A member of the Steering Committee spearheading the constitutional reform project, Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne said that the Constitutional assembly would take up proposals over a three-day period beginning October 30. Finalisation of the process would depend on the outcome of three day talks, Dr. Wickramaratne said, explaining measures proposed to further strengthen the unitary character of the country. He added that the proposals were also meant to ensure maximum possible devolution without undermining the unitary status of the constitution. Since its appointment by the constitutional assembly in April 2016 the steering committee has met on 73 occasions.

The relatively smooth manner in which the government succeeded in postponing the forthcoming provincial council elections, in the aftermath of its failure to pass the 20th Amendment, is an indicator of the weakness of the Joint Opposition. They were neither able to challenge the government in parliament nor mobilize public sentiment on the issue. It has been left to a retired chief justice to file his own individual action in the courts. The question is why the Joint Opposition, which has over 50 MPs in parliament who are pledging their commitment to the country, was unable or unwilling to mobilize public sentiment of the postponement of the elections.

The passage of the Provincial Council Election Amendment bill indicates that provincial council elections that were due by the end of this year will not take place any time soon. The original purpose of the amendment was to ensure that there should be at least 30 percent representation of women on party candidate lists. This was much acclaimed and no one publicly dissented or took the matter to courts. However, the salient feature of the new law after more amendment were made to it is to ensure that future elections to the provincial councils will be based on a mixed system of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. The government used the method of adding an amendment to an existing bill to circumvent any legal appeal to the courts as occurred in the case of the 20th Amendment to the constitution. The need to demarcate electorates for the first-past-the-post contests gives rise to the possibility of an extended time period for the new system to become operational.

The humanitarian catastrophes taking place in other parts of the world such as in Myanmar, and events that have the potential to become catastrophes, such as North Korea firing its second rocket over Japan, have taken Sri Lanka away from the centre of attention at the ongoing sessions of the UN Human Rights Council. The tragic events unfolding in Myanmar are attracting international humanitarian attention. The flight of tens of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar on a daily basis has aroused international sympathy for them and condemnation for the Myanmar government. There is even a move among advocates of human rights to persuade the Nobel Peace Prize awards committee to revoke the award that was given to Myanmar government leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi in 1991 for her work to bring democracy to her country.

Much was expected of the government when it came to power in 2015. An immediate boost to the economic growth rate was anticipated but this has failed to materialize. The failure to attract foreign investments has been a notable disappointment. This has been attributed to the uncertain policy environment with the government not being of one mind in creating the necessary environment for foreign investment to come in. The level of public disenchantment with the government has been on the rise due to its failure to deliver on its election promises in other areas too. It is not only in the area of the economy that the government has been underperforming.

The war crimes cases registered against former army commander General Jagath Jayasuriya in five South American countries would alert the government that it needs to take remedial action without further delay. It seems that General Jayasuriya was fortunate that the cases were only registered after he left Brazil where he was Sri Lanka’s ambassador for the last two years. Although the former army commander had diplomatic immunity, international law also states that those accused of war crimes are subject to universal jurisdiction. This means that any country that subscribes to the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court can detain a suspect in a war crime case.

The resignation of Minister Ravi Karunanayake due to a disclosure of conflict of interest in the issue concerning the Central Bank bon scam appears to have galvanized the government to take action against its political opponents whom it accused of far worse wrongs, including murder. Much to its chagrin the government has found that the reforms it has instituted, in particular to empower state institutions to act independently, are being used more resolutely by those who wish to undermine it than by the government itself. Two examples would be the protests against the lease of the Hambantota port to China and the SAITM private medical school, the grounds for both of which were laid by the previous government.

There was no governmental celebration of its second year anniversary. Government leaders scarcely mentioned it. However, civil society leaders who had been in the forefront of the movement for good governance in the run up to the elections of 2015 organised a public meeting in the form of a “satyagraha” to remind the government of the promises it had made two years ago. However they also had many positive outcomes to acknowledge. Chief amongst them would be the improvement in relations between the ethnic minorities and the government and the reduction in the level of fear of the state. The 19th Amendment, which was the high point of the 100 Day programme of the new government has ensured a separation of powers between the arms of government. There has also been the passage of legislation that will have a positive impact on the polity over the longer period, such as the Right to Information Act which has the potential to make the government more transparent and accountable.