Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe demand for “system change” that was a key slogan of the Aragalaya protest movement two years ago is necessarily multi-faceted. It consists of a wide array of subjects including bringing back stolen assets, punishment for the perpetrators and putting an end to corruption. The present reality is still distant from this vision of a new social order that the protest movement had, and continues to have. No stolen assets are yet recovered either locally or internationally, though the government is formulating a new Proceeds of Crime law. Those whose property was set on fire in the last stages of the Aragalaya, before President Ranil Wickremesinghe was able to clamp down on that, are still claiming compensation. Government officials to whom they make their claims confide that the claims made by them are much more than what was lost. So the old order continues to prevail.

The government under President Wickremesinghe has passed a record number of new laws, or revising laws. Government leaders claim that some 75 new laws have been passed in the past two years. The government is passing new laws with regard to the economy. One is to draft a new Economic Transformation Bill. In the meantime, the passage of the Electricity law has paved the way for a huge wind power project with the negotiated tariff to be fixed at USD 8.26 cents per kilowatt-hour for a period of 20 years when the Environmental Impact Assessment is based on a cost of USD 4.6 cents, and the cost in India is USD 3.5 cents potentially causing considerable financial loss to Sri Lanka and a long term burden on consumers.

In a recent speech the president said, “Corruption has been a significant issue in Sri Lanka, and everyone talks about how to address it. No one tells us how to catch them. That’s the problem. So my government has come to an agreement and discussed the matter with the IMF. We also required their help, and we brought the governance diagnostic report. Many laws have to be passed. One has been passed, the Anti-Corruption Act. The second one, proceeds of crime legislation, is now being drafted to be sent to Parliament.” The challenge will, as always, be to implement these laws and for that there needs to be political leadership from the highest level. Implementation of the IMF’s Governance Diagnostic would provide a way forward to reduce corruption, but the government has so far prioritized other areas for reform rather than this.

Second Opportunity
The second aspect of system change that was sought during the Aragalaya protest was the demand to send home the president, prime minister, government and indeed all 225 members of parliament who were described as failures and even worse as rogues. In effect what was being demanded was a fresh set of elections to vote into office a new leadership to take over the government. The initial attempts to cope with the protest movement included proposals to form a national government by bringing in members of opposition political parties and civil society leaders (such as from the Bar Association) into it and holding elections within six months or when the economic situation had stabilized. However, after the election of President Wickremesinghe through a vote in parliament, this option was taken off the table, negotiations ceased and it was ignored.

During the initial period of the new presidency there was hope of a return to economic normalcy and the restoration of people’s economic wellbeing. The swift ending of lengthy lines in front of petrol stations and gas outlets and the restocking of foodstuffs in the supermarkets fueled the hope that prices would come down to reasonable levels. The government was able to use this opportunity to make the argument that it would prioritise expenditure on the revival of the economy. It uses this to cancel the local government elections that had fallen due even to the extent of not paying heed to a supreme court ruling that the money to conduct the elections should not be withheld. There was little or no public protest as many people seemed to agree with the government that due to the economic collapse it was not the time for elections.

Two years later this same argument of protecting the economy by not having elections does not have similar traction. With presidential elections due in less than four months, there is a strong sense in the country that the most important aspect of system change is now within reach. The opportunity is soon coming in which the choice of who is to lead the country can be made. In this context, the posturing by government leaders about a referendum to postpone elections for two years or that there is a constitutional loophole that will permit the government to stay an extra year even without a referendum is like dynamite. Any move to delay elections can have far reaching consequences. Such moves may generate opposition that the national security laws will not suffice to keep system change at bay.

Third Opportunity
The third aspect of system change is one that has receded from the centre of attention in most of the country but is still very important in the north and east of the country and to the international human rights community. The economic collapse took place during the period of governance of the most nationalist leaders who used ethnic nationalism to the utmost. As a result, Sri Lanka is presently witnessing a positive transformation of electoral politics in relation to its long standing ethnic conflict. The notion that the country required a “system change” was promoted by the student-led protest movement that publicly eschewed racism and upheld the rights of equal citizenship in their slogans. The youth addressed the ethnic conflict that has been a persistent feature of Sri Lanka since its independence and before there was any economic crisis.

The three leading candidates in the upcoming October presidential election who are fiercely competing on other grounds are able to demonstrate a common commitment to the 13th Amendment and the devolution of power to the provinces. This marks a significant departure from the past when ethnic nationalism was often exploited to incite violence and garner votes. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has pledged his support for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment while in Jaffna, while NPP candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake has also committed to working with the provincial council system also in Jaffna and most recently in London. President Wickremesinghe, notably consistent on this issue, advocated for the devolution of police and land powers shortly after assuming office.

Achieving a bipartisan and multi-party consensus on resolving the ethnic conflict has historically been a challenge for Sri Lanka. Previous government leaders who struck agreements with Tamil representatives failed to fulfill their promises due to opposition from political rivals who manipulated ethnic nationalist fears. Civil society too has a critical role in fostering a national consensus for a political settlement. A recent initiative of sections of the Buddhist monks and Tamil Diaspora have yielded the “Himalaya Declaration” which could supplement the “Jaffna Declarations” of the presidential hopefuls. This would enable the new administration to concentrate on stabilizing the economic crisis, enhancing social safety nets, unlocking the country’s growth potential, and addressing governance and corruption issues. The coming opportunities for system change need to be seized.

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