By Jehan Perera
Unless the government shows that it is capable of delivering results soon, the slow progress of problem solving at the ground level will continue to erode public support for the government. The weak performance of the economy is on the minds of most people. The expected job creation through industrial growth has not materialized nor has there been technological improvement that could raise the level of incomes of agricultural and fishing families. Instead of rising standards of living they experience the rising cost of living. In the case of the North and East where the bulk of the war affected people live, the discontent is even greater. They bear a double burden. In addition to not partaking of the fruits of nationwide development along with their compatriots in the rest of the country, they also suffer from the slow return of lands taken over by the military.
The root of the problem is that the new government which was elected in 2015 has inherited a polity that is deeply divided. Making matters more difficult is the fact that the new government is a combination of two political parties that have been traditional rivals. Therefore in ascertaining what the government is capable of doing it is important not to overload it with hopeful assumptions of its problem solving abilities. The government inherited a divided polity, divided in terms of political affiliation and ethno-religious identity. The government is itself a powersharing one in which there is not one centre of power, but two in the form of the President and Prime Minister and the two traditionally rival political parties they head. In these circumstances what can be expected from the government in terms of problem solving will be necessarily limited.
However, despite these weaknesses of the government the UNP-SLFP alliance, which has led to the Government of National Unity, is unique for Sri Lanka. It is also rare for any part of the world that two parties that are in opposition to each other, and have alternatively ruled the country since Independence, should form a coalition. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s constant message is that this is an opportunity not to be missed to address the long standing ethnic conflict. Addressing an international conference on peace-building organized by the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) and the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, with the participation of local and foreign scholars, political leaders, and social activists the former President said the present government gives a prominent place to the reconciliation and the development in the country.
In her speech, the former President reiterated that the government including the President and the Prime Minister is dedicated towards the goal of a just political solution. She herself showed dedication to this goal during her tenure as President between 1995 and 2005. However, the conditions during her time were the opposite of what exists today. Her government faced two formidable opponents. One was the LTTE which did not place faith in constitutional solutions and political negotiations, but relied on their military power to achieve the outcomes they sought. The other was the UNP, which played the traditional role of the opposition party in the country and finally opposed the draft constitution that her government had invested several years in producing.
On the other hand, the political conditions in Sri Lanka today are the best possible to achieve a political solution to the ethnic conflict in terms of the availability of the numbers in Parliament. The UNP-SLFP alliance ensures a 2/3 majority in Parliament. When the leaders of these two parties are in agreement, there is no possibility of defeat in Parliament. Their ability to secure a 2/3 majority is buttressed by the fact that the ethnic minority parties are all united in their support of the UNP-SLFP national unity government. On issues of governance and minority rights the JVP, which usually takes on ultra left stances especially on economic issues, has also been supportive of positive initiatives of the government. Their support for the passage of the law establishing the Office of Missing Persons has been important in reducing the level of political opposition to it. Therefore the composition of the present parliament presents a unique opportunity for political reform.
Political reform needs to be the primary purpose of the present government. When it was elected in 2015 there was expectation that the government would speed up the country’s economic development and also crack down on corruption. Neither of this has happened much to the disappointment of those who voted for the government and has led to much criticism from the general public. The government is routinely described as a disappointment and failure for not taking action against corrupt politicians from the previous government and for tolerating corruption within itself. It has not been able to attract significant foreign investment in the manner that was anticipated and continues to rely on either expensive loans from China or political investments from China and India.
However, several recent events suggests that the government is gearing itself for constitutional reform as the best way of showing the people that it is outcome oriented and can do what it sets out to do. The passage of the amendment of the Office of Missing Persons Act without opposition in Parliament was a preliminary indication of what the government can achieve if its two main partners are in agreement. The other significant event was the holding of the first National Conference on Constitutional Reforms organized by the Constitutional Assembly Secretariat of Sri Lanka under the patronage of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The conference was aimed at bringing together a range of stakeholders from across diverse sectors in order to help promote the discourse surrounding the adoption of constitutional reforms for the people of Sri Lanka.
According to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the Constitution Assembly Steering Committee will meet next week to decide on the procedure to be adopted when enacting the new constitution. “Do we include all provisions or do we only include those which do not need a referendum in the steering Committee report? This is one of the questions we will debate next week. We are reaching a crucial stage in the consensus building process on the constitution, the Prime Minister said when addressing a conference on the new constitution organized by the Constitutional Assembly Secretariat. He also pointed out that the Steering Committee at its next meeting would decide whether to include all provisions of the constitution in the interim report or to include only the provisions which did not need a referendum.
The Prime Minister also spoke at length on the process and current challenges encountered in the business of constitution making, with references to key issues of national interest such as the nature of the state, the electoral system, the system of devolution of power and the religion of the state. The former Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, Justice Dikgang Moseneke delivered an address where he recounted the challenges that South Africa faced on the issue of group rights, and how it opted for a strong bill of rights that protected individual rights as the best way forward. He said that a strong judiciary could protect the people’s rights between elections. The indications are that the Government of National Unity is on course to regain its sense of mission to achieve national unity which has eluded the country since the dawn of its independence nearly seven decades ago.