The first year in office for any government should normally not be problematic. This holds good more or less in the case of Sri Lanka’s national unity government, which has completed one year in office despite huge challenges in the areas of economy, constitutional reforms, and, importantly, the Tamil question.
Billed as the first of its sort, the government was formed immediately following the August 2015 parliamentary elections after traditional rivals, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), struck an agreement. Though the electoral verdict was not decisive, the message was loud and clear — an emphatic “no” to the bid of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to return to power after losing in the January presidential election to his former colleague, Maithripala Sirisena.
In the parliamentary polls, the UNP and its allies had won 106 seats while the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), led by the SLFP, had secured 95 seats. Mr. Rajapksa’s vote base did not see much erosion between 2010 and 2015. His UPFA had secured about 4.8 million votes in 2010 and 4.7 million votes last year. Even now, Mr. Rajapaksa remains a force to reckon with.
The reason behind the UNP and its allies getting a higher number of seats in 2015 was higher voter turnout. Nearly three million more voters exercised their franchise last year. Immediately after the general elections, a substantial section in the SLFP broke ranks with the former President and joined hands with Mr. Sirisena, who promptly stitched a pact with the UNP.
Despite the SLFP being part of the national unity government, it has, at times, given an impression that it does not enjoy real power, and all crucial decisions are taken by the other constituent unilaterally. The way several budget proposals were revised and the removal of the preamble to the resolution moved in January 2016 on the constitutional reforms demonstrated lack of coherence and coordination between the two principal parties.
On the same page
Though such irritants crop up in UNP-SLFP ties now and then, Mr. Sirisena, who was elected as the country’s executive President in January 2015 mainly on the strength of the UNP, is careful enough to ensure that his understanding with the Prime Minister and the UNP’s chief, Ranil Wickremesinghe, does not collapse. To show that he is on the same page as his Prime Minister, Mr. Sirisena is supporting a new pact with India through the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA), which the Prime Minister is perceived to be pushing for. A week before Mr. Rajapaksa launched his “march to Colombo” from Kandy in late July to highlight the government’s failure on various fronts, the two parties jointly announced that the 2015 agreement, originally meant for two years, would last five years.
Mr. Sirisena’s bonhomie with the UNP, widely seen as a right-leaning and market-friendly party, does not go down well with certain sections of the SLFP’s supporters who represent the rural peasantry, the lower middle-class and the Sinhalese-Buddhists. From the minority perspective, the current regime allows itself to be bothered by the thought of a likely response of the Rajapaksa camp to each and every move, especially on reconciliation. This is why the progress has not been spectacular.
But Mr. Sirisena is conscious that he is not going to gain anything by breaking the relationship with the UNP, as otherwise Mr. Rajapaksa will only become stronger, a scenario not acceptable to both Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe.
Chief among them is the delivery on commitments made to the United Nations Human Rights Council through the October 2015 resolution on reconciliation, accountability and human rights. While critics of the government continue to question the logic behind the country’s decision to become a sponsor of the resolution, what has not gone unnoticed is that the regime was able to manage the UNHRC episode with finesse, and correct the damage done by its predecessor to ties with India and Western powers.
With all its faults, the present government has been able to create a climate of freedom and openness, which was perceptibly missing during the Rajapaksa years. As a corollary to this approach, it has taken some measures — the release of around 3,000 acres of land held till recently by the security forces; the rendering of the national anthem in Tamil during the 2016 Independence Day celebration; the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and allowing the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms to carry out its task of getting feedback from all over the country in a businesslike and proactive way.
Even though some point to the continued military presence in the Northern and Eastern provinces and the persistence of a “culture of surveillance and, in certain instances, intimidation and harassment,” as observed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in his update of June 2016, a large number of people in the two provinces that had been ravaged by the civil war acknowledge the climate of freedom and openness, which forms the basis for establishing any mechanism on transitional justice.
For the Tamil National Alliance leadership, the present regime presents a unique opportunity to find a durable solution to the vexatious Tamil question, given the fact that formally the country’s two principal parties are part of the government.
That Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe are earnest in carrying out the process of constitutional reforms and resolving the Tamil question has not been lost on anyone. Perhaps, keeping in mind the possible adverse impact on the process, Mr. Sirisena has not taken the drastic action of expelling Mr. Rajapsksa from the SLFP, even though talk of the former President and his supporters forming a new party often comes up in public discourse.
The next year may not be as smooth for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime as the one that went by. But if the two leaders are able to stick together and function more cohesively, taking many sections along, they should be able to achieve a breakthrough in one of the famous intractable issues of South Asia and this should not surprise anyone. (The Hindu)