Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • February 2020
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The challenges ahead in Independence

Posted by harimpeiris on February 6, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 06th February 2020)

Sri Lanka’s 72nd Independence Day celebrations are now over. The ceremony was held with the pomp and pageantry traditionally associated with the occasion and it provided an opportunity for the nation to both look back at its recent history, learn its lessons, as well as to look ahead to the challenges and the shared future which lies ahead of us as a nation.

Sri Lanka’s independence itself, is a clear occasion for celebration. To celebrate what was achieved seventy-two long years ago. Where a united national political leadership, successfully negotiated the transition from a British crown colony to a representative democracy. Sri Lanka’s independence heroes, were a diverse group, including those from the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities. Sri Lanka’s democratic achievements have been significant. Becoming one of the first countries in the world to have universal adult franchise in 1932 and also producing the world’s first woman prime minister in late Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Since then Sri Lanka has also had a woman president, a woman Chief Justice, many women Cabinet Ministers, deputy ministers, MPs, Mayors and other political and civic leaders. In recent times, we have succeeded in having a gender quota for women in local government, ensuring that a minimum of 25% of all elected local government representatives are women. Sri Lanka’s basic free education and health care systems have ensured among other gains that we remain high on the global human development index, with a literacy rate of over 90%, long life expectancy and low infant mortality among other quality of life indicators. So, Sri Lanka’s achievements have been not insignificant in our post-independence period.

However, equally noteworthy have been Sri Lanka’s significant failures. Failures which are instrumental in ensuring that we are still a part of the global south, a developing rather than a developed society. These failures lie at the very heart of our society, regarding our identity as to who we are as a nation and the ability of our democratic institutions to resolve the complex issues and competing interests, manifest in any nation or society. Sri Lanka has witnessed massive politically motivated violence in both our south and north, among the majority Sinhala youth, organizing themselves through the JVP and the Tamil youth through the LTTE and similar organizations. The Sinhala Southern JVP uprisings were based on issues which could be broadly categorized on the underlying political theme of economic and social rights, while the Northern and Eastern LTTE struggle, which was anti-democratic in its elimination of internal dissent, merciless and criminal in its conscription of children and terroristic in its attacks on civilians, had its origins and drew its political support broadly due to issues in the areas of civil and political rights.

The prevalence of such issues in itself is actually not uncommon. Any society has competing interests and complex and competing claims to resources and political power. These claims and issues are usually resolved democratically through dialogue, debate and a civilized discourse. Sri Lanka’s failure has been the failure of our political institutions in every area, including the executive, the legislative and judicial branches of government to address these issues in an equitable manner, to be seen and widely accepted as equitable. Resulting in natural conflicts in society being addressed through organized political violence rather than through democratic institutions and processes. Consequently, for almost half our post-independence period of seventy-two years, we have been governed under a period of national emergency, monthly renewed by Parliament, overriding constitutional liberties. We still persist in having on our statue books, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), introduced as a temporary measure over forty (40) years ago, and currently significantly lacking in internationally accepted norms and standards applicable to counter terrorism legislation.

Economic and Social Rights

Almost thirty years after the end of the second JVP uprising, while we have that political movement as a political party and a distant third leftist force in national politics, Sri Lanka still remains an economically very inequitable society. The top tenth percentile of the population earns nearly forty percent of the national income, and the second percentile approximately another thirty percent or more, leading to one of the more skewed income distribution and wealth disparities of a democratic society. The rest of South Asia is not much better, indicating that the end of the mercantilist economy of the colonial period, has economically benefited some but not the majority in our society. As the world rapidly changes to a knowledge-based economy, driven by technology and information, Sri Lanka is seemingly unprepared to face either the challenges of or benefit from the opportunities of the new economy.

Civil and Political Rights

Over a decade after the end of Sri Lanka’s ruinous, near three decades long civil war, we seem not much nearer to a post war reconciliation process which brings healing and unity to our divided and polarized society. Our divisions were perhaps best exemplified when the most widely debated issue about our Independence Day was whether the national anthem should be sung in Sinhala only or in both Sinhala and Tamil. It was LTTE suicide bomb victim, Member of Parliament and leading lawyer, late Neelen Tiruchelvam, who best in a single sentence described our dilemma, which he described as “the anomaly of having imposed a mono-ethnic state on a multi-ethnic polity”.

Sri Lankan society is diverse, ethnically and in terms of religious belief and practice. Our failures of the past and the challenge of our future, is to ensure that the Sri Lankan state accommodates and indeed protects that diversity. A diversity, which actually enriches us and strengthens us. It is then that all Sri Lankans will truly enjoy the benefits and privileges of the independence, which we won with such expectations and hope, seventy-two long years ago.

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The irrelevant UNP leadership struggle

Posted by harimpeiris on January 23, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 21st January 2020)

United National Party leader of over 25 years, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is obviously an avid baseball fan. Clearly believing that the rules of that quintessential American sport, applies to the UNP leadership states. In baseball, you need three strikes to be out. Mr. Wickremesinghe has already struck out twice. He lost the party’s nomination for the presidential election, something he sought and fought for until the eleventh hour. He subsequently also lost the attempt to be the leader of the opposition. Both these losses despite holding the levers of party power. Now, there is another rather irrelevant struggle to hold on to the UNP party leadership, for a last hurrah or curtain call performance from 2020 to 2024. It is also a struggle, he is likely to lose, simply because the dynamics that led to his two previous leadership defeats to Sajith Premadasa, still hold true.

Political support verses party structures

There is a basic dynamic at play with UNP and the opposition political dynamics. It is simply that the political forces, of the rainbow coalition which came together to help elect Maithripala Sirisena as president in 2015, ranging from the JHU to the TNA, in the form of the National Democratic Front (NDF) and lost the election in 2019, just do not believe, that Ranil Wickremesinghe is the man to either lead the political challenge to the newly installed SLPP Rajapaksa Administration and eventually present himself as the political alternative in November 2024. That is why they bit the bullet and opted for Sajith Premadasa, first as the presidential candidate and later as the leader of the opposition. It is also why, barring the TNA which will contest independently in its Northern and Eastern strongholds, the vast majority of UNP MPs and its allied parties will contest the general election, as an alliance under Sajith Premadasa’s leadership, whether he is UNP leader or not. The Sajith Premadasa led alliance will end up being the second largest party in parliament behind the ruling SLPP and consequently Sajith Premadasa, will be leader of the opposition in the new parliament as well.

The rump UNP as a possible fifth force

A UNP from which Sajith Premadasa and the allies have decamped, would be in much the same state, as the SLFP from which the Rajapaksas’ decamped in 2015 and formed the SLPP. The SLFP survived those five years from 2015 to 2019 because its leader, Maithripala Sirisena was the executive president. The UNP on the other hand, has just lost an election. Its rising star and future, is clearly the younger Premadasa. While he may not have won the election in 2019, he captured the imagination and the support of the non Rajapaksa political forces in the country. A political ground reality, which procedural manoeuvring by Wickremesinghe loyalists as current UNP party bosses cannot alter.

It leaves the UNP facing irrelevance and decimation subsequent to the next general election. Should it run a separate party list, distinct from the Premadasa led Alliance, it is likely at best to get a few seats, as a fifth force, behind the ruling SLPP, the Sajith Premadasa led opposition alliance, the TNA and the JVP. It will end up as a small fifth force in 2020 and irrelevant thereafter.

The DUNF experience in 1990

History has a weird way of repeating itself in Sri Lanka and not in altogether pleasant ways. In 1990, there was a major split in the UNP and on that occasion it was current UNP National Organizer and Karu Jayasuriya’s son-in-law, Navin Dissanayake’s father, Gamini, who together with Lalith Athulathmudali split from the UNP led at that time by Sajith’s father, late president Ranasinghe Premadasa and formed the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). It garnered 13% of the popular vote in its first electoral outing, eating into the then opposition SLFP’s voter base and died a natural political death in due course. The failure of the Dissanayake breakaway in 1990 was because the UNP had just won an election. For the same reason, the success of Sajith Premadasa breakaway in 2020 will be because the UNP has just lost an election.

Ranil’s governance vs Premadasa candidacy

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s inner circle believe that Sajith Premadasa’s unsuccessful presidential bid has weakened him within opposition and UNP circles. On the contrary, the candidacy has legitimized and solidified his leadership, irrespective of the outcome. However, the reason for Ranil Wickremesinghe failing to gain the presidential nomination and the opposition leader post is because almost universally in Sri Lanka, the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena from 2015 to 2019, was seen as a non-performer, which just did not deliver. This is more than just inefficiency. In seeking to woo the then opposition electorate, a divided government only managed to hamstring itself. Wickremesinghe’s last chance was probably the UNP government’s victory over the October 2018 constitutional coup. But rather than use the opportunity for a course correction in response to the UNP’s Local Government defeat in February 2018 he settled down for business as usual, resulting in the UNP defeat last November. A loss for which Ranil rather than Sajith gets the political blame.

Sajith Premadasa, largely escaped unscathed from the political vacillation and non-performance of the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe administration, both due to his very visible housing programme, together with a go getter approach to his Cabinet housing ministry and also because he was neither a member of Ranil’s inner circle nor an apologist for the non-performance. While not critical of his party leader in public, Sajith was silent and maintained his credibility. Hence the rather unanimous decision by the majority of the UNP parliamentary group and its allies to contest under a Sajith Premadasa led alliance at the forthcoming general elections. Ranil Wickremesinghe has already lost the political support of the UNP’s voter base and allies, though he retains the party’s namesake leadership. In baseball parlance, three strikes, you’re out!

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The Sirisena Presidency in retrospect

Posted by harimpeiris on January 9, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 08th January 2020)

January 8th 2020, marks the fifth anniversary of the election to office of Maithripala Sirisena as the sixth executive president of Sri Lanka, an occasion overshadowed by the recent election of his successor Gotabaya Rajapakse less than two months ago. With parliamentary and provincial elections due and expected by or before mid-year, it is worth reflecting on the Sirisena presidency and its impact on Sri Lankan society.

The current politicized election period has meant that the Sirisena presidency is viewed by how it ended. The unravelling of the rainbow coalition and the political alliance which elected Sirisena and its recent defeat at the presidential election. A president who strived to get re-nomination from both major political alliances and failed, the decline of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) into political irrelevance under his leadership and also for the bitter and counterproductive relationship between the president and his prime minster, Ranil Wickramasinghe, which ultimately contributed to impasse in governance and the stringing defeat of the centrist and moderate political forces, which elected them to office five years ago.

Currently former President Sirisena, seems intent on pursuing an active political future, as a parliamentarian and seeking to reorganize and re-energize the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) though at complete loggerheads with the matriarch of the party, former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The political struggle within the SLFP between Sirisena and CBK, is not about personalities, but a more fundamental one about the future direction of the SLFP. Former President Sirisena desires the SLFP to be an appendage of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), while the political objective of former President Kumaratunga is for the SLFP to be a dynamic party in the opposition and play an important role as a check and balance on the new SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration. It is clear that the distinct identity and political future of the SLFP is surer as an opposition political party, rather than being swallowed up as an irrelevant side show to the SLPP juggernaut.

However, the Sirisena presidency, in 2015 started off with much promise. Beginning from its political platform of good governance. The good governance platform was especially meaningful, because it was a civic basis for a political alliance and not parochial or identity-based politics as much of Sri Lankan politics tends to be. Due to the very fact that the rainbow coalition, did not play on identity politics but was an unlikely alliance between such disparate forces as the JHU on the one side and the TNA on the other side, including the UNP and the Muslim parties, political pundits in 2014 did not credit the hastily patched together grand opposition alliance with much chance of winning the election. But five years ago, they did. It was a victory based on ideas and not identity. That was significant.

There were some notable gains in the early years and seeking to fulfil the promises of good governance made to the electorate during the election campaign. Foremost among these gains, is the 19th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, which re-established the independent commissions, reduced the discretionary powers of the president and reintroduced term limits for the office of the executive president, among other democratic governance strengthening measures. While the 19th amendment has come in for criticism of late, including by President Sirisena, it remains an important piece of constitutional reform, perhaps even in the traditions of the Magna Carta in Britain, which reduced the absolute powers of the British monarchs and was an important step towards constitutional governance as opposed to an absolute monarchy in Britain.

However, the 19th Amendment was not the Sirisena Administration’s sole achievement. The Right to Information (RTI) Act, the release of private lands back to their owners in the North and East occupied by the military during the conflict, the resettlement of the conflict related internally displaced persons (IDPs), the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and a Reparations Office as part of the post war reconciliation process. The rebalancing of foreign relations from a China centric policy and the opening up of democratic space, the institutionalizing of judicial independence and greater media freedom. The then Joint Opposition (JO) political forces, elected to government in last November’s presidential election in the shape and form of the SLPP, may well relook at these and many other reforms effected by the previous government, with a view to rolling back the clock and indeed they may well succeed. Especially if the upcoming parliamentary election puts the SLPP government within sight of the constitution amending two third majority it seeks. However, this does not detract from the significance or the value of the above-mentioned civic policy platform and governance reforms effected by the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration during its period of office.

The unravelling of the Sirisena presidency probably began with the miscalculation by both Sirisena and especially then premier Wickramasinghe, that the Rajapakses defeated in the 2015 election were politically down and out. Down they certainly were in 2015, but out they certainly were not, even then. The change in the political equation from the two way contest between the Rajapakse led political forces and the rest, to a three cornered one between Sirisena, Wickramasinghe and former president Mahinda Rajapakse, resulted in a divided government, an opposition unified under the Rajapakses and directly led to the decisive victory of the SLPP in the November presidential election, once again placing the nation under the leadership of the political first family from Medamullane, who are now elected to govern for the next five years and likely to do so with an iron fist inside a velvet glove.

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Will the UNP go the way of the SLFP

Posted by harimpeiris on December 19, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 16th December 2019)

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) today is in a particularly pathetic state. Pathetic because it has lost the constituency which it was representing for a half century of its existence. A proud history of being in government as well as the main opposition, providing the world’s first woman prime minister, Sri Lanka’s first and so far, only woman president and essentially having state power, either in entirety or in cohabitation or in coalition through the presidency, unbroken since 1994. However, the political dynamic shifted sometime during the past five years, with the leadership of the constituency, the SLFP represented shifting clearly and significantly away from Maithripala Sirisena and the SLFP to Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapakse and their new political vehicle the Sri Lanka Podujana Party, the (SLPP). Which consequently won the recent presidential election decisively, resulting in Gotabaya Rajapakse being elected president of the republic.

The prognosis for the opposition, led by the United National Party (UNP) is not good for the impending general elections to parliament. The newly appointed Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa has not been given to speculation about the general election, but has taken the position that he must be party leader to lead the party into the future. In contrast, the veteran UNP leader, Ranil Wickramasinghe who rather like the protagonist in the movie “The man who came to dinner” and was unable and unwilling to leave, seemingly strongly believes his retirement needs to be in the same vintage as his late uncle, former President Jayewardene, who retired in his early eighties. But then in his defense he was only at the helm for a much shorter period of time, not 25-years and came into both party leadership and governmental office at an older age. As a majority of the UNP parliamentary group contents, after 25 years at the helm of a political party and having decisively lost a national election, reorganizing the opposition political forces to be a viable alternative government in five years, time requires new executive leadership and requires it now. There are alternative party roles, such as a party Patron, more suited for an elder statesman, party counsellor role which Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe can and should play rather than seeking to lead the day to day affairs of the party, into three decades and more. For Ranil to take a page out of Nelson Mandela’s book, who after a single term as president of South Africa, gave up the national and party leadership, but continued to serve the African National Congress (ANC) by mentoring the second-tier leadership which took over.

However, Ranil Wickramasinghe has taken to publicly speculating about the impending general election and in his contention that should the UNP secure the same vote which Sajith Premadasa did at the presidential election, it would get one hundred and three seats. This is not just wishful thinking, it is inconceivable. Firstly, the presidential election was the real, government changing election, resulting in a high turnout under a “neutral” executive. The Parliamentary election would be under an SLPP government. The outcome of the parliamentary election would be considered a foregone conclusion by a politically astute electorate and the real question is by just how large a margin would the SLPP win. The turnout will decrease and largely by opposition supporters. Our electoral system favors the common symbol, so the SLPP and its allies contesting as Pohottuwa, will get the district bonus seat in16 or 17 districts, plus the lion’s share of the national list seats. The five and a half million votes of the NDF Swan in the November election, would be divided up to its constituency parts, at least the TNA contesting separately, if not the Muslim parties, resulting in a lower national list seats for the opposition as well. A two-thirds majority for the SLPP is not inconceivable and stopping that, would be the real challenge for the opposition.

The opposition constituency and the support base of the UNP is with Sajith Premadasa and not with Ranil Wickramasinghe. What Mr. Wickramasinghe has is a tight grip on the party’s legal structures. But what Maithripala Sirisena in the SLFP and even V. Anandasangari, undisputed leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) has learnt at their cost, is that a party machinery without that party’s support base is a pyric victory and a lonely road in the political wilderness. Looking up North, with the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the leadership of the Tamil United Liberation Front, was firmly in the grip of veteran leader and former MP, V. Anandasangari, who declined inter party democracy, resulting in the rest of the TULF resurrecting SJV Chelvanyagam’ s old Illankai Tamil Arasau Katchi (ITAK) and running the TNA, through the ITAK, not the TULF, which Mr. Anandasangari still controls to no political purpose.

The political future, the democratic opposition and the political alternative to the SLPP’s newly installed Rajapakse Administration, is Sajith Premadasa, his political allies and their support bases and constituencies. It would be desirable for that leadership to be through the vehicle of the United National Party (UNP). But if Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe refuses to concede to the inevitable, the desirable and the politically viable, Sajith Premadasa and his allies contesting under a new political alliance and symbol, will leave the old UNP under Ranil Wickramasinghe, in the same political boat as the SLFP under Sirisena, his partner in government of the last 5 years. A political nameboard, a history but no political support and no future.

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The UNF loss and looking ahead

Posted by harimpeiris on December 4, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 04th December 2019)

Two weeks after Sri Lankans elected a new president and consequently also received a new prime minister and government, and it is time for the United National Party (UNP) to take stock of the situation, their new found but not entirely unfamiliar role as the main opposition party, and devise a strategy to be both a democratic opposition playing a vital role as a check and balance on the executive and eventually, five years hence a viable alternative government.

The first rather self-evident truth is that the electorate will not change its mind in a few months’ time, and accordingly the SLPP administration is guaranteed a win at the forthcoming parliamentary elections, early next year. In fact, the real challenge for the UNP would be to prevent the SLPP from securing a two-thirds majority in parliament, and thereby being able to effect constitutional reforms without consulting and accommodating multi-party views and multi-stakeholder interests. A nation’s Constitution is more than the supreme law of the land; it is a social compact between peoples and between the people and the state, which therefore requires a high degree of consensus and acceptance, especially in non-homogeneous societies. Accordingly, it is ideal if constitutional reform is affected with consensus. A feature of the now somewhat maligned 19th amendment being that it was passed in 2015 after significant debate, consultations and with near unanimity and with no opposition in parliament.

IMF mandated austerity and low GDP growth

The UNF government ended after a single term, a term in which it saw support slip away precipitously by mid-term. The February 2018 local government elections made that very clear. There was a surprising renaissance of sorts after the October 2018 constitutional putsch and the resultant very short lived UPFA administration, which was subsequently deemed ultra vires the constitution by the superior courts. However, the UNF, after the LG elections or after the October surprise, did not engage in any serious course correction. Resulting in a significant loss of voter support from 2015 to 2019, specifically from 52% to 42% of the national vote. In fact, a far greater voter decline than what the UPFA suffered for a similar period, which from 2010 to 2015 went down from 55% to 48% and two weeks ago, came back up strongly to 52% in the shape and form of the SLPP.

The defining economic aspect about the UNF’s period of office, was the austerity measures adopted under the IMF’s tutelage, which essentially saw taxes raised and cut backs not so much in welfare spending but in public investment, resulting in the approximate GDP growth under the UNF government ranging from a meagre 3.5% to a dismal 2.5%, this in the context Sri Lanka’s war time twenty year growth average being 5%. The belt tightening was only eased at the last moment by former Finance Minister Samaraweera’s various development programmes, but these obviously came too late to impact the grassroots before the elections. Around the world, the IMF mandated austerity programmes have caused popular discontent against generally liberal minded governments that implement them. Governments went to the IMF in the first place, because of belief and trust in their benign intent and policy prescriptions. The result of the high taxes and low growth UNF government is that we now have an SLPP government which was able to cut taxes immediately upon winning office, would likely kick out the IMF, be bailed out by China, albeit at a price, and to put it very mildly, be considerably less liberal than its predecessor.

Looking ahead for the UNP

It was Ambassador Javid Yusuf, who in his popular column in a leading Sunday broadsheet, argued essentially that the UNF should take a page out of the Rajapaksa script from 2015 and regroup and plan ahead for a comeback five years from now. To their credit, Sri Lanka’s premier political and now recently re-elected first family, made some adroit political moves over a five-year period to stage a comprehensive comeback in 2019, after their shock defeat in 2015. A new political party was formed, a leadership succession plan adopted to deal with the term limits barring PM Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting the presidency. There was grassroot mobilization through the fledgling SLPP, still Sri Lanka’s newest and now ruling political party, but equally importantly also an organizing of political society around business circles, professionals and civil society through the Eliya and Viyath Maga organisations. Basically, the UNP would have to do much the same.

The rather obvious issue of reorganising the UNP first as a responsible and democratic opposition party and later to be a viable alternative government would be the leadership of the opposition. The UNP is led by the longest ever serving leader of a democratic political party and the longest serving party leader in the International Democratic Union (IDU), that international union of conservative parties to which the UNP belongs. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been leader of the UNP since 1994 or for twenty-five (25) years. In contrast the Conservative Party of the UK has had six (6) leaders during this time. Perhaps the UNP as part of its reforms should consider term limits for its own party leader. Perhaps a 15-year period or until two terms of elected office is over, whichever comes later. Sajith Premadasa played a bad hand really well, and picked up the UNP from the doldrums to a respectable 42%. This is seemingly why a vast majority of the UNP parliamentary group have written to the Speaker that they believe the UNP should be led both in parliament and in the country by Sajith Premadasa. This will eventually happen. The real question is when?

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