Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for October, 2014

The JHU critiques the Rajapakse Presidency By Harim Peiris

Posted by harimpeiris on October 24, 2014


The JHU critiques the Rajapakse Presidency

By Harim Peiris 

(Published in Groundviews)

 

The barbs and criticisms of a political ally can in politics often do greater damage than even the more forthright criticism of an opponent. The reason for this has all to do with political constituency. When the opposition criticizes the Rajapakse presidency, it resonates mainly with those that are already politically in disagreement with the president anyway and is only effective to the extent that it actually is deemed valid by more middle of the road or undecided voters, the members of the public who form the so called floating vote, which is often the decider at elections rather than the block votes of a political party.

As Government spokesman Minister Kheliya Rambukkwella goes public to confirm the holding of presidential elections, two years ahead of schedule, a key government ally the JHU has been taking on the Rajapakse presidency and preparing the ground to leave the government. According to the constitution, four years of the president’s term has to lapse before another presidential election can be called, which would be November 17th and hence the open announcement of the election a month or more in advance is for president Rajapakse to test the political waters. He can still pull back from calling the elections, if his prospects for reelection seem to be dimming. He certainly faces serious issues.

A presidency facing stormy seas

 

The Rajapakse presidency which was riding high only a few months ago has in a very short time run into a series of serious political setbacks. The Uva provincial council elections which was a litmus test of the Administration’s popularity was a disappointment for the UPFA, which saw its percentage of votes fall significantly, loose constituencies and in securing 58% of the popular vote in the near 98% Sinhala district of Monaragala, demonstrated that the two thirds 66%-67% of the Sinhala vote it requires to reach the magical 50% of total voters, is eluding them.

Secondly, the legal controversy and wrangling over Mahinda Rajapakse’s eligibility to context a third term in office through a broad and accommodative interpretation of the 18thamendment has run into a storm as former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva has taken the issue head on and with the support of the Bar Association as well as legal opinions from leading academics promises to personally challenge in the Supreme Court, Mahinda Rajapakse’s eligibility to be a third time candidate for the presidency. As he contemplates the cancellation of Pope Francis’s visit to Sri Lanka due to the Pope’s ethical impartiality in avoiding visiting countries during election seasons, Mohan Peiris must be dreading the thought of the unprecedented situation of finding a former Chief Justice and one of the best legal minds in the country challenging him, publicly in open court, making an acquiescence with Rajapakse’s own interpretation of his amendment that much harder. The Bar Association which stood solidly behind Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike during the impeachment fiasco, should encourage Chief Justice Bandaranaike to join with Chief Justice Sarath Silva to challenge President Rajapakse’s eligibility to seek a third term. Truly the Tourist Board has it right when it calls Sri Lanka, a land like no other. Irrespective of the outcome, the debate over the legal eligibility brings to the forefront the unpopular 18th amendment, the Administration’s own internal polls stating then that the public believed it was a power hungry, power grab.

The JHU distances itself from President Rajapakse

 

However, the real political damage to the Rajapakse presidency is coming from the stinging critique of its erstwhile ally the ultra Sinhala Buddhist nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Now the JHU actually does not command a large voter base in the country. Its official media spokesman, Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe barely received twenty thousand votes in the Colombo district at this year’s Western Provincial Council elections and came in at the bottom of the UPFA list. But like many ideological parties within a non ideological populist political front like the UPFA, it has been disproportionately influential and has often been the tail wagging the dog. Accordingly when the JHU critiques the presidency, the message goes direct to President Rajapakse’s core constituency of Sinhala Buddhist and challenges the claim to be a defender and promoter of Sinhala Buddhist interests.

Most politically damaging for President Rajapakse is that the JHU critique of his presidency is coming on the governance front and based on the very issues that are causing serious disquiet if not dissent among the southern Sinhala constituency. The JHU critique is on the abuse of power, the weakening of democratic institutions, nepotism, corruption, economic mismanagement and complete over centralization of state power in the presidency to an extent that it is not even accountable to Parliament. The JHU demand that reforms be made prior to a presidential election, as the price for its support, looks unlikely to occur and the UPFA may face the same dynamic which the UNP faced in 1994, where it was challenged from within by the breakaway DUNF and a resurgence by the SLFP led People Alliance saw an end to its seventeen year run of government. President Rajapakse faces a similar dynamic, challenged from within by the JHU and from outside by the UNP, the TNA, the trade unions and professional bodies and given the poll results of Uva including insufficient support amongst the mono ethnic Sinhala Buddhist Monaragala, may well  face a very uphill task to electorally prevail.

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A Presidential Visit up North

Posted by harimpeiris on October 16, 2014

 

A Presidential Visit up North

By Harim Peiris

 

By all accounts, President Rajapakse’s unprecedented and rather controversial third term re-election campaign, though unofficial, has begun in earnest. Last week he presented the Cabinet of Ministers with a proposal to increase communal harmony in the country and implement the LLRC proposals, though a few weeks earlier the defense establishment, had facilitated a convention of an extremist religious organization, which joined hands with a convicted religious extremist monk from Myanmar to sprout the kind of vitriolic venom at minorities that most closely resembled the worst rhetoric of the Nazi political rallies in Nuremberg, Germany before the second world war. The hate speech charges of over breeding, controlling commerce, diluting the majority through inter marriage, were all charges leveled against the Jews by the Nazi’s. Today in Sri Lanka and indeed in Myanmar, eerily the same charges are leveled against the Muslim community by the self styled protectors of Buddhism, clearly more influenced by European fascism than by the great philosophy and noble teachings of South Asia’s greatest son.

This week, the president is on a visit to the North, where the best of the government’s reconstruction efforts were on display, the center piece being the resumption of the train services to Jaffna, the iconic Yaal Devi, resuming service after over two decades. The Government’s demining and infrastructure reconstruction efforts have been commendable and noteworthy successes. However in a damming indictment for the Rajapakse Administration, the Northern Provincial Council, led by Justice Wigneswaran, decided to boycott the president’s visit citing essentially the bad faith chocking of the provincial administration by the government at the center. The Rajapakse Administration having secured a dismal eighteen (18%) of the popular vote in the North, runs a parallel provincial administration in the north, through the governor, retired general Chandrasiri, who has in the best (or worst) traditions of military strongmen, shed their uniforms for civilian garb and run, a militarized parallel administration in the North. Furthermore even the very limited shared executive functions and powers devolved to the provinces and enjoyed by the other provincial councils are being denied to the Northern Provincial Council, the only ethnic minority and opposition controlled provincial administration in the country. A case in point being,  the constitutional requirement that the appointment of the chief secretary by the President be done in consultation with the Chief Minster. It is a paradox of our constitution, that the actions of the president, cannot be challenged in a court of law or even raised in parliament and that there is complete immunity from judicial review. The legal limitations on this proviso made through case law, by the likes of late Justice Mark Fernando, have since been diluted and likely will no longer prevail post the impeachment of Chief Justice Shiranee Bandaranaike.

As the Rajapakse presidency seeks an unprecedented third term. It is time to take stock of the nature of Sri Lanka’s “peace”. Five years after the war has ended Sri Lanka still deploys the military countrywide through the public security ordinance, has detention without trial or due process under the PTA and has yet to adequately deal with the effects of the war on victims including families of the missing, war widows, war orphans, amputees and those rendered homeless and destitute by the near three decades of war. Impressive large scale infrastructure alone, has done little for victims. Not returning traditional lands in the Valigamam North areas of Jaffna to their owners, is now perpetuating impoverished internally displaced communities.

The government has done little by way of implementing the LLRC proposals for reconciliation. The government’s action plan on implementation of the LLRC, is a deeply flawed perversion of the actual LLRC report, in that it ignores the key political recommendations which underpin the overall LLRC recommendations, that of a political solution with the ethnic minorities and generally takes the approach that the problems identified by the LLRC don’t really exist. As Justice Wigneswaran the chief minister of the Northern Province has pointed out in his letter to the president, explaining the reasons for the boycott by the NPC, the repeated assurances to the international community to fully implement the 13th amendment to the Constitution, shown no signs of even commencing. On the contrary the central government through its bureaucracy is stifling even the limited devolution granted under the 13th amendments.

Several attempts by the South African to assist a process of national reconciliation through facilitating a direct dialogue between the government and the TNA as the  overwhelmingly elected representatives of the Tamil people has been put on the back burner by the Government. The tired and rather hackneyed call by the government, for participation of the opposition parties in the government initiated Parliamentary Select Committee has been less frequent, as the government realizes the lack of credibility of parliamentary committees, given the farcical nature of the high profile, but allegedly deeply flawed process followed in the forcible removal of Chief Justice Bandaranaike.

Sri Lanka is in dire need of re-democratization.  Our democratic issues took a severe beating and a consequent weakening due to and a through close upon three decades of war. However with the advent of peace or the absence of war, maintaining the same ethnic policies that were in place during the war, does nothing for reconciliation amongst Sri Lanka’s people, winning the hearts and minds of war affected communities or securing and making permanent through socio political acceptance, the hard won peace we have today.

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A Monaragala problem for the Rajapakse Regime

Posted by harimpeiris on October 7, 2014

 

A Monaragala problem for the Rajapakse Regime

(Published in Groundviews)

 

Speculation mounts not just in political circles but also in civil society of an impending presidential election, early in the New Year. The Uva Provincial Council elections, which besides being constitutionally required, were also a testing of the political waters by the Rajapakse Administration and the results could not have been more disturbing to those in the corridors of power.

Now the Rajapakse presidency has a reelection strategy that has been born of necessity, which is winning the presidential elections with almost solely the Sinhala vote. Even a cursory glance at the 2005 and the 2010 presidential election results would demonstrate that President Mahinda Rajapakse does not receive the votes of either the Muslim or the Tamil communities. Even Minister Thondaman’s ability to deliver the estate Tamil vote is hampered, by the President’s lack of appeal to ethnic and religious minorities. For instance in the 2010 presidential elections in which he secured a near 58% national vote, he lost in the multi ethnic Nuwara Eliya – Maskeliya electorate securing only 34% of the vote and conceding a huge 60% vote share to General Sarath Fonseka. As the Rajapakse presidency’s in house think tanks have concluded, correctly, the Rajapakse brand attraction is limited to its core constituency of the ethnic Sinhala electorate, both Buddhist and Catholic. The Catholic vote in Sri Lanka, currently is splitting along ethnic lines, with Tamil Catholics, whose views are essentially articulated by Mannar Bishop Rayappu Joseph, voting TNA and supporting minority rights, while Malcom Cardinal Ranjith, now aided by an impending Papal visit, keeps Sinhala Catholics firmly within the orbit of a Sinhala nationalist Administration.

Accordingly an unprecedented Rajapakse third term reelection plan requires a preponderance of the Sinhala vote, or about 65% or two thirds of the Sinhala vote, which is about 75% of the total electorate to squeeze out a victory. Hence in 2005, President Rajapakse would not have won except for the fact that the LTTE enforced a boycott of the election by voters in Jaffna and the LTTE controlled Vanni. This time around the TNA does not need to say very much to see Tamils voting quite heavily against the Rajapakse Administration.

In 2010, in the aftermath of winning the war, President Rajapakse had no trouble securing the Sinhala vote based on the war victory, but even as President Rajapakse conceded as far back as 2009, once the war is over, people will look at economic development in return for their political support. It is essentially in the area of economic management and governance that the Rajapakse Administration finds itself losing ground among Sinhala constituency. An interesting poll by Social Indicator in the days preceding the Uva provincial polls stated that more than half the people indicated that they were worse off now economically than they were two years ago, notwithstanding the rose tinted reports of a politicized Central Bank and Chinese funded large scale infrastructure projects with little local employment opportunities, with most of the work being also done by Chinese labour.

A worry for the Rajapakse Administration should be its performance in the Monaragala District. The Monaragala district is the most mono ethnically Sinhala district in the country. Monaragala is more Sinhala than even the President’s own constituency of Hambanthota and more Sinhala than Jaffna is Tamil. In recent past elections, the UPFA sectored huge majorities in Monaragala, polling 81%, 75% and 69% respectively at the 2009 provincial and the 2010 general and presidential elections. Now Monaragala is a reasonable proxy for the Sinhala vote, given that it is essentially a mono ethnically Sinhala district. But at the recent Uva provincial poll, the UPFA secured only 58% of the vote in Monaragala. Basically 58% of the Sinhala vote would not be sufficient in a national election when the minorities also come out and vote, as they did in Badulla and the UPFA  and that too after throwing everything they had into the effort, something that would not be possible on that scale at a national election. It was quite a fight, literally. Here is how the Sunday Times political column of Sunday 28thSeptember, describes the Rajapakse effort that fell far short of what was required.

Lawlessness reigned in the run-up to the September 20 polls. Intimidation and thuggery were rampant. The Police were blind to new Defender Jeeps sans number plates clogging the outback of Badulla and Monaragala Districts. Unidentified but well-built men were canvassing in different ways for the ruling party candidates. Various forms of inducements were offered.

A VIP distributed envelopes with money amounting to between Rs 2,500 and Rs 5,000. Opposition party supporters feared to walk into a Police Station. In one instance on polls day, the Mayor of Bandarawela was assaulted inside the Police Station by three Government politicians. The Officer-in-Charge of this headquarters station was transferred for failing to prevent the incident. However, no action so far seems to have been taken on the assailants. Polls laws were violated with impunity. The Polls and Police Chiefs were buck-passing complaints from those who sought a free and fair poll.”

If President Rajapakse secures anything less than two thirds (2/3) of the Sinhala electorate and assuming the minorities come out and vote, the unprecedented third Rajapakse term may be electorally quite difficult. The opposition has the momentum coming out of the Uva election. But they  still need to create a broad opposition front and a minimum common opposition program for a common opposition candidate to take on President Rajapakse. The president will still win reelection if the opposition is divided, with a serious three or four person race. In the Uva election, the UPFA flag carrier was a presidential nephew, while at a presidential election it will be the president himself. The Venerable Sobitha Thera has done a lot of the ground work for a common opposition front, if the UNP has the political imagination to see it and more importantly the realization that it requires a broad front to win the elections. Let’s not forget the fact, the UNP did well in Uva, but it still did not win, the UPFA did. Without a broad opposition front, that is still the most likely scenario in a presidential election as well. 

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