Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for December, 2014

Maithri articulates a national government

Posted by harimpeiris on December 15, 2014

Maithri articulates a national government

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Sunday Leader of 14th December 2014)

 

The surprising launch of the common opposition presidential campaign of Maithripala Sirisena, is fast evolving into a movement that has the air and excitement of something fresh and new being birthed. Maithri is a man with a message and that message is not only resonating with voters, but also creating a hope and expectancy that beyond the inevitable changes of a potential new administration, that “Maithri palanaye” would not only be new but different, vastly different from the present order.

The resonance of the message is being amplified by the wide rainbow coalition that is coalescing around Maithri, ranging from a sizable faction of the SLFP to the JHU, besides all the opposition parties from the UNP to the Democratic Party. Even the parties not formally in his coalition, such as the JVP are doing his campaign an enormous amount of good and providing invaluable support by stinging criticism of the incumbent Administration and calling upon their supporters to vote against a third term for President Rajapakse. Even the TNA, representing the Tamil community is probably doing a very wise thing, staying off Maithri’s stage and not providing the UPFA with an easy basis to scare monger about minorities. With the UPFA polling just 18% in the North, at the last provincial council election, there is little doubt which way minorities will vote, if their leaders ask them to. The Rajapakse’s may well be ruing the emasculation of the Northern Provincial Council through the Governor’s powers. A strong minority turnout and vote in the North and East would in fact be the ultimate protest vote against Rajapakse rule.

Meanwhile the headcount of breakaways from the Rajapakse led UPFA continues to mount as deputy ministers, P Digambaram and V. S. Radhakrishnan of the CWC resigned from the government and pledged their support to Maithripala Sirisena. In response, the Rajapakse camp has only been able to get two MP’s the UNP’s Tissa Attanayake and the DNA’s Jayantha Ketegoda. Also following Digambaram was three provincial councilors and over a dozen Pradeshiya Sabah members  of his National Workers Union (NWU).  With the departure of Radhakrishnan, the CWC of Thondaman, finds itself isolated in its lackadaisical support for the Rajapakse campaign would be even more hamstrung in the presidential contest than it was even in Uva, where it fared badly.

A Vision for a National Government

 

Maithripala Sirisena has outlined a bold vision for a national government. A common sense, dialogue driven, consensus seeking form of government, to re establish national institutions and an executive answerable to parliament. This is quite in contrast to the message of the incumbent, which is basically to trust him personally and the benevolence of his rule. Maithri puts forward a much more tried and tested thesis, one much more dependent on a collective rather than on an individual, of a society governed by institutions under the rule of law. This would flow from a general election which must of necessity follow the presidential elections and would see a parliament quite different from the current. But by seeking a Grand National government, Maithri holds out the possibility of including his native Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in his government and his own track record as General Secretary, together with former President Kumaratunga, makes the specter of a national government, a reality. In the event of a defeat of President Rajapakse, his ability to hold on to the SLFP leadership is in considerable doubt. SLFPers would face the rather simple choice of being in opposition with a defeated Rajapakse or being in Government with an elected Maithripala, endorsed by former party leader, President Kumaratunga. Given the sentiments in the SLFP, political loyalty to Mahinda Rajapakse, out of power is likely to be very weak.

Does Corruption, Nepotism and Good Governance matter to the rural voter?

 

The Rajapakse led UPFA believes and argues, that issues of corruption, nepotism and good governance which Maithri is articulating does not matter to voters, especially the rural Sinhala voter who still makes up the bulk of the Sri Lankan electorate. The Rajapakse Administration believes instead that it is economic wellbeing and large doses of ethno Sinhala nationalism, which is the winning formula with the rural Sinhala base. That ethnic Sinhala nationalism is potent is a rather obvious, but the context matters and paradoxically the end of the war and the defeat of the Tigers, makes Sinhala nationalism less potent. Ethnic nationalism thrives on an external adversary and threat. The Administration’s attempts to scare monger about Muslim Jihadist and Diaspora led LTTE resurgence has few takers even in the Sinhala community. Even the JHU, which can scarcely be seen as pro Tiger, would argue that the Rajapakse Administration’s alleged  corruption, weakening of judicial independence and a casino led development strategy is a far more real and present national danger.

The Sri Lankan electorate is a sophisticated one. With a high literacy rate, a long history of universal adult franchise and a politicized society, our people are well versed in the political issues of the day. Yes, governance issues matter and corruption matters even more than governance. The real problem for the Rajapakse Administration is that its core constituency of the rural Sinhala voter does not feel economic well being. Despite the rosy picture painted by our Central Bank, consumer surveys demonstrate a lack of confidence in the economy and hence blame the Rajapakse governance for the same. The large scale Chinese loan funded infrastructure projects have not generated local jobs, boosted rural incomes or resulted in an increasing middle class. The rich have got very much richer, income inequality has increased and the middle class, lower middles class, the working class both urban and rural are suffering decline in real incomes and with it hope for a better economic future. The apparent wealth around them only fuels resentment and the Rajapakse led UPFA, paid the price in Uva with a massive drop in support and is seeing its support slip further away as the campaign unfolds.

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The Rainbow Coalition of Fundamental Change

Posted by harimpeiris on December 8, 2014

 

The Rainbow Coalition of Fundamental Change

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Sunday Leader of 7th Dec 2014)

 

The contours of a political vision is being clearly articulated when one examines the message of common presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena, a rare breed of a gentleman politician, a farmer’s son from rural Rajarata, who rose to the second most senior position of the ruling SLFP, as its longest serving General Secretary.

Firstly, the campaign is about the need for change. Change from the corruption and poor governance especially of the Rajapakse second term. To the obvious question as to why now and not earlier, the simple answer is that in Sri Lanka’s system, the time to challenge a government is at a democratic election. An earlier challenge will just get you sacked, just ask Mangala Samaraweera.  Until then you work within the system, engage the powers that be and try and bring change from the inside. This is clearly what the UPFA dissidents did during the Rajapakse second term. It was to no avail and they have made their break with the past.

The core issue of the campaign is good governance and an end to corruption. The common opposition campaign is focused on government corruption as the root cause for the economic pain felt by many sections of society, many of them still publicly protesting even as the election campaign unfolds, from farmers, to fishermen, from post war minority communities, to university students and academics.

Abolition of the Executive Presidency  

 

There is a pledge of constitutional reform, of abolition of the executive presidency, made by the challenger. The rationale being, that as political philosophers have noted through the ages, concentrated and unchecked political power breeds abuses. As our most recent national experience has demonstrated only too clearly. The question then is then who governs, if the president does not solely do so? The answer is an executive which is drawn from and answerable to Parliament, in which rather obviously a future President Maithripala will play a leading role, as head of state, though not as an elected dictator. There will be a national government of a rainbow coalition, an attractive proposition.

The other real answer is that Sri Lanka must be a mature democracy that is administered by strong institutions, under the rule of law. Today, every institution in the country, from the police, to the judiciary, to the telephone companies are abused by the executive presidency. Police officers are transferred on the eve of the presidential election, a Chief Justice is impeached, ex parte in the dead of night, the TV transmission of the opposition press conference is blocked out and we still question why this executive presidency should not be drastically reformed.

Further the Rajapakse executive presidency is like no other, accounting for over half the national budget, bringing crucial institutions like the Attorney General’s Department and the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission under itself. A drastic re democratization of Sri Lanka is required.

A directionless Rajapakse campaign lacking any vision

 

The Mahinda Rajapakse re-election campaign is floundering from its start, paradoxically very inauspiciously for a campaign widely believed to have been held two years ahead of schedule based on astrological recommendations. If Sri Lanka actually had a more vibrant democracy that held its leaders accountable to the public, the Rajapakse Administration’s faux pas would have been fatal.

The Rajapakse campaign began with a thinly veiled public blackmail attempt of the dissident ministers, including the common opposition candidate, claiming the existence of “files” on the dissidents. Such a claim obviously begs the question, why now? And also if prima farci case exists, there can be no cover up, the facts must be made public. Clearly a rather empty claim has to be the logical conclusion.

Secondly we have the absolutely outrageous contention of a government minister on behalf of the campaign stating that because they had already robbed so much and could not possibly rob much more, they should be reelected, rather than a fresh set of people, who may start robbing afresh. Such theatre that passes off for as a rationale for reelecting the Rajapakse’s for a third term is more farce than comedy.

The Rajapakse campaign has also been busy trying to both engineer some crossovers from the opposition to the government and also to prevent further crossovers from government to the opposition. Though the process is ongoing and with fabulous amounts of money on offer, as none other than former Minister Navin Dissanayake claimed, on both counts the Rajapakse Administration has to date failed as Minister Navin Dissanayake, MP Hunais Farook and several UPFA provincial councilors crossed over from the government to the opposition.

More importantly though, the Rajapakse third term lacks both a vision and a message. There is no rhyme, reason or rationale given for seeking a third term and early one at that. There is no message coming out of a shell shocked campaign. A set of infrastructure development plans drawn up at the Finance Ministry, does not constitute a political vision. The Rajapakse Administration was so sure that it’s opponent would be Ranil Wickramasinghe, that posters printed in India, slamming Ranil was shipped and secured at the Sri Lanka Ports Authority security yard, when the UNP MP’s when to inspect it and of course in our land like no other, it was the MP’s who were charged with criminal trespass.

Losing the majority in three provincial councils  

 

The Rajapakse Administration has effectively lost its majority in three provincial councils, namely the Uva, Eastern and North Central Provincial Councils. The Rajapakse Administration facing defeat in the Councils has adjourned all three councils till after the presidential election, In Uva on the farcical basis that it is too cold for members to attend sitting.  There the UNP’s Harin Fernando is busy collecting affidavits to prove he has the support of a majority of the Council to force the Government to bow to the wishes of the majority. In the East, the Government did not bother with even a farcical explanation for the sudden adjournment, when its budget was about to be defeated. In the North Central Province with both Maithri and Duminda Dissanayake’s supporters having switched support, the Government whose Chairman nominee anyway earlier lost to the late Bertie Premlal’s nominee, it is clearly in a minority.

The Rajapakse Administration’s only message is to try and make this election about Rajapakse verses the West, but in reality it has become, Rajapakse verses the rest. President Rajapakse allies have now joined or become his opponents. From his General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena to his Reconciliation Advisor Rajiva Wijesinghe, from his young bucks Wasantha Senanayake and Duminda Dissanayake to his seasoned hands Rajitha Senanayake, from the urban Arjuna Ranatunga to the rural MKDS Goonewardena, Mahinda Rajapakse’s political friends and allies are deserting him. A truly rainbow coalition is backing the common presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena to bring about the “Maithri palanaye” and a fundamental change.

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The Sirisena Campaign needs to pick up from Uva

Posted by harimpeiris on December 4, 2014


The Sirisena Campaign needs to pick up from Uva

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 2/12/2014)

 

Kicking off his election campaign in his native Polonaruwa, with his first election rally, the Maithripala Sirisena, common opposition campaign is gaining momentum. Increasing the exodus from the UPFA was Nuwara Elisa District parliamentarian Navin Dissanayake, the Minister for Public Management Reforms, who resigned from the government and pledged his support to Maithripala Sirisena. He was preceded late last week by Hunais Farook, MP from the Vanni, who also crossed over to the opposition. While not a flood, the breakaway from the UPFA has been ongoing and despite offers of fabulous sums of money, there seem to be no takers, at least at the time of writing this article, for the Rajapakse’s filthy lucre. Further the opposition parties and civil society groups have finalized a minimum common program around re-democratizing Sri Lanka, which includes abolition of the executive presidency. What was believed to be impossible only a few months ago, that the opposition would unite around a common candidate has now become a reality. As Buddhism teaches us nothing is permanent in life. Not even the seemingly invincible Rajapakse Administration.

The Mahinda Rajapakse campaign is in complete disarray

 

Meanwhile the Mahinda Rajapakse campaign is in complete disarray. It has still not recovered from the failure of its secret police to inform it of the impending political storm and it has no clear message or strategy. It spent the week trying to prevent further crossovers to the opposition and get a prize cross over to the for an astronomical price and it was not successful in either.

Further the Rajapakse campaign lacks any clear or cogent message. He has yet to explain to the people why he has gone for elections two years before his second term is up, with his eligibility for a third term itself disputed. A set of infrastructure plans does not constitute a political vision and the Rajapakse campaign lacks any clear message to voters. In the absence of a message, the opposition now has the luxury of defining the proposed Rajapakse third term as a really bad idea for a variety of reasons, linked to his governance track record.

President Rajapakse’s election brain trust has not really adjusted to the fact that the situation in January 2015 is completely different from when he ran in January 2010. Then he was the President who had presided over winning the war only seven months earlier and a duly grateful electorate reelected him comfortably. But in 2015, he can no longer run on the war victory, that would suffice once and soon after the war. President Rajapakse understood this, then and now, which is why he advanced his election even in 2010. However, now he will be judged as least by the floating, uncommitted voter on his track record of the past five years and what it indicates for the next seven years.

Uva was an effective defeat for President Rajapakse

 

The Uva election was quite a disaster for the Rajapakse Administration. They managed to hang onto power, but only just. It was not enough to conceal the fact that support was slipping for the regime. This perception of support is an important aspect of the Rajapakse regime. At the grass roots, every abuse of the system and the complete erosion of the separation of the ruling party and the state machinery is done and this ensures that a significant section of its support comes from people who credibly believe that the morning after the election; the Rajapakse regime will still hold sway. In a provincial election, the opposition vote is only a protest vote. This is also why the election turnout is about 62% to 65% for provincial elections, while the national elections would see turnouts of between 75% to 80%. These additional voters have only to vote in a greater proportion for the opposition, to see the required swing towards it.

The Uva provincial election was fought with way more weaknesses for the opposition than the presidential election will be. Then the opposition was not united. Now they are. Then the serious slippage of support for the Rajapakse’s was an untested thesis, after the results and the breakaways, it is now confirmed. A provincial election is not a government changing election; a presidential election is a chance for real and lasting change, both for good and for bad. Amarasiri Dodangoda is not a political household name. But in 1993, as SLFP candidate for Chief Minister of the Southern Province, he defeated the UNP and set the stage up for the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, clean sweep the next year. Young Harin Fernando may not have quite piped Shasendra Rajapakse to the post in the earlier Uva provincial race, but he wounded them sufficiently and exposed the weaknesses openly enough for, Maithripala Sirisena to seem very likely to complete the job.

An effective shift in the balance of social and political forces in the country

 

There is an effective shift in the balance of social and political forces in the country, post the Uva provincial council elections. The mere coming together of the opposition to support a common candidate is in itself a significant game changer. The absence of everyone joining the same platform is not a loss, the support from outside is a common practice, such as in India. The important thing being that that parties not formally in the alliance are not running their own candidate and are especially strongly criticizing the incumbent. From the Sinhala nationalist JHU, to heavy weights from the SLFP, to the Muslim People’s Congress, the JVP, the TNA and General Fonseka‘s Democrats are all informing the country that a third Rajapakse term is a really very bad idea. Add to that the Bar Association, the University Teachers and other professional groups. Countering that seem to be largely just the Rajapakse’s. In an election of the Rajapakse’s verses the rest, they may find that unlike the low turnout and high mal practice Uva provincial election, they may well not prevail.

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