Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • August 2016
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Archive for August, 2016

National Unity Government after one year

Posted by harimpeiris on August 23, 2016

National Unity Government after one year

By Harim Peiris

( published in the Daily News )


August 19th was the first anniversary of the National Unity Government elected after the last general elections and several political issues have dominated the recent news, especially the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Act and the recent removal by the President as SLFP leader of Joint Opposition SLFP members from their posts as party organizers. Losing their posts were JO stalwarts Kheliya Rambukwella, CB Ratnayake, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Gamini Lokuge, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana and Jagath Balasuriya. Dallas Allaperuma and Bandula Gunawardena have announced their intention to resign, a wise move to do so, before they are also likely removed.


The most underlying feature of the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration is that it is a unique unity experiment between the two major political parties which have alternatively governed this country since independence the United National Party (UNP), led by Prime Minister Wickramasinghe and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena. What this has done, is pushed the third placed Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to the official opposition position for the first time since 1977 and more importantly created a very broad based government which has over two thirds support in Parliament and consequently able to carry through on a reform agenda, as demonstrated by the unanimous decision of parliament to be a constitutional assembly which will institutionalize and codify all reforms through a constitutional for Sri Lanka.


The German Experience

The practice of the two largest parties in the country and in parliament coming together to form, what might be termed a “grand national coalition” is not an unusual, phenomena in the world and while not common, is also found in other places. The best example would be Germany, where the Christian Democrats of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Social Democratic Party, the two largest parties in that country have been forming grand national coalitions now on several occasions and likely to do so again in federal German elections due next year. The parties govern together and then separate to contest the elections. The parties are well established with their own ideologies, the Christian Democrats essentially the conservative right of center party and the Social Democrats as their name implies are left of center. Similar experiences exist in other countries with parliamentary democracies too, mostly in Europe.


Asserting control the slow and steady way


President Maithripala Sirisena has his own style and at times challenges Machiavellian orthodoxy for achieving and increasing control. Right after the presidential elections in January 2015, a shell shocked SLFP abandoned the defeated Rajapakses and moved over to President Sirisena. The nay Sayers existed even then but President Sirisena choose the less travelled path of refraining from taking drastic action against his political detractors and as party general secretary Minister Duminda Dissanayke said recently quietly watched and slowly took action. What has been occurring has been a slow but steady process of asserting control and slowly marginalizing the SLFP faction opposing his administration and supporting the joint opposition of former President Rajapaksa.


A new political formation and local government polls


The political strategists of the Joint Opposition, who regularly vow to come to power very soon, in much the same way as the old leftist firebrands used to promise that the revolution was around the corner, in the iron curtain era gone by, are staking their hopes on a new political formation led by former President Rajapaksa and contesting the local government and perhaps some provincial polls due next year. The strategy has a few serious weaknesses. Firstly, Sri Lankan politics is very unkind to third forces in general and breakaway factions in particular.  The JVP despite a very clear and distinct leftist identity has struggled to pose a democratic regime change challenge to the government securing only seven seats at the last election. The most significant previous breakaway from a main party was the Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayke led breakaway from the UNP, styled the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). It contested the first provincial council polls held after it was formed and secured 13% of the popular vote nationally, a remarkable performance but nonetheless had no staying power and is no more today.


Why the JO which essentially lost two elections last year with President Rajapaksa leading the fray believe that they would be third time lucky is unclear. One definition of lunacy is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. The Rajapaksa message has not changed, strident ethno-nationalism with barely disguised racism will not produce any local government victories. Local government elections are not elections which change governments and hence always difficult to generate enthusiasm for voter turnout among opposition supporter. Further the first provincial council election due is the Eastern Province in mid-2017, an election in which the generally minority bashing, strident majoritarian nationalism of the Joint Opposition does not carry any appeal. The Muslim electorate of the Eastern Province would hardly be unaware that since last year’s January 8th election, there has not been a single act of mob violence against mosques or places of minority religious worship. From a perspective of political violence, it also demonstrates remarkable command and control over violence, that an election result could stop political violence in its tracks. Sri Lankan democracy has been the winner, one year on for the national unity government.


(The writer is Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are personal)




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Pada Yathra in retrospect

Posted by harimpeiris on August 15, 2016

Pada Yathra in retrospect

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News on 12/08/16)


The much heralded Pada Yathra or protest march by the Joint Opposition is now over and with the dust settling, the political impact and more lasting impact of the march on Sri Lanka’s political process should be accessed. Billed as the major initiative of the Joint Opposition for the mid-year, its organizers and JO theoreticians never meant it to be a regime changer of the Arab Spring variety, but rather as former President Rajapaksa himself described it, a rehearsal or a litmus test if you like of the joint oppositions mobilizing power and political strength.


Now the JO in parliament is relatively weak, at a little below fifty MPs in the two hundred and twenty-five-member assembly, the JO effectively concedes a constitution change enabling two third majority to the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe national unity government. With President Rajapaksa making only rare appearances in Parliament it falls on the shoulders of Dinesh Gunawardena to lead the JO in Parliament, but representing a single member MEP, he doesn’t carry much clout with either SLFP activists or nationally at the grass root level.


To compensate for a lack of gravitas in the House, the JO thrives on populist politics out of parliament and on the streets. However, even in this respect, the Pada Yathra was only a limited success. It did not attract mass support as it marched through towns, it was merely the organized activists who dutifully turned up as they would for a May-day rally.


Limits of ethnic nationalism


The Mahinda Rajapaksa led JO vision for the SLFP, is to turn it into a counterpart of the TNA, a regional political party with an appeal limited to only a single ethnic group. The TNA appeals to Tamil voters and draws support only from the North and East. The JO would wish to make the SLFP led UPFA to appeal only to Sinhala voters and draw support largely from the South and the Sinhala rural hinterlands and have no appeal to urban cosmopolites, ethnic and religious minorities. Coupled with disastrous and allegedly corrupt governance, such a limited appeal was what made the Rajapaksa presidency come to a premature end. The Rajapaksa political project when in government, ratcheted up majoritarian ethno-religious nationalism to its highest peak and yet at two elections last year came up well short. Why it believes that more of the same, will deliver a different result is hard to fathom. Perhaps it is what political theorists refer to as the lack of a moral imagination, the inability to see political possibilities, opportunities and necessities while being stuck in the past.


The Pada Yathra unified the Government


Given the initial two-year period of approval for the National Government granted by the SLFP central committee at the conclusion of last year’s general election, there was some genuine ambiguity at least within SLFP circles about the duration of the Unity Government. It is a well-known political fact that some activists and other political elements were working towards a rapprochement between the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions of the SLFP, with the intent of replacing Prime Minister Wickramasinghe and the UNP with the Rajapaksa and the JO section of the UPFA. The intended outcome went even beyond a regime reconfiguration and was essentially a regime change without a parliamentary election, now barred under the 19th Amendment.  It was to pander to this theory that the JO stalwarts kept repeating with little credibility that its opposition was not to President Sirisena but to the Wickramasinghe led government. This fig leaf came off entirely though the Pada Yathra. As best denoted by the novice Chilaw District MP, now suspended from the SLFP, for his vitriolic attacks against President Sirisena, the JO hostility is against both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe. President Rajapaksa can seemingly never forget that he was beaten twice in one year, in January by President Sirisena and after wresting leadership of the UPFA campaign in August for a re-run as a multi-party exercise rather than the presidential two horse race, he again lost, this time to the Premier Wickramasinghe led UPFA in August last year. The JO hostility is towards both political entities that defeated them, not just one.


However, the political result of the JO populist assault on the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration was that it made the Government close ranks. The SLFP Central Committee actually passed a resolution authorizing the National Unity Government for its full five-year term.  Most importantly President Sirisena, who faces the internal SLFP dissension, pledged and reiterated his political commitment to the national unity political arrangement. The Pada Yathra had the effect of last year’s presidential election it unified all Rajapaksa opponents against the JO. Even the JVP which had been studiously avoiding criticizing the previous Rajapaksa Administration after the general elections and focusing on being opposition watch dogs over the current Administration relaunched blistering and coordinated political attacks on Rajapaksa, the entire JVP leadership pitched into the Rajapaksa’s track record in governance and alleged corruption.


Within Sri Lanka, the Pada Yathra made six point two (6.2) million Sri Lankans to refocus their minds on why eighteen months ago they voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa and for Maithripala Sirisena. Not with standing a VAT tax increase and the slow pace of investigations into past regime abuses, there are seemingly few takers, at least willing to take to the streets, out of nostalgia for a return to Rajapaksa rule.

(The writer is Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are personal)

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