Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for September, 2016

The SLFP and UNP Conventions and the ideology of a national government

Posted by harimpeiris on September 19, 2016

The SLFP and UNP Conventions and the ideology of a national government

By Harim Peiris

( published in the Island newspaper September 13, 2016 )

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) held their 65th and 70th annual conventions recently in Kurunegala and Colombo respectively. A notable feature of the two events was that President Maithripala Sirisena was center stage at both events, at the SLFP convention as the party leader and at the UNP convention as the chief guest. Another notable commonality was former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the architect of the remarkable political landscape we witness today. Representing the UNP at its highest level at the SLFP convention was the party general secretary and former Chairman Kabir Hashim.  This remarkable demonstration of political bon homie, is a major departure from the adversarial, zero sum game of political acrimony, so common in Sri Lanka in the past and sadly still not prevalent in many if not all of Sri Lanka’s South Asian neighbors. It would be impossible to image such bon homie between say the BJP and the Congress leaders in India, or between the two Begums in Bangladesh or the fractious leaders of Nepal’s political parties or the vitriolic politics of the Maldives or in Pakistan. But Sri Lanka’s exceptional and unique government of consensus is the reason, we have the promise of genuine reform a distinct possibility.

In listening to President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe speaking to their respective key constituencies of party leaders, cadres and activists, one would glean the contours of the new thinking, the politics and ideology of the national unity government and the governance of consensus rather than confrontation. It was in the UNP national convention that the clearest articulation of the new thinking was made. Besides Premier Wickramasinghe who called for a new ideology to replace the old, Minister Sajith Premadasa argued that the political marriage of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe will not lead to a divorce. In what should have been the most partisan and parochial political message, the commitment to consensus, reform and a new Sri Lanka was remarkable.

Both conventions were remarkable for what they achieved. The SLFP convention was a resounding success, at least numerically compared to the “pada yathra” of the Joint Opposition. The UNP convention was amazing for its message including a frank admission of errors and mistakes of the past and a remarkable apology and a request for forgiveness by Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. Admitting wrong and especially asking forgiveness does not come easy in our honor conscious society. It was a remarkable performance by the Prime Minister.

This same message of national unity and consensus was earlier articulated also by both the President and the Prime Minister, in the immediate aftermath of the less than successful “pada yathra” of the Joint Opposition and on the occasion of the celebrations of the first anniversary of the government, elected in August last year. Here the reiteration of the commitment of the government to serve its full term of five years in office and respect the presidential election mandate of January 2015, which saw the defeat of the Rajapaksa regime. President Sirisena did pledge to work towards the formation of a government led by the SLFP and this is a perfectly legitimate goal for any and all of the future elections due at the proper time, local sometime next year, provincial also on a staggered basis from next year, but national parliamentary elections only due in 2020.  In countries such as Germany and other mature democracies where the two major parties combine to form administrations, contesting subsequent elections independently is the norm. Post such an election, a coalition government would or could again be formed. Accordingly, there is nothing to exclude the post 2020 government to also consist of the two major parties. Now all free societies throw up political dissent, which is why democracies require a vibrant political opposition to act as a watch dog and a check and balance on the government. However, Sri Lanka current experience is that some of these checks and balances are coming from within the government.  Very informally the two major parties in the government keeping a watch on each other. On issues such as the Central Bank bond issue and the VAT increase among others, it was members within the government itself, which engages on the issue, consults, compromises and reach consensus.

Now there is some criticism of the national unity government of consensus by some of the SLFP faction which is outside the government and part of the opposition. They articulate that such a national government is a betrayal of the party. However, it is rather a commitment to a united approach to reforming the country. The acrimonious political rivalry between the two major parties was the bane of this country and one which contributed largely to preventing progress, much needed reforms and indeed completing the unfinished work of national institution building. Unity and consensus is much more culturally suitable for Sri Lanka rather than an adversarial political system.

 

It was my friend and colleague Dr. Ram Manikkalingam who in times past wrote that there were three inter connected conflicts in Sri Lanka, the military conflict between the State armed forces and the LTTE, the power conflict between the UNP and the SLFP led alliances and the political conflict between ethnic Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. Sri Lanka is fortunate that the first conflict, the military one was concluded in 2009, with the destruction of the LTTE and in 2015 we were also fortunate to end the power conflict between the two parties by sharing executive power between the two major parties, enabling a remarkable constitutional reform process to be conducted through parliament, which may in the near future resolve the third and outstanding conflict of competing ethno-nationalisms through state reforms which would see the Sri Lankan state accommodate the full diversity of its society and end once and for all, what LTTE suicide victim, former Parliamentarian and lawyer Neelan Tiruchelvam described as “the anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”.

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

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