Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for December, 2016

Open government for sustaining democracy

Posted by harimpeiris on December 30, 2016

Open government for sustaining democracy

By Harim Peiris

(Reporting from the Open Government Partnership Summit, Paris)

There is urgency. Democracy is a common good, precious and fragile. It is threated by terrorism, by abstention, by disputes of all kinds and by the rise of populism. It is also threatened with indifference, by citizens who sometimes feel that nothing changes and that they can do nothing to make a difference”.  So, said; President Francois Hollande, Chairman of the Open Government Partnership, welcoming delegates to the 4th Open Government Partnership (OGP) Global Summit, in Paris.

Making a statement at the Summit, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera stated that;       “Sri Lanka accepted the invitation to join OGP with enthusiasm because the values of OGP reflect the policies of our government and the OGP National Action Plan approved by our Cabinet of Ministers echoes the commitments the government made to our people and the OGP has proven to be a source of inspiration and strength to Sri Lanka”.

Sri Lanka was invited to join, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in October 2015, the first South Asian Country to be so invited and a joins a group of seventy member nations in one of the most recent but fastest growing multi-lateral groupings committed to fostering open and transparent government, or good governance. A young international organization, much championed by the outgoing American Obama Administration, it remains to be seen how much the new incoming Trump Administration prioritizes the Open Government Partnership.

The main political message of the Paris summit was an interesting one, that democracy is threatened in various ways, including by terrorism, a populism which subsumes democracy, voter apathy and indifference among other reasons. This also corresponds however with rapid technological change, which is transmitting information in real time, thereby increasing the desire of society to be more engaged and to be listened to, to be given a real chance to build their societies.

Democracy is certainly not a narrow concept limited to the periodic conducting of reasonably free and fair polls. It requires transparent governance, public debate and consultation and rejecting or minimizing corruption and fraud. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) seeks to promote those values, the core OGP values of open and transparent governance, participatory and inclusive policy making through protecting and safeguarding civic space, eliminating bribery and corruption, improved delivery of public services, especially through the use of information technology in general and social media in particular.

Within the OGP network, Sri Lanka is somewhat of a blue-eyed poster boy and the reason is not hard to come by. The international community is well aware that President Maithripala Sirisena last year defeated an entrenched and populist predecessor, who was somewhat the anti-thesis of what the OGP values are about. Regarding the previous Rajapakse presidential administration, there were allegations of widespread corruption, human rights abuses and shrinking civic space. The political message of the current Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration was good governance, reconciliation and sustainable economic growth.  The political message of good governance was countered with a more developmental argument, massive infrastructure projects amid shrinking civic space and minimal tolerance for real dissent. The previous Rajapakse regime which relied heavily on China not only for investment but also for political support was seemingly inspired by the Chinese Communist Party model of liberalizing the economy while being rather less liberal on political and human rights.

However, the OGP summit was also useful in its pragmatism. People cannot eat, good governance and ultimately, good economics is always good politics. As Minister Mangala Samaraweera also said at the OGP Summit; “if reconciliation and democratization is to succeed, it is imperative that Sri Lanka’s economy must succeed. The fruits of rapid economic development must be experienced by all sections of our society. The peace dividend must be felt in terms of economic prosperity and rapid rural and national development”.

Through OGP initiatives, there is a growing trend in some parts of the world to make access to government even more easier, moving from web sites to smart phone apps. Driven by private sector service providers, who place every type of service from booking a doctor, to  buying a movie ticket to checking in for a flight on mobile phone apps, there is an increasing trend for smart government initiatives, which makes government information and services available to the public through phone apps.

Sri Lanka is a country with more phone connections, than people, showing mobile phone penetration is essentially at saturation levels, increasingly most of these with internet access, with Sri Lanka thereby having successfully bridged the digital divide. It is incredible to think that twenty years ago, Sri Lanka Telecom was a monopoly, had a waiting list of over two hundred thousand for a phone connection, which was also considered a political favor. Interesting it was Mangala Samaraweera, as the then Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, which saw through the SLT partial privatization and opening up the telecoms market. Two decades later, Sri Lanka has the best telecoms infrastructure in South Asia. This high internet and phone penetration can and must be used to make government more convenient and accessible to the sovereign (voting) public of Sri Lanka. The youth vote and social media activists were strong supporters of President Maithripala Sirisena. Moving from e-government to phone app government, as some countries in the OGP network are doing, is smart politics in good governance.

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

 

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An attempted Rajapakse return and a new constitution

Posted by harimpeiris on December 30, 2016

An attempted Rajapakse return and a new constitution

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 28th Dec 2016)

 

The soft launch of a new political party nominal headed by former Minister G.L. Peiris, but substantively the Rajapakse political vehicle, styled the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has created a new buzz in political circles about the Rajapakse comeback project. A project that really began, in the small hours of the morning of 9th January last year, when it became apparent that the people had rejected Mahinda Rajapakse for an unprecedented third term. The first proposed comeback, an alleged coup by deploying the Gajaba regiment, to nullify the election results, has had a formal complaint to the CID by Minister Mangala Samaraweera and the strange mid night meetings at Temple Trees by the judicial usurper Mohan Peiris and the then Attorney General, military commanders etc. had all the makings of midnight plotting of anti-constitutional measures as alleged by Minister Samaraweera in his formal complaint.

 

However, the possible return of the Rajapakse face several fundamental political obstacles, that the Rajapakse political project has failed to address. The first obstacles in a Rajapakse return is that the fundamental political dynamics that formed the foundation of Rajapakse defeat, still holds true. What the Rajapaksa’s faced in 2015, is what they face today, which is that with regards the political elites or key leaders, it is pretty much Rajapakse verses the rest. Rajapakse allies being the miniscule non SLFP parties of the UPFA, the same coalition which lost in 2015. In fact, since the defeat of 2015, Rajapakse has further lost control of the SLFP party machinery, a necessary vehicle for political mobilization, hence the SLPP.

 

Further neither Rajapakse nor his allies can begin to accept the failures of their governance and hence offer a real alternative vision to the National Unity Government, for the future. Most political projects after defeat, do look inward somewhat and seek a political course correction, not so the Rajapakses’. They and their allies continue to insist, if by implication that it was the voters who made a mistake in 2015 and the voter will change their mind, very quickly. Further the Rajapakse message seems to be geared to and not extending beyond a section of the Sinhala Buddhist majority in the country, a political base and message two narrow to bring the project back to power. If the Rajapakse political comeback project is to succeed, two key changes need to take place, there must be an honest assessment of the failures of their governance, in all areas including economic, foreign, public sector management and social reconciliation policies and consequently seek to design a policy message and political outreach that is more pluralistic, tolerant and democratic.

 

Now, the factor that excites the die-hard minority of Rajapakse supporters in the political establishment is the constitutional making process that is currently ongoing through the Parliament as a constitutional assembly. The Rajapakse political calculation is that the potential divisiveness of constitutional reform and its consequential political and social change would permit the divisive identity politics and its attendant fear and hate mongering, which is Rajapaksa’s greatest political asset but also his greatest political liability.

 

With the presentation to Parliament of the interim reports of the six sub committees of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly and its scheduled debate in the House on 9thand 10th of January 2016, the opponents of the constitutional reform are slowly waking up to the fact, that there is a consensus building up in Parliament regarding the contours of a new basic law for Sri Lanka, a new social compact between the governed and the government. Almost four decades since the 1978 constitution was adopted for Sri Lanka, the empirical evidence we have is that our current constitutional arrangement and its overbearing executive presidency, reduced democratic space and centralized political power, consequently leading to poor public governance, weakened democratic institutions, led to armed conflicts in both the South and the North and reduced individual freedoms and human rights. The vast majority of the near forty-year period since 1978 to the present, Sri Lanka has been governed under emergency rule, which says it all about our failures as a polity.

 

The end of the war in 2009, removed armed conflict from the political equation and hence opens up a historic window of opportunity to address the democracy deficiency we have in Sri Lanka and effect state reform through a new constitution which ensures that the Sri Lankan State becomes more tolerant and pluralistic accommodating the full diversity of her society. There are opponents of such reform among the more extremist elements in both the North and the Southern polity. In the North, the opposition to the current approach of consultations, compromise and consensus, seems to be led by the Tamil Peoples Forum (TPF), led by a collection of defeated politicians, whose common feature seems to be their inability to be elected to Parliament by the Tamil people but having the patronage of Northern Chief Minister Justice CV Wigneswaren, whose endorsement of them nonetheless at the last general election failed to sway the voter, the Tamil Congress led political alliance of nay-sayers, collecting a paltry five thousand votes in the Jaffna District, even less than the SLFP’s modest support of seventeen thousand.

 

In the South, the opponents of state reform and a return to the past, has a more formidable champion in Mahinda Rajapakse, but the reality is that the more extreme politics ruled in Sri Lanka, until the recent past and are now relegated to the peripheries. The Tamil political leadership moved from Prabakaran and Pottu Amman to Sambanthan and Sumanthiran in 2009 and political leadership in the Southern polity moved from Mahinda and Gotabaya to Sirisena and Wickramasinghe. The political center has never been as dominant in Sri Lankan politics, in the recent past, as it is at present. Political change will always have its detractors, but the detractors having lost the last elections are on the periphery, providing a possible path and a foreseeable future for a new Sri Lanka.

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