Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for January, 2018

Lest history repeats

Posted by harimpeiris on January 23, 2018

By Harim Peiris
(Published in the Daily News of 23rd January 2018)

With a three-way race for the local government polls well underway, actually a five-party race if one considers the official opposition JVP and the TNA as well, President Sirisena at a political rally late last week in Kosgama, called on the people to prevent a return to the past. He urged the people to not leave room for the return of white vans, fear, humiliation and ethnic disharmony. When Sri Lanka was fast becoming a near pariah state on the world stage and where rampant corruption by the kith and kin of the ruling elite was the order of the day. He urged people to use their vote to wisely to prevent a return to such a past.

The Rajapaksa’s have never admitted error

 

In the course of the campaign for the LG elections, in the run up to the same and before then, the Rajapakse’s nor their surrogates the SLPP or their allies in the Joint Opposition (JO) have never acknowledged the errors, faults and shortcomings of the Rajapakse Administration, especially during its second term. There has been no regret mentioned at all for sacking a Chief Justice, jailing a presidential election opponent, victimizing the war time Army commander, permitting newspaper editors to be murdered in broad daylight, seeing Mosques burnt and Muslim businesses attacked, appalling human rights violations, economic mismanagement, taking on crippling debt and rampant corruption. While it should be conceded that in our cultural ethos, at least for a majority of people, the concept of repentance saying “mea culpa” or my fault is alien and a loss of face, a candid acknowledgement of error and a commitment to a new path is not politically uncommon and is actually required.

When the SLFP in 1994, returned from a seventeen-year political wilderness in the opposition, under the leadership of Chandrika Kumaratunga, there was a clear break from the disastrous and failed socialist policies of the 1970-77 period and commitment to a managed free market economy. The UNP has radically moved away from its disastrous approach to ethnic relations which witnessed the fiasco of the District Development Council (DDC) elections of 1982, the resultant burning of the Jaffna public library and the 1983 anti-Tamil riots under their watch. Even the JVP, counter ideologically has renounced armed revolution, which it had twice waged both in 1971 and 1988/89 as a means of bringing in socialism and most crucially for national reconciliation and social cohesion, the TNA used the destruction of the LTTE’s entire senior military leadership to renounce both separatism and the armed struggle, committing instead to a robust democratic political engagement with the Sinhala polity.

In contrast, the only political force to have expressed no regrets, remorse or a commitment to a political course correction are the Rajapakse’s, their fellow travelers of the Joint Opposition and their political surrogates in the SLPP. The Rajapakse political project seems intent on taking Sri Lanka back to a darker past, the contours of which we can all remember and President Sirisena urges us never to return to. A serious Rajapakse return will require a reexamination of what went wrong, especially in its second term, candidly admitting the same and committing very publicly to never repeat its dark, disastrous and corrupt track record. Paradoxically it may require a new, younger generation leadership, like young Namal to be the standard bearer for the “kurakkan shawl” rather than either brother number one or brother number two (no pun intended).

Where is Gotabaya?

 

The issue of succession within the Rajapakse family is the issue which clearly remains unresolved, demonstrated most recently by the departure from Sri Lanka of Gotabaya Rajapakse and his decision to sit out the LG election in the United States. His political organization “Eliya” and its associates have become totally silent and are not active in support of the SLPP pohotuwa. The Rajapakse top echelon have divergent interests, which work against a quick return to power. Mahinda is constitutionally barred from seeking election as president, son Namal requires time to build himself up as a national leader with broad acceptance, Basil has too many political enemies from his decade as Mahinda’s political hitman and henchman and Gotabaya is a polarizing figure, with no experience in politics, a military mindset unsuited to democratic governance  together with a complete lack of understanding that compromise can lead to consensus  and is anathema to the Muslims who comprise 10% of the electorate. These are significant drawbacks, not helped in any way that their political allies are mono ethnically Sinhala only and comprise such political lightweights as Dinesh Gunawardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Tissa Vitharane, Udaya Gamanpilla and Wimal Weerawansa, all leaders of very small political parties, which all except the last, being only capable of electing their leader and no one else to Parliament. One-man parties and the exception of the NFF with five MPs has been imploding of late, with cross overs to President Sirisena’s SLFP.

From August 2015 to February 2018

 

The real story of February 2018 and how it differs from the general election of August 2015 is that overall the national vote but especially the UPFA vote will now be broken up between the SLFP led by President Sirisena and the SLPP led by the Rajapakse’s.  The Rajapaksa’s SLPP’s pohotuwa claims the opposition or political dissent space and the Sinhala nationalism political space, while President Sirisena has the SLFP’s party machinery, the anti-corruption platform and the political moral high ground. Exactly how the UPFA / SLFP vote will split up and how much of the floating vote would swing towards President Sirisena remains to be seen. It is uncharted political territory and we shall know the answer soon enough on February 11th, when the election results are known. Either way as President Sirisena says, we must avoid a return to the past.

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The Sirisena Presidency in mid term

Posted by harimpeiris on January 15, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 15th January 2018)

 

The third anniversary of the assumption of office of by President Sirisena, passed with little fanfare, overshadowed perhaps by impending local council elections. Just after the anniversary, the President referred to the Supreme Court for a determination, whether his term of office, post the 19th amendment was for five or six years, resulting in his term running through either January 2020 or 2021.

Irrespective of the length of the term, the “Maithri yugaya” or era as some political commercials in his favor requested voters to select, is now at its midway mark and a time for the nation to look back and reflect on the journey we have come since 2015.

The victory of Sirisena three years ago, was not wholly unexpected to political analysts, this writer included.  The attraction of the Rajapakse Administration to solely the majority community meant it was vulnerable. The Uva provincial council elections in mid-2014 indicated that in the Monaragala District which is close to 99% Sinhala, that Rajapakse’s support had dipped to the mid-fifties. Savvy political leaders, such as former President Kumaratunga then created a remarkable rainbow coalition, which saw off the Rajapakse Administration.

 

Defeated Rajapaksa attempts a comeback

 

The most notable feature of the Maithri era has been the attempts by his two-term predecessor to make a political comeback, a political misfortune which none of President Sirisena’s predecessors faced. This despite the fact that President Rajapakse cannot again hold the office of president, as per the 19thamendment to the Constitution.

The most notable feature about the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration is that it reversed a disastrous slide by Sri Lanka down a slippery slope of being an authoritarian kleptocracy. As one analyst noted, Sri Lanka must have been the only multi-party democracy in the world which was heading towards an elected monarchy. Governance has declined to such depths, that despite the most strident of majoritarian ethno-religious nationalist rhetoric, the Rajapakse political project crash landed in January 2015. The attempts to resurrect the Rajapakse brand would have mixed results as the local government elections next month will demonstrate. The disagreement over succession within the Rajapakse family and the attraction of the Joint Opposition and the Rajapakse to only a section of the majority community places a limitation on the SLPP and the Rajapaksa return project.

 

A reform agenda

 

President Sirisena was elected as the “common candidate” contesting from essentially a special purpose political vehicle of the National Democratic Front (NDF). The broad coalition of political and social forces which formed the NDF were strong advocates of a reform agenda which included reform of the executive presidency, democratic reforms, economic reforms and reconciliation. The Administration certainly made significant changes and progress in its early days. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution and the Right to Information Act are perhaps the landmark political reforms the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration introduced which certainly did make Sri Lanka once again a democratic, open and free society. Other executive and administrative action resulted in an end to the culture of fear, the white vans largely ceased and very importantly the Police and the Judiciary were made independent and have been exercising their independence from the executive arm of government. However, many of the civil society organizations especially which backed the common candidate have been somewhat critical of what is sometimes seen as either the slow pace of reforms or deviations from the promise of good governance. However, this Administration’s landmark decision to set up a Commission to investigate its own actions in regard to the Central Bank bond issuance, certainly demonstrates a willingness to be self-critical and accountable. The decision of the Prime Minister to testify was commendable and a submission to the rule of law.

 

Changing the discourse on reconciliation   

 

Sri Lanka ended its civil war in 2009, as civil wars tend to do, socially divided and polarized along ethnic lines. The post war rebuilding and reconciliation required a policy of inclusiveness and tolerance which the Rajapakse’s demonstrated was beyond the scope of their politics. Far from becoming more tolerant and accommodative post war, the tendency was to use the political capital of ending the war to jail the presidential election opponent, sack the chief justice and provide at best covert and at worse overt support to extremist organizations which was intent on calibrated communal violence against the Muslim community. The Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration changed all that and with regard to reconciliation began a program of releasing private lands occupied by the military during the war and a constitutional reform process, through the constitutional assembly. All this was possible through a change in the political discourse and dialogue which was ushered in by the politics and policies of the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration. Even the unique bi partisan national unity government which enjoys a two third majority in Parliament are unique political processes brought about by both the President and the Prime Minister. While the two parties they head, prepare to contest elections separately, an experience they went through in August 2015 as well, it is important to remember, the gains of the past three years should not be sacrificed by a return to the past.

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Local Government election dynamics in the North and East

Posted by harimpeiris on January 9, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews and the Daily News of 27th Dec 2017)

 

Despite the year end holiday season, the political focus is on the upcoming local government elections scheduled for February 10th next year. With nominations closing by end December, January will witness the campaigning by the candidates and the political parties for the sovereign Sri Lankan people’s vote. The election has clear ramifications beyond the local bodies, as nationally there is a redrawing of political lines as the government and opposition factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), led by President Sirisena and by former President Rajapakse contest the elections separately for the first time.

 

A relevant factor in the political dynamic is the politics of the North and East, which though important and impactful on Sri Lankan national life is often not taken into consideration in the political discourse. In the Tamil majority Northern Province and in the Batticalo District in the Eastern Province, the TNA dominate the political landscape. Often polling well over seventy percent in their constituencies, the truth of the matter is that the TNA, its leader and Leader of the Opposition, the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan has a lock on the Tamil electorate that far exceed even the mid sixty percent which Mahinda Rajapakse hit at the zenith of his post war popularity in 2010, a political high which had dissipated by end 2014.

 

Making the news a couple of weeks ago was the formation of a new Tamil political alliance, created supposedly to challenge the dominance of the ITAK led TNA, between the TULF of Mr. Anandasangari and the EPRLF faction of Suresh Premachandra, who finally decided to try his political luck outside the TNA. It is noteworthy that the TNA leadership have still left the door open for a post-election return to the fold by the EPRLF (Suresh faction) but not taking in the EPRLF faction led by Sugu and other more left oriented political moderates. A fairly sober assessment of the prospects of the TULF / EPRLF combine would likely indicate that the TULF which has no representation in the Sri Lankan Parliament but nonetheless, the Anandasangari family having more electoral fortune in Canada, with son Gary Anandasangari being elected to the Canadian Federal Parliament from the Scarborough area of Toronto for the governing Liberal Party. The EPRLF (Suresh faction) succeeded in electing Shivashakthi Anandan at the August 2015 election from the Vanni, though Suresh himself was unsuccessful in retaining his seat from Jaffna. Similarly, Suresh’s brother, now a Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, after the ITAK decided on principle to move away from the Provincial Administration of Chief Minister Wigneswaren, was barely elected to the Northern PC, coming in one but the last in a long list of elected TNA members, basically 29th out of 30 elected counselors. This does not augur well for the ELRLF chances in Jaffna, their pocket boroughs in the Vanni likely to provide their combine with the TULF, with some elected local representation but not much.

 

The other factor in the Northern and especially Eastern Province is of course the Muslim political dynamics and in this regard, the traditional Muslim leadership of the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) has been under some pressure in recent years from its breakaway the Sri Lankan People’s Congress of Minister Rishard Bathurdeen. The SLMC’s former General Secretary Hassen Ali, who rather acrimoniously departed from the SLMC has tied up with Rishard Bathurdeen and will likely pose a very tough challenge to the SLMC. In fact, in certain constituencies, the Bathurdeen / Hassan Ali combine will overtake the SLMC. However, in the context of national politics, this is unlikely to cause any effect as both Muslim alliances remain firmly within the national unity government. In the case of both the Muslim parties, they will run some candidates in partnership with the national parties, mostly the UNP, while in some areas, generally the Muslim majority urban councils and pradeshiya saba’s, they will run independently. An election to watch in terms of Muslim politics would be the impact that State Minister Hisbulla can make in his pocket borough of Kathankudy for the SLFP, the votes from there being insufficient for his own parliamentary election and hence the need for an SLFP national list slot for him, but nonetheless polling well.

 

This brings us to the electoral prospects of the national parties in the North and East. Likely to standout from among the national parties is the UNP, which has a parliamentary representation from every district including Jaffna, which is more than the SLFP led UPFA can boast of after the 2015 elections or before. Now when contesting separately as the SLFP / UPFA and the SLPP / JO, the reality is that with the minority support base of the SLFP / UPFA is solidly with President Sirisena. The SLFP effort in the North is led by its young national list MP, Angajan Ramanathan, whose either brawn or brains should deliver some SLFP votes in Jaffna, drawing deep from an old tradition of Alfred Duraiappa, the last SLFP mayor of Jaffna, whose assassination was the launch of the LTTE’s armed challenge to the Sri Lankan state.

 

It is however the SLPP and the JO which in the North and East will lay bare its political limitations and lack of attraction outside a section of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community. Should the good Professor Peiris and brother number two (no pun intended) Basil Rajapakse, succeed in running SLPP lists in the North, they would be fortunate to get back their candidate deposits. It was an academic and colleague from the Kumaratunga Administration days who coined the phrase the Sinhala National Alliance (SNA) as a better term for the Rajapakse comeback project, rather than the SLPP. However, it is not desirable that an aspirant for national political power has no political appeal in the North and East. The dynamics of the North and East, completes the national political landscape and any serious analysis and discourse would be incomplete without its inclusion.

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