Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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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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