Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for May, 2018

Presidential Puzzle

Posted by harimpeiris on May 24, 2018

(Published in the Daily News of 24th May 2018)

By Harim Peiris

 

In a unique first in Sri Lanka’s political history, the elections of 2020, still over one and a half years away, has already begun to take center stage in Sri Lanka’s political debate. Never before has it been this way. We were not focused on the 1982 presidential election during mid-1980, nor focused on the 1988 presidential election in mid-1986, nor was there much talk in 1992 about the presidential polls of 1994 but since 2017 political actors seem focused on the presidential polls, still quite some distance away. It was former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who in 1964 famously coined the phrase, “a week is a long time in politics”. However, we have Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and the newly appointed General Secretary of the UNP stating that Prime Minister Wickramasinghe would be the UNP presidential candidate, while the SLFP and UPFA General Secretaries also state that President Sirisena will be the SLFP presidential candidate and very recently former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse has emerged as the standard bearer of the Rajapakse comeback project and essentially launched his public exploration of a presidential bid, if not the bid itself at a corporate fat cat white collar event at that most elitist of elite venues and newest five star hotel, the Shangri-La. No not the one in Hambanthota but in Colombo. However, this article is not about the relative prospects of these possible future candidates but the merits of the elected highest public office itself, to which they are probable candidates.

The JVP introduces the 20th Amendment to the Constitution   

 

The JVP, the fourth largest party in Parliament with six seats, behind the UNP, the UPFA and the TNA have introduced the 20thamendment to the constitution, as a private members bill to abolish the office of executive president. Now abolishing the office of the executive president is not a new debate or idea in Sri Lanka. It was first proposed almost twenty-five years ago in 1994, by then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who famously referred to the 1978 second Republican Constitution as a “bahubootha” constitution. To her credit the draft constitution of August 2000, (which was just eight votes short of the two third majority of the then parliament), abolished the office of executive president. Fast forward to 2014 and the common candidate and now President, Maithripala Sirisena, repeatedly pledged to be a one term president by abolishing the office of executive president. Upon being elected in 2015, an interim measure to curtail its powers, occurred through the 19th amendment to the constitution, was steered through Parliament by the President. So, abolition of the executive presidency has been very much an SLFP driven, Presidents Kumaratunga and Sirisena led effort to abolish the elected dictatorship which is the office of Sri Lanka’s executive head of state. The UNP were late converts to the abolish the presidency school of thought, not least perhaps because the 1978 constitution was the UNP’s baby. However, the political heirs of both UNP presidents, JR Jayawardena and R. Premadasa, namely Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and UNP Deputy Leader and Senior Cabinet Minister Sajith Premadasa have both endorsed the abolishing of the executive presidency on numerous occasions and the UNP specifically as a party did so, during its constitutional reforms public consultations process and proposed reforms in 2013/2014. So, the UNP as a party has also backed the abolition of the executive presidency. Equally importantly during the 2015 presidential election campaign then President Rajapakse, sensing that his opponent Maithripala Sirisena was gaining traction and momentum and attributing at least some of it, to the pledge to abolish the executive presidency, also joined the band wagon by promising to abolish the same. So, all of Sri Lankas major political actors have in recent times, within this current electoral cycle and public mandate wowed to abolish the executive presidency and the people have backed this proposal through their popular mandate.

Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera and the constitutional reform process

 

Civil society played a catalytic and large role in the election of President Sirisena and none were more influential or catalytical than the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha There, chief incumbent of the Kotte Naga Viharaya and his national movement for a just society (NMJS).  In fact, the NMJS and other civil society organizations in 2015, were adamant that following the presidential elections of January 2015, the priority was not the dissolution of parliament and the holding of fresh elections was not the priority but that rather the constitutional reforms process was the real priority. The result was the 19th amendment to the constitution which basically overturned the horrendous Rajapakse era 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which sought to solidify Rajapakse rule for life.

Since the General Elections of August 2015, Sri Lanka’s parliament unanimously voted to turn itself into a constitutional council and draft a constitution. While the interim report was presented and debated, the all-party steering committee of the constitutional council has not presented a final report in the form of a draft constitution, like the Peoples Alliance, under President Kumaratunga did in August 2000.

Instead the focus of those working on constitutional reform has now become to explore the commonality and the political spaces for the consensus which does exist and seek to implement the same. Accordingly, it is believed that most if not all political leaders and opinion leaders are in agreement to abolish the said office. For Mahinda Rajapakse, it gets rid of the two-term limit imposed on him for the presidency, while for President Sirisena, it is fulfilment of a solemn election promise, while for Ranil Wickramasinghe it is bringing the political game to the arena in which he excels, that of Parliament and the premiership, in which now in his fourth term in that office, he has passed Sirimavo Banadaranaike, who served three terms as Prime Minister. For the JVP, it demonstrates that they box above their weight class in influencing national policy and contributing to the reform agenda, while for the TNA it kick-starts the seemingly stalled constitutional reform process and makes Sri Lanka more democratic, a conducive environment for every bodies human rights and freedoms and not just only minority rights. Sections, but not all of the Joint Opposition (JO) have sounded their disagreement over the proposal, but there is sufficient consensuses without them and the JO is divided over the issue.

The Yahapalanaya national government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, who were elected on a platform of bold political reforms, should use the reform space, gift wrapped and given on a platter by the JVP to bring about the abolishment of the executive presidency, which has been long promised but slow in coming. Now is the time to deliver.

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An emphasis on reconciliation in the President’s throne speech

Posted by harimpeiris on May 15, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 14th May 2018)

 

President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent throne speech on the occasion of the commencement of the second session of the 8thParliament of Sri Lanka witnessed the President laying out essentially the road map for the remaining two years of the current national unity government’s term of office. It is clear that the emphasis and rightly so, for the remainder of the term would be to revive an economy, yet to recover from a serious overdose of expensive foreign, mostly Chinese loans, obtained by the prior regime for projects of questionable utility value and a lack of serious post war economic reforms. If the Rajapakse Administration got one approach wrong during its second term, that was trying to run the country, post war, as if the war still existed. This was true of not only national security policies but all policy including economic policies.

However, the issue of post war reconciliation or “sanhindiyawa” is also an essential component of Sri Lanka’s post war policy requirements and consequently was also a key part of the policy platform of both the common candidate and the national unity government. Reconciliation requires a democratic and free society. Community and collective rights can only be achieved where individual and personal freedoms are recognized, justiciable and protected. Accordingly, Sri Lanka’s democratic deficit needs to be eliminated and with it the creation of a new social compact which recognizes and accommodates the full diversity of Sri Lanka’s peoples. It was towards this end that the 8th Parliament of Sri Lanka voted unanimously to turn itself into a Constitutional Assembly which would begin the hard work of seeking to establish that consensus. In a political environment where sections of the opposition question the need for national reconciliation or believe that ending the war was the conclusion of an ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, President Sirisena was emphatic on the views and policy direction of the National Government in this regard.

In his address to Parliament, the President stated thus “Honorable Speaker! Whatever the opposition, it is essential to enter into a political program with the consensus and agreement of the people to find a permanent solution to the issue of unrest of the people in the North and East. Although we defeated the terrorists physically, we have not succeeded in defeating their ideology completely”. He goes on to state that “at the time we assumed duty as the government, there was a delay of several years to find solutions to these challenges and the task of facing the challenges have become further difficult”.

In spelling out the broad program of the government, the President clearly articulated the issues as follows. “Recognize the equal rights-based aspirations of the Tamil people, ensure the wellbeing and social-cultural needs of the Muslim Community. He further committed to “empower the upcountry Tamil community socially and economically and strengthen the indigenous identity, by strengthening the cultural identity of the Sinhala people”.  What is noteworthy in the President’s policy statement on reconciliation is its explicit recognition of the various requirements of Sri Lanka’s different communities and the need for the Sri Lankan State to accommodate the full diversity of her different people groups.

During the presidential election campaign of late 2014 and since then, rarely if ever can President Sirisena be faulted for what he has said. His speeches, always delivered in measured Sinhala is nuanced and very carefully crafted, so that he can rarely if ever, be faulted for his public pronouncements. The challenge for his administration in the past and indeed in the future will continue to be to deliver on its good intentions and well-articulated policies. The mid term rebuke at the polls for the two political parties partnering in the national unity coalition government was probably the public’s response to the perception of non-delivery on the extraordinary expectations created by the twin mandates of 2015.

Interestingly the President calls for a more matured political culture which seeks out common ground and consensus in policy implementation and also requests that the political competition between the political partners in government should cease. This is indeed a timely call and the animated political debate on the 2020 elections is surely premature, at no other point in Sri Lanka’s recent political history was a government so focused on an election several years before its due. While a focus on the path or process of a return to power may not be unreasonable for a political opposition, it is foolhardy for a government. A focus instead on what needs to be delivered for the mandate the it has already received may well be the better option for the government.

The other side of the coin, are the smaller political parties which backed Maithripala Sirisena as the then common opposition candidate for president, the TNA, the Muslim parties and the JVP. The TNA especially as the third largest party in parliament has an important role to play as the government’s key interlocutor on reconciliation. Recognizing that it has executive authority in the North and East through the Northern and indeed the Eastern Provincial Council, the TNA should seek to deliver practical solutions to the real life needs of its constituency. Mirroring the electoral rebuke for the government parties in the South was the set back for the TNA in the North. That the TNA mostly lost votes, not to the more Tamil nationalist elements but to the EPDP, the TMVP, Rishard Bathurdeen’s Party and the EPDP breakaway independent group of Chandra Kumar demonstrates that the Tamil people had also wearied of a perceived non-delivery of a “peace dividend or indeed a good governance dividend” and held the TNA and its provincial administrations in the North and East, responsible for the non-delivery. Leading up to 2020, fulfilling the mandate of 2015, may be the best politics for the  rainbow alliance of political parties which contributed to the same.

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A diversification in Tamil politics evidenced through the recent polls

Posted by harimpeiris on May 14, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island of 26th April 2018)

 

Tamil politics in Sri Lanka has been changing during the past decade. The epic change of course occurring nearly nine years ago, when the near thirty years, long armed conflict ended with the complete military defeat of the LTTE and the pre-militant era traditional Tamil political elite, through the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi led TNA, adroitly moved into the political space vacated by the demise of the LTTE and dominated Tamil politics for the post war decade from 2009 to 2018. The dominance of Tamil politics by the TNA, led by the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan, currently the leader of the opposition and a political gentleman of the old school, would have been the envy of most democratic political leaders, so complete was the TNA’s democratic grip on the Tamil electorate. The TNA polled well above seventy five percent among their constituencies in the North and East. That political monopoly has clearly ended as demonstrated by February’s local government elections, when the TNA’s voter base declined from the over five hundred thousand it polled at the August 2015 elections to little over three hundred thousand, this time around. An analysis of where the other two hundred thousand Tamil voters, cast their votes provide an interesting insight into the changes in Tamil politics and Tamil public opinion.

 

Firstly, the TNA and its dominant party, the ITAK remains the preeminent Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, with an equal presence in both the Northern and Eastern provinces, being equally at home in both provinces, a feat which no other Tamil political party comes even near matching. However, it does now have new kids on the block it needs to deal with, within the Tamil polity itself and the importance of this dynamic for Sri Lanka’s post war reconciliation process, means this is an issue of national interest.

 

The most visible challenge to the TNA, comes from the traditional rival or the old nemesis of the ITAK, namely the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), long dominated by the Ponnambalam family and currently led by the scion of that family, the now no longer young Gajen Ponnambalam. The ACTC has consistently been criticizing the policy of constructive engagement of the Southern polity, that the TNA has been pursuing since the end of the war. It is in the North what the Wimal Weerawansa led NFF is in the South, with extreme views, intolerance of diversity and vitriolic speeches with barely concealed racism. At the recent elections, they were effective articulators of grievances, though offering no solutions. They successfully peddled despair and hopelessness among the Tamil community to take away about one third of the votes the TNA lost in the North. Their attraction though was to the remnants of Jaffna’s middle class, the Vellalar belt as one commentator called it, a middle class, who flirted with the dogmas of a dangerous and violent past. They made no impression in the East and most interestingly their message of an extremist, exclusive Tamil nationalism had no attraction in the former Tiger country of Killinochchi and Mullativu either, where they made little electoral impact.

 

For the TNA, the temptation to go behind the ACTC’s votes by shifting its own politics to a more hardline approach would be natural but it is noteworthy that the TNA only a third of its loss was to the ACTC. The real story lies, in how the other nearly one hundred and fifty thousand Tamils who voted ITAK in August 2015, voted in February 2018. The other big winner especially in the North was the EPDP of Douglas Devananda, that great survivor in Tamil politics, who also polled almost as many votes as the ACTC did. Further the second largest vote getter in Killinochchi, the Independent Group led by Chandra Kumar, is in fact an EPDP last minute breakaway, led by Mr. Chandra Kumar, the EPDP’s man in Killinochchi breaking ranks with Douglas to field his own independent list. It is noteworthy that in the former LTTE heartland of Killinochchi, the man the LTTE relentlessly tried to kill and called a traitor, now polls so well. Similarly, in the Eastern Province, in Batticalo, the TNA was closely challenged by the TMVP of former Chief Minister and Karuna Wing Intelligence head Pillayan. The other noteworthy aspect of the Northern poll, was that some Tamils in the Vanni, especially in Mannar but also in Vavuniya, were voting for Minister Rishard Bathurdeen’s party, an interesting shift of Tamils voting for Muslims, anathema for the extreme Tamil nationalists.  Conversely some Muslim votes in Jaffna came to the TNA. So interestingly the TNA finds that of the Tamil votes it lost to other parties only one third was lost to the more Tamil nationalist ACTC and the majority of the votes it lost, even fact a convincing two thirds of the votes lost, were in fact, lost to the EPDP, the TMVP, the EPDP breakaway Independent group and the Muslim People’s Congress.

 

There is only one common feature about the various regional Tamil parties, the Muslim party and the independent groups that siphoned off support from the TNA, they had all worked hard on the ground post war to deliver real life solutions, such as jobs, housing, various community infrastructure to their war affected constituents. The TNA while having the Parliamentary group correctly focused on the politics and reform process based in Colombo and totally failed to deliver solutions to people through the Northern Provincial Council. Arguably this was not the fault of the TNA leadership, the idiosyncrasies of Chief Minister Wigneswaren was not really their fault, the maverick judge being a poor administrator and an even worse war recovery visionary. That the Northern Provincial Council has pretty much expended its entire first term of office, doing nothing other than passing empty motions that resonated nowhere except among ACTC supporters and the LTTE remnants in the Diaspora will go down in history as another missed opportunity of the Tamil political leadership. Perhaps it was a recognition that this situation cannot continue, which prompted TNA’s Sumanthiran to state that Chief Minister Wigneswaren, who initially said he will only serve for two years and then retire (have we heard similar sentiments elsewhere?) should not be the TNA nominee for Chief Minister at the next NPC elections due later this year.

 

The lesson then for the TNA is perhaps, having finally though with a vastly reduced majority won control of most of the local government bodies in the North and East, absolutely do need to deliver real solutions to people’s everyday needs and war recovery efforts. The newly elected TNA controlled TNA local government bodies cannot continue to be another white elephant like the Chief Minister Wigneswaren provincial administration. Otherwise the TNA will continue to bleed support, while those who are active in providing real life solutions to the community will prosper at the polls.

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