Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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An agenda for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s 5th Term as Prime Minister

Posted by harimpeiris on December 19, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 18th December 2018)

It is unlikely that any Sri Lankan politician anytime soon, would beat the record of the UNP’s long-time leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, who last Sunday was sworn in for his fifth term of office as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. If some of his terms have been quite short, such as his six-month third term from January to August 2015, the record for the shortest term of office as Prime Minister, must surely go to Mahinda Rajapakse for his ill-fated government of several weeks, exactly how many weeks depending on whether one is inclined to accepts the passage of the no confidence motions in Parliament as the end of his government or his “resignation” last Saturday.

Sri Lanka is back from the brink and not of a constitutional collapse, because our state institutions, especially the judiciary stood tall above the political turmoil and ultimately was instrumental in resolving the crisis, while our military, the 24th largest armed forces in the world, stayed out of the fray, due to both the staunchly apolitical tradition and strong professionalism of Sri Lanka’s military and a resolute Army commander in General Mahesh Senanayake, a war-hero who was forced out of service under the previous Rajapakse Administration.

Saved from a Rajapakse return

 Many times, since 2015, in conversation with key leaders of the rainbow coalition which brought him into office, President Sirisena had reiterated again and again, that their common major political objective should be in preventing a return of Rajapakse rule in Sri Lanka.  With the swearing in of Ranil Wickramasinghe and the restoration of the status quo ante the catastrophe from which Sri Lanka was saved, was a restoration of unreformed Rajapakse rule. Rajapakse rule since end October 2018, would have been wrong for at least two reasons. Firstly, a key aspect of the mandate of 2015 was to end Rajapakse rule, the mismanagement and corruption alleged during the 2015 campaign was serious and ending that rule, was a key aspect of the public mandate. Secondly, the other aspect of that and indeed any mandate is timing. A public mandate is given for a time period, a term of office. A politically motivated premature end to the Wickramasinghe national government was against the mandate of August 2015, which is quite distinct from President Sirisena’s presidential mandate. With the concurrent exercise of two distinct mandates, the 19th amendment to the constitution codifies the safeguarding of the legislative mandate from executive manipulation. The Supreme Court has clearly articulated this in its landmark unanimous judgement by a seven-judge bench.

Heed the people’s verdict of the LG Elections

 The political turmoil of the past six weeks or so, should not detract from the reality, that the UNF was resolutely defeated at the Local Government polls earlier this year. The LG election was not even close, it was a rout for the government. That election was the clearest indicator and indisputable popular verdict, that the public was dissatisfied with the performance of the UNP led national government. Clearly the people did not feel that they had received a good governance dividend. This absence of results was not merely in the economic sense, though that likely dominated. It was non-delivery on many fronts, including the non-prosecution of the large-scale corruption and abuse of power cases alleged during the election. At least with regard to the bond scandal a presidential commission had been appointed and had produced a report. Several commissions of inquiry into the numerous other issues raised on public platform and in the mass media, would have at least have found all the facts and held those responsible to account.

Address the alienation of minorities

A key player in safeguarding democracy in Sri Lanka, through dogged determination, principled politics and an insistence on the rule of law has been the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and its key leaders, the triple S (no pun intended) of Sambanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran. Early on in this saga the TNA leadership correctly became convinced that indeed everybody’s including Tamil rights were best protected, promoted and advanced in and through a democratic polity rather than an authoritarian and populist political leadership.  Accordingly, they set out to play the honest broker, the middle men who could potentially mediate between the UNF and President Sirisena, both of whom they had worked together with, in 2015 and persuaded their constituents in droves to support the then common candidate Sirisena. In fact, the overwhelming support for Sirisena in the North and East, was the margin of victory for him.

The TNA, has fourteen votes in Parliament. Actually, there are sixteen, but only fourteen in the parliamentary group because Vanni MP Shivashakthi Anandan from the EPRLF refuses to adhere to the TNA whip and Mahinda Rajapakse succeeded in persuading Batticalo District TNA MP Viyalanderen to cross over to the SLPP, that gentleman clearly deciding, allegedly for a price, that he would rather support the Rajapakse’s and then retire than continue in active politics beyond the 2020 elections. Both President Sirisena and the UNF sought the TNA’s support because the numbers game in parliament made clear, that whom the TNA supported had the majority. This was a point made by Mahinda Rajapakse in the course of his resignation speech last Saturday, where he used the term, the “remote control” to indicate the casting vote or deciding factor of the TNA in Parliament. While the minority party leaders, not just of the TNA, but also the SLMC and the Peoples Congress played a constructive role in restoring constitutional governance and the rule of law, their constituencies themselves, the Tamil and Muslim communities were generally much less interested in the power struggle at the center. This alienation of minorities from the democratic policy debate and processes is not desirable for a socially cohesive and integrated Sri Lanka. National integration and reconciliation should not just be a subject assigned to a Cabinet minister, but a concrete part of the program of the government.

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