Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for July, 2019

Rainbow coalition intact with defeat of no-faith motion

Posted by harimpeiris on July 17, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 14th July 2019)

The No-Confidence motion (NCM) against the government, presented by the JVP was defeated in Parliament a few days back, by one hundred and nineteen (119) votes to ninety-two (92) or by a majority of twenty-seven (27) votes. Voting in favor of the motion were three of the main opposition parties, the SLPP and the SLFP sitting in Parliament as the UPFA and the JVP. Opposing the same and having a comfortable margin above the threshold of one hundred and thirteen (113) members required for a simple majority of the House, was the UNP and the TNA.

The politics of whether the government should stand or fall provides some useful insights into the political alliances and coalitions that currently exist, and are an indicator of the balance of political and social forces, for the much-anticipated year end presidential election.

Firstly, the hard core of the rainbow coalition which ended Rajapaksa rule in 2015 was the UNF together with its allies of the Muslim parties and the Tamil National Alliance. They were supported independently by the JVP. The UPFA at the January 2015 election was solidly behind Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the politics of Rajapaksa verses the rest, meant that the rest or a rainbow coalition defeated the deeply entrenched and seemingly invincible Rajapaksa political machine. The breakup of the UPFA post the presidential election, into the Rajapaksa SLPP and the Sirisena SLFP is again coalescing politically, though the talks to do so institutionally are still progressing very slowly.

For both Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa who cannot contest another presidential election due to being term barred, and President Maithripala Sirisena, who is extremely unlikely to receive presidential election nomination from either the UNP or the SLPP, a general election consequent to a successful no confidence motion against the government is to their advantage. Mahinda Rajapaksa can lead his party in a general election in which he is eligible for candidature, and President Sirisena can conduct such a campaign for his party, with all the trappings of his office and state power. Even for the JVP, a general election before a presidential election would be more favorable, since as a third force in national politics, it is not seriously in the game of the two horse presidential race. So, the votes in Parliament for the NCM demonstrated just that; as UPFA and JVP supported the NCM, while the UNP and the TNA opposed the same, leading to a resounding defeat for the NCM. The politics of the NCM, last week, demonstrated that at least in parliament the remnant of the rainbow coalition was holding, in much the same way it held together late last year, to defeat the constitutional coup premiership of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Implications for the presidential election

The presidential election politics of 2015 was a rather simple formula, the Rajapaksas vs the rest. The rest, a rainbow coalition prevailed against all odds. The 2019 presidential election will in a sense be a re-run of that same election, but with different actors. Instead of Mahinda, another Rajapaksa will be candidate, most likely Gota; and instead of Maithripala Sirisena, another consensus candidate would be required who is a unifier of a disparate coalition, while simultaneously being attractive to a more diverse constituency, including at least about two fifths of the Sinhala constituency. The reality of the 2015 election is that Maithripala Sirisena did not win the popular vote outside the North and East, losing the other seven provinces combined by three hundred thousand votes, but winning big in the North and East with a combined majority of seven hundred and fifty thousand votes, leading to his national victory margin of almost half a million votes.

The big difference this time around, is that the UNP and its UNF partners have been in Government for the past five years and are likely seen, at least by the floating voter and definitely by those in the North and East, to have not fully delivered on their expectations. Expectations created in no small part by the coalition’s own rhetoric of good governance and sweeping reforms. The real issue is would many voters switch back to the Rajapaksa candidate as a repudiation of the one term of UNP rule, and would people vote along ethno-religious identity blocks or base their votes on governance track record and policies? In all likelihood, votes are garnered on a combination of these factors. But for a Rajapaksa candidate to win, he (or indeed she) would have to do better and improve on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s own electoral performance among Sinhala Buddhist voters in 2015 and his appeal to them.

Even as things stand now, the rhetoric and messaging of Gotabaya’s Eliya and Viyath Maga organizations and their fellow travelers is certainly more strident and nationalistic, than Mahinda Rajapaksa ever was or has been. The real issue is whether the votes that slipped away from the Rajapaksa’s in 2015, essentially all minorities and the more liberal minded, urban, sub-urban and youthful first time Sinhala voters, can be won back with ever higher doses of nationalism and stridency or a move back to a more moderate center? Neither in November – December last year nor six months later, have the Rajapaksa’s secured or demonstrated any new political allies, they didn’t have in January 2015. Whether they have done so with the voting public at large, we will know through the next presidential election, due before the year end.

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Moratorium on Death Penalty should be continued

Posted by harimpeiris on July 8, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 05th July 2019)

The year 2019 for Sri Lanka should have been a year of renewed hope. Looking ahead to the second decade after the end of the war, a chance to elect (or much less likely re-elect) the president of the republic for a five-year term and move forward resolutely and build on the small but significant gains in nation building which we had achieved during the past five years. These gains include the democracy enhancing measures of the 19th amendment, the consequent robust independent institutions for human rights, anti-corruption and policing among other commissions thus created, the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), private land releases and resettlement of the internally displaced in the North and East, among other gains. The Rajapakse presidency is not without its own high-water marks and achievements.
Instead however, in 2019, Sri Lanka witnessed the horrors of murderous violence against Christian worshipers and tourists on Easter Sunday in April, the equal horrors of anti-Muslim violence by opportunist communal and political elements thereafter, a loss of hope in a new Sri Lanka by many, not least foreign and local investors and tourists and into this sorry litany of retrograde steps backwards, we now have the prospect of the end of Sri Lanka’s near half century long moratorium on judicial executions.
Sri Lanka’s last judicial execution was in 1976, forty-three long years ago. The resumption of the death penalty is facing multiple legal challenges before Sri Lanka’s superior courts and the lawyers will doubt make the legal case, according to their briefs. However, this article seeks to examine the public policy, socio-political and national interests’ aspects of resuming judicial executions in Sri Lanka.

The lack of due process and adequate dialogue on the issue

Firstly, there has been inadequate dialogue, political debate and discussion on such an important issue and significant change in national life. President Sirisena seems to have decided through private consultations and has been announcing it and seeking to move forward the administrative machinery to give effect to the policy. Even administratively the Justice Ministry and the Prisons Department deny formal procedural measures to reintroduce the death penalty. It is clear, that the policy faces serious political and social opposition. Both Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse have voiced their serious concerns and reservations over reintroducing the death penalty and assuming that these leaders carry their respective parties on the issue, both the governing UNP and the main opposition SLPP oppose the reintroduction of the death penalty.
In the case of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, it was his uncle and a previous UNP president JR Jayewardene who introduced the indefinite moratorium on judicial executions in Sri Lanka and in the case of opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his own two terms as president, one of them during the final stages of a brutal civil war, the death penalty was not reintroduced, even as a law and order measure or tool of state policy.
Religious leaders of all faiths have opposed the reintroduction of the death penalty and have taken their case before the superior courts, many religious leaders being among the petitioners / appellants in superior court proceedings against the issue. Many Journalists, civil society activists and think tanks have also opposed reintroducing the death penalty.

The Challenge of Human Rights

Human rights have not been a strong suit in Sri Lankan national life. The reality of a long drawn civil war had meant a rather obvious reduction in civil liberties. Within the international community, Sri Lanka still has a distance to go before our past weaknesses and failures on the protection and promotion of human rights would be seen as remedied with institutional protection against reoccurrence. One of Sri Lanka’s few human rights victories have been that we had effectively abolished the death penalty through a moratorium on its implementation, which was continuing decade after decade and seemingly having a consensus in society that it should continue. It is not in our national interest, to eliminate this gain in human rights protection and reintroduce judicial executions by the state. Both the hard won GSP plus trade benefits from the EU crucial for our exports and even law and order cooperation with non-death penalty nations would be affected.

An incoherent and inconclusive law and order argument

The proponents of the death penalty, including our nation’s chief executive, make a law and order argument for the reintroduction of the death penalty. When first proposed, it was a narrow focus. Let us execute repeat drug offences, who are still leading their illegal operations from within the prisons. Firstly, if criminal enterprises are being organized and coordinated by prisoners, this can and should be stopped through appropriate prison and prisoner management measures, not through execution of the prisoners. The general principal is that once convicted and in the custody of the state, a person has been rendered harmless and of no further threat to society at least during the period of judicial custody. Ensuring this is the responsibility of the prisons department.
As numerous research and empirical data demonstrates, there is absolutely no correlation between the existence of the death penalty and reduced crime rates. In fact, on the contrary some of the countries with capital punishment have much higher crime rates than countries which do not. As an example, the United States is one of the few Western democracies to still implement the death penalty, but it has a significantly higher crime rate and higher rates of incarceration or per capita prison population than say the Western European countries which have all abolished the death penalty.
President Maithripala Sirisena, as he approaches the end of his presidential term and very likely seeing the end of his period as first citizen, would be well advised to reconsider his headlong dash down the path of reintroducing the death penalty. He will be remembered for many things, including being the first challenger to electorally defeat an incumbent president and for the rainbow coalition he led to victory in 2015. The early gains of his presidency are not insignificant though perhaps overshadowed now by his own political makeover in seeking the political mantle of the Rajapaksa’s he defeated five years ago. But to leave a legacy of tarnishing one of Sri Lanka’s few gains in human rights in the past half century would be unwise and best avoided.

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