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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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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The limits of Rajapakse magic

Posted by harimpeiris on December 13, 2017

By Harim Peiris

 Published in the Daily News of 13th Dec 2017

The National Unity Government passed its third budget and the first by Minister Mangala Samaraweera with a two third majority in Parliament in all its three readings. With the end of the budget debate, the entire political focus now shifts to the impending local government elections due to be held in mid-February next year. Nominations are due to close by mid-December.

Two-way or three-way contest?


The political activity of the past several weeks have been attempts by various members of the SLFP to seek to unite the governing and Joint Opposition (JO) factions of that party. As this article is being penned, it certainly seems like the most likely outcome is a three-way contest, between the UNP, the SLFP and the JO under the SLPP. With the core SLFP base divided, conventional wisdom would have it that the UNP would emerge on top though well short of either fifty percent of the popular vote nationally and also with many hung councils. The contest between the SLFP and the SLPP is harder to predict for several reasons. A local government poll is generally disadvantageous to an opposition since it is a non-government changing election and hence essentially a vote for the opposition is only a protest vote. The mainline JO leaders themselves are not the candidates and their ability to campaign may be limited through legal jeopardy to their parliamentary seats. Also, the attractiveness of the SLPP is almost exclusively to a section of the majority ethno-religious community only, so it will struggle in the more pluralist urban centers such as in the Colombo and Kandy, Municipal Councils. Let us not forget that the UPFA failed to elect a single Muslim at the August 2015 General Elections, all their Muslim MPs, Faizer, Fowzi and Hisbulla entering Parliament on the national list.

Testing the limits of the Rajapakse Magic 


The JO and the SLPP are convinced that the Rajapakse brand is alive and well and that it will emerge victorious, if not in 2018, then in 2020. Overconfidence is rather endemic in the Rajapakse set up, after all calling an election, two years early, only to lose it while deeply entrenched in power was symptomatic of that overconfidence. Moreover, the Rajapakse run UPFA campaign in August 2015 also ensured they ended up second best. So, the Rajapakse political project is hardly a sure winner. In 2005, it barely scrapped through with the narrowest win in presidential poll history and only because the LTTE ensured a boycott of the Tamil vote in the Jaffna District. The role of Emile Kanthan and whether money changed hands would forever be a mystery. In the immediate aftermath of the war in 2010 was the only notable and historic election or rather re-election of the Rajapakse Administration and under fortuitous political circumstances that would not be repeated. What the two elections of 2015 proved was that while the nation was grateful for the end of the war, it will not consistently vote looking back at the past. The Rajapakse Administration’s governance track record was appalling and the electorate delivered its verdict in 2015, not once but twice. The SLFP should actively consider the new path being articulated by President Sirisena and not seek to return to the past under Rajapakse. Further the Rajapaksa’s have not internally resolved their own succession issues. Is the 2020 Rajapakse standard bearer Mahinda, Basil or Gota. Given the implications of that choice for young Namal. The plot thickens. Any student of Sri Lankan history would know that most of ancient Ceylon’s dynasties collapsed due to succession battles.

The LG elections impact on policy


The LG elections has the potential to play several useful roles. Firstly, it is the first election since quotas were introduced for female representation and accordingly there will be a significant increase in the participation of women in public life in general and local governance in particular after this election. Secondly the momentum on the reform agenda of the National Unity Government has slowed somewhat from the early days and the election has the potential of solidifying political alliances. The rather plain reality of the balance of social and political forces is that as long as President Sirisena and Prime Minster Wickramasinghe stay together, it is sufficient to keep out and decay the Rajapakse comeback project. If the President and Rajapakse politically unite, it could potentially be a political game changer. Now what was proposed in the “unity” talks between the SLFP and the JO was not such a radical political realignment but a return to the status quo ante or the August 2015 electoral arrangement where the SLFP led UPFA though divided between the pro National Government and the pro Rajapakse faction contested together and parted company thereafter. The benefit of the two factions contesting separately is that it forces a decision one way or the other. Post the LG election, after a three-way contest, the main political protagonists would need to affirm their political direction, either confirm their commitment to the mandates of 2015 or oppose the same. For the JO / SLPP, the expectations of their rank and file are very high. A part of the Rajapakse attraction is supposedly its popularity, a third defeat would further dent that image. Most recently we see an electorally minor but rhetorically major star of the JO, Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front, imploding as its members desert their leader and flock to President Sirisena and the SLFP. A loss by the JO would increase its internal tensions further.

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Budgetary Challenges for 2018

Posted by harimpeiris on November 24, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 23rd Nov 2017)


“Good economics is good politics” goes the old adage and Finance Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, relatively new to his crucial portfolio of public finance has presented his maiden budget, styled a blue green budget, which in characteristic Mangala style, is optimistic, forward looking and environmentally friendly, highlighting the opportunities and the promise available to an economy emerging from nearly three decades of civil conflict.  The budget debate as it proceeds through Parliament, reflects the many economic challenges ahead for the Finance Minister and economic Yahapalanaya.

That the National Unity Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe inherited an economy, which had been badly mismanaged together with significant corruption in the preceding term, is widely accepted not just in the commercial world, both local and international, but also among the general public. However, the public expectations from the Yahapalanaya Administration has been quite high, as the Rajapaksa’s and corruption were largely blamed for Sri Lanka’s economic malaise. The end of the Rajapaksa’s in 2015 raised public expectations, that a “good governance dividend” would be forthcoming. It is this good governance dividend which now, the leaders of Yahapalanaya have called upon Mangala Samaraweera to deliver. Mangala is no stranger to state sector reform. It is worth remembering that it was Mangala twenty years ago, who as the then Minister of Telecommunications and Media, who implemented the entire telecom sector liberalization, ending the state sector monopoly and privatizing Sri Lanka Telecom, resulting in Sri Lanka today having South Asia’s most advanced telecoms infrastructure and its highest mobile and internet penetration rates.

The Standard and Poor’s rating outlook upgrade


A few days ago, the international credit rating agency, Standard and Poor’s revised upwards, Sri Lanka’s credit rating outlook from negative to stable. In practical terms, this should make Sri Lanka’s access to the international capital markets to refinance its maturing dollar loans easier and somewhat less costly. On a more policy recognition level, the outlook upgrade recognizes what the rating agency calls the “improving reform momentum” including the passage of the new Inland Revenue Act, the proposed Liability Management Act and the recent independence of the Central Bank.

The political challenges of reform


However Standard and Poor’s also states that “we continue to observe significant challenges to the policy making environment”. Economically the Rajapakse post war policy of foreign, largely Chinese, commercial borrowings spent on projects of dubious utility value, such as a little used port, airport and a loss-making budget airline together with the world’s most expensive highways was no longer fiscally possible. Besides the astrological predictions, the other more rationale political reason for Mahinda Rajapakse calling the presidential elections two years before his term was over, might well have been the advice of his economic guru’s that the borrow and spend good times, just could not be sustained. The Yahapalanaya Administration though is faced with dealing with both the decades of economic reform stagnation, as the civil war sapped our national energy and more importantly the mismanagement of the immediate post war era. This mismanagement ballooned the national, especially foreign debt, while making precious little contribution to sustainable economic growth. The challenges of a low productive agricultural sector, an education system which produces graduates for non-existent white-collar jobs, inflexibility in the labor market through archaic regulations, are all long overdue for reform. The immediate challenges of stagnant or declining expatriate worker remittances, undiversified exports and especially significantly below peer group average foreign direct investment and tourist arrivals, all remain to be addressed.

The Poverty Legacy of the War in the North and East


The Blue-Green Yahapalanaya budget 2018, though addresses and deals with one of the key effects of the decades long civil war in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The recent survey by the Census and Statistic Department denotes that average median household incomes are considerably less in the North and East than they are in the rest of the country. The destruction of community infrastructure has resulted in serious livelihood and income generation challenges especially in the rural parts of the North and East. Amid the rural poverty, the food security, health and overall vulnerability of certain social sub groups, such as women headed households and children in low income families is acute.

The budget also allocates funds for the implementation of the much delayed fifty thousand houses program in the North and East. This time directly under the President in his capacity as Minister of Reconciliation. It is somewhat regretted that this flagship project, much awaited and anticipated in the North and East was delayed due to the controversy over the proposal to build the houses in steel rather than the common and culturally acceptable brick and mortar constructions.

In terms of reconciliation, while the Government works through the constitutional framework for political reform, it is also important to recognize and address the effects of the war, especially on the most vulnerable sectors of the population. It is expected that the fifty thousand houses program if targeted correctly will make a significant contribution in that regard.

It is interesting to note that the Government enjoys a two third (2/3) majority in Parliament for its annual signature finance bill and that both the first and second readings of the budget has passed with greater than one hundred and fifty (150) votes, being a two third majority in the House. A Government which commands that much support in the legislature should not waste this majority on business as usual, but move towards effecting the economic, democratic and reconciliation reforms which Sri Lanka, so badly requires.

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The SLFP contribution to devolution and constitutional reform

Posted by harimpeiris on November 13, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island of 11th November 2017)


The recently concluded three-day debate by the Constitutional Assembly on the Interim Report of its Steering Committee was an excellent exercise in seeking to move forward the State reform process in Sri Lanka. The debate demonstrated that there was a degree of common ground and areas of sufficient consensuses not only between the two major parties in government, the UNP and the SLFP but even with wide sections of the opposition. Old hackneyed terms such as why we need reform or there is no need for devolution etc. was largely absent from the mainstream discourse. With the Parliament focusing its attention on the national budget to be concluded with the December parliamentary recess and January being dedicated to the scheduled local government elections, further progress on the constitutional reform will be after the dust settles from the local government elections. The outcome of the elections, while very local in focus and scope will nonetheless impact the politics of the reform process.

Within this context, it is worthwhile for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which finds itself both heading the government through the presidency but having a divided parliamentary group in both government and opposition to reflect upon its rich tradition of contributions and commitment to state reform including devolution of power.

SWRD Bandaranaike’s advocacy of Federalism


It was SWRD Bandaranaike, the founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who even before the formation of the party, at the time when he was articulating his political vision for the then Ceylon, who advocated the concept of a Federal State. The arguments made at that time by Mr. Bandaranaike was that federalism would be the best method to enable us to reflect the diversity of our society.  He articulated these views on federalism in six letters which he wrote in 1926 to “The Ceylon Morning Leader”. Accordingly, the Bandaranaike-Chelvanyagam pact was a reflection of his own belief that devolution of power was an appropriate, suitable and desirable state structure for Sri Lanka. In more recent times, his daughter and subsequent SLFP leader Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was to bring the SLFP back to power after a long spell in opposition with a clear political pledge to bring about devolution of power and other constitutional reforms.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK)’s proposed new constitution


This return of the SLFP to power in 1994, under the leadership of CBK was with a clear commitment to constitutional reform and devolution of power. The SLFP proposals of 1994, popularly referred to as a “package”, resulted, after a nationwide dialogue and consultative process, in the proposed new constitution of August 2000. As the SLFP led People’s Alliance Government of 2000 had only a single seat majority in the house, it was a miracle that the proposed constitution of 2000 came as close as it did to securing the required two thirds in parliament, falling only about eight votes short according to the then chief government whips office.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s commitment through the All-Party Representatives Committee (APRC)


The Mahinda Chinthanaya “Love Dinnana Maga” or the Mahinda Chinthanaya – Path to Success, the election manifesto of President Mahinda Rajapakse from which he sought re-election in January 2015, has a clear commitment to constitutional reform including the devolution of power. In its section two (2) titled, A Wide Political Reform – A New Political Culture, President Rajapaksa’s manifesto of 2015, states as follows.

“We have been battered for 36 years by the 1978 Constitution which was thrust upon our people and country, without an appropriate debate or discussion. We must also collectively acknowledge that our Constitution is now further distorted due to the various amendments over the years, some of which are not consistent with others. Therefore, instead of amending the Constitution further with piece-meal changes, I will take action to formulate a new Constitution that reflects the peoples’ ideas, aspirations and wishes, within a period of one year.”

It further goes on to state “The entire Parliament will be formed as a Constitutional Council consisting of peoples’ representatives belonging to all political parties, which will identify the peoples’ expectations and aspirations in order to formulate a new Constitution.”

That this publicly stated commitment on which Mahinda Rajapakse secured his unsuccessful support base of forty-seven (47.5%) of the electorate was not a flash in the pan, because President Rajapakse had been making such policy statements before. In his keynote policy speech on 11th July 2006 as President, to the inaugural session of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) convened and established by him with the objective of seeking a consensus on reforms to the Sri Lankan State, he stated as follows.

“Our objective must be to develop a just settlement within an undivided Sri Lanka”. He further states “We must explore past attempts from the Bandaranike-Chelvanayakam Pact onwards. We must draw appropriate lessons from the experience of other countries”.

With the stated commitment of President Rajapakse at the 2015 presidential election, that it becomes clear that both candidates at the presidential election in 2015, Mahinda Rajapakse and Maithripala Sirisena, committed themselves and their political program and objectives to constitutional reform.

Accordingly, over ninety seven percent (97%) of the people who voted for these two candidates have given an overwhelming mandate for constitutional reform. Accordingly, the process of constitutional reform through the Constitutional Assembly, is a process which has a popular mandate. The actual reforms themselves or what would be the exact output of this process is left to the apex legislature of our country to devise through a process of dialogue and discourse, including civil society consultation.

As the country moves forward on the constitutional reform process, especially leaders and members of the SLFP should reflect on Sri Lanka’s lost opportunities of the past and not let the country lose out yet again on the window of opportunity presented by the unity government and the consensus around constitutional reforms, to enact the state reforms which Sri Lanka so badly needs.

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