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Sunday, 23 August 2015

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Economy, Geneva challenges:

Power fights should not thwart bipartisan governance

The General Election of August 17, 2015 was significant in two respects. First, there is agreement across the board that the election was the freest and fairest in recent memory. Both the Elections Commissioner and the Police were able to operate as intended without hindrance or interference and both did so, pro-actively, to ensure adherence to the election laws. The general political climate was enabling, allowing for the free flow of discussion and debate to an extent not evinced in recent elections.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a rally at the Viharamahadevi Park.

Pic: Vipula Amerasinghe

In political terms, the election was significant because, for the second time in eight months, the Sri Lankan electorate rejected Mahinda Rajapaksa. By returning the UNF as the single largest party in the new Parliament, the Sri Lankan electorate has dealt Mr Rajapaksa and his cohorts a body blow but not quite a knockout. The UPFA campaign, ceded to him by the President, garnered over four million votes and just 11 seats less than the UNF. However, set against the result of the last general election, there was a considerable swing to the UNF across the country and in the final analysis when the JVP and TNA vote is added to the UNF's, the total anti Rajapaksa vote amounts to 56 percent of the country.

Diminishing

Mahinda Rajapaksa's appeal is diminishing in the country but it is not diminished. He commands a core vote that responds to his majoritarian populist image liberally laced with fear about the fate of the Sinhala community under the UNF and of war heroes being turned into war criminals. Fear is the key for him, but fear is now yielding diminishing returns.

Perhaps he realizes this and, therefore, said that he would take the lead in the new parliament on national security issues. Fear is still the key, nevertheless. Failure on the part of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine will provide him an opportunity to keep the Rajapaksa dynastic project alive. He is serving notice that it is in effect, the sword of Damocles over the Yahapalanaya project.

As media reports indicate, the new government will be UNF-SLFP in that the latter will be brought in to bolster the former and to deliver the message that there is a bipartisan consensus to take the governance reform which commenced in January forward. Already, pro - Sirisena loyalists who were defeated at the polls have been incorporated in the UPFA national list with this in mind, even though this flies in the face of basic democratic values.

SLFPers in government may trim the sails of their UNP counterparts on questions related to the Geneva report, accountability, a settlement of the ethnic problem and the economy. The nature of the coalition government is compromise for consensus. Let us hope, it is not fudge or a "fight to the finish" of the governance project.

It appears that Rajapaksa and his loyalists are biding their time for the moment and going, albeit reluctantly and in some quarters with some recalcitrance, with the flow as it were.

Pandemonium: The passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in Parliament was successful after initial hiccups.

Questions also arise with regard to the position of the Leader of the Opposition and as to which party/parties will now constitute the opposition. One assumes that the TNA and the JVP are supportive of governance reforms.

At the same time, there are differences of opinion, markedly so, between the former and the UNF on a political and constitutional settlement of the ethnic problem and accountability, and as far as the latter is concerned on the economy. It remains to be seen as to how all of this will play out.

Opposition

Of pivotal importance for the new government is the relationship between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. That, the two sing from the same song sheet, is crucial for the longevity and success of the government and, the sustenance of the national interest.

Were partisan interest to intrude too early in the day and bipartisanship give way to two-party competition for governmental power, instability and turbulence could result to the detriment of the national interest. The challenges for the new government abound. They go to the heart of the matter of our willingness and ability to build a political and constitutional architecture for all citizens of this country and a sound framework for economic prosperity.

Geneva

In the next few weeks, the government will have to formulate its response to the report of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, particularly to that section of this report that deals with the investigation conducted under the aegis of this Office on allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the last phase of the war. The report will be formally presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in the last week of September, but shared with the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) in the coming week.

The report is expected to be strong, concluding that such crimes were committed. The GOSL succeeded in ensuring that the report would be postponed - it was scheduled to have come out in March - on the grounds that it did not want it to be an issue in the general election.

At the same time the GOSL has talked about instituting a credible domestic mechanism to deal with these issues and work appears to have commenced on this within the government. The hope and expectation is that all of this will be made public, now that the election is over, and that there will be public consultations on what is being proposed.

Transitional justice is seen to have four pillars - justice and accountability, truth, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence. The credible domestic mechanism proposed by the government to deal with the first of these as far as the families of victims are concerned will not be credible if it is exclusively domestic.

Many of the families of the victims maintain that a combination of the two - domestic and international - essentially a hybrid mechanism will not be acceptable either. International it must be since their experience of past commissions has been dismal. The government will have to convince and persuade constituencies in both the north and the south of the country. It will have to decide as to whether there will be trials, who will judge and who will prosecute in this event?

It is crucial too that progress in respect of each pillar is complemented and reinforced by progress in respect of the other three and that government policy on transitional justice is internally coherent as much as it is convincing both domestically and internationally. Both constituencies have to be convinced of a serious commitment and of demonstrable progress in this regard. There is no arbitrary deadline as far as this is concerned and, therefore, there should be no rush to tick boxes to convince of progress. It is worth taking the time to get it right - the international community too would appreciate and accommodate this.

Budget

Whilst Geneva lands on the plate of the government in September, October and November will be budget-time and by no means less testing.There are a number of challenges here, which a UNF government may have dealt with differently to what it may now have to do on account of SLFP/UPFA colleagues. There is the question of a bloated public service, debt and unemployment and the fact that we are an ageing population and the consequences this has on the health sector and pensions for instance. There is surely some unpleasant medicine to be swallowed on this score and political support to underpin this will be crucial. Will the government or a part of it, be able to carry the people along ?

The serious business of governing begins. At the very least, it must be founded on governance, and politically, assurance must be made doubly sure that this indeed be the case. That remains as always, the responsibility of the citizens.

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