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Electoral shift towards ethnic pluralism:

Sri Lanka takes its second chance

The victory of the coalition of parties led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the General Elections on August 17 will ensure that the changes brought about at the Presidential Election of January 2015 will be sustained.

The majority of Sri Lankan voters reaffirmed the choice they made in January to reject the siren call of narrow nationalism. The main significance of the election verdict is that it paves the way for transition to take place in two key aspects of governance.

Firstly, it will consolidate the changes that have taken arbitrary power away from individuals and vested that power, instead, in institutions and systems. The sustainability of this process lies in the fact that virtually all the political parties have agreed that the systems of government need to be strengthened.

The majority of people chose the Rule of Law over the rule of men that was epitomized by the previous UPFA government. The over centralization of power during the second term of Mahinda Rajapaksa's presidency led to allegations of gross abuse of power, corruption and impunity. This was visible to the general population in the way he sacked Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.

There was also a climate of fear that affected those who were political dissenters, so that people were afraid to voice their opinion even on the telephone. The lifting of the sense of fear was the biggest improvement that the change of government brought to the country. The more politicized sections of the population, better educated urban voters, civil society and the ethnic minorities combined to deny the UPFA a majority.

In the seven months between the presidential and general elections, the minority government headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe charted a shift away from a highly centralized and national security-dominated state structure that the UPFA government had constructed to a more consensual mode of governance.

In keeping with his election promise, President Maithripala Sirisena, with the backing of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, championed the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that reduced the power of the presidency and the scope for the abuse of power and, strengthened Parliament and state institutions such as the judiciary, public service and police.

Transition

The second important transition that the country will be undergoing is the transition away from the high level of militarization and governmental antipathy towards ethnic minorities of the UPFA period, to a society that is truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious in its decision-making and its choices.

But as this still remains a transitional process there needs to be a lot of compromise and patience. As the leader of the opposition's election campaign the former president did not appear to learn from the presidential election that he and his allies had to rebuild the trust of the ethnic minorities if they wanted their vote.

Instead Rajapaksa and his allies engaged in a strident Sinhala nationalist campaign that portrayed the ethnic and religious minorities, and their international connections, as threats to the Sinhalese majority. This reinforced the sense of insecurity experienced by the minorities and turned their vote against him once again.

How the war against the LTTE ended, and what happened to the Tamils in its immediate aftermath, continues to be a bitter memory amongst the Tamils. Although the end of the war also saw the end of the large scale human rights violations against them, they continue to feel under threat.

During the last period of the Rajapaksa rule, there was also a rise in attacks against the Muslims, their places of religious worship and businesses, which made all the minorities, including Sinhalese Christians, feel insecure. These attacks, often led by nationalist bhikkhus, were accompanied by police inaction. This smacked of government complicity.

The very poor showing of the Buddhist People's Front (BJP), a bhikkhu-led party at the recently concluded elections indicates that the anti-Muslim sentiment of the past few years was not a bottom-up phenomenon, but rather one that was being politically cultivated at higher levels.

Nationalist

It is noteworthy that the election results closely paralleled the results of the presidential elections. The UPFA won in the predominantly Sinhala rural and suburban areas where the lustre of the war victory over the LTTE remains high and people appreciate the earthy style of their former president. It lost heavily wherever there was an ethnically mixed population. The main reason for this was the sense of insecurity experienced by the ethnic and religious minorities during the final period of the UPFA government.

The former president's ability to win the presidential election in 2010 on a Sinhala nationalist platform was only possible because the victory over the LTTE in the war in 2009 unified the Sinhala electorate to vote for him. But that was an exception. His fate is a salutary lesson to all Sri Lankan politicians who hope to reach the pinnacle of power.

They need to realize that Sri Lanka is indeed a multi ethnic and multi religious country where the ethnic and religious minorities amount to 30 percent of the population. Not only is there a moral reprehensibility in discriminating against and marginalizing minorities, they also cannot win national and country-wide elections without a substantial fraction of the minorities voting for them.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is a man with a clear notion of what he wants and how to set about it. But he will be leading a potentially fractious coalition of parties, which includes Sinhala hardliners, Tamil and Muslim parties and those who have crossed over from the UPFA. He will also face an opposition whose most prominent members who obtained a large number of votes are those who championed ethnic Sinhala nationalism.

This will make it more difficult for the new government to quickly tackle the fundamental problems of the country. It needs to revive the economy that became debt-ridden especially to China, and cope with the international attention on what happened in terms of human rights violations at the end stage of the war. It will also need to address longstanding grievances of the Tamils.

Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have pledged to establish a government of national unity which would ensure de-concentration and sharing of power. But they need to be given time. When the government stabilizes, these two leaders together can engage in constructive problem-solving in a manner that has eluded their predecessors.

War crimes

The immediate challenge the new government faces will be to respond to the UN report on war crimes that is due any day. The visit of US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal to Sri Lanka next week is likely to be in relation to this issue.

The Rajapaksa government's unwillingness to deal with this issue, and its persistent denial of serious human rights violations, exposed the country as a whole to the world in an unfavourable light. In addition, by confronting the UN system, whose primary backer is the United States, and believing that China and Russia would stand by its efforts to deny the past, the previous government made a bad situation worse.

This confrontational stance taken by the Rajapaksa government was absolutely irrational and harmful to the national interests of Sri Lanka.

How the new government deals with the war crimes report and addresses international human rights concerns in Geneva next month will define the nature of Sri Lanka's relationship with the international community.

The way forward would be to establish a credible national mechanism to deal with the issues of the past, but which also meets international standards. Many countries - not least South Africa, which even sent Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa as its special envoy to Sri Lanka - stand ready to assist.

If they see that the new government is genuine in its intentions, and is rational in its approach, there is reason to believe that the international community will give an extended timeframe to Sri Lanka to deal with the resolutions and reports that have come and are to come from Geneva.

 

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