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Sunday, 10 January 2016

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Unity Govt mirrors social consensus

A year ago, President Maithripala Sirisena won the presidential election in an election campaign that brought together a grand coalition of political parties that jointly opposed to the incumbent government. It was an authentic joint opposition, unlike the present one that goes by that name, and included all of the major opposition parties including the ethnic minority parties.

A year later it is remarkable that this coalition continues to hold and is getting broader. There are signs of further fragmentation of those in the opposition which, tragically, continues to hold on to the potentially destructive power of ethnic nationalism which plunged the country into three decades of internecine conflict. This is a government that offers everyone, including civil society, adequate space to do what is good for the country.

The most positive accomplishment of the government has been the sense of freedom it has brought to the people at large. It is important that this space is not permitted to be degraded into a lax and lenient attitude towards the old culture of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power. One such member of the government is today in deep trouble on account of allegedly acting with impunity.

Those engaging in lawless acts know that after the passage of the 19th Amendment under the leadership of President Sirisena, the police and other branches of government have become freer of political interference and able to act in conformity with their mandates. The fear of arbitrary punishment by government members who behave as if they enjoy impunity is becoming a thing of the past. Therefore the people feel freer to protest when they feel their rights are infringed upon.

Even in the North and East, where activists complain of continued surveillance by the security forces, they still feel free enough to complain and show their dissent unlike in the past. The awful fear of being abducted or assaulted with impunity by agents of the state froze the tongues of speakers even at Rotary Club events by their own admission. Today this fear of speaking out in public is virtually non-existent.

There is confidence that the top ranking leaders of the country led by the President and the Prime Minister will not knowingly tolerate human rights violations, unlike during the last government. The challenge of the government is to keep alight all the other values and principles its members espoused at the presidential elections. Values and practices of good governance, transparency, checks and balances, and non-corruption need to be continually highlighted and implemented in public life.

Unprecedented alliance

The most unique feature in today's government is the unprecedented alliance between the UNP and SLFP, which have been traditional rivals. The manner in which President Sirisena won the presidential election as the joint opposition candidate in which the UNP was the leading force has much do with the nature of the present alliance. Although the presidency is a very powerful institution, President Sirisena has been mindful of the voters who gave him the victory.

At the same time the UNP leadership is aware that if not for President Sirisena becoming the joint opposition candidate it is unlikely that the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa could have been defeated.

This recognition underlies the mutual respect that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have for each other. Even though it is likely that they have different views on various matters, neither has sought to impose his will on the other.

The President and Prime Minister have also taken care not to become political rivals. Elections in Sri Lanka, being invariably divisive, the postponement of local government elections by six months will give them more time to consolidate their relationship. However, postponing elections is not a good practice in a democracy.

The next innovation for the National Unity Government may be for it to present a common list of candidates when the local government elections fall due. The unity of the government is important for the unity of the country.

The great challenge that Sri Lanka faces is to resolve its long standing ethnic conflict and find a lasting political solution so that the diversity in Sri Lanka can become its strength and not its fatal weakness.

The government is presently embarking upon an ambitious effort to design a new constitution that will have the acceptance of the people. Parliament is to be converted into a Constitutional Assembly that will deliberate on issues pertaining to a new constitution.

The government has also appointed a 24-member committee drawn from political and civil society leaders to obtain the views of the people and feed them back to the parliamentary committee. The promise to amend the constitution was made by government leaders at both the last presidential and general elections in January and August last year.

Their main pledge was to abolish the executive presidency and to change the electoral system from one based on proportional representation to a mixed system of proportional representation and first-past-the-post voting in which parliamentary seats would be apportioned in proportion to the total number of votes obtained by each of the political parties.

Universal spirit

There is a general consensus in society about the need to reduce the power of individuals elected to power and to ensure their accountability. However, amongst the key issues that will need to be part of the constitutional reform process is the issue of power sharing between the different ethnic and religious communities who, together, constitute the Sri Lankan nation. Embedded in the constitutional reform process are potentially explosive issues which can be exploited by extreme nationalists and opposition parties for political gain.

The recent attempt by some persons to put up posters referring to "Sinhala blood" is both a provocation, and source of intimidation, to the ethnic and religious minorities. Those who were unable to win the votes of the people through elections are now attempting to win them over through the resort to ethnic nationalism.The issue of equitable sharing of power between the main ethnic and religious communities who live in the country is another controversial issue that has a long history of conflict. So far, the positions on the sharing of power that each community has is unacceptable to the others.

A compromise is necessary. However, in the past the representatives of these communities would sit across the table and attempt to negotiate.

They bargained on a win-lose basis. This was most notably the case between successive governments and the various representatives of the Tamil people.

At the present time, the fact that the government is a national unity government, and has the two main parties within it, and enjoying the support of all the ethnic minority parties, provides an unprecedented opportunity for consensual decision making. Instead of sitting across the table and bargaining with each other, this time there is an opportunity to sit on the same side and solve problems together.The alliance of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe presents an unprecedented and unique opportunity for the polity to address the issue of the ethnic conflict in a more successful manner than in the past.

The non-racist and statesmanlike behaviour of both these leaders can continue to keep the confidence of the ethnic and religious minorities and also of the more liberal segment of the ethnic majority community.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe staked his political career on commitments to liberal values from which he would not budge, even at enormous political cost to him. President Sirisena's strength has been his ability to engage with people.

His unscheduled visits on two recent occasions in Jaffna, once to a camp for internally displaced persons and on another occasion to the home of a schoolgirl, who had been raped and murdered, have touched many hearts in the country.

There is a spirit of universalism in both the President and Prime Minister that sees all as human beings before being of different race, religion or caste. This will be the ethos of the new Sri Lanka, where the single fact of citizenship, and the equal rights that flow from it, will come first.

 

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