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