At the swearing in of the new Cabinet in September 2015. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe.

As Sri Lanka approaches the 70th anniversary of its independence, it also approaches elections, albeit local government elections and no less significant for being so. Long delayed – in some cases for 3 years – these elections will be the first under the National Unity Government and the independent election Commission set up under the 19th Amendment.  The election will invariably be perceived as a referendum on the performance of the National Unity Government and a harbinger of things to come – provincial council elections will follow and if there still is an executive presidency, elections to that office by Nov/Dec 2019 followed by a general election in 2020. As such, the local government elections will also be seen as a clear indication of the prospects of a return to power by the previous dispensation.  As to whether these local government elections will follow the historic pattern of local government elections reflecting the results of the last general election or as to whether they in effect will set the trend for the elections to come, remains to be seen.  Either way, there is no escaping their significance in terms of the fate of political parties and indeed the institutions and processes of representative democracy after 70 years of independence.  Added to this, is yet another reflection on 70 years of independence – the fate of constitutional reform and transitional justice.

That we still need both is an indictment of how we have governed ourselves over seven decades.  That they remain on the agenda though proves that all is far from lost and that there is an acknowledgement, however insufficiently robust, that a new social contract is necessary for this country to achieve its full potential. Both processes are inherently political and it is not an exaggeration to state that given the current political balance of power, they are tied to the fate of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) under President Sirisena.

What is the SLFP position on the constitution? Is it for a new constitution or for piece -meal amendments that do not require a referendum?  Is the overriding concern the referendum and the fear of losing it or is it to constitutional reform per se? And if the latter, what is the position on the executive presidency, abolition of which was promised and trumpeted in the course of regime change? The process through which the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly, was made public, demonstrated the ambiguity in the party’s position and delayed the report for months.  In the attachments to the report detailing party positions the SLFP does not support the abolition of the executive presidency. Did the President as leader of the party agree to this? What is the real position? Were the party to do well in the local polls, will it be emboldened to go for a new constitution without an executive president, provide the two–third majority in parliament and campaign with conviction to win the referendum on it?

Leaving constitutional reform in limbo, effectively jettisoning it and thereby losing the unprecedented and historic opportunity presented by the regime change of 2015 of the two main political parties voluntarily in government together, will be a tragedy and one of the making of the two parties themselves.  Coalition government of this magnitude would invariably have problems of command, control and communication. Yet, singing the same hymn and from the same hymn sheet should have been prioritized by the two parties if regime change was going to be more than a flash in the pan.  The fear of a referendum as the fear of a referendum on the overall performance of the government should be set against the historic opportunity for constructive change and the simple arithmetic of the combined voter base of the two main parties.  Government cannot be carried out through fear or governance through debilitating silence.  A policy consensus for the remainder of their term in office needs to be agreed upon and complemented by a positive communications strategy without delay, to institutionalize the gains of 2015.

Paralysis on the constitutional reform front will have long -term implications for Tamil politics.  The Tamil polity did more than its bit for regime change in 2015.  The Tamil National Alliance has put most if not all its eggs in the basket of constitutional reform and one could not have hoped for a more moderate and constructive interlocutor or partner in this quest than the current leadership of the TNA. The downsizing of the TNA in terms of party membership has already begun and the clarity and coherence of Tamil political representation will inevitably take its course in the post-war era.  But the inability, if such is to be the case, of the Tamil political leadership to effect the transition to a post –conflict era through a new constitution on which it has banked so much, risks the alienation of the Tamil polity. Furthermore, increasing anger and frustration, currently attested to by demonstrations in the north of more than 300 days, with regard to issues of transitional justice.

Were it to be the case that constitutional reform may have some life left in it, transitional justice, it would seem, has run its course from the heady days of the 2015 Geneva autumn and Resolution 30/1 to the yet to be appointed Office on Missing Persons that has been in the becoming from August 2016.  The position of the government has been that constitutional reform should take priority and transitional justice therefore put on the backburner because it could adversely impact the fortunes of constitutional reform. This assessment was and is largely based on the argument that the government gave the Sinhala right a free hand to propagate the thesis that transitional justice was the process by which war heroes would be turned into war criminals.   The report on public consultations was immediately orphaned because of the recommendation with regard to accountability, which the government, whatever it may insist on now agreed to in 2015 with respect to international participation.  The report nevertheless does come in handy for the government when it defends itself on the international stage at treaty body reviews.  Sadly this is reminiscent of the previous regime and the citizens of this country, the victims, know it.

The fate of reform and that of the National Unity Government has come to rest on the local government elections.  The results may well not be blindingly clear.  The political formations in contest have to do as well as expected or not as badly as expected to affect the trajectory of government and the balance of political power.  From this perspective – unexpected losers cannot be ruled out.

A lot is riding on how Sri Lanka enters it seventy- first year of independence.

Dr. Saravanamuttu is the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA)



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