by Rajan Philips
The north and south are different again. The SLFP and the UNP are uneasily cohabiting in the current parliament. The minority UNP is running the government and the majority SLFP is constrained to go along with it. The situation is unprecedented and unusual, but not undemocratic or unconstitutional. The constraint on the SLFP is a democratic extensionof the January 8 presidential election in which the incumbent president and then leader of the SLFP, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was defeated by the common opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, who is now the new President of Sri Lanka and the new leader of the SLFP. The unusual state of affairs between the SLFP and the UNP is an inevitable transient period in politics as the new president and the old parliament collaborate to implement the January 8 mandate, which is to (a) hold accountable the previous regime for abuse of power and corruption, and (b) to abolish the current presidential system that enabled the abuse of power and corruption. That is a quick summary of current politics in the south.
The northern solitude is a different story, but it involves what was mostly a subtext to the presidential election. The subtext was that a new government under President Sirisena would take a positively different and inclusive approach, from that of the Rajapaksa government, to addressing the concerns of the Tamils and the Muslims. It was on this basis the Muslim political parties and the TNA supported the common opposition candidate, who went on to receive overwhelming support in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Tamil voters in particular enthusiastically endorsed the TNA’s position and emphatically rejected the lunatic boycott call of the TNA’s extremist detractors. The current ‘power struggle’ in the TNA is a continuation of the failed boycott attempt.
Unlike the SLFP and the UNP having each other to contend with electorally (while sharing the same ‘President’!), the TNA has no serious electoral contender. Its detractors are internal to the organization and internal to the Tamil political society at large, which manifestly is comprised of a (Sri Lankan) resident constituent and a non-resident (diaspora) component. The power struggle in the TNA is not about challenging and ousting the two principal TNA leaders, Mr. R. Sampanthan and Mr. M.A. Sumanthiran. It is about intimidating them against any engagement with the new president and the new government, a continuation of the earlier effort to manipulate the Tamil voters into boycotting the presidential election.
The detractors of the TNA know that they can never measure up to the TNA in an electoral contest. They have tried and failed, often losing their deposits. But they know that between elections they can cause maximum disruption by their intimidatory tactics. Sampanthan and Sumanthiran are frequently the direct and indirect targets of the so called Tamil civil society assertions made under episcopal cover, and political assertions made from episcopal pulpit. Their effigies have recently been burnt by hotheads in Jaffna and in London. A resolution in grand language alleging genocide was passed in the Northern Provincial Council primarily to embarrass and handcuff Sampanthan and Sumanthiran. The resolution is a politically amateurish exercise in rhetorical overkill that will only give fodder to the campaign in the south for the return of Rajapaksa that took off in Nugegoda two weeks ago, but it will not persuade anybody of consequence anywhere else. Post-war Tamil society in Sri Lanka is in need of practical redress on the ground, and not vacuous rhetoric on paper.
Opportunity or pitfall?
Although the southern co-habitation and the northern power struggle are geographically isolated, they are politically connected. They can be mutually disruptive, or positively reinforcing. Regardless of what their detractors might assert, the TNA leaders have the mandate from the Tamil people to work with the new government to address their immediate concerns over land and security and establish a positive foundation for long term political solution. The new administration, for its part, must do better than its predecessor to restore Sri Lanka’s global credibility by positively dealing with the TNA at home. In this regard, the current political situation in the country and the unusual state of affairs between the SLFP and the UNP in parliament can be cleverly used as a positive opportunity, or turned into a pitfall by inaction or stupidity.
Let us discuss the disagreement over the April 23 dissolution deadline. From Sobitha Thero and President Sirisena to a majority of current parliamentarians, the emerging consensus is to have the election after the current parliament complete its term in April 2016. This would enable the full implementation of the 100-Day Plan including reforms to the electoral system. No positive purpose will be served by rushing to have the next parliamentary election under the current proportional-preferential voting system. That would also mean going back on one of the key promises in the 100-Day Plan. The concern in some quarters appears to be that it would be less risky to have an early election and address the Tamil question thereafter rather than having to deal with it first in the run up to a delayed election. This might have been a key consideration in the government’s successful representation to the UNHRC to defer the release of its report on Sri Lanka from March to September. Thus, the UNHRC report can be avoided by dissolving parliament on April 23, and having a June election this year, whereas an election after April 2016 will have to deal with whatever wounds that might be opened by the release of the report in September.
I beg to disagree with this thinking because it is more applicable to the conventional parliamentary situation of government-opposition dichotomy, but not to the situation of SLFP-UNP cohabitation in the current parliament. By allowing the current parliament to continue till April 2016, the 100-Day Plan can be extended to a 350-Day Plan and the extended plan could and should provide for dealing with Tamil and Muslim concerns using the LLRC recommendations as a starting point. There will not be a better opportunity to accomplish this task in a Sri Lankan parliament than in the current situation of SLFP-UNP cohabitation under a shared president. By transparently establishing a normative bi-party consensus before the next parliamentary election, the president and the current parliament can make the Tamil question at least a non-explosive, if not neutral, election question in the south.
What is being suggested here is not a full blown and endlessly debatable constitutional solution in the next 350 days, but a series of practical steps collectively undertaken by the government, the TNA and the Provincial Councils, to legally and administratively address the very real postwar problems faced by the people in the northern and eastern provinces. These steps could become the foundation for long term political solutions. In the process, the TNA can neutralize its detractors and the government can fulfill its commitments both internally and internationally. There is no certainty that any or all of this will happen in the next 350 days, but there will not be a better opportunity, nor is there a better approach, to make anything positive happen.