President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe need to be congratulated, as the calendar year draws to a close and close is also the completion of the first year of their ‘unity government’ experiment. It’s as much for evaluating their politician-brothers, their proclivities and predilection right, as for the duo’s strategy for winning two nation-wide elections in eight months.
To be sure, it’s not that the duo won, but that incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the January 8 presidential polls. With all Muslim parties, already in the Rajapaksa camp, walking over to the other side, as if by cue, it was an election that the war-victimised Tamils and their Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won for the duo, and their national and international backers.
The same cannot be said about the parliamentary polls on August 17. Wily-nily, it restored the traditional domination of the UNP over the decades-old, breakaway SLFP rival, now under President Maithri’s care, in the ‘majority’ Sinhala areas. This inherent weakness also showed up after Rajapaksa losing the presidency, and explained why his aspirations to become PM, in what could have been termed a loser’s match, if any, too was lost.
In the parliamentary polls, the TNA kept the North to itself, and the Muslims, a part of the East with themselves, but in the company of PM Wickremesinghe’s UNP. They have been doing this oscillation between the UNP and the decades-old, breakaway ideological rival in the SLFP, since under President Sirisena’s care.
All of it has a bearing on the nation’s future politics. It includes constitutional reforms, electoral reforms, and more importantly to a negotiated political solution to the ‘national issue’, which is what decades-old ethnic problem war and violence was. Together, the two elections underpin the undeniable voice of the ‘minorities’ in a nation-wide presidential poll, as had been originally intended, but not always relevant to the parliamentary poll.
It is this complexity that the upcoming Constituent Assembly has to address in all seriousness. Translated, as the recognised ‘Opposition’ party in the 225-member Parliament turned Constituent Assembly, the TNA will have a problem backing any new provisions that could upset this traditional electoral balance – but otherwise maintained by the UNP-SLFP political equilibrium in the normal course.
The highest-ever presidential poll percentage of 64 became possible for SLFP’s winning candidate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1995, because she balanced out the UNP’s traditional lead in the Sinhala areas with support from the centre-Right JHU and centre-Left JVP. She also added the massive Tamil and Muslim votes available in that elections, but not afterwards when she sought (and won) a re-election.
The LTTE decided three presidential polls after 1995, and in the ‘Sinhala heart-land’. In 2000, the poll-eve LTTE attack on CBK ensured that the Sinhala ‘sympathy votes’ pooled in her favour. In 2005, the LTTE’s forced ban on Tamils to vote contributed to Rajapaksa’s first presidential poll victory. Wisely, he had also retained CBK’s JHU-JVP combo, which also/alone made the difference.
It is anybody’s guess if he would have lost if the LTTE had allowed the Tamils to vote, and in rival Wickremesinghe’s favour. It is not unlikely that the Sinhalese could have voted in greater numbers for Rajapaksa, going beyond his known support-base, as they did in the post-LTTE 2010 polls, if only the LTTE had facilitated/favoured a Tamil vote for Wickremesinghe in 2005.
All indications are that the constituent assembly would realise the Maithri-Ranil’s pre-poll promise of abolishing the Executive Presidency. What kind of electoral scheme that they all come up with for a less-empowered Presidency remains to be seen.
Any continuance of the present, nation-wide elections is off, considering that a ‘toothless chair’ cannot be given unintended and a costly tooth, at a very high cost to the national exchequer.
It’s not without reason. Even after the duo-enforced 19th Amendment to the current Constitution, it’s the personality and pre-poll promise of President Sirisena that has kept the ‘unity government’ going. A future president, his or her wings clipped otherwise, could still cite his office drawing greater inherent powers owing to the direct nature of his/her election, as against any ‘indirectly elected’ prime minister, as mandated in clear terms in a new constitution.
Given the current composition of the ‘unity government’ in parliament, where in a new constitutional scheme would the ‘minorities’ (read: Tamils, more than the Muslims, if need be) draw their political strength and relevance despite their numerically ‘minority’ status? If anything, the on-again-off-again top-level tiffs within the TNA in the past months may have shown that future-generation leaders (too) may now be in the making. The ‘majority’ Sinhala polity thus cannot wish away Tamil counterparts, as might have been thought of, post-war.
Contrarily, the existing and emerging conflicts within the Tamil polity and society may percolate down even more, post-LTTE — and flow back in the reverse direction, too.
The resultant contradictions are beginning to show up in the conflicting Tamil political approach to aspects of ‘ethnic issue’, still focussed on ‘accountability issues’ and the implementation of the UNHRC resolution – but have the potential to diversify, as in the past.
As ironically always, the ‘Sinhala polity’ still seems to be reaching the delivery-spot after the Tamils, particularly hard-liners, had left it behind and reached the next, or ever farther posts – and the Tamil moderates had not reached. The greater irony today is that there is a continuing perception of ‘Sinhala majority unity’ at the national-level, yet they have not taken any initiative to reach out to the Tamils, in ways that they could arrive at a permanent solution to the ethnic problem.
In the past, the Sinhala polity was divided, and the Tamil polity united, the latter though under the monolith LTTE, as much with its fear-power as fire-power. The reverse is true today, but the end-result in political terms seems temptingly slipping towards the same.
Caught up as they are with the business of running the government, keeping the coalition honeymoon going on as long as they could, and the international community happy on the UNHRC and China fronts, the ‘national unity’ leadership does not want to address this reality, leave alone having to address the same.
It is not unlikely that unlike predecessors in power that the present leadership may end up convincing the world that they were genuine, but the Tamils had gone back on their government, and on the legitimacy of some of their continuing aspirations, which the Team Duo might argue had no place, or need, in a ‘liberal democracy’ that they now lead. They may win it out there, and possibly effortlessly. But nearer home, the situation might have worsened on the ethnic – political – front that no solution would be possible for a longer time to come.
It is also in this context that the role and purpose of the proposed Constituent Assembly needs to be considered – and consulted, now that it’s becoming a reality. Prima facie, TNA’s parliamentary speech and vote would be an indicator, both for their equations with and expectations from the present Government.
They could also be a determinant/denominator in the future of intra-Tamil polity, and if the TNA itself would begin losing its relevance and societal leadership, with this one.
The Government’s response to the TNA’s speeches, if any, on the occasion of parliament being converted into a Constituent Assembly would be watched, as much keenly.
This is because the draft motion on the Constituent Assembly gives the impression of glossing over the ethnic problem as the ‘national issue’ – thus, opening it up for national debate and discourse, all over again.
It will be interesting to know what the Tamils in general and the TNA in particular had to say about their post-war procedural positions on a negotiated settlement.
In the Government-aborted negotiations with the erstwhile Rajapaksa presidency, the TNA repeatedly insisted on a ‘negotiated settlement’ at their level, before going to Parliament.
The TNA argued that the Rajapaksa Government had a two-thirds majority in parliament, and could push through any constitutional amendment for legalising any mutually agreed upon political package. Citing the same reason, they chose to stay away from the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) of the time.
Today, the present Government too has a two-thirds majority in parliament – again, technically so.
The Constituent Assembly motion-draft proposes a Steering Committee, of which TNA’s Leader of the Opposition, R. Sampanthan, will be a member. It has also mooted Constituent Assembly sub-committees, as may be required. One or many would be addressing the ‘national issue’. Would the TNA join them and work through them, or would it still want bilateral talks with the Government, and the ‘agreement’, if any, taken to the Constituent Assembly /Parliament, through these committees or more directly?
That’s the question the TNA should be asking itself already, and the Government leadership should be asking the TNA leadership, too. It’s more so in the case of ‘friends of TNA’, both within the country and outside, who had sympathised with or supported the TNA’s procedural position when Rajapaksa was in power.
Today, no one wants to ask the question – or, so it seems. Or, at least, none has asked the question, of anyone. They also do not seem to be aware of the question, nor do they want to acknowledge the dicey situation that may be emerging, after all.
None seems to have any answer, leave alone ‘the’ answer(s). Where from here the Constituent Assembly, thus, is the question, now – if not, from now on is the real question, though the intention is to wish the CA experiment well, and more so in the New Year that it heralds, as for as Sri Lanka is concerned!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)