The formation of the Government of National Unity in the aftermath of the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential election of January 2015 generated hopes of a rejuvenation of the polity and the unleashing of its full post-war economic potential. However, much to the disappointment of those who believed in the new government, the rift between the UNP and SLFP, which are the two main constituent parties of the government, appears to be increasing with the passage of time. At its root is the perennial quest of politicians and political parties for power, to gain it, keep it and not to lose it.
Despite the existence of a UNP-SLFP alliance at the present time a question mark hangs over the future of the alliance in 2020 when the next presidential and general elections fall due. The indications are that the UNP and SLFP are both planning to revert once again to their traditional roles as political foes to each other, with each seeking to defeat the other at any cost and monopolize the fruits of power. Past practices that these parties have used against each other include denying their opponents their civic rights afte legal and political procedures of doubtful integrity, and the fanning of ethnic nationalism to steal a march over the other.
The six chief ministers of provincial councils governed by the SLFP who met with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, himself a former SLFP president, expressed the strong desire of the rank and file in the party for a rapprochement between both factions of the SLFP, one led by President Sirisena and the other by the former president. The hope of the SLFP party membership is that a reunification of the SLFP will enable them to defeat the UNP and other political parties at future elections. The concern of both factions of the SLFP is that if they go into the local government election process without unifying themselves they will be handing over victory to the UNP.
The prolonged delay in holding the local government elections which are now two years overdue is most likely to be connected to the divisions within the SLFP which will disadvantage them and hand over the advantage to the UNP. The reason given by the government for the postponement of elections is that the Delimitation Review Committee, which delayed its own report had now handed over an incomplete report with many errors in it. After the report on their findings has been completed and handed over to the government, the government itself is complaining that the report is flawed and needs to be further revised. The perception that the government is seeking to avoid holding elections any time soon, is further undermining it.
Apart from undermining the government’s image as a democratic entity that is backed by the people, the rift between the UNP and SLFP is also leading to a lack of coherence in policy making. The government appears unable to progress on the three important economic initiatives it has undertaken. The Chinese investment in Hambantota Port and the industrial zone in the adjacent area are at a standstill. The Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India continues to be in a prolonged process of negotiation. The GSP Plus tariff concession by the European Union requires Sri Lanka to accede to international human rights standards and to international covenants it has signed. On each of these three economic issues President Sirisena has either been blocking or slowing down what the UNP has been proposing.
The issues on which President Sirisena has stepped in to intervene have their downsides. He has strongly opposed corruption in the government and refused to sign on to projects which appear to reek of it. The Chinese are seeking a 99 year lease which has implications for the country’s sovereignty as China is not just any other country, but an expanding world power that is a rival to India which is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor. The controversy over ETCA with India reflects the larger concerns in Sri Lankan society about being swamped in an open economic relationship with India. On the other hand, there are also issues on which the President has intervened where his positive contribution is much less clear. An example would be the draft National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) on which he has made strong comments and registered his opposition.
The President has come out publicly in favour of the government’s decision not to proceed with legal reform with regard to decriminalizing homosexuality. The presence of archaic laws does not reflect positively on either the Sri Lankan legislature or on the cultural enlightenment and tolerance of the population at large. In addition the President has not yet gazetted the Office of Missing Persons Act which was passed by Parliament in August last year. This was one of the transitional justice mechanisms promised by the government to the UN Human Rights Council in October 2015. This has eroded the government’s credibility especially amongst the Tamil people who suffered the largest amount of enforced disappearances and also the international community who expect the government to adhere to international standards.
The problem for the President is that he is unwilling to take policy decisions on controversial issues that would alienate the SLFP faction that is headed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Former president Rajapaksa’s speech at the Joint Opposition rally last week gives an indication of the thinking that prevails amongst this faction of the SLFP. He said there were plans to replace the present Constitution with a separatist one prepared according to the needs of LTTE sympathizers abroad and the so-called international community. He also said the present government was boasting that they had regained the GSP+ tax concession, but the EU would only grant the facility after they fulfilled its conditions, including legalizing homosexuality.
The best way for President Sirisena to break out of this type of backward thinking is to dispense with his need to obtain their support. At the present members of the president’s team complain that they are left out of key government decisionmaking perhaps due to the fear that they will oppose them for narrow political reasons. This suggests that the UNP and President Sirisena’s faction of the SLFP should cease to be political rivals. The agreement at the presidential election of 2015 was that the presidential candidate would contest under a common electoral symbol where the UNP and those in the SLFP who supported the president joined together. The agreement that followed the victory at the presidential election and general election of August 2015 was that the UNP and SLFP would cohabit for a minimum of two years which was later extended to five years.
Putting an end to the debilitating rift between the UNP and SLFP faction headed by President Sirisena requires that the agreement to form a government of national unity should be extended to beyond 2020. This suggests that the same agreement that prevailed at the presidential election of 2015 should be entered into when the 2020 elections fall due. If this agreement is reached, President Sirisena will become empowered to stop attempting the impossible task of obtaining the support of the SLFP faction led by former president Rajapaksa. Instead he can, and must, work as a full and equal partner with the UNP headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP also needs to include the President and his team in joint decisionmaking. They need to work together, consult and decide together, in a manner where the two become one. This is the way out of divided and contradictory governance which is yielding too little fruit for the people who are impatient for fundamental and genuine change that will transform the country.
By Dr. Jehan Perera