COLOMBO: The Joint Opposition was successful in political and psychological terms when it succeeded in ensuring large scale participation of its supporters at its May Day event.

Galle Face Green, which covers 18 acres of land, is perhaps the largest open air venue for public events in the country. In the past this has been the venue allocated to the Pope to conduct religious services as was last done in 2015. Members of the Joint Opposition claimed that the crowd at the May Day rally of the Joint Opposition was even larger than those who came to attend the Pope’s event. But there was also a difference. The vast majority of those who came to see the Pope did so at their own expense. They were neither bused nor provided with meals and drinks by the Church.

At the last presidential elections held in 2015, nearly 5.8 million people voted for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is likely that most of them continue to repose their trust and confidence in the former president. The crowds that thronged Galle Face Green would account for a small fraction of that political base.

Joint Opposition members claimed that public participation at their event was more than those of all other May Day rallies combined. What was needed was organizational skill and determination to bring them down to one location, and of course, the financial resources to pay for their travel. It appears that the Joint Opposition considered more to be at stake for their futures, and so outdid the others in money and effort to gain the psychological edge.

From the time of its unexpected victory at the presidential elections of January 2015, the government has been steadily losing the political and psychological advantage that it had. This is mainly on account of its inability to show the general public that it is a dynamic and can-do government that has a plan and is implementing its plan. This is only partly on account of the government being a coalition of two equal parties, each of which has taken turns in governing the country in the past. This time around for the first time they are working together with a lot of give and take and giving a lot of space to each other and to the polity in general. The problem is that they are not communicating a coherent message about their vision and plans to the people.

The most positive feature of the present government is the space it has given to everyone in the polity to discuss and debate on public issues. But this freedom is being used mainly by those in the opposition who criticise whatever the government does and use the political space to mobilize protests against the government. The government fails to use the space for discussion and debate to take its own message to the people. Instead the government is limiting its discussion and debate to within itself, and to small groups within it, whether it is on economic policy or constitutional reform or transitional justice. The government needs to find ways to take leadership of the debate and discussion and take it to the masses of the people.

By way of contrast, the Joint Opposition strategy is one of going to key groups, such as religious clergy and professionals, and making their case in a nationalistic manner. They conjure up fears of external interventions and erosion of national security and are forging alliances with important trade unions such as the GMOA to oppose the government. In some instances they are opposing the very processes that they launched during their tenure in government. They are now criticizing the very things they set up. This is not based on policy but on partisan politics. These include the strike by doctors of the GMOA over the issue of the private medical school (SAITM) and against the Hambantota port development project both of which were set up and set on course during the period of the previous government.

In this context the government needs to go back to the vision of good governance and inter-ethnic justice that it presented to the people at the 2015 elections and which won for it the majority of votes of the electorate. The government also made commitments to the international community especially regarding the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the GSP Plus of the EU which need to be delivered on. The government needs to spell out is vision to the people and explain why it made those commitments and why they are in the best interests of the country, and not a betrayal as asserted by the Joint Opposition.

Last week at educational workshops were organized by the National Peace Council for students of Kelaniya and Peradeniya universities on the issues of the UNHRC resolution. The main issues discussed was what is required to be done in terms of ascertaining the truth about the past, ensuring accountability for human rights violations and compensation for victims, and changing the constitution to facilitate a political solution. The students were given the opportunity to express their own opinions in small groups of 8-12 students. Three of the four groups said that their priorities were truth first, and accountability and compensation second. One of the four groups reported that their priorities were compensation first and accountability second.

It was significant that the students did not reject the notion of transitional justice in the manner of nationalists who say that war heroes are being persecuted. This was after they had been educated about what accountability in international law really means, without the false propaganda of the opposition. Political education was done on a mass scale during the war by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga with support from Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. They led the Sudu Nelum movement to explain to the people the need for a political solution based on the devolution and sharing of power between the ethnic communities. The rest of the government leaders at that time also went to the people with the message that the President was taking with determination.

The government was able to secure a victory in the EU parliament a fortnight ago when an attempt was made to deny Sri Lanka the benefits of the GSP Plus tariff concession. However, obtaining the tariff concession remains contingent upon the government’s delivery of a number of commitments in terms of international human rights and labour covenants for which the government has to reform some of the laws of the land. It also needs to implement the provisions of the UNHRC resolution for which it has obtained a further two years.

The problem, however, is that the government is not taking up the implementation of its commitments wholeheartedly, although it agreed to them on the basis that they were for the good of the country. Instead of being deterred by the size of the Joint Opposition event at Galle Face Green the government needs to take the fight to the people why its way is better.