Transcending Sri Lanka's Partisan Politics
COLOMBO: The government has put on a bold face on the resignation of Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake by making the argument that it is demonstrating good governance in practice. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in Parliament that the former Foreign Minister had set a good precedent by resigning from his portfolio. He said no member of the previous government had resigned no matter how serious the charges leveled against them were. It has not been the tradition in Sri Lanka for those holding public positions to resign when faced with a conflict of interest or to take responsibility for what has gone wrong. The Prime Minister said his colleague’s resignation to allow for impartial investigations into his role in the Central Bank bond scam showed the government’s commitment to good governance. He did not speak of the weakening of the government, even as its two constituent parties took different stands on the political survival of the former Foreign Minister.
However, in the subtext of the political commentary is the reality of deep seated political rivalries between the personalities and machineries of the UNP and SLFP which form the two main constituent parties of the Government of National Unity. Those who have put the most amount of pressure on the former Foreign Minister to resign have been from the SLFP component of the government, including President Maithripala Sirisena. This is seen by the UNP component of the government as a measure to weaken them and gain political mileage with the general public. Although the government leadership is putting on a bold face, the price it is going to pay due to the resignation of Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake is bound to be steep. After he was shifted out of his previous job as Finance Minister, again at President Sirisena’s insistence, he made a strong effort to master his new role as the country’s face before the international community.
It is noteworthy that President Maithripala Sirisena who has been vacillating on the issue of the international human rights commitments made by the government to the international community seemed to be getting activated in a positive direction after Minister Karunanayake took over the reins of the Foreign Ministry. The presidential assent to the Office of Missing Persons, which is one of the most important of the human rights commitments made by the government to the international community, came during his brief watch as Foreign Minister. Prior to that for over eight months the president had delayed putting his signature to the law that had been enacted in parliament. Apart from Ravi Karunanayake’s undoubted capabilities as a minister, he was also the assistant leader of the UNP, which is the main constituent party of the government. He continues to hold this position.
The former Foreign Minister had been a source of strength and support to the leader of the UNP, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during the period when former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s grip over the country seemed unassailable and the blame for it accrued to the Prime Minister as the then leader of the opposition. Minister Karunanayake also played a leading role in winning the support of the Ven Maduluwave Sobitha Thero, the most revered Buddhist monk in his electorate, and in the larger society, who took leadership over the civil society movement against the human rights violations of the former government. It is a sign of the times that this very civil society movement is now planning a public demonstration on August 15 to demand that the government live up to its commitments without faltering and without politicizing them for its own partisan advantage.
The decision of Foreign Minister Karunanayake to resign has helped to avert a further loss of public credibility for the government which was elected to power on a platform of good governance and anti corruption in 2015. The general public, especially those who voted for the government in the hope that it would change the political culture of the country, and put an end to corruption, have been feeling badly let down by the government. Although the government leadership sought election in 2015 on a platform of good governance and anti corruption, there is much to be desired in their performance. Many of those from the previous government who were accused of sky high corruption continue to remain without substantial legal charges against them and even have the temerity to mock those in the government as having made false allegations against them merely to win the elections.
President Sirisena has been one of the main critics of his own government when it comes to its failure to crack down on corruption both in the previous government and in the present one. As a result he has been able to maintain his reputation to some degree as a political leader who is serious about dealing with the problem of high level corruption. But these actions of the President are not being supported by others in the government, and have undermined the unity of the government and created ill feeling and mistrust within it. Prior to the resignation of Foreign Minister Karunanayake, several members f the government from its SLFP component publicly stated that they too would vote with the opposition if there was a vote of no confidence in parliament against the minister. These are all signs of the weakening of the government.
Another sign of the weakening of the government is the fiasco over the proposed 20th Amendment to the constitution. What is especially disturbing about this constitutional amendment is that it has made is appearance when the government is coming close to finalizing its draft new constitution which is expected to be a model of good governance. Unlike its distinguished predecessor, the 19th Amendment, which was passed soon after the new government took office and which restricted the powers of the presidency, the 20th Amendment shows little idealism. In summary, the bill proposes that elections to the provincial councils will be postponed until such time as all provincial council elections can be held on a single day. It also gives to the central authorities, the power to run the provincial councils which stand dissolved until such time as the elections on one day are held. Such a transfer of power from the elected provincial councils to the central authorities would be a negation of both democracy and of the practice of devolution of power.
The provincial council system was originally established in 1987 to deal with the escalating war against the Tamil militancy led by the LTTE. Even though the effort to draw the Tigers in to the envisaged political solution was not successful, the democratic Tamil parties have sought to utilize it to as a building block to progress to a greater sharing of power while respecting the existing unitary constitutional framework. It is in this context that the tampering with the provincial councils, by postponing the elections to them, and by further reducing their devolved powers even temporarily, needs to be viewed with the utmost concern. With both the SLFP, which is the second of the two main constituent parties of the government, and the Marxist inspired JVP, deciding to oppose the bill on the grounds that postponing of elections is unacceptable, the likelihood of getting the 2/3 majority in Parliament is remote.
The 20th Amendment may be seen as a pragmatic but unprincipled measure to contain the political rivalries of the UNP and SLFP as two main constituent parties of the government, and to prevent the mutual tension between them from degenerating into open confrontation. The desire to postpone elections is due to the concern that it will be difficult to remain together in the government if the two parties contest each other on the ground. This is the contradiction that has dogged the government from the time of its first election victory in January 2015. At that election the President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were on one side. They were the underdogs who won together contesting the election under one common electoral symbol (the Swan) rather than their two separate party symbols (the Elephant and the Hand). If the Government of National Unity is to continue, and the promises it made are to be kept, it is necessary that the President and Prime Minister rise above the political rivalries of their respective political parties, and look upon the challenges they face as national issues and not as partisan political issues.