COLOMBO: The selection of the ruling party’s General Secretary to be the opposition’s common candidate was unexpected. It also poses a serious challenge to the government. For the past decade the opposition has been unable to loosen the government’s grip over the Sinhalese rural heartland. In selecting Maithripala Sirisena to be their common candidate the opposition has brought a seasoned politician from the area of their greatest weakness to the fore. They are now able to take the battle for votes right into the midst of the government’s electoral base. The crossover of five other government parliamentarians has added to the weakening of the government.

However, even though weakened by these unexpected defections, the government remains a decisive one. Its immediate reaction has been to sack all those who defected from its ranks. In addition, the government response aimed at garnering public support to itself is to describe the defections as part of of an international conspiracy to create political instability in Sri Lanka. The defections were described as yet another “link in the chain of foreign conspiracies that seek to destabilize this country. There have been certain countries that have pumped money into this scheme through their embassies to establish a puppet regime in Sri Lanka. We warn them to put a stop to these activities,” at a special media briefing that was convened by the SLFP at the party headquarters after the common candidate was named.

The allegation of an international conspiracy against the country has gained currency due to the unrelenting international human rights campaign to put the government into the dock on the issue of war crimes. The government has pointed out that Sri Lanka is one of a handful of countries to be selected for focused attention by the UN Human Rights Council, while other countries with worse records have not been similarly pursued. This argument has resonance amongst most Sri Lankans who are deeply skeptical about the genuineness of international concern about the country and its people. However, whether accusing the opposition and the common candidate of this offense is going to be taken seriously by the general masses of people is another matter. The decision of the Sinhalese nationalist JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya) to break ranks with the government undermines the government’s case regarding an international conspiracy.

The decision of the JHU to oppose President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid to be re-elected for a third term has the potential to be the defining moment of the forthcoming presidential election. In explaining their departure, the JHU leaders have said that they united with the government to defeat the LTTE and its threat to the unity of the country. But now that threat is over, they have said, and pointed out that the present need is to achieve good governance in the country. The top leadership of the JHU resigned from their positions in the government after they failed to extract promises from the government to accept the reforms they proposed that would ensure good governance in the country. It is significant that so far the government has not resorted to its tried and tested post-war means of garnering electoral support by referring to the LTTE and attempts being made to resurrect it.

The JHU was a source of strength to the Rajapaksa campaign at the two previous presidential elections in 2005 and 2010. These campaigns focused on the threat posed by the LTTE and the need to safeguard the unity of the country from separatist forces. The election campaign focused on ensuring that there was a Sinhalese consensus on the pre-eminence of Sinhalese nationalism in the life of the Sri Lankan nation. But beyond that the JHU also gave fire to the President’s election campaigns in which Sinhalese nationalism became dominant, because their passion in what they were saying conveyed itself to the voting public. It gave the President a decisive grip over the minds of Sinhalese voters who constitute over three quarters of the national electorate.

However, the JHU is now challenging the validity of the government’s assessment that the LTTE problem is still relevant. Its leaders have said that the threat from the LTTE no longer exists and that the LTTE was eliminated on the battlefields of the North. With the JHU challenging the validity of the government’s position, it is unlikely that the government can sustain an LTTE-based nationalist campaign in a successful manner. The shifting of the emphasis at the forthcoming presidential elections from issues of nationalism to those of good governance would be one of the more positive features of the defection by the JHU.

The past decade of rule by President Rajapaksa has seen the main institutions of governance lose much of their integrity due to the centralization of power in the hands of the President which have been justified by national security considerations. The enormous concentration of power in the President’s hands has seen a big erosion in the system of checks and balances which is a threat to any well functioning democratic system of governance. The fact that the JHU has been prepared to depart from its more familiar ground of Sinhalese nationalism to embrace the concepts of good governance is a positive shift that is in the national interest.

However, there is one potentially negative aspect of the focus on good governance at the expense of nationalism. There is a possibility that this could lead to the issues of ethnic conflict and a political solution being pushed to the back seat of national priorities. This would not be in the national interest. It was the long unresolved ethnic conflict that first emerged during the British colonial period that finally led to three decades of civil war. Finding a solution to the ethnic conflict needs to be given priority. This could happen if the concept of good governance were to be given a broader meaning than just getting a new law passed that is modeled on the lines of the now defunct 17th Amendment.

The passing of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 2001 was considered a significant step towards establishing a culture of good governance and accountability. The intention was to de-politicise the administration of the country. The amendment focused on ensuring the independence of key institutions of state, including the police, public service, judiciary and elections commission. Appointments to Public Service Commission (PSC), the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), National Police Commission (NPC), Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, Human Rights Commission (HRC) were made with the recommendation of the Constitutional Council which was appointed by a multi-party body rather than by the President only.

Currently good governance is seen as having institutions in place that could tackle problems of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power. The 17th Amendment did not directly deal with the issues relating directly to the ethnic conflict, which is about power sharing between the ethnic communities and outlawing ethnic-based discrimination and ensuring a measure of self-rule to the regionally based ethnic minorities. Whoever wins will need to deal with the issues of provincial autonomy and the implementation of the 13th Amendment. The concept of good governance needs to be widened so that it also embraces the concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities. The discussion on the 13th Amendment, power sharing and devolution of power, need also to be made a part of the discourse on good governance.