COLOMBO: The continuing defection of government members away from President Mahinda Rajapaksa's election campaign is an indicator of the formidable nature of the challenge faced by the government. The President has a reputation for being able to take on any challenge. However, what he is seeking to do is unprecedented. No President in the past had the opportunity to contest the elections a third time.

The Sri Lankan voter has had an earlier tradition of not returning an incumbent government to power at elections. This only changed with the presidential system that concentrated power in the hands of the President and enabled ruling parties to muscle themselves back to power.

There is growing apprehension that the coming elections can become violent. The stakes are very high for the contesting political parties. The presidency is by far the most powerful institution in the country. Winning the presidency is the goal of both sides. The issues being canvassed at the elections, of corruption, nepotism and betrayal of the country to international interests are highly emotive ones. Violations of election law are occurring on a large scale with the misuse of state property and resources being highlighted by election monitors. There have also been acts of violence that can increase sharply as the election approaches.

In this fraught situation the sign of statesmanship would be for the President to initiate an all party discussion with the participation of religious and civil society on the need to ensure a free and violence-free election. This discussion must include the post-election situation, to ensure that no revenge-seeking will be tolerated. It is the President who is best suited to make this call as he holds the positions of Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and is also holds the ministerial portfolios for Defence and for Law and Order. Initiating such a discussion is in the national interest. It would both create confidence about the electoral process in the minds of the general public and could also reduce the polarisation within the polity.

So far, however, the government's presidential election campaign has not taken on a positive tone. It seems to be focusing attention on international conspiracies and plots to divide the country, which are not new anymore. It is the opposition that is setting the pace in this regard at the early stage of the presidential election campaign. They have promised to abolish the presidential system and the 18th Amendment both of which lead to an over concentration of power. They have pledged a new constitutional system that will ensure the de-politicisation of state institutions that will make government leaders accountable for their actions. Now the Common Opposition Candidate Maithripala Sirisena has promised to form a National Government if he wins the presidential elections.

"I am inviting my former colleagues and all parties represented in the current parliament to join a national government," he said and promised to return the country to its status as a parliamentary democracy that existed until 1978. He also said he wanted to bring about a peaceful constitutional revolution, citing India's independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and South Africa's anti apartheid leader Nelson Mandela as his inspirations. He said he was an admirer of both Gandhi and Mandela and will follow their example in leading the country to establish a new political culture. This would include ensuring that all will be protected by the Sri Lankan state after the elections.

The Common Opposition Candidate's promise to form a national government has three positive aspects to it. The first is that it will be the best way to ensure there is a 2/3 majority in Parliament to make the necessary constitutional amendments. It is unlikely that a sufficient number of parliamentarians will cross over from the government ranks to the opposition prior to the presidential elections to ensure a 2/3 majority. Therefore there will be a need to persuade government parliamentarians who did not cross over to also give their vote for the constitutional amendments. This can best be done through the arrangements of a national government.

Second, the formation of a national government that includes members of the present government who did not cross over prior to the election can ease the trauma of the transition. It will reassure those in the outgoing government that they will not be left powerless and at the mercy of hostile opponents. Indeed, they can be part of the national government which will also be a transitional government. This type of assurance is important because there is anticipation the forthcoming elections will become a do or die battle in which violence can take an upper hand. It is indeed possible that relations will be shattered during the elections. But after the people give their verdict, there also needs to be political reconciliation in the national interest.

Elections are necessarily divisive as they pit one contestant against the other. The rivals seek to get the votes of the electorate by highlighting differences rather than commonalities. This is where statesmanship must accompany the political need to be different. What is necessary for each of the contestants to win is not necessarily in the national interest. The effort to win elections must not detract from the higher goals of maintaining peace at home and peace in the world.

The third positive aspect of a national government is that it will contribute to make the constitutional reform process a consensual one. The three previous efforts at changing constitutions were partisan exercises. The two new constitutions of 1972 and 1978 were rammed through without any heed given to the protests or wishes of the opposition parties. As a result there was no sense of ownership of those two constitutions by the opposition parties, let alone the people at large. The attempt at passing a new constitution in 2000 was derailed because of opposition protests.

In seeking to form a national government it is also important that the ethnic minority parties be included. The ethnic conflict has been the most divisive and protracted problem in the country. It was there even prior to Independence from the British in 1948, when Lord Soulbury observed that overcoming communalism and creating a unified nation was the biggest challenge facing the newly independent country. Therefore in effecting constitutional change, it is crucial that the views of the ethnic minority parties be respected and their interests be accommodated. This is where the South African principle of "sufficient consensus" will become useful.

When Nelson Mandela was negotiating the way out of the Apartheid system which few thought was possible to accomplish peacefully, he sought to obtain a maximum of consensus. However, the South African leaders realised that on some issues obtaining the consensus of all parties was not possible. So they decided that at least the most important parties had to agree. In the Sri Lankan case, where matters relating to ethnic minority rights, devolution of power and post-war reconciliation are concerned, the agreement of the main ethnic minority parties will be necessary.

The government's military victory over the LTTE unified the country geographically, but not in heart and mind. It is due to this unresolved problem that the country faces international opprobrium, possible sanctions and is not getting the economic investments it could get from the Diaspora and from international companies.

The main international concerns over Sri Lanka have been the unwillingness of the government to deal with the human rights violations that took place during the war. South Africa provides a model in which truth and reconciliation walked hand in hand. After decades of political polarisation and costly warfare, this will not be an easy challenge to take up and requires the collective wisdom of both the government and opposition, and regardless of which side wins the election.