COLOMBO: There are two attributes of election manifestos. One is for a political party to place its vision for the future and programme of action to achieve it before the electorate. Virtually all political parties have revelled in making excessive promises during election time. The election manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena during the presidential election in January was different. As it focused on a 100 Day Plan, its promises were realistic. Many of the promises made have been implemented to a substantial degree. The main achievement was the passage of the 19th Amendment which reduced the president’s powers and strengthened the independence of institutions, such as the police, judiciary and public service, which are essential features of a well governed society.

The second attribute of an election manifesto is to provide the political party that forms the government to be able to refer back to its electoral mandate and justify its activities in the future. This would be especially applicable to those actions that are in the national interest, but are not so popular with the country’s people. Examples of this are hard to come by in Sri Lanka although there are examples from other countries. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, apart from promises such as to even get rice from the moon to fulfil election manifestos, hardly any political party is willing to inform the electorate about the bitter medicine that is needed to resolve problems that adversely affect society.

The most relevant case in point in SrI Lanka is the ethnic conflict and its solution. So far it has been civil society groups who have made comprehensive assessments of what needs to be done to tackle this vexed issue. The political relationship between the ethnic majority and minority communities has been the most intractable problem in the country. It has divided the people and made them mistrustful of one another, and has dissipated the country’s energies away from the task of economic development and material prosperity which makes other problems easier to resolve. In this respect the JVP is to be credited for its willingness to tackle the issues of war-time accountability for human rights violations by proposing a Commission against Discrimination along with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the peace building process.

The election manifesto of the UPFA sets out an impressive array of promises. The articulation of the UPFA’s manifesto can be attributed to its drafters who count well known political analysts, jurists and commentators. It promises to meet the most urgent needs of the general population through higher salaries and more jobs which will come through a massive development effort. However, the efforts of the drafters of the UPFA manifesto are foundering floundering on the track record of the previous UPFA government that was led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. With new exposes of huge levels of corruption during the period of the previous government hitting the news virtually every day, the question that arises in the minds of the electorate is why these plans and activities were not implemented during the previous years, especially after the war ended.

It appears that the leaders of campaigning for UPFA on the ground are aware that their manifesto is getting little traction from the electorate. Those campaigning against the UPFA have been pointing out that if the former government failed to implement these promises whilst in dominating the national polity as they did during the previous decade, there is little likelihood of them doing any better this time around, especially when they will not be able to dominate the national polity. This is the most likely reason why the UPFA is once again resorting to divisive ethnic nationalism to attract the votes of the majority Sinhalese community. UPFA speakers are constantly raising the bogey of the revival of the LTTE, the TNA’s separatism and the adverse role of the international community in pressing for war crimes trials against the government leaders and the security forces who won the war.

The intention on the part of UPFA allies, such as the BBS to create incidents that can rouse the nationalism of the Sinhalese majority is a signal that they feel that this is the issue on which they can gain votes. They have been bringing lion flags which represent the Sinhala community to election rallies. But this flag is shorn of the orange and green stripes that are part of the Sri Lankan national flag, and which are meant to represent the Tamil and Muslim communities. In most countries mutilating the national flag is considered to be a punishable offense, outweighing the right to free expression. The BBS is however claiming that what they are waving at election rallies is not a mutilated version of the national flag but the lion flag of the Sinhalese. It appears that they are trying to create a situation where they can argue that the Sinhalese cannot express their identity today.

The UPFA manifesto states that a "National Harmony Commission" with broad powers and a district level mechanism will be established to uphold a "National Harmony Charter" which seeks to safeguard the fairness and equality meted out to each and every Sri Lankan citizen". It also says it will devolve powers of administration to the village level through the re-introduction of the Village Councils System for local government administration. These references to the village and district levels, as against the provincial level, appear to be messages that if the UPFA wins the election they will de-emphasise the province in dealing with the ethnic conflict. This would be a massive setback to decades of negotiation and compromise between successive governments and Tamil parties and is likely to set the stage for renewed inter-ethnic confrontation.

The clash of extremes is beneficial to those who wish to benefit from extremist politics. But it will not solve problems. What Sri Lanka needs to day is not the mobilising of one form of ethnic extremism to counter another. Rather it is the taming of extremism by a process of fostering inter-ethnic understanding and trust-building so that there can be joint inter-ethnic problem solving. The lacuna regarding this issue in the manifestos of the political parties means that they will have to be dealt with after the general elections by the new government as these are not problems that can be left without a resolution. The JVP’s willingness to affirm that they will deal with the ethnic conflict and war-time accountability issues through commissions against discrimination and truth and reconciliation is welcome in this regard.

The truth of what happened during the three decades of the war must be known to the people, and accountability sought, with reconciliation rather than punishment as the primary goal. There needs to be appropriate compensation and reparation to enable the conflict affected populations a fresh start in their lives. There needs to be a fair sharing of power between the ethnic and religious communities through the devolution of power. This needs to also include mechanisms for power sharing at the level of the central government in a manner that recognizes the plural nature of our society. Speech that incites hatred or violence against those of other ethnic or religious communities needs to be prohibited by law. These problems need to be resolved but without the advantage of having explicitly asked for and received a mandate for such problem solving.