When 2016 began, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), constituents of the “National Unity” government and the country’s two principal parties, were still in the midst of honeymoon. But, as the year went by, the differences between the two began to crop up.
The latest issue that has caused heat within the ruling coalition is the draft Development (Special Provisions) Bill. The legislation has been bitterly criticised by Chief Ministers, mostly belonging to the SLFP. Provincial councils, one after the other, adopted resolutions against the legislation, unmindful of the argument placed by proponents of the legislation that the initiative is meant for hastening development process.
A harried Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe swung into action and held a meeting with a delegation of Chief Ministers last week. He had assured the agitated Chief Ministers that the Bill would not encroach upon subjects coming under the purview of the provincial councils.
Though Dilan Perera, a follower of the President Maithripala Sirisena’s camp in the SLFP and a Deputy Minister, does not view the issue as one concerning only the two parties, he complains about the UNP’s attitude towards his party in governance, especially issues concerning economic affairs, and says “unless the UNP starts treating us respectfully, it will be very, very difficult for the SLFP to get around its party cadres.” “Yes, there are contradictions [within the government]. That is the nature of a coalition,” acknowledges Eran Wickramaratne, another Deputy Minister and a key leader in the UNP, expressing the hope that all the issues would get resolved.
As for the Bill, Mr Wickramaratne says “we are open to suggestions and amendments to the Bill.”
The apparent lack of cohesion is not the only aspect that is affecting the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Chandra Jayaratne, a leading civil society activist, is upset with the regime for not having delivered substantially on its promises in respects of good governance and reconciliation, even though there is “less fear” among people to exercise democratic rights and “much advance” in the areas of freedom of expression and free movement of people across the country. Udaya Gammanpila, a prominent and young face of the Joint Opposition (which supports former President Mahinda Rajapaksa), contends that the popularity of the government is at its lowest ebb. Even on the issue of constitutional reforms, the UNP and the Sirisena camp in the SLFP are having divergent views.
While expressing his dissatisfaction over the progress in the issues of return of land, resettlement and housing requirements of Tamils and the establishment of truth and reconciliation commission, R. Sampanthan, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief, however, says the attitude and approach of the present government are completely different from its predecessor. “They (the government) have not been totally negative,” he observes.
The TNA is keen on having a new constitution adopted through the proposed referendum. “We do not want to get anything done behind the back of people.”
V. Niranjan, coordinator of the Jaffna Managers’ Forum, (a civil society organisation) says Tamils in the Northern Province, having observed the way Mr Sirisena handled the issues of clash between Tamil and Sinhala students on the Jaffna University campus and the killing of two Tamil students this year, feel that the President is genuinely interested in their welfare and he will deliver a “fair deal” to them.
The year 2017 is going to be crucial not just with regard to the ruling dispensation but also to the country as a whole in view of the submission of an exhaustive report at the United Nations Human Rights Council; elections to three provincial councils and local bodies, and the referendum, says veteran journalist V. Thanabalasingham.