Two years after Sri Lankans made an emphatic point by voting for change, which President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe personified at that time, the national unity government they brought to power seems trapped in the politics of survival.
In the early hours of January 9, 2015, Sri Lanka witnessed that crucial regime change after 10 years of the Mahinda Rajapaksa brand of authoritarianism, marked by high surveillance, intimidation, media repression, and the withering of democratic institutions. The regime’s corruption and nepotism overshadowed its development efforts, eroding Mr. Rajapaksa’s war victor image that had helped him garner support among the Sinhalese majority.
There was new political space for any alternative that offered change. That is how the current government came to power, promising change and good governance in their insurgent campaign. With a sizeable section of the rural Sinhalese backing them, along with the overwhelming endorsement of northern Tamils, Muslims and upcountry Tamils, and some international support, Mr. Sirisena deposed Mr. Rajapaksa. His Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its rival, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), formed Sri Lanka’s first national unity government. It was a major reconfiguration of political forces. People felt hopeful.
Hopeful 2015, turbulent 2016
The government, at least in its first year, managed to keep that hope afloat, in spite of a massive bond scam at the Central Bank involving a governor appointed by Mr. Wickremesinghe. Keen on giving this government a chance, Sri Lankans reiterated the point in the August 2015 parliamentary elections.
The government adopted a constitutional amendment to clip the powers of the executive president, opened up space for the media, evolved a comprehensive strategy for reconciliation and assured the UN Human Rights Council of a four-pronged approach, and began drafting a new Constitution. President Sirisena made several trips to the north and released a portion of the land that was under military occupation. He told the Tamils that he had an obligation to solve their problems.
Stepping into its second year, the government encountered more turbulence. The country’s economy was far from healthy and the sharp political differences within the government became apparent. Contradictory messages from the two leaders exposed their artificial unity. Increasingly and more evidently, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government was seen as soft-pedalling cases linked to the former first family — be it corruption or murder — fuelling speculation on possible backroom negotiations with the Rajapaksa forces.
The other equally troubling aspect of the government has been its silence on sections of Buddhist monks who consistently engage in hate speech. The government took no action on a monk who resorted to an unmistakable racist abuse and death threat to a Tamil officer in the eastern town of Batticaloa. The Buddhist clergy, which enjoys considerable political clout in Sri Lanka, remains insulated, as it was in the Rajapaksa era, from any legal action.
For the international actors, particularly the U.S. and India, ties with Sri Lanka following regime change are almost entirely on grounds of economic partnership or security. While both countries continue to be preoccupied with Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, their interest in domestic political developments has visibly diminished. It is unlikely to heighten unless Mr. Rajapaksa’s comeback bid, currently far-fetched, looks stronger.
Despite the political fragility and insecurity of the current government, it has the opportunity to move significantly ahead on the promised constitutional reforms. In a sense, the climate for a political solution has never been more conducive. Not only because it has the two main parties at the helm, but also because the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represents northern Tamils, has opted for engagement over boycott with this government. The main opposition party now, the TNA, voted in favour of the budget and has mostly backed its programmes, acknowledging the need to work with this government.
Also, the pressure on Sri Lanka from the international community and the human rights lobby on questions of accountability and war crimes has significantly lessened in the last two years. The TNA too has privileged constitutional reform over accountability, recognising the grave political risks in raising the latter at this juncture. In a sense, Sri Lanka has never been closer to clinching a political solution.
A question of priority
However, coalition politics comes with its shortcomings. It was not going to be easy for this government. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine currently has about 155 seats in Sri Lanka’s 225-member Parliament. Mr. Sirisena has nearly 50 SLFP parliamentarians with him, some of whom are reportedly threatening to defect to the Rajapaksa camp.
Mr. Rajapaksa, with the residual SLFP MPs and other miscellaneous supporters, sits in opposition with almost as many legislators backing him. Sucked into the politics of survival, the President currently appears to be channelling all his energies into holding his party together, especially after pro-Rajapaksa forces floated a new political organisation.
More recently, Mr. Rajapaksa has threatened to topple the government in 2017, but the President and Prime Minister have rubbished his comments. The Constitution disallows premature dissolution of Parliament and a return to Rajapaksa-led rule is politically improbable at the moment, they emphasised. But every time this government fails, Mr. Rajapaksa could gain ground.
The UNP, currently the main ruling party in government, also faces pressure from its backbenchers, while Prime Minister Wickremesinghe seems solely focussed on economic development and trade agreements. A leader with his experience must know that without a political solution and a stable government backing it, even the grandest and most well-intentioned economic projects may fizzle out.
Even as six subcommittee reports on the draft Constitution await discussion in Parliament, the government’s priorities are clearly elsewhere. The latter part of 2016 saw the Constitution-making process take a backseat, bringing the government’s immediate political compulsions to the fore. There has been little public debate on the new Constitution. Unless the government engages its majority Sinhalese constituency on the reforms, it may find it very hard to push the new Constitution resisting other political pressures. A referendum in such a scenario could prove risky. The stakes are high and time is running out. Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe have a choice. They can get their act together and see the reforms through to make this new chapter in Sri Lanka their legacy. Or they will be seen as leaders who squandered a great opportunity.
For lakhs of Tamils still struggling to rebuild their lives since the island’s brutal war that ended seven years ago, the wait has been long and painful. As far as the two leaders are concerned, it is as much a question of political will as it is of ability. It is now or probably never.