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2015 Elections: What changed – and what still needs to

1 September 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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It’s been a year of change. First a President, then a Government. Hoping to bring about transparency and good governance, we changed a regime that openly and unapologetically engaged in financial corruption and nepotism. With the hope of free expression and an independent media, we changed a regime that governed with an iron clamp on political dissent, free expression and media freedom. With the expectation of a political culture based on diplomacy, compromise and constructive and meaningful engagement, we changed a regime that was fast burning bridges internationally with its threats, non engagement and outright hostility. Hoping to finally arrive at a solution regarding the national question, accountability and reconciliation, we changed a regime that refused to constructively engage with the representatives of the Tamil people on these issues and instead engaged in racist fearmongering, deliberately attempting to worsen relations among Sri Lanka’s people. 

Certainly, not all our hopes and expectations have been fulfilled. Corruption has not been completely stamped out. Good governance is still an ideal that we, as a nation, will have to work towards. The Tamil national question still looms large. It still remains to be seen if the government will deliver on its promises with regard to accountability.

 

"We have recognized that there is a different opportunity that exists today and a different landscape for trying to advance reconciliation"



But there is now a very real opportunity to change all of that. Even though there is corruption, we are able to raise our voices against it. We are able to openly criticize our President and Government without fear of reprisal. Despite existing differences in the positions of the Government and the Tamil National Alliance, we have a Government that is willing to constructively and meaningfully engage with the TNA – as well as the international community - with regard to issues concerning the Tamil National question, accountability and genuine reconciliation. 

During her recent visit to Sri Lanka, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal stated: 
“We have recognized that there is a different opportunity that exists today and a different landscape for trying to advance reconciliation”.

It is undeniable that this is the case. And it is important that we make the most of this opportunity. While acknowledging how much more hopeful we are able to be today, it must also be acknowledged that we have not seen all of the positive change we ought to. One example is the new Government’s response to the appointment of the Leader of the Opposition.

 

" The Tamil national question still looms large. It still remains to be seen if the government will deliver on its promises with regard to accountability" 



Following President Sirisena’s victory at the January 8 Presidential election, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) wrote to the Speaker of Parliament suggesting that its Parliamentary Group Leader be recognized as the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament in view of the fact that other parties have become part of the “national” government formed after the Presidential election. ITAK’s parliamentary group leader R. Sampanthan pointed out in his letter, that the four recognized political parties in Parliament (at the time) were the United National Party (UNP); the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA); Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK); and the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). Of these, only the ITAK was outside the government at the time. The UNP headed the government while the UPFA and the DNA were part of it.

However, Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, failed to respond to this request, and in fact seemed inclined to recognize the UPFA as the official Opposition. 
Following the recently concluded August 17 elections, a similar situation has arisen again. Last week , the Tamil National Alliance released the following statement:

 

"Both President Sirisena and the Government have made public their commitment to treat the Tamil People as equal citizens of this country"



At the General Elections held on August 17, 2015, the United National Party (UNP) emerged as the party with the largest number of seats in Parliament. The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) obtained the second largest number. It has been announced that a National Government has been formed and that Members of Parliament who contested and were elected under both the UNP and the UPFA have accepted cabinet portfolios. Accordingly, both the UNP and the UPFA bear collective cabinet responsibility. As political parties in Parliament, they thus must publicly support all Governmental decisions made in the Cabinet. This support includes voting with the Government when sitting in Parliament. There is thus no question whatsoever of the UPFA sitting in Opposition in Parliament. Further, all Members of Parliament who contested and were elected under the UPFA were now Members of Parliament of the UPFA. There is thus no question whatsoever of the constituent parties of the UPFA being recognized as political parties in the current Parliament. 

In these circumstances, the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) which obtained a total of 16 seats, has emerged as the largest political party in Opposition in Parliament. In accordance with Parliamentary practice and convention, the Parliamentary Group Leader of the ITAK must thus be recognized as the Leader of the Opposition.

Both President Sirisena and the Government have made public their commitment to treat the Tamil People as equal citizens of this country. 

However, a reluctance to recognize the democratically-elected representatives of the Tamil People of the North and East as the main Opposition party when such is clearly the case can only be a reflective of an unwillingness to honour this commitment. 

A reluctance to even recognize the elected representatives of the Tamil People as the main party in Opposition does not bode well for the readiness of the President and the Government to arrive at a solution that grants meaningful powers of governance to the Tamil People.

At the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections this year, the peoples of this country created the space and opportunity for it to move forward. We urge both the President and the Government not to waste this opportunity.  If they are committed to resolving the national problem, then their actions must reflect that. For our part, we are committed to constructively engaging with the Government to resolve the national problem in Sri Lanka. 

We are on the cusp of finally achieving true peace and reconciliation as a country. The Peoples of this country have come together and created the space and opportunity for us to finally make progress on the challenges we face – including the National problem and issues relating to accountability. The President and the Government have shown a real willingness to constructively engage with both the Tamil people and the international community to resolve these issues in a way that is acceptable to all of Sri Lanka’s peoples. It must not at this critical stage undo the progress that has taken place.

The Leader of the Opposition should be recognized based on which party has the highest number of seats in Parliament. Nothing else. Most certainly not the ethnic identity of the Parliamentary Group Leader of the Party, or of the constituents such party represents. Why is there so much reluctance to do what Parliamentary practice and convention so clearly dictates, only in the case of a prospective Opposition Leader of Tamil ethnicity, and a party representing the Tamil People? Could it be anything other than lingering mistrust and tension among Sri Lanka’s People?

At the Presidential election in January, the TNA called on the Tamil people to vote for President Sirisena in order to put an end to the politics of racism; in order to have an administration that was at least willing to constructively engage with the Tamil People on issues including the National problem and accountability. The Tamil people voted – and voted overwhelmingly – for President Sirisena for this reason. They were willing to take the first step and do so. In his assurances to the country and the international community, the President has shown that he was willing to honour this trust. But these assurances must be reflected in his actions as well. Let it not be said that the Tamil People entrusted  him with the Presidency, but that he refused to trust their representatives to even lead the Opposition in Parliament. 

The peoples of this country have clearly articulated – at not one; but two elections – that they no longer want any part of the racist, fear-mongering, ‘Us. V. Them’ politics of this Government’s predecessor. As their elected representatives, the President and Government should reflect that. It does not suffice if the face of the government changes. The shift in mindset and attitude must also be real, or the change in policy and governance that we voted for will never follow. 
We have changed so much; and now this must change too. 
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