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Is Sri Lanka on course for a lost decade?

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7 February 2018 09:49 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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May 19, 2019 will mark 10 years since the civil war in Sri Lanka ended with the complete annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.


Post-civil war Sri Lanka has been a story of missed opportunities. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa utilised his post-civil war popularity among the Sinhalese majority to amend the constitution to strengthen the presidency and remove term limits. His ‘illiberal peace building’ approach focussed on rebuilding infrastructure in the Tamil-dominated north with no sustained attempts at dealing with the war’s causes or with its consequences (such as disappearances and displacement from landholdings). Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s Muslims were increasingly under attack from the Buddhist extremist groups that had gained prominence during Rajapaksa’s first presidential term.


Rajapaksa’s second term unintentionally created a groundswell for two major reforms. The Sinhalese majority demanded reforms that fought abuses of power and corruption. Minority Tamils and Muslims demanded greater security and equal (or at least less unequal) citizenship. These twin demands were expressed in the electorate voting in Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 and rejecting Rajapaksa’s unprecedented bid for a third term as president.


Sirisena’s election brought a unique window of opportunity to forge a lasting political solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, since he had been elected by a grand coalition of divergent political forces. Sirisena was from the same party as Rajapaksa — the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) — but was backed by the party’s chief rival, the United National Party (UNP), which was and is led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. 
Sirisena was also backed by the political parties representing Muslims and by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is the dominant party among northern Tamils.


Overnight, Sri Lanka moved from an increasingly authoritarian trajectory to a broad ruling coalition with a popular mandate to deliver greater pluralism and ‘good governance’. A government featuring the leaders of Sri Lanka’s two dominant political parties (along with approval from the TNA) represented the strongest post-civil war elite political consensus that was capable of delivering sustainable peace. This consensus had the potential not only to muster a two-thirds supermajority in parliament but also crucially to champion a national referendum on a new constitution.
However, this promising alignment has not led to rapid reform. Sirisena’s flagship reform project — the introduction of a new constitution — has not moved past an ‘interim report’ of recommendations by a parliamentary steering committee. The report shows limited agreement between the UNP and SLFP on key issues such as the fate of the executive presidency, the abolition of which formed the cornerstone of Sirisena’s electoral promises. The proposed constitution also contains elements that have historically proved unpopular in the Sinhalese electorate, such as greater power sharing with the provinces in the Tamil-dominated north.


Rather than being its core strength, today the ‘national unity government’ led by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe has continued to suffer from internal political competition as the two parties attempt to distinguish themselves from one another while remaining in a coalition. The government has also been mired in a series of debacles ranging from corruption allegations and administrative mismanagement to natural disasters. 


Among the Sinhalese majority, inaction on corruption is seen as a central failure. Among the Tamil minority, frustration over slow progress on constitutional reform has been directed not only at the government but also at the TNA’s leadership. Muslims worry about resurgent religious violence.


The void in political opposition left by the two largest parties forming a grand coalition has been filled by Rajapaksa and his dissident ‘joint opposition’, which is comprised of a faction of the SLFP as well as several minor parties. In terms of parliamentary strength, the joint opposition is currently larger than Sirisena’s SLFP faction. It takes a Sinhalese nationalist position and attacks the constitutional reform project as a ‘betrayal of the war victory’.


As the government becomes more unpopular, competition and enmity within the grand coalition has intensified. By the 2020 parliamentary elections, the two parties may need to go their separate ways or they risk making room for a third force.


Today, concerns over political futures overshadow any discussions on constitutional reform. Long-delayed local council elections, scheduled for February 10, 2018, have further undermined consensus with Sirisena and the SLFP hinting at ending the alliance, citing corruption allegations directed at the UNP as a key concern. 


The UNP and SLFP enter an electoral competition as political rivals for the first time since forming the coalition, while also contending with a new party backed by Rajapaksa’s joint opposition. Amid this new competition, the joint opposition is increasing pressure on Sirisena to ‘not betray the SLFP’ through his continued alliance with the UNP. Sirisena’s own supporters have called for ‘uniting the party’.


The TNA also appears to be paying the price for the government’s slow progress. Tamil media outlets routinely attack the party for compromising on Tamil demands and supporting ‘Sinhalese’ governments. Should the government abandon constitutional reform, the TNA may begin to lose ground to their previously electorally unsuccessful and more strongly Tamil nationalist rivals.


Sirisena’s election victory offered a unique platform for building consensus to bring about a political settlement to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. The erosion of the government’s popularity coupled with impact of electoral competition now makes consensus-based constitutional reform more difficult.


Hence, the survival of the constitutional reform process in 2018 may depend more on the political calculus of the different parties, particularly the UNP and SLFP. Should the parties find a mutually beneficial way forward or view the reform process as essential to reviving lost popularity, the ability to muster parliamentary support will remain.


Should the process be abandoned, an alignment as seen in 2015 is not likely to emerge in the next political cycle. Then, the likelihood of a post-civil war political settlement will grow ever more distant and cement Sri Lanka’s first decade after the war as a long decade for bringing about a durable peace settlement. 


(Janeen Fernando is Senior Political Analyst at Verité Research. The views expressed in this article are his own. This article originally appeared on East Asia Forum)


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