Future forward | Daily News

Future forward

Put the past behind and think anew

Four years ago, the people of Sri Lanka voted en masse for a massive transformation in the country’s political structure. A “Rainbow Coalition” of political parties backed the Common Presidential Candidate Maithripala Sirisena to take on the powerful incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa. Many political pundits said this would be a mismatch, but defying their dire predictions, the people reposed their faith in Maithripala Sirisena, who took oaths as the Executive President of Sri Lanka the very next day.

That was not the only significant aspect of the victory. It paved the way for a formal cohabitation between the country’s two main political parties – the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) for the first time in post-independence history. This was a major landmark in the political landscape. The two parties with vastly different views on everything from the economy to foreign relations had agreed to work together for the betterment of the nation. This Government was thus called the National Unity Government.

But the best part is that the National Unity government was based on the concept of Good Governance or Yahapalanaya. The people could go on to reaffirm their trust in this arrangement on August 17, 2015. This was like a breath of fresh air in the local political scene, which for years bore the stench of bitter acrimony. Much of the credit for this victory should go to President Sirisena and Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Novel experiment

However, this was still a novel experiment – and experiments can go wrong. Cracks began to appear in the Government over a variety of issues over the course of two-three years and there were differences of opinion between the two leaders as well. One of the first signals came from the February 10, 2018 poll for local bodies which was won by the nascent Sri Lanka Podujana Party or the Pohottuwa (Flower Bud) Party de facto led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This was a warning red light from the electorate about the performance of the Government, as both the UNP and SLFP/UPFA suffered a setback.

A little while later, 16 SLFP/UPFA Ministers resigned from the National Unity Government, while a few others opted to stay on. Then, in a dramatic and unexpected move, President Sirisena “sacked” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place on October 26, 2018. This move shocked not only the local political observers but also the International Community. While the President maintained that he was constitutionally empowered to do so, many others argued that under the terms of the 19th Amendment this could not be done. The President then dissolved Parliament and set General Elections for January 5, but this was immediately challenged in Court. In a landmark judgement, the Supreme Court ruled that the dissolution of Parliament was illegal, which led to the quick collapse of the interim of 51-day Government.

Ranil Wickremesinghe was back in the saddle on December 16 as the legally appointed Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and he took oaths as the Premier for the fifth time, a record in our political history. This also means that the National Unity Government is no more, although there are moves to get the involvement of other parties in the Governance process. There is no time now to cry over spilled milk. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe must let bygones be bygones and work even more vigorously for the country’s uplift from now on.

This must be thought of as a second lease of life for the 2015 Government to work towards realizing people’s aspirations. They must also be essentially committed to the core principle of the 2015 Government – Good Governance. Any deviations from this will be a betrayal of the people’s trust. Furthermore, unshackled from the UPFA component of the Government, the UNF component should be able to do a much better job.

Achievements

Although much remains to be done, the Government has taken several praiseworthy initiatives to ensure good governance in the country.

The main achievement is ending the atmosphere of fear and suspicion. The Government has ensured the freedom of expression, media freedom and the right to live without fear. One of the salient features of good governance was that President Sirisena as pledged in his political manifesto took measures to prune down the powers of the Executive Presidency while the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution helped to re-establish Independent Commissions which function outside the influence of the Executive and handle key areas of governance like elections, public service, Police, judiciary and others.

In fact, the Judiciary is a shining example of non-interference and independence. Several recent verdicts delivered by the Courts went against the Government. Many observers say this would have been unthinkable under most previous Governments. It was not too long ago that a Chief Justice was removed almost overnight over just such a decision.

President Sirisena contested for the Presidency in January ’15 elections which would bring political stability to the country and embark on a much-needed reconciliation process among political and ethnic groups. The Government has already achieved remarkable progress when it comes to freedom and good governance. Under the Good Governance Government, Sri Lanka has improved many places in the world media freedom index and it was a clear testimony of the democratic space enjoyed by citizens at large. The Government has shown that it is willing to listen to the citizens’ collective on controversial matters. The Government had adopted a tough stance on corruption – a Presidential probe was conducted into the Bond issue while another Presidential Commission is probing SriLankan and Mihin. Special courts were recently established to expedite the hearing of pending corruption cases.

Constitutional reforms

The Government during its span of four years has been able to make comprehensive constitutional reforms in the country. The enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and Right to Information (RTI) Act has facilitated significant changes within the country's socio, economic and political fabric. The Parliament adopted the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on April 2015 by two-thirds majority. With the enactment of 19th amendment, the powers of the Executive President were reduced and the task of making key Government appointments was entrusted upon the Constitutional Council. The 19th Amendment ensured an independent judiciary. Under the 19th Amendment, the President cannot dissolve the Parliament by using his power before the Parliament reaches a term of at least four and a half years. This was in fact the basis on which the Supreme Court delivered the recent verdict on the premature dissolution of Parliament. It also brought a two-term limit for a President, upending the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which removed such term limits.

The new political culture also created an environment conducive for journalists to perform their duties in a free and fair manner. State-orchestrated attacks on journalists and white van abductions have come to an end and the journalists have been provided with the opportunity to engage in a balanced media reporting. No journalist has been subject to harassment since January 2015. This is bolstered by the Right to Information laws that foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public authorities by giving effect to the right of access to information and thereby promoting a society in which the people would be able to more fully participate in public life through combating corruption and promoting accountability and good governance.

The Government has also embarked a massive development drive during the last four years. The government had very rightly decided to continue with the Colombo Port City program with a new flavor as a financial hub. The Hambantota Port and Airport will be development with overseas assistance. Colombo and the suburbs will soon be connected by a Light Rail Transit (LRT) project which last week received Cabinet approval, under the Megapolis programme. The Central Expressway linking Colombo, Kandy and later Dambulla is nearly complete. The biggest Mahaweli project, the twin Moragahakanda-Kaluganga project was commissioned by the President. The Government’s new Gam Peraliya programme will herald in a rural transformation.

The Government that came to power on January 8, 2015 has taken a genuine interest in achieving reconciliation among all communities and religious groups in the country. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have been personally committed to fostering reconciliation among all communities from day one. Both of them have visited the North and the East several times, meeting the ordinary people and solving their problems.

The Government is on track to achieve ethno-religious reconciliation. The minority ethnic groups enjoy freedom compared to the situation some time back when extreme nationalist forces threatened the multi ethnic and multi religious character of our society. The Government acted prudently when certain elements vandalized shrines and places of worship recently, without letting the incidents escalate into an ominous situation.

In fact, this Government has taken upon itself the task of implementing most of the LLRC recommendations which were either neglected or ignored by the previous one. Its commitment to reconciliation and lasting peace has never been in doubt. Unity among different communities will be one of the main planks of the new Constitution which is slowly but surely taking shape with the participation of all Members of Parliament and other stakeholders.

The Government has allocated vast resources for health and education. In the health sector, the prices of many medicines were reduced, cancer patients get treatment for life, stents and cataract lenses were reduced in price and more facilities were given to all hospitals. The biggest renal diseases hospital in South Asia is under construction in Polonnaruwa on the initiative of President Sirisena. There has also been a dramatic decline in tobacco consumption in the last three years also as a result of the President’s personal drive to control tobacco usage. The Government is allocating more resources to the education sector and there is a programme to provide tabs to senior students. The Government has also done a lot for the country’s labour force and targets one million jobs for the youth, which is likely to end the problem of unemployment. The ambitious Vision 2025 programme aims to develop most sectors by the titular year, with the core aims running to 2040.

Friend to all, enemy to none

Last but not least, another singular achievement of the Government as mending fences with the rest of the world. Sri Lanka was thought of as a pariah state just a few years back. It is this Government that opened up to the world, addressing their criticism on Human Rights and other concerns and engaging constructively with both friendly and unfriendly governments at the UN and elsewhere. That is the spirit of diplomacy. Sri Lanka is back again on the world diplomatic stage as a result.

This momentum must be continued.

The Government is not flawless - the events of October 26 exposed many of these. One is the failure of the Government to expedite action against those who had engaged in corruption. In most other countries, corrupt leaders had been jailed in a matter of weeks. However, four years down the road there is little progress in that direction in Sri Lanka. The establishment of the anti-corruption high courts would redress this anomaly to some extent.

Challenges

The Government also faces a huge challenge on the economic front, with the Rupee in free-fall and the Cost of Living going up.

These must be addressed pronto to prevent a major economic slide. Exports must be developed to counter the trade imbalance created by increased imports. The one silver lining is the current dip in oil prices, which has fortunately been passed onto the consumer a number of times. However, there has been a failure on the part of the authorities to ensure a bigger drop in bus and three wheeler fares. When the fuel prices go up even by Rs.5, bus and three wheeler associations are quick to demand a 10 percent hike in fares, but when the reverse happens, there is great reluctance to reduce the fares. The Government must rein in these associations for the sake of the public.

Although the next Presidential and General Elections are not far away, this is no time to play partisan and insular politics.

The 51-day fiasco created enough economic damage to last a lifetime and we have to extricate ourselves from this precarious situation as soon as possible. It is time for all patriotic political forces and parties to come together for the task of nation building, putting the dark events of the past behind. Future generations will blame us if we fail in this onerous task.


 

Add new comment