Groundviews

A Fifty of a Hundred Days to Few, or too Many?

Image courtesy Sri Lanka Guardian

A former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson made the oft- quoted remark that a week is a long time in politics. What then of fifty days, not to mention a hundred?

Half way into the government’s 100 -day governance reform programme, public reaction and that of some political actors in particular, appears to be one of disappointment, frustration and in some quarters, even anger. A hundred days must have appealed to the political strategists of the government when they were in opposition, as a politically “sexy” time table that would inspire confidence in the fulfillment of promises made, inject a sense of urgency and efficiency into the task ahead and the capacity to both undertake and complete it. Accordingly, expectations have been raised and on the question of corruption, expectations sustained and reinforced by daily revelations of the wanton looting of the state by the Rajapaksas and their henchmen.

Consequently the management of these expectations is crucial to the electoral fortunes of the government. Management, in turn entails effective communication of what is being done, how and when, and why there may be legitimate delays in forging ahead full steam at the pace the public expects and demands. There needs to be a conversation in which a coherent message is conveyed and here the government appears wanting – the public perception is that the cabinet spokesperson for one, is more garrulous than reliable. That is not good enough and will only expedite the attrition of trust and confidence in the new dispensation.

The public, across the lines of the multiple identities that defines it, wants accountability. Outside of the north the dominant expectation is accountability for corruption and in the north, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Quick action on accountability is nevertheless accompanied by the demand for greater consultation on constitutional reform, truth, and reconciliation, the right to information and the drug policy. Accountability in the two respects identified above, though, takes precedence. A public perception that this is being fudged, dodged or ditched will have punitive electoral costs, be it in a June general election or one that comes thereafter

The government and its supporters and with some justification, will counter that much has been done and is being done on all these fronts. Duminda de Silva has been indicted, a number of passports impounded, henchmen questioned and international assistance sought. On corruption in particular, the valid point has been made and should continue to be made as forcefully as possible, that conviction must be on the basis of hard evidence and that the collection of hard evidence that will stand up in a court of law takes time, given the nature of some of the alleged crimes. Is there also an issue of human resources to deal with the deluge of allegations? What is being done about this? How about the ‘low hanging fruit’ so to speak? Are all the alleged crimes and misdemeanours of a highly complex and complicated nature? Al Capone, after all, was got on income tax!

On the north and east in general and that of human rights accountability in particular, there have been a number of developments, not all known or fully understood by the public at large or by those who have and continue to be vocal and critical on the issue.

There was agreement to defer accountability for war crimes and a political settlement of the ethnic conflict -the issues of direct and priority concern to the overwhelming number of citizens of the north and east who voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa on 8th January, in the presidential election campaign and in the 100- day programme. The new government did however promise a “credible domestic mechanism” to deal with accountability and in doing so tacitly acknowledged the allegations of war crimes. The March deadline for the release of the report of the Commission of Investigation under the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), nevertheless loomed and the new government despatched the Senior International Relations Advisor to the President Jayantha Dhanapala, to meet with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Around the same time the Foreign Minister visited London, Washington and New York. The government requested and received a deferral of the release of the report to September 2015. The High Commissioner in acceding to this request cited the government’s stated desire to engage with the OHCHR and the hope that this would lead to a more comprehensive report.   Acknowledging the validity of the arguments for the release of the report in March as scheduled, the High Commissioner gave his “unshakeable” promise that the report would be released by September.

A more pressing underlying reason for the government’s request was to prevent the report from being an issue in the general election scheduled for after the 100 days, given the Rajapaksa camp’s repeated allegations of a “regime change conspiracy” and of capitulation to Western governments and the Tamil Diaspora on war crimes. The High Commissioner and the key sponsors of the UNHRC resolution in March 2014 calling for the investigation, agreed to the deferral however, on the understanding and expectation that the government would take the necessary steps to ensure that the domestic mechanism it promised met with international standards. In this respect, deferral sets a higher bar for accountability.

Given the travails of the last 05 years and firm belief in international action as the only action both credible and possible, those who demonstrated in large numbers in Jaffna fearing that if the report is not released this month there is the risk of it not being released at all, must be apprised of this. Some statements indicate a belief that international prosecutions will follow once the report is released. This will not happen and in any event all domestic remedies have to be exhausted first. The lack of information and understanding also applies to the rationale for the genocide resolution being passed in the Northern Provincial Council at this time as a means of pressure or leverage to ensure the release of the report this month. This reflects an understanding of international relations, unfortunately not dissimilar to the horrendous caricature of one demonstrated by the LTTE in 2009.   As a measure of the frustration, disappointment and anger at the ways things have not moved, however, it is understandable.

Indeed it has taken the President 50 days to visit Jaffna. True there are governors in the north and east without a military past, a Victim and Witness Protection Bill on the statute books and pledges to return land, even moves to release those detained under the PTA without charge.   Substantive bona fides have yet to be demonstrated transforming pledges into reality and key initiatives on reconciliation involving the South Africans must surely entail consultation with and the participation of those most directly affected. Voter turnout in a general election could be low, leaving the moderates in the TNA, whose effigies are now being burnt here and abroad, to face the consequences.

As to when the election is going to be, is not clear at the moment. Political calculations seem to be overriding agreements made in that first blush of unity to defeat the Rajapaksas.   An SLFP insistence on electoral reform and on a new and operational electoral system on which the next general election is to be fought – delimitation of constituencies could take months -as the condition for its support of the proposed 19th Amendment, could result in a UNP decision to force a dissolution of Parliament after the expiry of the 100 days on the basis of the defeat of that proposed amendment sans electoral reform and a new electoral system. This would signify rupture in the unity of the victorious coalition of 08 January and a clear split in the SLFP- some SLFPers opting in favour of the 100- day deadline. There is a certain irony, in the face of these possibilities, of one of the recent champions of the abolition of the executive presidency, Ven Sobitha Thero, calling upon the current holder of that office to act decisively!

The partisan political calculation of the SLFP appears to be that the longer it takes for a general election the more likely the UNP, the preponderant party presently in government, will become unpopular. The UNP on the other hand, do not want to have to present a budget, having already done so in preparation for an impending election. This puts President Sirisena centre stage, a position already compounded by the attempts to reignite his predecessor’s political fortunes – the meeting in Nugegoda, now to be followed by another in Kandy.   Were he to insist that the dispensable element of the 100 day programme is the 100 day deadline and not any of the substantive reform mooted, will he get his way and be vindicated by public opinion or will there be a return to competitive and divisive two –party politics sooner than expected? The resolution of this issue – the sooner the better -will provide a key insight into the political dynamics and balance of power in the new government.

Is a week as long a time in government and for governance, as it is, in politics?