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The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) handsomely won November’s presidential election with 52% of the popular vote and is accordingly the clear favourite and front runner to secure victory at the forthcoming general elections to Parliament. Further politically consolidating its premier position has been the post-election development where the political opposition has badly fragmented. A United National Party (UNP) faction led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe grabbed the party name and symbol and decamped from the new opposition alliance, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, and is contesting the elections independently with political nonentities similar to the sorry plight of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) sans the Rajapaksas.

This development has seen the UNP more critical of the SJB than of the government and seemingly being more allied with the Rajapaksa-led SLPP in a continuation of the disastrous politics of 2015-2019, where both Prime Minster Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena competed to woo the Rajapaksas as political allies, only to see the politically shrewd Rajapaksas besting them both and winning the presidential poll in 2019.

Now former president Sirisena is merely a candidate, not even the district leader, from his native Polonnaruwa district on the SLPP ticket and Mr. Wickremesinghe’s UNP is running a campaign as an appendage of the SLPP. Consider for instance, in contrast, the strident independent critique of the SLPP government and governance articulated by the Janatha Vimukthi  Peramuna (JVP), and the UNP’s own lacklustre campaign is one of seeking to further undermine and divide the opposition vote from within. Consequently, the UNP is badly trailing the SJB in the polls and likely to end a distant fifth place finish in Parliament behind the SLPP, the SJB, the Tamil National Alliance and the JVP, with a few seats mainly from the Western Province and the national list.

A political not a constitutional problem

The governing SLPP has certainly not been shy about its intentions post-election and has been busy trying to secure a two-third majority in Parliament to repeal the 19th amendment to our constitution – the democratic reforms enhancing, independent institutions creating and checks and balances strengthening component of our constitution, which was probably the signature achievement of the previous government enacted early in its term and actually while it was a minority in Parliament. The leading lights of the SLPP government were all in Parliament at that time and the amendment passed near unanimously. To justify its volte face and the sudden desire to repeal the amendment, the government is making some simplistic arguments, which nonetheless warrant serious attention because it is the policy of a government in office, which is the favourite to win the election.

The main argument used by the SLPP in favour of repealing the 19th amendment is that it was the cause of the disfunction within the previous government, which was a coalition, and that it caused friction between the President and the Prime Minister. Firstly, and most importantly, the friction between former President Sirisena and former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was not a constitutional problem but a political one. They were political allies, whose natural political rivalry was mutually, so completely mismanaged that they became political opponents. The SLPP has argued that to prevent such a friction between the President and the Prime Minister, the first and second citizens of the State, must both be from the same party and ideally from the same family. Since the Rajapaksa family is currently ruling as President and Prime Minister and is indeed seeking a renewed mandate, this writer has no intention of publicly speculating about the political unity or otherwise of the current rulers.

Unifying through common values

We can examine this thesis of party and family political unity from recent Sri Lankan political history. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa were from the same political party, the UNP, and in fact generationally so but this did not prevent them, latterly in government and now in opposition, of going their separate political ways. Ranil loyalists did not support Sajith’s presidential candidacy or campaign and are now contesting elections separately. A bit further down memory lane, the most notable political siblings in the past were Chandrika and Anura Bandaranaike and their own political divergence witnessed the two siblings on rival political platforms on many occasions. The Gandhis of India and the Bhuttos in Pakistan also demonstrate that having the same last family name and being part of the clan does not necessarily lead to the absence of political rivalry. Sri Lanka’s ancient monarchical history also dictates that ruling families more often than not fought each other rather than stayed cohesively together.

Centralised power has been the solution proposed by the SLPP because it defines Sri Lanka’s problem as one of politically weak leadership and non-professional governance, which has not been able to implement a political programme. A serious problem with the SLPP vision, of course, is its desire to strengthen and solidify what LTTE suicide bomb victim, constitutional lawyer and former MP late Neelan Tiruchelvam described as the “anomaly of imposing a mono-ethnic state on a multi ethnic (religious) society”.

The alternate definition of Sri Lanka’s problem and our lack of progress, and indeed decline, since our most promising economic situation at independence, was a mismanagement of ethno-religious relations, together with shrinking the democratic space and freedoms along with the desire to internally divide and thereby rule, which witnessed armed rebellions against the state, in both the Sinhala South and the Tamil- speaking North, the former with a leftist ideology and the latter with a separatist one. The post war return from conflict and emergency rule to a decency and common prosperity for all lies much more in a moderate, democratic, pluralist and tolerant government and governance under the rule of law, rather than a jackboot, militaristic, authoritarian and majoritarian ethno-religious political programme being proposed through centralisation and concentration of power, with impunity. As the old African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly go alone, if you want to go far, go together”.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from 2016-17)