The general elections in Sri Lanka in the first week of April 2004 have revealed Sri Lanka to be a fragmented polity, both politically and ethnically. The main political casualty has been Ranil Wickramasinghe´s United National Party (UNP), which sought to lead the country to ethnic peace through compromise. The election results generally indicate that the UNP failed to keep its traditional urban Sinhala Buddhist middle-class base. The main electoral beneficiaries have been the parties that espoused ethnic nationalism without compromise. Foremost among these would be the Jana Vimukthi Perumana (JVP), which overshadowed its larger partner the Peoples Alliance, with JVP candidates getting on top of the list of candidates elected with the highest preferences in the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The JVP took an uncompromising stance against the peace process and the concessions made to the LTTE. In the north-east the LTTE´s proxy party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), swept the polls among the Tamil voters decimating its opponents, by virtue of LTTE assassinations and intimidation, by vote rigging and also quite possibly by choice.
The fact that the UNP fell into third place behind both the UPFA and the JHU in the suburbs of Colombo suggests that the Buddhist monks broke into the UNP´s vote bank, rather into the UPFA´s, as had been anticipated. The leeching away of the UNP´s middle-class base cannot be attributed solely to economic factors. Much seems attributable to the unhappiness with the concessions made to Tamil nationalism in the course of the peace process by the UNP.
The most important lacuna in the UNP government was the aloofness of its top leadership from the concerns of the Sinhalese masses, whether in respect of the peace process or economic hardships. The perception of rigidity with which the UNP government sought to implement structural adjustment requirements, such as cutting back on welfare and agriculture subsidies, served to alienate the people from the government. For instance, the government preferred to repay the Treasury´s overdraft of SLR 38 billion that it inherited from the previous government in 2001, and bring it down to SLR 5 billion at the time of the present elections, rather than use the money for the people´s direct welfare. This decision and others similar to it were justified on the basis of good governance, and were supported by the technocrats of the international donor community. But what was technically and economically a sound strategy was politically a disastrous one. The people wanted the economic benefits of peace immediately as they were poor and hungry, rather than wait for a future that might never come.
Where the peace process was concerned, the UNP failed to explain itself adequately to the populace. This was repeatedly told to the members of the erstwhile government by activists from civil society, who had many years of experience in working directly with the people. But the government seemed to think that the people would experience the fruits of peace for themselves, and find them very good. When the economic peace dividends did not materialise in the way the people anticipated, the UNP government should have gone to the people and explained the complexity of the situation. Instead, the UNP government seemed to want to leave this to civil society organisations, which were unequal to the task.
The LTTE also did much to erode the credibility of the UNP government by smuggling in weapons, recruiting children, assassinating its political opponents and the government´s intelligence agents, and by boycotting the peace talks. Finally by coming up with an interim administration proposal for the north-east that had no role in it for the central government, the LTTE opened the door to President Chandrika Kumaratunga to take control of the defence ministry and dissolve Parliament in February 2004, a full four years before completion of its term. Now in negotiating with the UPFA, the LTTE will find that their hardline stance will have to be replied to with its own hardline stance. All this, to the likely detriment of the peace process.
There were three main promises made by the UPFA during its election campaigns. The first was to take a harder bargaining position in dealing with the LTTE. Second, to provide quick economic relief to the people. And third, to change the constitution. Unless it delivers soon on its promises, the new UPFA government will be found wanting by those who believed in their promises. Going by the results of these initial few weeks and public pronouncements, the priority task of the new government appears to be to redraft the constitution.
The start for the UPFA government have not been easy. Its two main component parties, President Kumaratunga’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the JVP, continue to be at loggerheads over the allocation of ministerial portfolios and government departments. A power struggle such as this is perhaps inevitable in any new relationship between two powerful parties. What may make the differences harder to resolve is that both the SLFP and JVP are advocates of hard bargaining.
There is in fact an irony in the new government´s initial approach to the LTTE. Despite their criticism of the former government, the UPFA combine has behaved in much the same way in its dealing with the LTTE split in the east (after Karuna, the eastern commander broke away from the Tigers in March). Sections of Sinhalese opinion, reflected in the media as well, demanded that the government should exploit the differences within the LTTE, and seek to make the break in its ranks a permanent one. But the new government did not take any such action. It did not even to try to enforce the ceasefire agreement which the LTTE violated in mobilising its troops for combat with the breakaway group.
On providing immediate economic relief to the people, among the UPFA’s promises was increasing the salary of public sector employees by 70 percent, creating 30,000 new jobs, and subsidising farmers and other needy groups — all of this within the space of three months. Numerous studies have shown that the economy is the most important issue to people outside the war zones of the north-east. The UPFA was politically astute in capitalising on this reality, but now it faces the challenge of delivering on the promises. The challenge to the new government will be to find the resources to pay for the gigantic bill that the promises add up to. The largest cost, by far, would be to increase the salaries of the public sector employees, who number one million. Either the government will have to cut government expenditures elsewhere, or it will have to raise new revenues from somewhere.
Sri Lanka´s public sector is the largest in the world, in relation to the size of its population. Most of those who work in the public sector are paid salaries inadequate for dignified maintenance of family and the self. The December 2001 Tissa Devendra Commission recommended salary increases coupled with a phased reduction in the numbers employed in the government sector. While this would have made the increase in the salary bill an affordable one to the Treasury, the new government is promising both a large salary increase and a further increase in the size of the public sector.
The question is of finding the additional funds to honour the promises. The government has no savings in the Treasury that can be used, as the annual budget deficit is 8 percent. In order to borrow locally or internationally, the government will have to renegotiate agreements with the international financial institutions. While the government has a sophisticated negotiator in Sarath Amunugama, the new finance minister, who is an advocate of hard bargaining, whether he can convince the international lenders that spending more money on salaries and subsidies is good economics remains to be seen. The financial and economic skills of the new leadership are yet to be proven.
The difficulties that the new government is experiencing in delivering on its promises with regard to the LTTE and the economy may be the reason why its main area of advocacy and propaganda at this time is constitutional change, which requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament. At the recently concluded general election, the UPFA obtained 46 percent of the popular vote and won 105 seats out of 225 in Parliament. It certainly does not have the required majority on its own, and not even a simple majority. However, achieving two-thirds majority is not an impossible task. The consensual manner in which the 17th Amendment to the constitution (to make provisions for the Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions) was passed in Parliament in October 2001 would indicate this. But it is also true that if constitutional change is seen by other political parties to have a partisan dimension to it, they are unlikely to support it. And indeed, the UPFA´s attempt to tinker with the constitution is coming across as a partisan effort to serve its interests rather than those of the country as a whole. So far, no political party represented in Parliament outside the UPFA has welcomed the proposed scheme of constitutional change. On the contrary, they have questioned the appropriateness of focusing on the issue of the executive presidency.
The UPFA´s constitutional proposals had not been finalised at the time of writing. However, it is said to envisage, as a first step, the abolition of the executive presidency and changing the electoral system. But the issue that has divided the country is the ethnic conflict and not the executive presidency or the electoral system. It is therefore the ethnic conflict that needs to receive priority in the UPFA’s scheme of things. After all, the ethnic conflict pre-dates the executive presidency. It was in 1977, under the prime ministerial system of the 1972 Constitution that the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) asked for its mandate for Tamil Eelam. There is no doubt that the priority issue for the UPFA in its initiative for constitutional change should be the need for a federal system of governance. As changing the constitution is about changing the sovereign law of the country, the representatives of all ethnic communities need to participate in the making of the new document. Whether or not there should be an executive presidency in a federal system can be considered at the same time.