The installation of a new government in Sri Lanka after a bruising general election last month offers a measure of hope to a war weary nation. The election pitted the centre-left People’s Alliance (PA) government and its Marxist ally, the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), against the centre-right United National Front (UNF).
Outwardly, the general election in Sri Lanka on 5 December was about the role of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LITE) in a future peace process that would end the 18 year ethnic war. During the period of the election campaign, the powerful government-controlled media focussed almost exclusively on a secret deal between the main opposition party and the LTTE.
But underlying the rhetoric was the grim reality of an economy that had registered close to zero percent growth in the last year. The latest estimates put growth in 2001 at minus 0.6 percent. The economy is still reeling from the impact of an LTTE suicide mission in July that left half of Sri Lankan airlines fleet destroyed at the country’s only international airport. Meanwhile, the PA’s alliance with the Marxist-oriented JVP did nothing to encourage investors.
The clear mandate of the people at this election was for economic progress and peace with the LTTE, which were the two foremost promises of the UNF in its election campaign. The electorate’s rejection of the nationalist propaganda of the PA, and the fear psychosis it tried to create, is a major encouragement for peace forces in the country. Ironically, the PA’s nationalist propaganda was defeated in part by its own success. Over the past seven years, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was in the vanguard of those propounding that there is an ethnic conflict in the country that requires a political solution. But her government was unable to deliver on its pledges.
The PA government’s failure in either proceeding with the constitutional reforms or in making peace with the LTTE made virtually every Tamil party contesting the elections in the north-east speak in the language of Tamil nationalism. The most succesful party, the Tamil National Alliance, even went to the extent of extolling the LTTE as the sole Tamil representative at peace talks with the government.
During the runup to the polls, the LITE itself made clear its preference for the UNF. In his annual Heroes Day speech in late November, the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran indicated his willingness to come to a peaceful settlement. He also called on the Sri Lankan voters to vote for the parties advocating peace and against those advocating war, indirectly boosting the UNF’s campaign.
Some assessments of LTTE leader’s speech saw in it a willingness to drop the Tamil Eelam demand in exchange for a genuine peace process. The speech certainly had a large number of references to peace and a restarting of the peace process. However, there are also those who remain sceptical of the LTTE leader’s conditional words. Further, the LTTE’s peace thrust may merely be indicative of its sensitivity to the intensified global clampdown on terrorism.
As part of its 100-day promise, the new UNF government has pledged peace talks, a de-escalation of the war with the LTTE, and an interim council for the conflict ridden northeast. Peace talks between the two sides are likely to commence soon.
The LTTE’s post-election announcement of a month-long unilateral ceasefire beginning on 24 December has been followed by a government decision to reciprocate with a similar ceasefire of its own. In addition, the government has also decided to relax the economic embargo on LTTE-controlled areas from 15 January onwards.
So far, the positive actions of the two parties have been unilateral ones, and they can be regarded in two ways. Those who have faith in the peace process, and see no alternative to it, may read them as confidence-building initiatives. Those who have little faith in the peace process may see these unilateral actions, particularly by the LTTE, as being in the nature of manoeuvers to embarrass the government.
Ceasefires have been controversial issues in Sri Lanka. In the past, they have always ended in disasters, with the LTTE striking first with heavy losses to the Sri Lankan armed forces. Obtaining agreement of the armed forces would be an important aspect of declaring a ceasefire.
Exactly a year ago, as head of the former PA government, President Chandrika Kumaratunga rejected a similar unilateral one month ceasefire by the LTTE, not once but on the three further occasions that it was renewed. At that time, the prevalent belief was that the LTTE was offering its ceasefire merely to reduce the chances of being put on the list of banned terrorist organisations by the British government.
The Kumaratunga government not only rejected the LTTE’s ceasefire, it also resorted to a military attack when the LTTE stopped renewing its ceasefire. As a result, the former government brought about a situation in which there was high loss of life, culminating in the massive economic destruction at Katunayake Airport. The government lost more on the ground in terms of its capacity to counter the LTTE than it gained inter-nationally through the various international bans placed on the LTTE.
By declaring its ceasefire unilaterally this time around as well, the LTTE may have put the new government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on the defensive a bare week after it was sworn in, and before it could probe its relationship with the armed forces and their commander-in-chief, President Kumaratunga. But the new government under Prime Minister Wickremesinghe seems to have taken the challenge in stride. In making its response to the LTTE without any delay, the new government showed confidence in implementing its notion of the peace process. In particular, the prime minister has taken a huge responsibility on his shoulders.
There has been little public discussion as to what the best course of action on the part of the government would be. It does not appear that there was much discussion on this score within the government itself, and the decision announcing the government’s ceasefire came from the prime minister’s office. This type of decision-making has its strengths and weaknesses. The strengths lie in the ability to make rapid decisions without getting caught up in endless rounds of discussion and dissension between different shades of opinion. The weaknesses are in the lack of broad-based support, especially when problems arise.
Comparable examples are the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 and the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957, both of which were neither widely discussed in the cabinet or among the general public prior to signature. As a result, both were derailed at their inception by opposition from within government ranks, and the rest of society.
Where today’s ceasefire is concerned, the new government can justifiably claim that its election manifesto contained a pledge to de-escalate the war and to restore peace as a first priority. In addition there is a significant difference between a ceasefire, which is a temporary phenomenon, and an accord or pact that is permanently binding. Unlike in the past, there is also today a population that is much better acquainted with the costs of war and the merits of peace.
However, the peace process is unlikely to progress far unless the presidency and the Parliament cooperate with one another. So far, a bipartisan approach to peace talks has eluded the Sri Lankan polity and it remains to be seen how the president and prime Minister, of two competing parties, will together run the polity.
The Sri Lankan constitution vests a large measure of executive power in the hands of the president. President Kumaratunga, who has four more years of office, is constitutionally empowered to appoint cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, to preside over cabinet meetings, and to dissolve Parliament at her discretion one year after its election. She is also the commander in chief of the armed forces.
The effort to overcome the uncertainty caused by divided power and the handicap to effective governance would invariably lead to intrigue and manoeuvers. These manoeuvers are yet not openly confrontational. The initial conduct of President Chandrika Kumaratunga in conceding all cabinet portfolios to the UNF was reasonably graceful. There were reports that the President had sought to keep the key defence portfolio with her, but relinquished it on wise counsel. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s initial words and actions too have been conciliatory. The new government offered the position of deputy speaker to the defeated PA.
President and Prime Minister
For the present, the new government seems focused on conflict resolution with regard to the LTTE and the economy. The danger, however, is that in the weeks and months ahead, the clash between the two executive branches will become more acute. There are reports that the new government is considering a crossover bill. This will enable parliamentarians to defect from their parties and join another party without having to forfeit their parliamentary seats. A significant number of opposition parliamentarians are reportedly prepared to crossover and join the new UNF government.
If more than twenty of them do cross over, as appears possible, then a two-thirds majority in Parliament will be within the grasp of the ruling coalition. The ground will be prepared for drastic action that could include an impeachment of President Kumaratunga or the passing of a constitutional amendment to abolish the institution of executive Presidency, and thereby President Kumaratunga’s powerful post.
On the other side of the divide is President Kumaratunga and her hardline no-compromise party colleagues, who are practitioners of confrontational politics. At present, they are not in a position to challenge the new government, which is fresh and optimistic with its recent electoral victory. Additionally, recent disclosures of criminal and corrupt activities by leading members of the former government, in which the president is herself at least indirectly implicated, have seriously eroded their credibility. But with the passage of time, the new government will have to take unpopular decisions. Already power cuts are being reimposed and the cost of living is likely to rise relative to earnings for some time to come.
However, it is the restarting of the peace process, and the making of concessions to the LTTE, that is likely to become the focal point for agitation against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s new government. At this juncture, President Kumaratunga will be positioned to exercise her powers as executive president to either sack UNF ministers or take over cabinet portfolios. This would pave the way for her to also dissolve Parliament after one year, which she is empowered to do.
A relationship between the president and the new government that is tense and fraught with menace to one another is likely to be self-defeating to both. Calculations of self-interest that exclude or defeat political opponents are easy to make. But they are less likely to deliver positive results in the resolution of major national problems. Neither party can be at their best when they also have to guard themselves against possible elimination.
Hopes of Non-confrontation
Recent public opinion surveys have shown that the public prefers a national government much more to any single political party wielding unilateral power. The decision of the PA to turn down the offer of deputy speaker made by the new government was a blow to this aspiration of the people for non-confrontational politics. It is only to be hoped that the PA was not ruling out the prospect of a greater degree of power-sharing with the new government when it rejected the deputy speaker’s post, which the new government has kept vacant.
Especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, there has to be bipartisanship. It is not only a two-thirds majority in Parliament that is needed to effect the constitutional changes that are necessary to end the conflict. There is a need for the two main parties to be on the same side, or else the opposition to the constitutional changes being made will probably doom them, as in the case of the 13th Amendment. The main opposition party led people onto the streets to riot during this period, which vitiated the whole spirit of that exercise in the devolution of power. It provided the central bureaucracy and government ministries the opportunity to hold on to centralised power.
Further, for the ethnic conflict to end there has to be more than constitutional change and a restructuring of the polity. An accommodation with the LTTE is required, which the new government is pledging to do with Norwegian facilitation. There is no question that these essential measures require a bipartisan consensus between the two major political parties. Coming to terms with the LTTE requires not only military strength, but also adequate political reform.
During the recent election campaign, the UNF leadership was markedly reluctant to spell out a political framework that could lead to a satisfaction of Tamil aspirations, in part perhaps because of the apprehension that it would be distorted beyond measure by the state media and other political opponents. Perhaps another part of the reason was the belief that the framework needs to be worked out stage by stage in the negotiation process itself.
Where questions of political power and constitutional reform are concerned, there is likely to be a high degree of contestation regarding the way forward to a mutually acceptable solution. There will undoubtedly be differences between the government, opposition and the LTTE. These differences pertaining to issues of governance will be reflected among the people at large. A more consensual and consultative type of decision-making will be required at this stage than the new government has so far been able to demonstrate.