If there is anything significant in the current political situation in Sri Lanka on which there is public consensus, the most eligible item will be the performance of the “Good Governance” regime which has disappointed its supporters to the glee of the opposition.
The alliance forming the government comprises primarily the UNP and a significant section of the SLFP as well as warring groups such as the Sinhala Buddhist extremist Jathika Hela Urumaya, Muslim nationalists and Hill Country Tamil nationalist parties. It is reminiscent of the seven-party coalition regime of 1965 but with less political credibility.
What mobilized public support ― that of the minority nationalities in particular― for its election was the detestable track record of the Mahinda Chinthanaya regime of 2005‒2015, especially the post-war conduct of the ruling Mahinda Rajapaksa family since re-election in 2010.
There was build-up of public feeling that not only the President but also the executive presidential system should go. The idea of a common candidate came up and, with the prospect of a UNP victory doubtful, a scheme was hatched whereby Maithripala Sirisena parted company with Rajapaksa to contest as the “common candidate”. The UNP planned it as a way to control the government with an absolute parliamentary majority and a captive president isolated from his SLFP mass base. It succeeded― but not as well as it wished for.
Things began to fall apart even as the new government comprising the UNP and defectors from the SLFP was formed under President Sirisena in January 2015. A few of the pledges with mass appeal in the election manifesto of Presidential candidate Sirisena were hastily acted upon so as to win the parliamentary election. Having won the election, although not convincingly enough, the next agenda item was to go back on each promise and dismantle anything with a semblance of public interest.
The retreat of the government from its pledges had two aspects to it: one comprising items that were never intended to be fulfilled, such as investment in education and improving medical services to the public, and the other matters which were outside the control of the government owing to internal feuding as well as unforeseen external factors. This included disagreement on constitutional reforms and changes to the electoral system. A key item of the UNP agenda, namely the annulment of ‘dubious Chinese funded projects’ ― a task much spoken of during the election campaigns ― was ditched because of economic realities confronting the “Good Governance” regime to the frustration of the pro-West lobby of the UNP as well as it Tamil allies who would have preferred bigger role for India in the country.
Corruption was another much discussed pre-election theme. But shady deals under “Good Governance” picked up fast enough to match corruption under Mahinda Chintanaya. While there are a few redeeming features the relative freedom of the media and the small reduction in military presence in the North, underlying structures that will inevitably undermine democracy and support repression remain intact. The pledge to be rid on the Prevention of Terrorism Act has proved to be hypocritical as the Act is likely to be replaced by a more draconian Counter Terrorism Act which could be used to suppress all dissent.
The proposal to hold referenda on the various aspects of the new constitution or constitutional reforms sounds ominous, as it could serve as a cynical device to prevent or water down any legislation to address the national question. Judged on the basis of the record of the regime thus far, there is little room for optimism on the response of the Government to seemingly positive recommendations of the six sub-committees of the Constitutional Assembly. The danger is real that seriously addressing the national question will yield to debates on foreign intervention.
Budget 2017 has been most revealing of government intentions as has the reaction of the government been to mass opposition, Thus the Left should not be distracted by the present pseudo-democratic theatre by reactionary forces with no answer to the impending economic crisis. It should concentrate on educating the public on the awaiting danger of fascism and evolve means to defend democracy.