Is President Sirisena Following A Saffron Agenda?

President Maithripala Sirisena gracing as the Chief Guest at the launching of “Programme for the Formulation of National Policy Framework” at Sri Lanka Foundation Institute. Pix by Kithsiri De Mel

By Hilmy Ahamed –

The President’s resolve to ensure the passage of 20A in its current form, is seen by more than twenty minor and minorities parties as a blatant attempt to dislodge them from parliament. His commitment to 20th Amendment may be due to the assurance that he gave the SLFP members when he sought their support for the 19th Amendment, yet it is important that this process is not bulldozed.

The group of small parties that met at the headquarters of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) wants the gazette notification published on the 20th amendment withdrawn and a proper consultation undertaken. Failure would mean that it passage would be challenged both in and outside parliament.

While, it is agreed and accepted that delimitation and constitutional reforms to rid the scourge of the preferential vote are an absolute necessity, and a promise in Maithripala’s Yahapalanaya manifesto that needs to be honoured, it is important that the fears expressed by the minor and minority parties are addressed forthwith.

President Maithripala Sirisena could stand accused of totally betraying the minority communities that ensured his victory at the Presidential election of January 2015. The 20A will eliminate the representation from parliament; most of the minority parties who helped him reach the presidency. Many of these parties do not command a large enough voter base to win electorates but are strong enough to win representations in the districts. They fear that if 20A is implemented in its current form, it would cement the two party rule. This may auger well as a nation to move away from ethnic based politics, yet, Sri Lankan electorate has been polarized along ethnic and religious lines. We need to go back to the days when the elected legislators represented all the people and communities alike. This may not be the easy after over 35 years of ethnic/communal politics that was introduced under the JR Jayewardene constitutional reforms.

Many amongst the minority communities see this the push for 20th A as a Hela Urumaya (JHU) agenda to dilute the influence of minorities in government. This calculated move would force minority parties to form alliances with Maithripala’s Sirisena’s SLFP or Ranil Wickremesinge’s UNP for their political survival. This will eventually ensure that no minority party could dictate terms or hold the remote controls of government.

The late MHM Ashroff, the founder leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) during President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s government used to claim that they held the remote controls of government with their numbers in parliament. The mainstream parties saw this as holding the majority view to ransom. This may or may not be a true assumption, but they did have the clout to demand and receive legitimate dues for their constituencies. They also used this clout to receive undue perks and privileges for themselves. If the 20A goes through, the controls of the remote would end up in the hands of either Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP or Ranil Wickrmesinghe’s UNP.

One may wonder why the JHU is on a suicidal mission to eliminate themselves from parliament, but the reality is that they have ensured their place in Maithripala’s SLFP, knowing very well that their saffron politics will be totally rejected by the people at the next General Elections. There is no way that they could contest alone and expect to survive, so this is a face saving agenda and a convenient route back to parliament through con the 20th Amendment as all minor and minority parties would be compelled to be part of one alliance or the other.

If candidates from minority parties were to be elected from the districts where they are a minority, they would need to form alliances with major parties to be granted the benevolence of an opportunity to contest from one of the major parties. Under the current Proportional Representation, minor and minority parties can seek their votes from the entire district. Proponents of 20A will argue that they can still achieve that through the district preference, yet is it the same?

On the other hand, this may also lead to further polarization of the different communities, should they start forming alliances based on religion or language.

20A may not affect the larger minority parties line the TNA in the North and East and the Muslim Congress in the East, but it will affect these parties and all other minor and minority parties in every electorate outside their bastions.

The minority parties are convinced that the JHU and other Buddhist forces had this strategy to minimize the dominance of minority parties in government right through out the presidential campaign of Sirisena. The UNP, which would stand to gain substantially if minorities have no option but to vote for one of the main parties, remain uncommitted. On the other hand if minority parties form their own coalition, the UNP would stand to be the biggest looser.

All credit should go to Maithripala Sirisena for the passage of the 19A , yet he is in an unenviable position with regard to the 20th A. On one hand, as the leader of the SLFP, he should continue to lead the SLFP to victory at the next general elections, and on the other hand, he needs to keep his promise of the 100-day reforms to the common opposition that got him elected. To get anywhere close to achieving it, he needs the numbers in parliament, where the opposition commands the majority. Through this the majority in the SLFP has managed to hold President Sirisena to ransom.

The average civilian wants an end to this wheeler dealing and an early election may be the only option, but without the passage of the 20th A, Maithripala would be seen as a weak president by his SLFP and the group led by former President Rajapaksa. This has driven President Maithripala Sirisena to compromise on all aspects of the reforms that he promised through the Yahapalanaya Manifesto.

It would be tragic if Maithripala pushes 20A by deceit. He may not need the voters during the current term as president, but where would he be if the UNP and the minority parties that propelled him to the presidency were not part of his campaign in January 2015?

Amongst various proposals put forward by the expert committee on 20A of Asoka Abeygunawardene, Dr Sujata Gamage and Kirthi Tennakoon is the option of looking in to the suggestions of the Muslim Congress and All Ceylon National Congress to accept the dual ballot concept. This may satisfy the demand by the minorities as it would give them a chance at the preference vote, yet has it been researched well to push it through in this mighty hurry. Will this not drive us back to the “manapay pora” that we have experienced? If implemented, the biggest winner of this would be the JVP. Most people may not want to dilute the value of their vote on the JVP which stands a poor chance of getting elected under FPTP, yet many would not hesitate to vote for the person in the JVP list.

Whatever the system that would be introduced need not be pushed through in haste. Fresh elections and a fresh mandate should be given to the next government to formulate a new constitution where all Sri Lankans would be able to live in dignity and peace.

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