A reformer president needs support from all communities – Dr. Jehan Perera 

The upcoming presidential election will take place in the context of widespread disillusionment with the established political leadership. Yet, the keen interest in this presidential race is because that institution remains influential even with the reduction of its powers through the 19th Amendment.

In addition to powers vested in the president by law and the constitution, he or she can wield tremendous moral authority by virtue of being voted in by the nation acting as a single electorate. The powers of this office ought to be used for the good of the people and not for self-aggrandisement, or to help colleagues and friends. A president must also be willing to spearhead unpopular but necessary reforms.

Among the most challenging of these are reforms pertaining to relations between ethnic and religious communities. This has proven to be extremely difficult as demonstrated by the failure of negotiations, agreements and constitutional reforms over several decades.

Beginning with the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957, such agreements have failed to get off the ground due to fear and suspicion among members of ethnic and religious communities of each other. An inability to fully implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution also derives from a fear and mistrust that once devolved, power would be misused.

To take a leap forward into a new dynamic of development, Sri Lanka must overcome its legacy of ethnic and religious conflicts. It needs a political solution to this. But the leading protagonists in the presidential campaign have yet to make a firm declaration on their policies in this regard. The people have heard that national security will be the number one priority.

This can mean that ethnic and religious minorities who are viewed as not being part of the polity – due to a wish to preserve their own ethnic and religious identities – may be viewed as threats and subject to national security measures.

There’s a danger that the Indian government’s move to end special arrangements in the governance of Kashmir could become a siren call for similar action in Sri Lanka with regard to the provincial council system. But democracy is not only to do with heeding the views of ethnic and religious majorities; it’s also about considering the opinions of minority communities.

The power of the presidency should not be used to impose a solution without the consent of ethnic and religious minorities. This is not the path for Sri Lanka to take even with a strong leader at the helm – the country needs a commander in chief who will uphold the interests of everyone.

In the past four years, Sri Lanka took a turn for the better in terms of inter-ethnic relations.

The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe provided leadership to the bid for a new constitution more than any regime since former President Chandrika Kumaratunga attempted to promote a power sharing constitution to resolve the ‘ethnic conflict.’

While there was optimism and reason for hope, this ended with the 21 April Easter Sunday bombings, which turned back the clock as far as inter-community relations go. Now there’s a need for the leadership to put the reconciliation and peace building process back on track.

Over the past four years, the government agreed to implement a series of reforms aimed at resolving the ethnic conflict. These included constitutional reforms, as well as a process of transitional justice where past human rights violations would be investigated, the perpetrators of such crimes prosecuted and compensation provided.

However, it is not adequate to put forward plans and set up institutions. It’s also necessary to provide visionary leadership that is capable of taking the people along on this journey with the government. Such leadership must have the ability to win the trust of a majority of the people – not only of one ethnic or religious community.

In other words, a leader who can guide Sri Lanka out of its internal conflict – which resulted in nearly three decades of war – must enjoy the confidence of a majority of the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians in the country.

It isn’t enough to elect a leader who enjoys the support of a majority of the Sinhalese if he or she doesn’t also have the support of ethnic and religious minorities, and vice versa. Only a leader who enjoys the confidence of all sections of the people can take the country safely to a political solution without facing a backlash from disaffected hardliners in any community.