The most significant lacuna in post-election governance – Dr. Jehan Perera

Constitutional change was the leitmotif of the government’s campaign for a two-thirds majority. But in the history of constitutional change in Sri Lanka, a single political party obtaining a two-thirds majority has been a recipe for excluding all others without taking their views into account.

The 1972 constitution was drafted without considering the views put forward by Tamil political parties. This led them to boycott the ratification process of the new constitution. The 1978 constitution too was drafted without input from opposition parties and amid their disapproval of its centrepiece  the executive presidency. Opposition parties described the presidency as a precursor to dictatorship.

A similar danger exists on this occasion too. The campaign that led to the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last November was extremely divisive. This could be observed in the way the electorate voted, highlighting ethnic and religious divides.

In his inaugural address after winning the presidency, Rajapaksa took up this issue by saying he’d been voted in to power by the ethnic and religious majority but committed himself to be the president of all. Today, much weight is being put on this statesmanlike assertion.

But the theme of strong government being necessary to protect national sovereignty – and the subordinate place of the ethnic and religious majority – has continued to be central. The president’s policy statement at the inaugural sitting of the new parliament reflected this reality.

He said: “In accordance with the supreme constitution of our country, I have pledged to protect the unitary status of the country, and to protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana during my tenure… While ensuring priority for Buddhism, it is now clear to the people that freedom of any citizen to practise the religion of his or her choice is better secured.”

A rebuttal to this statement came from former Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council and newly elected MP for Jaffna C. V. Vigneswaran.

He remarked: “There is no reference to the decades old problems of the Tamil speaking denizens of the north and east. The north and east whilst being part of Sri Lanka is majority Tamil speaking. It would have been ideal if His Excellency had adopted a holistic attitude towards the island, keeping in mind the necessity to view the problems of the periphery from the standpoint of subsidiarity.”

There is a concept of inclusive nationalism where everyone born within the boundaries of the country is accorded equal membership of the nation.

The problem that the government will encounter is whether an inclusive Sri Lankan nationalism is possible when one ethnicity and religion is given priority. It will tend to alienate those who belong to other ethnicities and religions.

A distinction between inclusive and exclusive nationalism lies in their attitude towards others. Exclusive nationalism centres on the need to scapegoat others for the country’s social ills. This has happened time and again in the past, most recently with Muslims in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks but also before.

Inclusive nationalism is consistent with the politics of compromise. Therefore, it is important that nationalism should be balanced by an emphasis on equality based pluralism for citizens.

Where people of different identities share a common space, the state must ensure equal rights, treatment and protection for all citizens. This would mean that a Tamil speaking citizen should be provided services in his or her language in any part of the country, which would also be the case for Sinhala speaking citizens in Tamil dominant areas of the north, east and hill country.

Such a right would not be on account of Sri Lanka being a multiethnic, multi-religious and multilingual country but rather, the need to provide equal treatment to all citizens.

There is a lacuna in today’s national politics regarding politicians who can reach out to ethnic and religious minorities. The general election was notable as none of the major political parties proposed how they’d bridge ethnic and religious divides.

Meanwhile, the election saw a significant shift in the pattern of ethnic and religious minority votes versus the presidential poll held nine months prior.

The appointment of Ali Sabry as Minister of Justice would encourage minority communities to reconsider their attitude to the government as being hostile to their interests. But the inclusion of minorities needs to go beyond this.