The way forward for the government is to work as a team – Dr. Jehan Perera

Provincial council (PC) elections have been postponed yet again. If the current governmental disunity continues, any delay in holding PC elections will only postpone the day of reckoning for the alliance government.

If the United National Party (UNP) headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena were to contest the PC elections separately as they did for the local government (LG) elections in February, the outcome is unlikely to be any different.

At the LG elections, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated the divided government parties by a comfortable margin in a majority of local government bodies.

Whether this was a protest vote against the government or due to the charisma of the former president is less relevant than that this outcome is likely to be repeated at the PC elections. The government’s concern would be the knock on effect on the presidential election that will follow.

The two government parties seem set to go their own ways – and to their likely mutual downfall. A delay in conducting PC elections, possibly until after March 2019, offers the alliance government the time and space to negotiate a working relationship before the crucial presidential election set for the end of next year.

Improving this relationship is more feasible in the short time remaining before the next presidential election than boosting economic growth or constitutional reform being accepted by all parties and communities.

On the plus side, the president is no longer openly trying to undermine the PM as he did during the LG elections. Nor are SLFP members of government openly criticising their UNP counterparts.

The government’s continuing strength is that its reform agenda of 2015 remains popular with those who
voted for change. Indeed, this administration continues to have an advantage in being the proponent of the 2015 reform agenda to which the opposition has no answer – other than claiming that such reforms will lead to a division of the country.

Although economic growth has been sluggish, there is a discernible improvement in the rule of law and inter-ethnic reconciliation.

Meanwhile, the opposition’s campaign is based on negativism. It has been unable to convince the intelligentsia that it has a positive vision of a country in which human rights will be respected, corruption will be reduced and the independence of institutions from political interference will be assured. Instead, the opposition preys on the fears of the masses against those of other communities and the world.

Monaragala and Hambantota are two traditionally poor parts of the island that have been SLFP strongholds in the past, and are presently dominated by the SLPP headed by the former president.

In discussions with community leaders who supported the change of government in 2015, it was evident that they continued to stand by that reformist vision. They say the rationale for bringing about the coalition for reform in 2015 remained.

Moreover, they note that the main slogan of the opposition, which was negatively influencing the thinking of people, is that the war victory secured by the former regime is at risk of being squandered through the politics of the present government. For example, the former president has alleged that the government is planning to have two legal frameworks for the country – one for the north and another for the south – which would pave the way for a divided nation.

Community leaders in Monaragala and Hambantota who support the reform agenda say a continued UNP-SLFP alliance is the best option for the future despite its infirmities in the present. They want the two parties to collaborate again, from the beginning, as they had in 2015. But this time, they want the two parties to really and truly collaborate to implement the commitments of 2015.

It is not only community leaders at the grassroots level who support the implementation of the 2015 reform agenda.

I shared these thoughts with students at a master’s degree course on peace studies at university. The participating students comprised those from all walks of life including the security forces.

In their questions and comments, it was apparent that they too want the reform agenda of 2015 to prevail. Similar to the community leaders, they want the country to be reunited in mind and heart, and not only in territory, as well as not to return to the days where the rule of men was the path taken over the rule of law.