Friday, January 23, 2015

Maithri's 100 Days

History has seen several famous ‘hundred days.’ Almost exactly 200 years ago, Emperor Napoleon returned to France from exile in Elba, taking power dramatically and abdicating for a second time just under 100 days later. Napoleon was fighting against a daunting alliance of almost all European powers, and defeat at the Battle of Waterloo just accelerated the inevitable. Abandoned by his former allies and facing a mammoth force against him, the Emperor abdicated and left for his final exile in St. Helena.

Sri Lanka too has seen a 100 days program before, after the fall of the People’s Alliance government in December 2001. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s “100 days” were geared towards establishing peace and revitalizing the economy. Wickremesinghe government signed a Ceasefire Agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. However, this agreement became a farce as the weeks turned into months and years. Meanwhile, the government was able to come out of the power crisis with help from rains but had limited success in other areas. Of course the government was in power while an executive president of from the other main party, the PA, was in power.

The 100 Days Program of President Maithripala Sirisena is aimed to reduce the powers of that presidency, which has been in existence from 1977. This is one of the three main objectives of the program, the other two being the re-introduction of the five independent commissions and the amendment of the election process.

Sirisena started his election campaign with a promise of constitutional reform. The need for this had arisen in the minds of a certain sector of the population after the 18th Amendment. However, days into the campaign, the Maithripala Sirisena camp understood that it was not easy to convince the vast majority of the people of the primacy of constitutional reform over the economic issues. Simply, one had to earn a living before considering the constitution.

The success in the Maithripala campaign was to change according to the issues raised. The common opposition was able to introduce proposals of economic relief, basically a salary rise and the reduction of the fuel tax. The fuel tax relief itself will undoubtedly help the reduction of the cost of living considerably. The common opposition had its moments of inconsistency as different people promised different things on the same subject on different speeches. However, the common opposition was able to find more coherence as the campaign went on and therefore, the campaign gained momentum.

Minority vote

One major accusation against the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena is the ‘minority factor’ where it is argued that the minority vote played a crucial role in determining the election result. Much is written about this matter and therefore, no lengthy discussion is needed. However, this writer hopes to stress the facts on why former president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the minority vote as well as a significant amount of the Sinhalese vote.

Former President Rajapaksa lost the Muslim vote because of Aluthgama incidents. The Muslims were apprehensive of the moves by the Bodu Bala Sena. Rajapaksa never publicly criticize the BBS perhaps because he was worried of losing the Sinhala Buddhist votes. However, this created speculations on links between the then government and the BBS. This caused a vast majority of the Muslim vote to turn the other side and ultimately had a decisive impact on the decision by all Muslim political parties to join the Sirisena camp.

This might have been countered if the BBS continued to be a force to reckon with. However, the defection of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) which started the dramatic series of events which ended with the fall of the Rajapaksa government was a key event in the whole process. While the JHU was a more middle class, urban, Sinhalese nationalist party with a limited voter base, its defection was critical in rupturing the Sinhalese Buddhist vote base of the Rajapaksa government. Incidentally, after the defection of the JHU, the BBS lost its crowds for some reason. BBS decision to support Rajapaksa openly just added to the difficulties of the government.

On the other hand, the Tamil National Alliance did add several hundred thousand votes to the Sirisena camp. Despite extensive development work carried out by the government, it is obvious that the Tamil people still do not consider that reconciliation has been completed. They voted for Sirisena fully aware that he was also a Sinhala Buddhist leader from a rural background and therefore someone who will not fulfill their dreams. As some commentators had said, it was not an election of the Tamil people. Nevertheless, calls by extremist factions for a boycott was thrown away by the Tamil people, which itself is a good sign of a rejection of extremism.

By the last days of the campaign, it was obvious that the majority of the minority votes were to be polled by Sirisena. Therefore, Rajapaksa had to assure a clear majority of the Sinhalese votes. However, the urban Sinhalese were more tilted towards the opposition as they were more conscious on constitutional matters. They were more conscious even on economic issues. Unlike those in the villages, the urban population has no means of producing their food. Therefore, they had to worry on the economy more than the village populace.

Despite the economic development, the income gap between the rich and the poor was apparently increasing. The urban middle class experienced this. Even the city beautification projects were beneficial largely to the elite as new shops and eateries were high prized institutions more suited for the rich.

Therefore, Mahinda Rajapaksa had to find enough votes from the villages, which was what his campaign was mostly focusing on. However, the Maithripala Sirisena camp too worked hard to attract as much rural votes as possible. On many occasions, Sirisena spoke in the same towns after Rajapaksa had visited them. Thereby, Sirisena had the last word in many places, as far as political rallies were concerned. In the end, all tactics and votes added up to defeat Rajapaksa in the election.

The Hundred Days

Now that the election is done, the attention will be on the 100 Days Program. As it was mentioned, this is basically a program focused on constitutional amendments. The exact details of the constitutional reforms are yet to appear in all three points. Even though the presidency will be reformed, it is not exactly clear as to what changes will occur pertaining to the powers of the president.

Even though the five commissions are to be re-established, it has been said that the commissions implemented under the 17th Amendment should be rectified so that the flaws that were apparent will be avoided.

Meanwhile, even though the electoral system is to be amended, the exact electoral process that will be implemented is still unclear. It has been said by some spokesmen in the government that the new system will be a combination of the first-past-the-post system and the proportional representation, a final decision is yet to be taken.

The government has given a timetable for both constitutional reform and also for economic reform within the 100 days program before a general election will be held. Despite some apprehensions, the government seems to have won a majority in the parliament and the opposition has also said that it will support the main points of the 100 day program. However, the government has not kept the deadlines of some of the measures it promised in the program. Therefore it must get its act together and carry out the proposed reforms on time. Otherwise, the Maithripala Sirisena government will prove to be a failure in the eyes of those who voted it into power.

First published in 'The Nation' on Jan. 18, 2015

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