A political breakthrough | Daily News
UNP-SLPP alliance:

A political breakthrough

Last week saw the Budget Debate reach its conclusion with its Third Reading passed comfortably in Parliament. This brought to an end a hectic year of Parliamentary politics that saw the country’s Legislature elect a President for the second time since the present Constitution was adopted in 1978. The first was in 1993 following the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, where the then Premier D.B. Wijetunga was elected unanimously as President.

The Budget was endorsed with 123 votes for and 80 against, a tally similar to the vote on the Second Reading. This majority enhanced the perception that the Government led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe was very much in control, despite the political upheaval during the previous months.

The collective Opposition had hoped that, with many factions of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) going their separate ways, there was an opportunity to harness that dissent into a majority vote against the Government during the Budget debate. That however did not materialise.

With the passage of the Budget in Parliament now concluded, President Wickremesinghe and his Government have been quick to shift their focus to two other important matters: a final resolution of the ethnic issue and conducting Local Government (LG) elections throughout the country.

A new framework that addresses the ethnic issue has long been a goal of President Wickremesinghe. He stood for a negotiated settlement when he was Prime Minister in 2001, overseeing a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which eventually did not succeed.

The LTTE was annihilated in May 2009 under the leadership of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. That helped establish peace throughout the island instead of the constant threat of terrorism fostered by the Tigers. However, it also saw a political solution to the ethnic conflict take a back seat.

The unprecedented political turn of events of the past few months saw Ranil Wickremesinghe take office as President. With no real support from his own United National Party (UNP) which has only one Member in Parliament, he has succeeded in seeing both the Budget and the controversial 21st Amendment through Parliament.

Ethnic issue

The President has been having a dialogue with the main representatives of the Tamil community in Parliament, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) through its leader R. Sampanthan and Parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran. They have indicated that a political resolution to the ethnic issue is much needed.

The form such a ‘resolution’ would take is unclear as yet. It could be presented as a Constitutional Amendment. However, there are also suggestions that, given the political and economic turmoil the country witnessed in 2022, a totally new Constitution would be better suited to address these needs.

President Wickremesinghe has indicated that he would aim for a resolution of the ethnic issue by February next year. This is so that the nation celebrates its 75th anniversary of Independence as a united country. With less than two months to go for this deadline, many see this target as overly optimistic.

It has been noted that, while the President may suggest February 4, 2023, as a target date it would have the effect of speeding up the process, generating momentum towards seeking a resolution efficiently and promptly instead of stagnating in rhetorical issues that have been debated for decades.

With this objective, the TNA has suggested that the controversial 13th Amendment could be a starting point for discussion. They have conveyed their grievances regarding the fact that although the 13th Amendment was adopted 35 years ago, it has never been unconditionally implemented in the country.

It will be recalled that the 13th Amendment was introduced to the Constitution in 1987, following the enactment of the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) between then President J.R. Jayewardene and then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was later assassinated by the LTTE. The Amendment has remained operative since then although not in its entirety.

The main feature of the 13th Amendment was the creation of Provincial Councils (PCs) as a means of devolving power to the regions. While PC elections were held in the South of the country in early 1988, the war affected the smooth devolution of power in the North and the East.

The Northern and Eastern Provinces were merged under provisions in the ILA. Polls to the merged North-Eastern Province (NEP) were held in November 1988. An attempt by its Chief Minister Varadaraja Perumal to declare unilateral ‘independence’ saw the province being ruled directly by Colombo.

In 2006, the Supreme Court (SC) determined that the merger of the two provinces was null and void. Elections for the demerged Eastern Province were held in May 2008. The Northern Province was ruled directly from Colombo until September 2013 when polls were held as the war was over by then.

What is causing concern in the Tamil community is the perception that the devolution of land, Police and financial powers to the Provinces has been inadequate. Successive Governments have stressed that any administrative structure that is implemented should be acceptable to all communities in the country.

Since then, there have been discussions around a concept that is known as ‘13 Plus’ that emerged after the conclusion of the war. This implies extensive devolution beyond the 13th Amendment or, at the very least, the full implementation of the Amendment, but its exact nature has not been specified. Governments have been wary of ‘13 Plus’ as it almost equates to a quasi-federal structure, which nationalists have rallied against.

It is in such a context that President Wickremesinghe is renewing attempts to reach a consensus with the TNA and other minority parties regarding a resolution of the Ethnic Question which has evaded national leaders for many decades. In doing so, the President has two major factors aligning in his favour.

Firstly, having been in Parliament since 1977 and being a Minister under Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa and Prime Minister under Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena, he is extremely familiar with the political complexities involved in addressing these grievances.

Secondly, it has historically been the case that, when a political solution is offered by one major party, the rival major party opposes it. President Wickremesinghe represents the UNP. The other major party, the SLPP forms his Government. So, he is in an excellent position to negotiate an agreement. Besides, the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) holds much the same stance on the Ethnic Question and any opposition would come only from some of the extremist nationalist parties.

There appears to be another matter on which the UNP and the SLPP are reaching out to each other for a consensus. That is the upcoming LG election. These polls are now due, the last elections to over 300 LG bodies being held back in February 2018. They were won comprehensively by the SLPP.

The National Election Commission (NEC) will issue the Gazette notification calling for nominations to elect 8,327 members for 24 Municipal Councils (MCs), 41 Urban Councils (UCs) and 276 Pradeshiya Sabhas (PSs) during the final week of December, its Chief S.G. Punchihewa announced on Monday.

Nominations will be accepted for LG polls in mid-January and elections will be held in late February 2023, Punchihewa said. Elections have to be held within seven weeks of nominations being called. Over 16.6 million voters will be eligible to vote at this LG election.

LG elections

These polls are noteworthy because the political unrest of the past year saw a clamour for national elections. However, President Wickremesinghe told Parliament he had no intention of dissolving Parliament early. There are also no provisions to hold a Presidential Election earlier than late 2024.

As such, the 2023 LG elections will be the first national polls since the political events of 2022 at which parties will be able to test their strengths and weaknesses. It will be crucial for the SLPP, the UNP, the SJB and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led Jathika Jana Balavegaya (NPP).

If one were to draw parallels with the past, it will be recalled that the SLPP swept the board at the last LG elections in 2018, winning 231 out of 340 local bodies. It then emerged victorious in the Presidential Election in November 2019 followed by winning the General Election in August 2020.

In the current political climate, there is a belief that the popularity enjoyed by the SLPP has diminished recently because of the ongoing economic crisis. That is, however, yet to be tested at an election. Similarly, the current support base of the SJB and the JVP remains an unknown quantity.

For the SLPP, it would therefore make sense to act in concert with the UNP. This is especially more so when President Wickremesinghe appears to have built a good rapport with SLPP Parliamentarians who supported him during the vote in Parliament to elect a President to replace former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who resigned on July 13.

Political negotiations have always been President Wickremesinghe’s strong suit. If he brokers an agreement between the SLPP and the UNP for the LG elections it will be a historic milestone because two major political parties in the country will be agreeing to cooperate with one another.

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