The National Peace Council (NPC)

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The government is proceeding with its 100 Day programmme that President Maithripala Sirisena presented as part of his election manifesto. This plan promised a national government and new cabinet with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as its Prime Minister after the presidential election. It also contained a promise to change from a presidential to a parliamentary system, to repeal the 18th Amendment, to come up with a 19th Amendment to the Constitution, restoring independent commissions, setting up a national advisory council and also presenting an interim budget. The detailed plan also included setting up a special investigatory mechanism to probe corruption and passing legislation on right to information and a new health policy.

Previous presidents made big promises that they did not keep and their promises ended up being seen as gimmicks simply to win votes and the election. Viewed in the context of promises made by previous governments, the 100 day programme is impressive in both the national consensus it has obtained and also in being implemented. The first promise that was fulfilled was the appointment of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. The promise to establish a National Advisory Council has been fulfilled by the appointment of a National Executive Council thought still without the civil society representation that was promised, but it still is an impressive body having the participation of virtually the entire range of mainstream political parties, including the ethnic minorities.



The Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph has been a strong critic of the government in the past. He was made out to be a supporter of the LTTE both by government leaders and the media. But he was also a strong critic of the LTTE and its violations of human rights, especially forcible recruitment of children and attacks on civilians. At various times there were apprehensions that he was being targeted by one or the other side. This was due to his striking an independent path as is expected of a true religious leader. This was also in the tradition of Joseph Vaz who was canonized by Pope Francis during his visit to Sri Lanka. When he came to Sri Lanka in the 17th century to Fr Vaz did not involve himself in the internal power struggles of the Catholic Church of those times, but stood for the interests of the people he had come to sustain. This has also been the case with Bishop Joseph who has been a strong advocate for the rights of the Tamil people but without losing sight of the interests of the people of the entire country.

Prior to Pope Francis’s arrival in Sri Lanka, there was a concern that the visit of the Pope would be utilized for the political agenda of the then government. Some sections of civil and religious society even urged the postponement of the Holy Father’s visit, on the grounds that its proximity to the elections would unnecessarily involve mixing politics with religion and that the hurly burly of politics would distract the people from the sanctity of the occasion. Bishop Rayappu Joseph speaking on behalf of the Church explained why it did not seek such a postponement. He said, “We cannot dismiss the fears posed by some individuals, that the elections would disrupt the visit. But we had to balance these fears with the understanding of what is good for all the Catholics of Sri Lanka. The Church of Sri Lanka has decided to put aside any differences and stand by the decision that the Holy Father should visit Sri Lanka. The Papal visit is a visual visit of Christ on earth ...”



Even as late as last week the visit of Pope Francis scheduled for January 13-15 was in question. There were doubts whether the post-election period would be conducive to a papal visit. The situation in the country in the run-up to the presidential election was an unpredictable one. Both main presidential candidates promised to ensure a peaceful election and peaceful transition to facilitate the visit. But on the other hand there was widespread violence. This was almost entirely directed against the opposition campaigners. In one instance, the opposition candidate had to flee the stage due to a stone attack. Civil society groups canvassing for the opposition were not spared either. Some artistes and human rights activists had to be hospitalized after another attack.

Although Election Day was peaceful these elections it failed to meet the test of free and fair elections. In addition to the violence, there was a denial of places for the opposition to hold their meetings. The government used the state machinery to the maximum. This was against the election law. Although the media was expected to give equal coverage to all candidates, the state media gave virtually full coverage to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government’s campaign. When it covered the opposition it did so only to show its weaknesses. The government has also used the state welfare system to give benefits to the voters and linked this to the benevolence of the President. In addition, the government used the military to distribute and exhibit government election propaganda.

At stake at these elections was whether Sri Lanka continued on the path set by the Rajapaksa government or on a different path. The most important features of the Rajapaksa path was the concentration of power in the Presidency , the breakdown of the system of checks and balances which saw the Chief Justice being sacked by the government, even though the Supreme Court and Appeal Court both disagreed with the government, the increasing role of the military in civilian affairs both in the Tamil areas and in the rest of the country, and the growing economic and political dependency on some countries, especially China, where the government took huge loans from the international community for projects of uncertain economic value.



The prominent role of civil society in the polity has been highlighted during the course of the elections by the activities of the election monitoring organizations. However, even before the declaration of elections, civil society was in the news. The government media used to regularly vilify sections of civil society and non-governmental organizations as engaging in anti-national activities. Although this was not their intention, the state media highlighted the important role that civil society was playing in the polity, by keeping alive ideas of good governance, ethnic and religious pluralism and reconciliation to mention the ones that were most under threat. In the election campaign the debates of the political parties took up most of the space in the media. But there was also frequent reference in the media to the findings and opinions expressed by the election monitoring organizations with regard to the violations of electoral laws and the remedies that were being pursued.

The government has accused some of the election monitors as being biased and working for the agenda of international powers. All the main election monitoring organizations have pointed out that the lion’s share of the election violations have been committed by the government. In particular they have highlighted the enormous abuse of state resources. But the government still permitted these organizations to do their work unimpeded. This is to the credit of the government. It is also to the credit of all involved, especially the Elections Commissioner and his staff, and the police, and the election monitoring organisations that the level of violence did not rise as sharply as the ferocity of the political debate. During the election campaign, the area of weakness that could not be adequately addressed was the abuse of state resources by the government. PAFFREL for instance reported that the abuse of state resources was three times greater this time than at the previous presidential election.

The issue of civil society participation, and partisanship, in the political process was addressed by the head of the country’s largest civil society organization at an urgently convened media conference on New Year’s Day by Sarvodaya leader A T Ariyaratne. There was no endorsement of either candidate as might have been expected. Dr Ariyaratne made it clear that his organization would not be taking a partisan position or endorse either of the candidates. But it would continue to address issues of governance through its field activities and educational programmes. He added that the Sarvodaya Movement would launch its Deshodaya Movement for National Awakening after the election. It was an important affirmation that civil society is heterogeneous and not uniform. And also that the work of civil society organisations in complementing, supplementing and holding government to account will not end with the announcement of the election result on January 8.



When government parliamentarian and Deputy Minister Nishantha Muthuhettigama intervened with the police to forcibly release three of his supporters who were in their custody for having attacked and burned an opposition election stage, it seemed to be yet another instance of impunity on the part of a government member that would go unpunished. When the Police officer in charge of the area where the problem arose resigned from the Police citing unbearable political pressure on him, he was warned that he would face charges of insubordination and cowardice. Under the circumstances that have been prevailing in the country for the past several years, this would have been accepted by the general public as being the order of the day.

But today, with a presidential election round the corner, the circumstances are not as they used to be. There is a real possibility of governmental change in the offing. The government is no longer secure in its hold on power as it used to be. Unexpectedly the opposition has been able to mount a challenge to the government. There appears to be a tide of public support in favour of the upholding of the Rule of Law and opposition to corruption that the government is being accused of. It is in these circumstances, that the system of checks and balances that ought to be part and parcel of any functioning system of democracy appear to be resurfacing. It appears that those who are vested with state power in the public service are gaining in strength even as the political leadership in the government gets less certain of their victory.



The manifesto of the Joint Opposition Candidate reflects the concerns of the different political parties that have formed the opposition alliance. Some of them have signed agreements with him, others have not. So the manifesto reflects those agreements. The main ethnic minority parties representing the Sri Lanka Tamils and Muslims have yet to publicly declare their stance at the election. Consequently, their input into the opposition mandate is not manifest. One crucial area of governance that has been left out is the issue of inter-ethnic relations and devolution of power. However, speaking on the political platform the UNP leader and Prime Minister-designate Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that the 13th Amendment will be implemented. In this context, it is not surprising if the Presidential election campaign has yet to grip the imagination of the Tamil voter in the North and East.

There is already a call to boycott the election. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, the leader of Tamil National Peoples Front (TNPF) has called for a boycott on the grounds that there is no point in the Tamil people going behind any of the two mainstream candidates of the Sinhalese South in the upcoming Sri Lankan presidential election. The former Tamil parliamentarian, who addressed the media on behalf of the TNPF and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, urged the Tamil people to refrain from backing any of the two candidates. He also accused the TNA, which is the largest Tamil political party, of creating a systematic and intended confusion among the Tamils by its secretive approach. He said it seems to be waiting till the last minute to urge the Tamils to back the Joint Opposition Candidate. He has condemned the government for the way it conducted the war and the opposition for not being prepared to concede sufficient power sharing between the ethnic communities.



The government is sparing no effort to ensure victory for itself at the forthcoming presidential election. The opposition alliance accuses it of offering their members large sums of money to cross over. This is rejected by those who have been accused of this practice, which leaves the electorate in a state of disquiet and uncertainty, not wishing to believe the worst in those who ought to be champions of the national interest. Those who join the government do not seem to be negotiating any policy changes. Similarly, the situation where it concerns the various groups who are being provided with tangible benefits would be calculated to make them feel grateful and obligated to cast their vote to their benefactors. So far at least the government appears to be focused only on providing short term material benefits to induce those who join it and the electorate in general.

The problem of ensuring free and fair elections in these circumstances has grown to be so challenging in these circumstances that election monitoring organisations, in an unprecedented manner, have issued a joint statement on this matter. They said that “As election observers, whose primary objective is to ensure a free and fair environment for elections, we are concerned about the prevailing conditions. The sovereignty of the people is foremost in a democracy and the legitimacy of the elected leadership arises from the free vote of a country’s constituency.” The main point that the Sri Lankan election monitors seem to be making is that elections should always yield in an outcome that truly reflects the will of the people.



The run up to Pope Francis’s visit to Sri Lanka was notable for the controversy over the determination of the government to hold Presidential Elections at around the same time. The Vatican is known to have a policy whereby the Holy Father’s presence in a country is not used to purposes of partisan politics by politicians who put power before everything else. In particular, His Holiness will not visit a country for a specified period either before or after an election. This was said to be a month. But it is fortunate for us in Sri Lanka that the Vatican demonstrated flexibility on this issue. It was nevertheless unfortunate that the government’s determination to hold the Presidential Elections around the time of the Pope’s visit led to an escalation of speculation and doubt as to whether this visit would actually take place.

The general environment in the country due to the forthcoming elections is not a positive or reassuring one. Winning the presidency is the goal of both sides. The issues being canvassed at the elections, of corruption, nepotism and betrayal of the country to international interests are highly emotive ones. Violations of election law have occurred on a large scale with the misuse of state property and resources being highlighted by election monitors. There have also been acts of violence that have increased as the election approaches. There is apprehension that the forthcoming weeks will only see a rise in such incidents, which will restrict the space for a free and fair electoral process. There is serious concern that incidents resulting in physical harm to political campaign supporters and members of the general public will increase.



The political campaign for the presidential elections will begin in earnest after nominations close on December 8. With a close contest expected the ethnic minority vote can be decisive. However, the main Tamil and Muslim parties have yet to make formal decisions regarding which candidate they will support. They have said that they await the respective political programmes of the rival candidates before making their choice. Those parties that have been in the government coalition would hesitate to make their choice in favour of the opposition. Not only would it lead to an immediate loss of their positions in the government. The sense of betrayal on the part of the government could lead to retaliation especially in the aftermath of a victory.

However, the position of the TNA which is the main Tamil party is more nuanced. They have been in the opposition and been totally sidelined by the government during the past ten years. There is little that they have been able to do for the people who voted for them and this is visible in the rural areas of the North and East. Some leaders of the TNA have explained their delay in taking a stance due to concern that the government will use any public support given by them to the opposition to discredit the Opposition Common Candidate amongst the Sinhalese voters. But there is another reason that may explain the delay in taking a stance. This is the concern amongst sections of Tamil opinion that a victory for the opposition will be a setback to the gains that the Tamil nationalist cause has been making internationally in recent times.



The continuing defection of government members away from President Mahinda Rajapaksa's election campaign is an indicator of the formidable nature of the challenge faced by the government. The President has a reputation for being able to take on any challenge.
However, what he is seeking to do is unprecedented. No President in the past had the opportunity to contest the elections a third time.
The Sri Lankan voter has had an earlier tradition of not returning an incumbent government to power at elections. This only changed with the presidential system that concentrated power in the hands of the President and enabled ruling parties to muscle themselves back to power.

There is growing apprehension that the coming elections can become violent. The stakes are very high for the contesting political parties. The presidency is by far the most powerful institution in the country. Winning the presidency is the goal of both sides. The issues being canvassed at the elections, of corruption, nepotism and betrayal of the country to international interests are highly emotive ones. Violations of election law are occurring on a large scale with the misuse of state property and resources being highlighted by election monitors. There have also been acts of violence that can increase sharply as the election approaches.



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