[Athuraliye Rathana thero in the forefront of JHU Good Governance initiative]
By Dr Jehan Perera-
The decision of the JHU to oppose President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid to be re-elected for a third term has the potential to be the defining moment of the forthcoming presidential election. In explaining their departure, the JHU leaders have said that they united with the government to defeat the LTTE and its threat to the unity of the country. But now that threat is over, they have said that the present need is to achieve good governance in the country. The top leadership of the JHU resigned from their positions in the government after they failed to extract promises from the government to accept the reforms they proposed that would ensure good governance in the country.
The JHU was a pillar of strength to the Rajapaksa campaign at the two previous presidential elections in 2005 and 2010. They ensured that there was a Sinhalese consensus on the pre-eminence of Sinhalese nationalism in the life of the Sri Lankan nation. But beyond that they also gave fire to the President’s election campaigns in which Sinhalese nationalism became dominant, because their passion in what they were saying conveyed itself to the voting public. It gave the President a decisive grip over the minds of Sinhalese voters who constitute over three quarters of the national electorate. The departure of the JHU from the President’s re-election campaign on this occasion will take away the fire and passion from the government’s campaign and will be a loss that cannot be compensated for. Not only will the President sorely miss having the JHU speakers by his side.
He will find them undermining the very basis of the arguments that he and other government leaders have been making in justifying the need for nationalism and a focus on issues of militarised national security and political centralisation. Under these circumstances, bringing up the potential threat of a resurgent LTTE to motivate the Sinhalese voter will be difficult to achieve.
In the run up to the election, the government has even prohibited foreign citizens from visiting the North of the country without prior approval from the Ministry of Defence. Even the EU’s lifting of the ban on the LTTE was given a sinister meaning by the government, which promptly attacked the opposition for being in a conspiracy with the Tamil Diaspora to revive the LTTE.
A week ago, President Rajapaksa himself launched a strong attack on Norways’s former facilitator to the peace process Erik Solheim as having given money to the LTTE, which evoked an equally strong denial in which he has noted that the attack on him comes at the start of the election campaign. However, the JHU is now challenging the validity of the government’s assessment that the LTTE problem is still relevant. Its leaders have said that the threat from the LTTE no longer exists and that the LTTE was eliminated on the battlefields of the North.
With the JHU challenging the validity of the government’s position, it is unlikely that the government can sustain an LTTE-based nationalist campaign in a successful manner. The shifting of the emphasis at the forthcoming presidential elections from issues of nationalism to those of good governance would be one of the more positive features of the defection by the JHU.
The past decade of rule by President Rajapaksa has seen the main institutions of governance lose much of their integrity due to the centralisation of power in the hands of the President which have been justified by national security considerations. The enormous concentration of power in the President’s hands has seen big erosion in the system of checks and balances which is a threat to any well functioning democratic system of governance.
The fact that the JHU has been prepared to depart from its more familiar ground of Sinhalese nationalism to embrace the concepts of good governance is a positive shift that is in the national interest.
However, there is one potentially negative aspect of the focus on good governance at the expense of nationalism.
There is a possibility that this could lead to the issues of ethnic conflict and a political solution being pushed to the back seat of national priorities. This would not be in the national interest. It was the long unresolved ethnic conflict that first emerged during the British colonial period that finally led to three decades of civil war. Finding a solution to the ethnic conflict needs to be given priority. This could happen if the concept of good governance were to be given a broader meaning than just getting a new law passed that is modelled on the lines of the now defunct 17th Amendment.
The passing of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 2001 was considered a significant step towards establishing a culture of good governance and accountability. The intention was to de-politicise the administration of the country. The amendment focused on ensuring the independence of key institutions of state, including the police, public service, judiciary and elections commission.
Appointments to Public Service Commission (PSC), the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), National Police Commission (NPC), Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, Human Rights Commission (HRC) were made with the recommendation of the Constitutional Council which was appointed by a multi-party body rather than by the President only. An independent Elections Commission was also to be appointed by the Constitutional Council.
Currently good governance is seen as having institutions in place that could tackle problems of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power. The 17th Amendment did not directly deal with the issues relating directly to the ethnic conflict, which is about power sharing between the ethnic communities and outlawing ethnic-based discrimination and ensuring a measure of self-rule to the regionally based ethnic minorities. Whoever wins will need to deal with the issues of provincial autonomy and the implementation of the 13th Amendment.
The concept of good governance needs to be widened so that it also embraces the concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities. The discussion on the 13th Amendment, power sharing and devolution of power, need also to be made a part of the electoral debate on good governance.
[This article was first published in The Sunday Leader]