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Costly delays ?


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At times it feels as though Sri Lanka sees more than its fair share of political drama. Over the last few weeks, the public has had ringside seats to the political fallout of the bond report, the president seeking clarification on the length of his term, a presidential outburst in the Cabinet, as well as issuing and rescinding controversial gazettes, all played out in the backdrop of an election. 

What makes all this even more surprising is that Local Government elections, quite frankly, are not even all that important at a national level. Whoever wins or loses there will not be a change at Parliament or executive level where Sri Lanka’s true power centres reside. But a casual observer could be forgiven for losing sight of this given the massive levels of political attention and action that has been directed at the Local Government poll, essentially elevating it to a shade below the presidential polls of 2015. 

Admittedly political rhetoric becomes louder around election time everywhere in the world, but the fever pitch it has reached in Sri Lanka has unfortunately also drowned out other important issues the Government should be concentrating on, namely reconciliation. Human Rights Watch in its latest World Report has noted the Sri Lankan Government has stalled on its key pledges to provide justice for conflict-related violations and to strengthen human rights protections.

The report said the Government took some steps in 2017 to reduce restrictions on speech and assembly, but there was little progress on transitional justice initiatives agreed to at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015. In fact the last noteworthy decision in this regard was the Budget allocation for the Missing Person’s Office, which happened in November. Since then there has been a resounding silence from the main political parties on both a new constitution that is central of devolving rights and larger reconciliation efforts. 

Understandably, given the nationalistic nature of the faction led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) would be wary of broaching the subject on an election platform or elsewhere. An election, so finely poised, requires delicate handling and the coalition Government has enough to contend with without adding reconciliation into the mix. The thinking clearly seems to be that reconciliation measures, along with uncomfortable economic decisions, can be kicked past 10 February. 

However, the danger in this type of thinking is that the waiting game can run out of time. As the Supreme Court has already determined President Maithripala Sirisena’s term is limited to five years, with three already completed.  The more the Government delays implementation the harder it will become to squeeze all that needs to be done before another round of presidential elections roll around. The failure of former President Chandrika Kumaratunge’s Government to approve a new constitution because they waited till the tail end of her term is a bitter lesson that must not be ignored by the present administration. 

The closer presidential and parliament elections get the more likely the Government could get cold feet about tough policies that would be politically difficult to implement.  With the timer ostensibly set, the Government will have to get back to business as fast as possible to give Sri Lanka the sustainable peace it promised in 2015. 


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