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Rise beyond rhetoric

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Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s plans to build a new coalition titled the National Democratic Front (NDF) to win a two-thirds majority at a future general election to abolish the executive presidency can be viewed as a positive move given the events that transpired over the last few weeks. However, it may also be somewhat premature as the coalition cannot be a replacement for the pledges that were made by the United National Front (UNF) in 2014 and it is the implementation of these that will maintain the momentum of the popularity surge Wickremesinghe has enjoyed recently.  

There is no doubt that democracy should be protected and upheld in Sri Lanka. There is still much that needs to be done to strengthen democratic institutions and promote rule of law. The events since 26 October highlight the immense danger that exists to Sri Lanka’s democracy by one person being allowed to wield an extraordinary amount of power. Even though the 19th Amendment has assisted in strengthening institutions the last seven weeks also showed the need for these to extend beyond the current limits. 

However, the rebalancing of power between the Executive, Parliament and Judiciary also needs to be done democratically and this would likely need a two-thirds majority as well as a possible referendum. Such an effort therefore needs to be spearheaded by a politician who has the confidence and trust of the public. Such confidence is doubly needed for a new Constitution as bringing the Sinhala population to support such an effort would require extraordinarily strong links with them.

It is heartening that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has said he is ready to take up the challenge. However, winning the trust and confidence of the public is a difficult task that requires consistent engagement, humility, transparency, genuine dedication and listening to their concerns. The public are both intelligent and vigilant. They are wary of politicians and quick to sense dishonesty and partisanship. They judge politicians by their actions and not just their words. This means that both the UNP and its leader has to build credibility. 

The best place to start would be in appointing a Cabinet that meets the standards of the public. This means limiting its number and allocating institutions so they can work efficiently. It means appointing honest and competent professionals to key government bodies and ensuring that they are removed if they misbehave. It means taking immediate action against officials that have corruption allegations against them, even when they are linked to the UNP. It would require Wickremesinghe to move forward with not just investigations on members of the government that existed before 2015 but also those that have been accused since then. The UNP would also need to fix its lacklustre record on policy implementation and find ways to work effectively with the public service.

The pro-democracy forces that gathered to defend Sri Lanka in 2014 and again on 26 October have high standards and tough demands. They will not tolerate compromise for the sake of politics and they are too large in number to ignore. To build a two-thirds majority is no easy task but it is a task that can only be achieved by doing a daunting series of things well. That is why all eyes are now on Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. It is definitely his moment. Will he rise to it?

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