July 07, 2020
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Splinter Mandate

Charges of a rigged poll, an unstable Parliament: Sri Lanka's woes continue

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Splinter Mandate

It took 48 hours of political machinations and manoeuvrings before the People's Alliance (PA) of Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga could form a coalition government with the National Unity Movement (NUA), a minority Muslim party, and the Tamil Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP). This will give the PA a working majority of 115 seats in the 225-seat Parliament. Ratnasiri Wickramanayake was sworn in as the prime minister.

The NUA had earlier imposed the condition that the PA should take action against those responsible for the violence and rigging during the election. Under the agreement hammered out between the two, the NUA gets two cabinet portfolios and three deputy minister's posts in the Wickramanayake ministry. But the formation of the new government is unlikely to resolve the problems Sri Lanka has been facing. For one, the government is unlikely to be stable. Says Opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, "This is the first time there has been a hung parliament in the country since '60. I don't think this government will last its full term." Stability apart, allegations of widespread rigging have undermined the credibility of even this fractured verdict. Says Dr Arjuna Parakrama of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, "Election violence not only affects the legitimacy of the outcome, it also seriously damages both consensual politics and the fabric of civil society."

Political consensus is what's desperately needed to resolve the problem of the bloody Tamil separatist war. Three months of talks between the PA and the opposition formation of the United National Party (UNP) broke down when Kumaratunga decided to push through a new Constitution just 10 days before the term of the Parliament was to end on August 24. Says Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, "The government asked for a mandate to turn Parliament into a constituent assembly. With a mandate, slim as it is, which is being questioned, the legitimacy of that process would be questionable. Given the ideological composition of the Parliament, it's highly likely that devolution provisions will be watered down. Basically it will be a continuation of the current policies."

Kumaratunga's problem is that she needs a two-thirds majority to pass a new constitution. But in the representation system the country has, it's nearly impossible for anyone to secure such a majority. Kumaratunga, who won the presidential election 10 months ago, had repeatedly said she'd convert Parliament into a constituent assembly - and for which she'd have needed a simple majority (there's legal ambiguity over this too). But with the PA unable to muster even this magic number, and the NUA and EPDP unlikely to support her on this issue, Kumaratunga will find it difficult to implement her plan. The idea of a new constitution was aimed at finding a solution to the ethnic crisis by devolving power to the provinces to address Tamil and Muslim demands for more say in administering areas (north and east) where they dominate.

But the election violence and rigging might now undermine possibilities of rapprochement and evolving a consensus among different political parties. Even Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake joined the Opposition in dismissing the election. "This was not a free and fair election. But as a person who's seen elections in third world countries, especially in this region, it's a widespread problem," he said. Even foreign monitors from the Commonwealth and the European Community have dubbed the elections fraudulent. All this is bound to further hamper Kumaratunga. For, even before the campaign began, the issue of free and fair polls had forced other issues on to the backburner. During the campaign, about two million people wore 'Yellow Ribbons' to support a drive by the Alliance for Democracy for a free and fair election. "It's the largest mass campaign launched in Sri Lanka. It shows what the people want," says Victor Ivan, editor Ravaya, and a member of the alliance.

Now, with the rigging allegations and a hung Parliament, evolving a consensus on the Tamil problem is going to be even more difficult. To worsen matters, the spiralling cost of conducting the bloody war will also exacerbate the economic downturn of the island nation.

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