Despite the muddied political waters and an atmosphere of uncertainty, the two and a half year old Sri Lankan government has significant achievements to crow about, writes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.
In contrast to the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, the current dispensation in Sri Lanka headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, is not blessed with political stability and a single chain of command.
Given the resultant confusion, the by-word for the regime is not Yahapalanaya or “good governance”, as its leaders would like the people to believe, but “non-governance.”
Half way down its five year term, the Sirisea-Wickremesinghe regime gets lampooned in the media day in and day out for mutual bickering; threats to scuttle the regime from within and without; policy contradictions and indecisiveness.
But to be fair to the regime, it has significant achievements to its credit.
As soon as it came into power in January 2015, the regime passed the 19th. Amendment to the constitution which pruned the powers of the Executive Presidency; put a two- term cap on persons wanting to contest for the country’s Presidency; reduced the term of parliament from six to five years; set up Independent Commissions to make top appointments in the Executive and Judiciary and also oversee the work of key branches of the government; and ensure free and fair elections and press freedom. A law to ensure Right to Information was also passed.
Most recently, parliament passed a law setting apart 25% of seats in elected local bodies for women. Moving the bill, the Minister for Local Government, Faizer Musthapha, appealed to political parties not to fill the reserved seats with the wives and daughters of their leaders but to allocate them to non-kinspersons with talent so that Sri Lankan women shed their fear of politics and politicians.
Sri Lankan women have been beneficiaries of Universal Adult Franchise since 1931 and the very first 58-member State Council had two women, Adeline Molamure and Naysum Saravanamuttu. And Sri Lanka has had the distinction of producing the first ever woman Prime Minister (Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike) and the first directly elected Executive President (Chandrika Kumaratunga).
However, the woman of the island have traditional kept clear of active involvement in politics considering it as both dirty and dangerous. With the result, by the last count, women constitute only 1.9% of the members in the local bodies; 4% in the Provincial Councils and 5.7% in parliament.
Therefore, there was a crying need for facilitating women’s entry into active politics to help them derive the maximum benefit from being 51.8% of the total Sri Lankan population.
Greater political participation may also bring about greater female participation in other spheres where women are now lagging behind males. They are still not in sufficient numbers in the skilled worker category and in managerial positions, though they are dominant in certain sectors of the labor force as unskilled workers and in the nursing and teaching at the school level.
Other Electoral Reforms
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is also trying to bring about other long overdue electoral reforms. Learning from the working of the electoral system brought about by the 1978 constitution, the government is to bring in a constitutional amendment (20A) to replace the present District-based Proportional Representation (PR) system with a mixed system in which 60% of the seats in all elected bodies from the local to the parliamentary level will be filled through the First Past the Post System and 40% through the PR system. The FPP system will come into play in electorates or constituencies which will be smaller than the present District-based constituencies. The number of seats in parliament will also go up from 225 to 237.
The number of local bodies will be increased in certain under-served areas like the tea plantation areas in Nuwara Eliya district where there is only one Pradheshiya Sabha for 200,000 people while in other parts of the island there is one for every 10,000 people.
The government is pledged to hold the long overdue local government elections by the end of 2017 and the provincial elections at the earliest. It is trying to get the opposition to agree to a constitutional amendment which will enable all elections (provincial and parliamentary) to be held on the same day so that elections dates are not manipulated to suit partisan ends.
But there are some controversial clauses in the draft bill which could make its passage uncertain. For example, there is a clause saying that the powers of a Provincial Council will be taken over by parliament if its term expires before the date fixed for simultaneous elections. The Tamil-dominated Northern Provincial Council has objected to this.
Consensus On New Constitution
Meanwhile, a new constitution is on the anvil and is in the penultimate stage at the Steering Committee chaired by the Prime Minister. There is a wide measure of agreement on key issues like the Nature of the State, the place of Buddhism, and the extent of and nature of devolution.
According to Dr. Jayamapathy Wickremaratne, a key member of the Steering Committee, devolution of power to the provinces is not a demand of the Tamil majority Northern Province only. Chief Ministers of the Sinhala-speaking provinces in the South also want devolution, he says. They want provisions regarding devolution to be clearly stated, and the boundaries between the Center and the Provinces in terms of powers, to be clearly demarcated. They also want the curtailment of the powers of the centrally appointed Governor over provincial officials.
World Bank Sanguine
Meanwhile, there is some cheerful news on the Sri Lankan economy from the World Bank. According to its Sri Lanka Development Update (SLDU), Sri Lanka’s economic performance was satisfactory in 2016. The fiscal deficit narrowed from 7.6 percent in 2015 to 5.4 percent of GDP in 2016.
However, the real GDP growth for 2016 slowed to 4.4 percent, as sustained drought took a toll on the agriculture sector. But in the first quarter of 2017, the growth rate had come down to 3.8%.
The World Bank Update stressed the need to raise more revenue while controlling current expenditures to bring public debt to a sustainable path. Implementing the new Inland Revenue Act (to be submitted to Parliament in early September), will make for a good starting point, it said.
Among the risks identified by the report are delays in implementing structural revenue measures, slower than expected improvement in tax administration, less favorable growth in the global economy and faster than expected rises in global commodity prices.
Sri Lanka also attracts a much lower volume of Foreign Direct Investment than peer economies. The report called upon Sri Lanka to take a comprehensive and coordinated reform approach, which is sorely lacking now.
(The featured image at the two shows Sri Lanka’s parliament in session)