Today, the National Unity government celebrates two years in office. For the leaders of its two main parties, President Maithripala Sirisena of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) it has not been an easy ride.
Nevertheless, the fact that the National Unity government is intact and still enjoys a two-thirds majority in Parliament gives hope that some of the essential and urgent reforms it promised will become a reality.
Chief among them are electoral changes that will amend the proportional representation (PR) voting system and constitutional reforms that will, hopefully, put an end to ethnic discrimination. Other crucial measures, such as repealing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and re-establishing the independent commissions governing key state institutions have already been achieved.
Of course, there have been hiccups on the way. Not infrequently, the main partners, the UNP and the SLFP, have been at loggerheads. There have been issues – such as the Central Bank bond sales issue, the controversy over the appointment of a Governor to the Central Bank and now, the Development (Special Provisions) Bill – that have threatened to split the alliance.
There have also been differences of opinion as to how and when local government elections should be held. There has even been a resignation of a minister recently, saying that he only wanted to be a minister in a ‘wholly SLFP’ government. Yet, the government has soldiered on.
It does have many promises to keep and the public will be watching. Among the more contentious issues is the battle against corruption. The public is waiting with bated breath to see the culprits associated with the previous regime brought to book. Two years on, many have been paraded before the public as accused but no one has been convicted yet.
The government will argue that it is allowing the law to take its course without undue political influence which unfortunately seems to be an awfully slow one. However, it is debatable whether the public will buy that line towards the end of the tenure of the ‘yahapaalanaya’ government.
Another difficulty the government has is in managing the economy. It argues that the previous regime placed the country in a debt trap. To extricate the nation from that, tough measures and new taxes are needed. That does seem to be the case.
For the man on the street who does not understand macroeconomics though, what matters is the amount of cash in his wallet and how he can make ends meet. So, the government would do well to being sensitive to the economic needs of the people.
This must include politicians pruning their own expenses. Asking the masses to ‘tighten their belts’ and then rewarding themselves with pay hikes, more perks and increases in allowances is not the way to go.
However, the discerning public will also compare the government with the alternative – a return to a government led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his loyalists who now call themselves the ‘Joint Opposition’.
Rajapaksa is hamstrung by the fact that, because the constitutional changes he brought in have now been reversed, he cannot be President anymore. So, he faces the reality that, in any bid to return to power he will have to serve as Prime Minster under President Sirisena. It is not a prospect that neither he nor President Sirisena for that matter will relish.
It will also mean the return to power of the same individuals who now stand accused of nepotism, racism, corruption and abuse of power. Whether the country wants a return to that era, where the masses were temporarily intoxicated with the euphoria of a war victory and blind to everything else remains to be seen.
Two years is a good time for a government with a five-year-tenure to look back, take stock and start again. We hope the government does so, if only to ensure its own survival and for the betterment of the nation