Heavy mandate, heavier challenge for Sri Lankan president

15:39, April 11, 2010      

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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is sitting pretty. He has carried all before him as he won Thursday's parliamentary election in the same resounding manner as the January presidential election. People have clearly spoken for the president with mandates of 60 percent plus in each of the elections.

With over half seats in the 225-member assembly Rajapaksa has achieved the near impossible under the proportional representation system of elections. All his predecessors since 1989 have struggled to barely cross the 113 mark needed for simple majority and blamed the system for it.

According to the statistics issued by the Department of Elections on Friday, the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance ( UPFA) bagged 117 seats to win the first post-civil war parliamentary election held without the presence of Tamil Tiger rebels.

The main opposition United National Front (UNF) led by the United National Party (UNP) was trailing behind with 46 seats. The pro-Tamil Tiger rebels party the Tamil National Alliance got 12 seats while the leftist Democratic National Alliance (DNA) managed to get five seats.

Election officials said the declaration of the final result will be held up pending the repoll in two areas, although the repoll can only affect the final result marginally.

"Having given President Rajapaksa a second term, the people were obviously wary of voting either the UNF or the DNA to power as they did not want a parliament hostile to the president like in the 2001-2004 period, when the UNF government and President Chandrika Kumaratunga were at daggers drawn," commented the local newspaper The Island.

"When I became the president my parliament was even unable to muster the majority to appoint its own speaker," Rajapaksa told election rallies making a case for a two-thirds majority mandate. With his unprecedented success in ending the military might of Tamil Tiger rebels he won over 40 of opposition legislators to his side.

"We provided the president with parliamentary strength to do the war," Rajitha Senaratne, one of the crossovers from the main opposition UNP said.

Rajapaksa said on Saturday that with the clear majority in parliament, the government will proceed with its policies for the strengthening of peace and reconciliation, reconstruction, greater infrastructure development, increased investment in identified areas of growth, and the overall development of the country to make it the center of economic and social progress in South Asia.

"I need a strong parliament to implement my plan of action which would see rapid development to make this country the wonder of Asia," Rajapaksa said repeatedly in his campaign rallies.

People heeded Rajapaksa's call -- they have given him a solid legislative authority to back his executive power. Now it is the time to deliver.

"Our rapid development drive could begin right now," D. M. Jayaratne a senior ruling party member said.

"The wonder of Asia and other lofty socio-economic goals of the government are long term. But they have immediate concerns to deal with in governance. Pledge to reduce cabinet (from 100 plus to 35) itself will be a difficult job without hurting the feelings of government MPs (members of parliament)," Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, a history lecturer said.

The state-run newspaper Daily News said the people expect a cleaner and less expensive government.

"They expect that the new Cabinet of Ministers would be small, being limited to about 35 members. It should reflect the needs of the country rather than the needs of individual politicians. It is not necessary to be a minister to serve the people. There are numerous instances of politicians, even those in the opposition who have rendered a great service to the country. At the same time there were instances of ministers whose services, at best were mediocre if not below expectations," said the newspaper.

Rajapaksa won the military battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from 2006 to 2009. But reaching out to the Tamils with a long lasting political solution remains a difficult challenge, Devasiri argued.

Devasiri said with the presence of Sinhala majority hardliners in Rajapaksa's inner policy teams the new government is less likely to be flexible on the ethnic issue.

"What is necessary is to discuss soberly without raised emotions the concerns and apprehensions of each community or group at a round table and agree upon a minimum set of proposals to minimize ethnic and other tensions. Economic development of the war-ravaged areas in the north and east as well as equal treatment in employment, education and other vital needs of the population would go a long way in facilitating a successful outcome of such a national dialogue," said the Daily News in its editorial.

Kumar Rupasinghe, an academic and activist involved in social issues said creating a knowledge rich society could provide answers to most of the island's problems.

"This needs to be a policy priority of the new government," Rupasinghe said, adding that a constitutional reform package is paramount to rebuilding the island nation.

Restoration of full democracy and strengthening key institutions have been issues in every election platform.

"We lack transparency in most areas. The government ought to fully implement the 17th amendment and install full democratic freedom and independence of institutions," a retired senior military officer A. B. Soza commented.

Under the 17th amendment to the constitution, independent commissions on election, public service, police, human rights, corruption investigation, finance should be established with the participation of opposition parties. But after nearly ten years of the amendment being introduced, not a single commission has come into reality.

Rajapaksa's agenda should also include education, health and other basic social services, analysts said.

"The education sphere has broken down. We need urgent reforms to set things right," Devasiri stressed.

"The high cost of living and lasting peace are two key problems the new administration has to grapple with," said Batty Weerakoon, a veteran politician.

"Government politicians do not seem to be sensitive to these issues. The internally displaced people are still suffering under poor conditions. They have no drinking water, no schools, no employment. The president needs to move on quickly to solve these problems," Weerakoon said.

Though most of the 300,000 Tamil civilians displaced by the final battles between the government troops and the LTTE in 2009 have been resettled, nearly 100,000 of them are still living in government-run refugee camps in the north with no place to go.

"Is the Rajapaksa regime ready to make at least fundamental changes to pull the country's politics from dire straits that it finds itself in? Is the opposition ready to extend constructive assistance to the government to fulfil a meaningful task?" Victor Ivan, a veteran political commentator probed in summing up the job ahead for Rajapaksa and his new administration.



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