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Hurly-burly’s done and the battle lost and won: What next?

Dust has settled on the eastern front where a fierce political battle was fought the other day. The victor is cock-a-hoop and the vanquished licking its wounds vowing to make a comeback. And the sobering political reality is beginning to dawn on the government which lavished pre-election promises on the eastern people who were eager to rebuild their lives after a lapse of two decades. Promises, they say, are like babies: They are easy to make but hard to deliver!

The first hurdle the government has to clear in making the newly formed Provincial Council (PC) work is the appointment of its Chief Minister. When the UNP blundered before the election by granting carte blanche to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, at the expense of the support of Tamils, where that appointment was concerned, the government was smart enough to avoid alienation of either Muslims or Tamils with the help of a promise that the party which secured the largest number of seats would have the right to appoint the Chief Minister. Thus, the government managed to postpone the problem until the election was over but now it has had to solve it once and for all.

We believe it is not the numerical strength that should be the criterion for appointing the Chief Minister but consensus among the councillors of the winning party. Both aspirants to the high post, Hisbullah and Pillaiyan, have proved, through their performance, they command popular support. They made a tremendous contribution to the UPFA’s victory. But for them, the government would have suffered an ignominious defeat and the Eelam lobby would have had an opportunity to sell its cockamamie claim of the military campaign against the LTTE being rejected by the eastern people, to the world.

Therefore, one may argue, both of them deserve to be the Chief Minister. But, both cannot be the Chief Minister at the same time! How can the government overcome this difficulty? There is a simple remedy, as we have suggested in these columns previously. Chief Ministership should rotate so that it could be shared by Pillaiyan and Hisbullah as well as any other deserving person during the five-year term of the PC. That arrangement is the most suitable for a multi-ethnic province which has the potential to be a model for the rest of the country.

Besides, the government now has got an opportunity to explore the possibility of experimenting with the executive committee system to involve all the councillors of the Eastern PC in the decision making process so that the voice of each and every one of them will count. And the powers to be given to the Eastern PC—as well as the other councils—with one hand must not be taken back with the other.

One may not have much faith in the PC system which has come a cropper in the southern parts of the country. But, the fact remains that since the introduction of the PC system, successive governments have usurped the powers of the PCs, rendering them hollow. In most cases, Chief Ministers belong to the same party as the President and, therefore, they are wary of demanding the constitutionally devolved powers for fear of antagonising their political boss. So, they have resigned themselves to bone-licking in silence at the grassroots.

Immediately after the PCs were set up, the then government took back the popular schools by calling them ‘national schools’, leaving the provincial administrations with only the poor educational institutions not attractive to the public. Now the PCs have drawn flak for the closure of small schools at a rate. A few months ago, the government took over a number of hospitals in Kantale, Anuradhapura, Nuwara Eliya, Akkaraipattu and Hambantota.

The PCs have been arbitrarily denied several other powers they are constitutionally entitled to, such as police and land. These are sensitive matters but if devolution, as envisaged in the Thirteenth Amendment, is to be meaningful, the PCs cannot be deprived of those powers. That successive governments have suppressed PCs is one of the factors that have strengthened the hands of the separatists who, having rejected the PC system even without trying it, demand devolution of a much higher degree bordering on confederacy.

If the Eastern PC is to be a model and bulwark against federalism, then it will have to be different from the other lame-duck councils staggering on borrowed crutches. So, the government will have no alternative but to devolve more powers to it.

This may have unforeseen political repercussions as some of the government allies may not take kindly to such power sharing. They might even vote with their feet as the JVP did in 2005 over the Kumaratunga government’s attempt to share tsunami aid with the LTTE.

Or, now that Pillaiyan has proved his democratic credentials by having entered the political mainstream and secured public support, the ultra national forces backing the government may soften their stand and come to terms with reality. For, any attempt to put a spoke in Pillaiyan’s or Hisbullah’s wheel will bolster the LTTE’s and its NGO mates’ claim that devolution is only will-o’-the-wisp in this country and separation is the only solution to the conflict.

The government has manifestly routed the Opposition and the separatist lobby on the political front in the East. But, the task it has undertaken is daunting and the success of its politico-military strategy, upon which hinges its political future, will depend, to a great extent, on how it is going to run the Eastern PC. Its ability to do so will be put to the test when it appoints the EP Chief Minister.

Whether the government will be able to prevent Hisbullah and Pillaiyan being at daggers drawn remains to be seen.

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