This is your moment

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s overtures to the United National Party, calling on the main opposition to form a national government stands to be a political milestone in Sri Lanka. For what is the first time, Sri Lanka is seeing a President who has opted to accept the responsibility of his position as Head of State. It is an unprecedented move, this official request by the President, and an offer that if accepted, will allow this administration to make sweeping changes to the constitution and reach consensus on a political solution to resolve the country’s ethnic conflict once and for all.
At this stage, the President’s gesture is nothing if not magnanimous, not least because in extending his hand to the UNP, he is effectively burning the bridges with his allies, the JVP and the JHU, whose vote bases succeeded in winning him the presidency last November. It was certainly no secret that the SLFP’s moderate stance with regard to the north east conflict was compromised in the name of political expediency in both April 2004 and November 2005, when it allied with the monks and Marxists, both parties that favour a military solution to the problem.
Rajapaksa, in these recent weeks, has shown statesman-like attributes, standing up to peace facilitators and the diplomatic community for the state’s right to defend its territory. For over a month, the Sri Lankan security forces stood up to the LTTE’s class bully tactics in Mavil Aru, waging war on different fronts and causing heavy losses to the Tiger combat cadre. With both sides now battle weary, there has been a lull in the north east, and the government has decided to look now to the plight of the displaced and sending humanitarian supplies to the conflict stricken areas. It is also a time, the Rajapaksa administration realises, to re-evaluate the prospects for reviving the stalled peace process. Growing slowly mature in statecraft, Rajapaksa has realised correctly that while war may be waged to defeat terrorism, the problems of the Tamil people require a more holistic, long-term political fix.
Sri Lanka has been plagued too long by divisive politics and too many times have her leaders failed when it came to bridging political differences to reach consensus on the ethnic issue. There is no question that the two main parties combined command over 75% of the country’s vote base. There is equally little doubt that both the SLFP and the UNP favour a political solution to the conflict through devolution of power. So the tragedy of our times has been that a lack of southern consensus, so easily achieved if not for a tradition of fractured politics, has paved the way for terrorism to prosper and extremist ideologies to hold sway despite the overwhelming majority of the moderates.
It is all this that Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to bear in mind when he considers the President’s offer this week. A vociferous proponent of the British parliamentary system, Wickremesinghe will remember that when Britain fought Germany in both World Wars, the opposition joined the government in the interest of the greater common good. Similarly, to wage war or to talk peace, President Rajapaksa needs all the support he can get from a responsible opposition. To prove his overtures are genuine, the President would also need to cease and desist from effecting crossovers from the UNP, a course of action he has persisted in pursuing to the great disgruntlement of the main opposition party. Wickremesinghe, for his part, might look back on his manifesto at the last presidential election, where he said that his priority upon ascending the presidency would be to invite the Chandrika Kumaratunga led SLFP to join his administration’s peace effort. The tables may have turned on the UNP Leader, but President Rajapaksa appears to be carrying out none other than Wickremesinghe’s own agenda now. Under the circumstances, the Opposition Leader can hardly turn down the invite.
Whether the UNP accepts portfolios in the Rajapaksa administration or not, is a matter for the party leadership to decide. Some would argue that in the event the UNP agrees to the idea of a national government, the party should be offered the premiership. Whether President Rajapaksa’s generosity will extend that far is debatable, but it would be considered only fair to do so if the UNP responds to his gesture positively. No doubt, if he were to prove such a generous man, President Rajapaksa stands to face the wrath of his own party members. Yet he is assured of one crucial thing - the peoples’ full support of his decision. And at the end of the day, it is not the SLFP but the Sri Lankan people who will pass decree on Rajapaksa’s statesmanship
The opposition may also need to consider whether to join the government or support it conditionally, since forming a coalition with the government would in effect, grant main opposition status to the JVP. The lack of a strong opposition - one that commands the confidence of the people - will not bode well for parliamentary democracy either.
If the country really does come first, then Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe have to make a choice today: to allow history to repeat itself because political leaders cannot transcend party colour and jealousy, or to see the moment for what it is — the chance of a lifetime to see that the wounds of a country that have bled for a half century are healed, perhaps even forever. To President Rajapaksa and Mr. Wickremesinghe, the nation says, ‘this is your moment — seize it.’