By Rajan Philips -
2013 has quietly faded away and 2014 is upon us without much of a bang. It always happens that way despite the hype that most of us go through during the heady week between Christmas and New Year. There is much speculation and hype about 2014 being yet another Sri Lankan election year – with potentially three, four or five elections packed in one year. No one will know for sure until the President lets it be known what election plans he has for his country for this year. The President has reportedly asked the Working Committee of his Party to be election-ready for 2014, without saying whether it will be provincial, parliamentary or presidential election, or all of them. In no country in the world can the head of state, or head of government, decide the way the Sri Lankan President decides as to when and where and what election will be held in any given year. I am not exaggerating.
The Wikipedia lists twenty three countries in the world as well as the European Parliament that are scheduled to have elections in 2014. Sri Lanka is not one of them because only in Sri Lanka elections are not scheduled by statute or the constitution. They are left to the whim and fancy, not to mention astrological consultations, of the President. Not having a set schedule is one unique Sri Lankan aspect, the other being the indeterminate ‘term of office’ of the President and the Parliament’s duration between elections. Almost all the countries in the world have four or five year terms for their presidents and/or parliaments. Where presidential and parliamentary elections are in place, they are usually held together, unlike in Sri Lanka where they are staggered to maximize the winning conditions of the governing party. Sri Lanka also belongs to a select band of five countries with a six year term, others being Mexico, Philippines, Russia and Venezuela. Only Africa’s Cameroon tops them with a seven year term.
And thanks to the 18th Amendment, there is no limit on the number of terms a person can seek election to be president in Sri Lanka. So President Rajapaksa has the option of running for a third term as President in the next presidential election that Mr. Rajapaksa could call in 2014 or 2015 even though his second term can go on till November 2016. Ask Professor Peiris and he will vouch that there is not a better example of constitutional democracy in the world than what obtains in Sri Lanka under 18A. Don’t be surprised if the Governor of the Northern Province, Lanka’s new court-martial authority on the constitution, starts pleading for an unlimited term in office for himself in order to enforce the constitution in his own way in Jaffna.
Periodical elections are a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition of democracy. What happens between elections is as important as holding free and fair elections. Sri Lanka’s presidential system, along with unique individual contributions from successive presidents, none more damaging than those of the current incumbent, has sucked the air of democracy from the halls of government. The present incumbent has gone further and turned the process and purposes of elections on their head. As I have illustrated earlier, the presidential control over the electoral process is unique to Sri Lanka. The purposes of elections have also been frustrated by President Rajapaksa and his government.
2014 elections elsewhere
Elections legitimize governments for set terms in office and hold them accountable for their actions at the end of each term. Elections are supposed to make people believe that they exercise power by electing and defeating their representatives on their platforms (mandates) and performances. In western democracies that supposition of trust has given way to public cynicism about governments and their roles. People, especially the young and the marginalized, feel alienated between elections and keep away from voting when elections are held. People are not pouring onto the streets in protest because their private lives and their local communities are in good shape for the most part. Their frustration is with the dysfunctional state of government process. The worst manifestation of government dysfunction is the constant standoff between the President and the Congress in the US.
2014 is the year of the US mid-term elections that are canonically held halfway through every presidential term, for the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and for Governors and Assemblies in a number of States. The midterm Congress (House and the Senate) elections are seen as the mid-term report card on the presidency and the launching pad for the presidential election two years later. While elections did affect the process of government, its direction and its results, they were never used as a means to shut down government and stymie its process. That is until now, and the arrival of the Tea Party as a faction within the Republican Party. Through grassroots organization based on a virulently fundamentalist, exclusionary and acquisitive ideology, and by manipulating the electoral process, Tea Party organizers have got a stranglehold on the Republican Party. This may not augur well for the Republican Party in the 2016 presidential election, but it bodes ill for the process of government in America. The upshot is the silly paradox of a President who could initiate anything outside America but is not able to have a law passed in Washington.
2014 will also see India holding its 16th national parliamentary election without interruption or subversion since becoming independent in 1947. Without doubt, the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections will be a huge tuning-point election in post-independence India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a surprising announcement on Thursday that he will not be leading the Congress in the elections and recommended Rahul Gandhi as his choice to be his successor. He also bluntly warned that BJP’s Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister will be “disastrous” for India. He considered signing India’s nuclear deal with the US as one of his best moments in office, and countered perceptions of him being a “weak” leader by contending that “presiding over mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad” should not be the test of a strong Prime Minister. The retiring Prime Minister went on to say that he does not believe that India needed that “kind of strength … least of all in its Prime Minister.” It was another attack on Modi’s credentials. In a further attempt to distinguish the Congress from the BJP, Dr. Singh expressed regret for not achieving complete success in implementing pro-minority initiatives and admitted that the ‘scope for doing more for minorities exists.’
Indian voters have a strange and complex menu of political choices in the upcoming elections. Besides the moribund Congress and the terrible BJP, the new kid on the block and doing bloody well, albeit in Delhi and other urban conglomerates, is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, the Common Man’s Party). Alliances are most likely to be centered on these three parties, but other alliances based on state and regional parties are also possible. The CPM, the bigger of the two Communist Parties, is isolated and time-warped – preoccupied with old debates, while the AAP is stealing the thunder among the youth and the urban poor preoccupied with real time issues. The Indian elections and their implications for Sri Lanka need separate articles for a fuller discussion, but from the standpoint of this article it is sufficient to say that regardless of the outcome the elections in India are not being manipulated in their timing and in their conduct for the partisan advantage of any political party or leader. Quite a contrast to Sri Lanka!
Besides India, three other Asian countries, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Macau, are also set to have elections in 2014. After years of military rule, dictatorships and orchestrated elections, and despite facing many challenges, Bangladesh and Indonesia seem to have turned the corner in consolidating the practice of periodical elections, while Sri Lanka seems to be turning the corner the wrong way. Inadvertently perhaps, Sri Lanka seems to be aping Macau in more ways than one. The former Portuguese colony is one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions (the other being Hong Kong) under its one country-two systems policy. China is responsible for Macau’s defense and foreign affairs, while Macau looks after its legal and monetary systems, the police force, and customs and immigration. A densely packed city, with about 600,000 people in 30 square kilometres, Macau is one of the world’s richest cities with the second highest life expectancy. Heavily dependent on gambling and tourism, Macau is also the world’s biggest gambling centre. Its hybrid Chinese-Portuguese culture has spawned a mass of festivities all through the year catering equally to the religious and the decadent. The biggest annual event is of course the Macau Grand Prix. Sounds inspirationally familiar?
Three, four or five elections in Sri Lanka
Although the Rajapaksa government is not taking Sri Lanka along the Macau route politically speaking, the government’s Colombo-centric economic priorities are disconcertingly and inappropriately similar to Macau’s economic fundamentals. President Premadasa and many others among Sri Lanka’s political classes, Sinhalese sovereignists and Tamil separatists, mistakenly used to see economic parallels in Singapore. Those innocent daydreams have taken nobody anywhere. Sri Lanka is small as islands go but it is much larger and more complex than the prospering city sates of Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau. The premises and pathways to solving Sri Lanka’s political and economic problems have little to draw from the experience of Asia’s city states. However, given its closeness to China, it wouldn’t be too mischievous to ask the question if the Rajapaksa government might look at China’s one country-two systems approach as a potential approach to Sri Lanka’s North-East problem and an alternative model to the 13A system supposedly imposed by India on Sri Lanka? In other words, follow China to spite India, and get support in Geneva!
It would now seem ancient, but Sri Lanka was the first non-western political society to embark, in 1931, on the exercise of universal franchise. Ironically introduced by colonial rulers, the system has not been preciously nurtured by local leaders. With misplaced idealism the Jaffna Youth Congress spurned the first election that allowed free voting by women and men above the voting age; in the process it handed the political store to merchants of Tamil communalism. The Ceylon National Congress went a step further and turned the first State Council into a chamber of Sinhalese communalism with its ill-advised pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers. If these were not bad enough by way of starters, the UNP machinery in the three parliamentary elections in 1947, 1952 and 1956, systematically subverted the electoral process to maximize its own winning conditions. The UNP succeeded in 1947 and 1952, but no malpractice was enough to prevent its rout in 1956. Post-elections violence became the norm after 1965, and somehow the outbreak of violence was correlated to the first-past-the-post election system. It was also suggested that a proportional representation system would greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the provocation to post-election violence, even though the roots of electoral violence are in the political culture of the UNP and the SLFP and not in the different methods of election. Interestingly, proportional representation and preferential voting are now said to have created the new form of same-side fighting among allies, as opposed to fighting between opposing parties.
President Jayewardene formalized his Party’s political culture and power intentions through his constitution and its many amendments. President Rajapaksa has surpassed JRJ with his magical-stroke of a singular (18th) amendment, and has proved to be quite an artful practitioner of the election game. Unlike JRJ, President Rajapaksa avoids the problematic referendum route and doles out elections one or few at a time, in this or that part of the country, or in the entire country, as he pleases. It may be that he subjectively believes that his way of doling out elections is much more democratic than not holding elections, and that every time he calls an election he is empowering the people to legitimize his regime and endorse his actions. Objectively, however, the President is subverting every purpose of an election. If in the West, the people have become cynical about the usefulness of elections, in Sri Lanka the government has become a cynical expert in the abuse of elections. And the abuse is constitutional! Further, whereas the Tea Party in the US is the anti-establishment outsider, in Sri Lanka the likes of JHU and BBS are fostered by the establishment.
The point in all this is that there is no rhyme or reason for President Rajapaksa to stagger Provincial Council elections rather than allowing the Commissioner of Elections to hold them simultaneously in all the Provinces on periodically fixed dates. Equally, there is no justification for the President to call for parliamentary and/or presidential elections more than two years before they are due. But the President is being expected to call three provincial elections in 2014, along with either the parliamentary or presidential election, or both. That would be three, four or five elections this year, give or take. It may be that the President thinks that doling out elections is an act of political charity, at least for his loyal supporters, if not for his opponents. But does he have real opponents to speak of? Parliament is so seamless that everyone other than the few in the JVP and the TNA can be gathered under the big Rajapaksa tent. Either you are in the tent, or not; just as every Sri Lankan is either a patriot, or a traitor. There should be no other difference.
In all the speculations about elections, there has not been any worthwhile comment about the political goal that the President might want to achieve by having them in 2014. The one exception is an interesting take, if not a hilarious one. According to this view, apparently emanating from government sources, the President needs a new mandate to replace his earlier nationalist terms of reference with a pro-reconciliation platform in order to have the maneuverability to manage the demands of the international community. I would ascribe this to some hopeful thinking among the helpless pro-reconciliation groups in the UPFA, rather than any strategic thinking on the part of the President. The President, quite frankly, does not need three, four or five elections to advance any part of a pro-reconciliation platform. All he needs is to make up his mind and talk with the TNA and the Northern Provincial government. That would be a clean and inexpensive way of advancing a pro-reconciliation platform compared to the clumsy and hugely expensive method of holding elections. As well, sincere and purposive steps on the ground will impress the international community more than blowing election hot air year after year. Such steps will also augur well for the President in 2014, more than any astrological mumbo jumbo.