By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“I think I’ll call it morning….” – Gil Scott-Heron[i]
Neither their dire warnings nor our nightmarish fears materialised. The election ended as it should, in a peaceful change.
A large chunk of credit for that unexpectedly felicitous end should go to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Had he tried to resist the results illegally and unconstitutionally, as some of his kith and kin would have urged him to do, the warned and feared bloodbath would have happened. Instead he did the right thing. He handed over the reins of government to the victors and went home. In doing so he saved the country and himself.
But the paeans of praise belong to the ordinary Lankan voter. He/she acted with responsibility and maturity. Firstly the voters voted in massive numbers. The Tamils in particular refused to listen to the siren song of boycott. The record turnout symbolises Lankan people’s support for democracy, over and above every other form of government.
The minorities voted almost en bloc for the Opposition. Tamil and Muslim support for the opposition was generally anticipated. But not so the equally solid Upcountry Tamil and Catholic support. The CWC was with the UPFA; there was little doubt that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and many in the Catholic hierarchy sympathised with the regime. But ordinary Catholics obviously remembered what was done to their places of worship, especially the destroying of a brand new fibreglass statue of Virgin Mary in Avissawella. The perpetrators of that outrage, like so many other politically-protected perpetrators (especially the killers of Lasantha Wickramatunga), were never caught. Ordinary Catholic voters, unlike the hierarchy, noted and learnt the correct lesson.
For the last several years, even non-Tamil minorities were forced to live on sufferance, fearful of not just isolated attacks but also Aluthgama-type conflagrations. They voted for a different future.
But the Opposition could not have won 52% of the national vote, if a huge chunk of the Sinhalese did not vote for change as well. No party in this country can win a presidential election with just minority support. That is why the regime did everything it could to frighten the Sinhalese into either not voting or voting for Candidate Rajapaksa. Naked race-baiting and preposterous fear-mongering were telecasted and broadcasted day and night. Every possible effort was made to eviscerate Sinhala support for the Opposition.
That effort manifestly failed. The opposition obtained 52% of the national vote, with a turnout of 80%; this means it would have succeeded in winning around 50% of the Sinhala vote.
The voting figures also indicate that the Lankan electorate has returned to its normal condition. In this country, it is very rare for a victor in a parliamentary election to exceed 50%. At Presidential elections, the norm has been slightly over 50%. The only two exceptions were 1994 (the UNP candidate died in a LTTE bomb-blast and was replaced by his totally neophyte widow) and 2010 (the election was held just a few months after the victorious end of the war).
In 2015, the electorate returned to the normal. The Sinhala vote is once again divided almost in the middle, which is the way it should be, for the health of Lankan democracy. This means any party wishing to obtain more than 50% of the vote will have to win the backing of both the majority and the minorities.
The Opposition victory was created by the joint effort of almost all the minorities and around one half of the majority. It is truly a Lankan victory in a way the outcomes of many recent presidential elections were not.
I watched some of the regime’s frenzied propaganda barrage, warning Sinhalese of anarchy and chaos, appealing to the very basest of human emotions. It was clever and toxic. And it failed.
As a Sinhalese who dreams of a Lankan future, I am proud and hopeful.
January 9th could have very easily gone the other way.
On UPFA election platforms much was made of the fact that the rebellion in the SLFP was planned in total secrecy. It had to be. Had the Rajapaksas discovered the existence of the rebellion prematurely, they would have crushed it without any hesitation or qualms. The manner in which the regime tried to pin various criminal charges (including murder) on Maithripala Sirisena hints at the devastating means the rulers would have employed against the would-be rebels. Maithripala Sirisena and many others would have found themselves behind bars, on trumped up charges, like Sarath Fonseka. And the SLFP would have been ‘cleansed’ of anyone with even a hint of a backbone or a flicker of rebellious spirit.
That is why the rebellion had to be planned in secret. Anything else would have been inane and irresponsible.
The role played by the Uva election in the subsequent developments cannot be underestimated. Harin Fernando’s decision to resign from parliament and contest the provincial council was the decisive factor in the Uva surprise.
The JHU’s crossover was another unthinkable which contributed to the final outcome.
The Muslims would have voted against the government irrespective of what their political representatives did. But had the TNA given into the demands of hardliners, here and abroad, the Tamils may not have turned up in sufficient numbers to help the opposition through to victory. But the TNA did the right thing, both by Lankan Tamils and the country.
Pivotal roles in enabling January 9th were played by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Ven. Sobitha Thero’s pioneering effort merits special thanks. Every party and organisation in the coalition did its very best in the campaign. The UNP, as the largest constituent, laboured the hardest. That the only person killed in this campaign was a UNP activist is a symbol of the party’s whole hearted commitment.
But the final lift came from the subterranean rebellion from within the state. The fact that Maithripala Sirisena won the postal vote was an indication of this critically important development. Without that factor, various last minute machinations of the regime may have worked. Even from casual conversations it was obvious that the army and the police were not supportive of the status quo, which did much to still fears of an extra-constitutional attempt to retain power. The Elections Commissioner became increasingly impartial until his performance turned into a veritable modal of democratic courage. At the crucial moment, the judiciary too did its bit.
And January 9th became a day of peaceful change.
The future which seemed impossible is here. What we do with that is up to us.
A leader begins to think he/she is infallible, only when a segment of the populace concurs. A leader will act outside the confines of law, sense and decency, only if he/she thinks that enough of us are indifferent. A leader will make use of ethno-religious hatred, only if he/she thinks it’s effective. A leader will try to create a dynasty, only if he/she thinks that we see nothing wrong with that. A leader will fall pray to monarchic delusions only if enough of us call him king.
When a leader goes astray, we the people are also at fault.
Let us remember – bad citizens enable bad leaders.
[i] This is also the title of the poem