By Jehan Perera –
Even as the election campaign comes to its penultimate phase there is a dearth of hopeful and inspiring campaign themes. The nearest that any political party has got to such a theme is the ruling party’s appeal for a 2/3 majority to give it the ability to the change the constitution. The kingpin of this campaign is the need to strengthen the hand of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who won the presidential election last November, with a large majority but continues to be trammeled by constitutional restrictions on his power.
The main target of the current election campaign is the 19th Amendment to the constitution which was brought in to be a necessary check and balance on the over-powerful presidency. It shared power more equitably between the single individual who is the president and the prime minister who has 224 other MPs to account to, and equally significantly, sought to keep the public service, judiciary and other state institutions free from political interference.
Nine months after his convincing election victory the president, who is new to politics, continues to remain the hope of a transformation in governance in the minds of much of the electorate. It would not be incorrect to say of the Sri Lankan electorate that in the words of Alexander Pope (1734), “Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always to be blest.” Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has, however, been circumspect in his call for a 2/3 majority in parliament.
The state media has reported him urging the public to give a two thirds majority to the government at the upcoming election for the broader purpose of ensuring that the constitution could be changed for the benefit of the nation. The prime minister is reported as saying, “We have a diligent President, but we still need to establish a stable government to see his goals fulfilled. For this, the public must vote in a stable and strong government.”
In a context in which Covid has ravaged the economy in Sri Lanka as it has worldwide, the prospects for development that the prime minister promises the people remains bleak. There is great economic hardships at the ground level with enterprises closing down with minimal compensation to their employees. The high profile projects, such as the Colombo Port City, are more likely to be to the benefit of the upper strata of society than to the lower, as government policy for the past decade or more is in favour of taxing the poor rather than the rich.
In this parlous context, there is a distinct absence of interest in the forthcoming general elections that is directly related to the low expectations of the electorate in the visions of change that are sketched by the main political parties. In the past there were manifestos with grand themes that captured the imagination of the people, even if the governments that won on the basis of them failed to deliver thereafter. This has resulted in desultory and disconsolate public attitude towards the elections.
A comparison of the issues presented at the forthcoming elections with those of the three previous elections give an inkling of the public attitude towards the elections. In 2005, there was the promise to contain the LTTE which was striving to extricate itself from what it saw as the trap of the Norwegian-facilitated Ceasefire Agreement. In 2010 there was the hope that the government that had just won the war would now unify and develop the country. In 2015 there was the promise of good governance and personal integrity in politics that captured the imagination of all sectors of the population, including those from the majority and minority communities.
The presidential election of 2019 too brought a grand theme to the fore which was the need to protect the sovereignty of the country against international conspiracies. The failure of the previous government to heed repeated Indian warnings about the Easter attack was described being the result of an international conspiracy. The election campaign claimed that this was the last chance to save the country, and resulted in a massive voter mobilization from the majority ethnic community in favour of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy.
At a recent public meeting I attended organised by the Civil Society Platform at the in Kalutara, most of the audience who asked questions or made comments expressed a sense of betrayal from voting for politicians who did not deliver. They felt trapped as these same politicians have been nominated once again for the forthcoming election by their political parties. Several participants said that an option was to vote for the new faces so that there would be change in the parliament. There were fears expressed by many that there would be crossovers after the election. They argued that the crossover possibility violates the mandate given by the people to represent them unless accompanied by the need to face a by-election for the crossover.
One of the proposals made was for the introduction of a new law for the electorate to recall a parliamentarian if their performance after elections was poor. An example would be the Recall of MPs Act 2015 of the UK that makes provision for constituents to be able to recall their Member of Parliament and call a by-election. This is an indication that the electorate is getting increasingly sophisticated and knowledgeable about practices in other parts of the world.
At the present election too, the belief that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is different from the rest of the politicians continues to hold sway. Despite concerns that the president is relying too much on the security forces and on his old military network where he once served, he has become the national leader in whom the majority of people repose their trust. The government’s first nine months in office has seen unprecedented crises, most notably due to the Covid virus, for which the government’s handling has generally obtained favourable assessments most recently from the Sri Lankan WHO representative.
On the other hand, the hope of change that would result in a government that is more sensitive to the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, and less prone to corruption and to favouring the rich and powerful, has yet to materialize, which is the campaign theme of SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and the JVP. The challenges facing the country are immense and need a collective response. It is important that political parties and civil society alike urge voter participation at these elections to strengthen democracy. The political parties need to conduct their election campaigns in a manner that permits collaboration after the elections, because the enormity of the problems the country faces requires all to work together.