9 December, 2019

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Civil Society Can Play Decisive Role In Forthcoming Election

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

Just as in the presidential election of 2015 which led to the unexpected defeat of incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa, this presidential election of 2019 is witnessing the rise of civil society into the position of key influencer. The role of civil society becomes more influential when political change emerges as a possibility. At the 2015 presidential election a coalition of civil society organisations and public spirited individuals led by the Venerable Maduluwave Sobitha Thero took on the key role of taking the message of good governance to the grassroots community level. They highlighted the issues of corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations to the people. The incumbent government was unable to make a satisfactory response and lost the election.

A similar dynamism in civil society was seen during the six weeks of the attempted constitutional coup towards the end of last year. On that occasion, civil society organisations mobilized themselves on a large scale both in public demonstrations as well as small group meetings in defence of the rule of law and the basics of good governance. They were successful in reversing the coup which those with fainter hearts thought was irreversible. At the present time too, civil society is playing an active role both frontally and behind the scenes to influence the course of the elections. The failure of the present government to deliver on its promises of good governance to the extent that was promised and anticipated has created the space for this civil society activism. The other determining factor is the lack of remorse of the previous government for the culture of impunity they presided over.

The current state of public disaffection with party politics is reflected in the blanket condemnation of all politicians. This has fed into the most visible manifestation of activism by a coalition of civil society organisations that have formed the National People’s Movement (NPM) from which they plan to launch a presidential campaign for the election of a non-partisan president. This coalition has built upon the decades of social welfare and development work done by civil society organisations such as the Sarvodaya Movement over the past several decades. While they recognize the need to work in cooperation with the state authorities in their social welfare and development projects, these civil society organisations have made it a point to keep a distance away from partisan party politics.

Public Platform 

The NPM has selected former army commander Mahesh Senanayake to be their presidential candidate. General Senanayake was a visible figure during the period of the catastrophic Easter Sunday bombings that claimed over 250 lives and which led to the shutdown of key sectors of the country and especially its schools for several weeks. As these bombings were blamed on the ineptitude of the political leaders who had failed to heed or to take action on reports from the intelligence services, they were hardly in a position to reassure the people that they would be safe. Instead the political leaders were either trying to defend themselves or blame each other. In this context, General Senanayake was the public face of reassurance that the security forces were in control and that similar attacks would not recur. He was critical of those who spread fake news, including from the media, but kept within his mandate of being an officer of the state.

It was notable that in his acceptance speech General Senanayake distanced himself from party politics and stressed instead that the role of the executive presidency was one that could, and should be, independent of party politics. Such thinking is not unrealistic. Speaking to civil society a fortnight ago Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would like to see the presidency as an arbitrator or umpire. The need to reform the presidency is compelling after the abuses it has been subjected to. The 20th Amendment proposed by the JVP envisages a non-partisan presidency. The amendment states that during the tenure of office the President should not hold any position of a political party nor could be a member of any political party. The political crises that the country has been subjected to, the political deadlock, the weak governance, and the shocking security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday bombings are evidence enough of the disastrous impact that partisan politics can have, especially when played out at the highest levels of the polity.

The NPM as a civil society movement is independent of party politics and has not forged any party alliances. In his inaugural speech, General Senanayake spoke at length about the need for policies of reconciliation that would improve relations between the country’s ethnic and religious communities, which is the lacuna in the SLPP’s election campaign so far. With his fresh approach and track record of military service, General Senanayake could as easily take away votes from the UNP, SLPP and JVP, which are the main contending mainstream political parties. On the one hand, he would appeal to military personnel he once led and to their families; on the other hand, he would also appeal to those who want a change and one who has proven to be a responsible leader who did not overstep his mandate.

Internal Influences

Apart from the public appearance of civil society activists on political platforms, they are also playing a more behind-the-scenes role in influencing the political parties with regard to their policies. Those who have taken up the mantle of the late Venerable Maduluwave Sobitha Thero have been engaging in dialogue to bring together those political leaders who would continue to stand by the policies promoted by the late monk. The key challenge that they have been dealing with is to bring together the newly appointed presidential candidate of the UNP and those who also had aspirations for that position so that they all hold a common position.

Most of the civil society organisations, including umbrella ones such as Sadarana Samajaya (Just Society) and Puravesi Balaya (Citizens power) which spearheaded the 2015 civil society campaign continue to support the ruling party as the best option for good governance and national reconciliation in the future. Another important umbrella group is the Civil Society and Trade Union Collective (CSTUC). So far the other two main presidential candidates representing the SLPP and JVP have not attracted as much civil society attention as the NPM and UNP candidates. But they too have their civil society supporters. These are not formally constituted groups with a long history, but are recent formations that have been put together for the presidential elections. These are more in the nature of politically-led civil society groups.

The first of these politically motivated groups is Viyathmaga which supports the candidature of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and consists of ex-military officers, professionals and business persons. In addition the SLPP has the support of nationalist organisations such as Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) and Ravana Balaya which take on anti-minority stances. Another civil society group is the National People’s Organisation (NPO) which is composed mostly of university teachers, intellectuals and trade union activists. They support the JVP and its candidate. The question is to what extent they can mobilise the voting public. In the present context they can. As befits a multi ethnic and multi religious and politically plural society, civil society in Sri Lanka is not of one mind on the issue of presidential elections and the presidential candidates. But they united in that they are all looking for change.

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Latest comments

  • 8
    3

    Jehan Perera is wonderful in that his articles glow with optimism and hope

    • 0
      0

      Dr. JP: October 21 marks 6 months anniversary of the Hollywood style Easter Sunday Economic Terrorism attacks staged by Foreign hands to weaponize religion in Lanka, and what is the foreign funded Lankan Civil society which seems to have forgotten the Easter Sunday going to do to commemorate the disaster?
      There should be protests outside the US embassy that is being built up into a military compound in Colombo on Galle Road and outside the Saudi embassy that had advanced notice of the attacks and funded Zaharan.
      Otherwise the BBS and its saffron thugs will go after innocent Lankan Muslims.
      Dr. JP civil society and media which has been deliberately distracted with the Gota citizenship media show and the elections must have a mssive commemoration for the Easter victims at indeepndence square and protests at the US embassy

  • 4
    8

    Civil societies are the biggest culprits.

    People must be encouraged to decide individually & cast their vote.

  • 10
    0

    A true presidential candidate should represent the people, not by religion, race, language, wealth or gender. They should come up with policies to resolve the national problems such as power devolution, economic development, corruption and rule of law and justice. Unless the people of this country unite together there is no development and peace in this country. The people should not forget about the past. The past 70 years we developed racism, religious fundamentalism, corruption unlawful and misuse of power by ruling governments which lead to continuous bloodbath and poverty. Srilanka should have had great potential for a developed nation but we became poor and poor. People should think rationally and morally to choose the right candidate who can bring peace and development.

  • 3
    0

    JVP and NPM have some agenda..
    What is difference now between them?
    This will divide move votes..

  • 5
    0

    i dont know whether a military man is the ideal choice of civil society but if he takes away the slpp votes then he would serve the purpose

  • 4
    4

    The truth is out.
    A para military President – Gotabaya – will be replaced by a fully military man.
    This will be the beginning of Army Rule in the Buddhist Republic.

  • 3
    7

    To Jehan and (un)civil society, suddenly a military man becomes a very attractive proposition. In Sinhala it is called “thalagoya/kabaragoya” theory.

    It is a failure of Gen. Senanayaka at least partially that the Easter bombings occurred.

    • 3
      1

      DONT blame the military background!! The late (great) President Eisenhower was the G.O.C the greatest combined force assembled and with his experience went on to be a great two-term President. What about men like Srilal Weerasuriya ? The armed forces provide excellent administrative skills and/but depends on the individual. Churchill was also in the British Infantry during the Boer war. General De Gaulle, etc all served in the high office.

  • 3
    3

    You’re once again barking for your American paymasters. You must enjoy this role. Everyone saw your cocktail evening with Alaina Teplitz. Everyone knows Mahesh was introduced as the US plant to take votes away from Gota.

    We don’t care about Gota or Prince Sajith whose wife is already referring to herself as “ARRAYAAWA”. WHAT an effing mess. That’s like his mother who hit and chased Presidential mansion staff for not saying “ehey haaamu, ehey madam” but called her nona.

    How much is your monthly stipend?

  • 1
    4

    Yet they don’t want Gota to contest and submit him to the will of the people. Gamini Viyangoda and Chandragupththa Thenuvara have gone to the Appeals Court……….No these buggers never want democratic contests. That is why their yahpalanaya suspended various elections. Yet they don’t forget to preach us about democratic values…………..

  • 0
    3

    Dr Jehan,
    What will civies say about abolishion of Executive Presidency this time around? What is your personal opinion? Doesn’t seem to be a heavy vote catching slogan or am I alone?

    Soma

  • 0
    2

    There is a great need to devide the Sinhala buddhist vote and that is this. I here, they want some how to defeat Maithripala sirisena. SO, who is going to take the bait. Will former Army commander Mahesh Senanayake bite it. I think, Mahinda rajapakse became persona non grata because he was friendly to Libya, Iran and china. Now, the second such person is Maithripala sirisena.
    As people understands the game, it is very clear that civil society aka civic alliance aka Open society antics do now work. Mahinda Rajapakse also said that. HE said, they were trying it since 1989 and now looks desperate.

  • 2
    0

    Jehan Perera,
    *
    You’re asking for a king, not a president. Only a monarch is like an arbitrator and out of party politics and things. And as there is no such thing as a 4 year PM acting like a monarch, your view is invalid. What we don’t need is a prime minister. The parliament is the check and balancer of the president. The US presidency for example, has many executive powers and no prime minister.
    *
    You are trying to form a group to install separatism for the minorities, and have a pm to do that without the executive powers of the president.

  • 0
    0

    There’s a huge difference between pre-election rhetoric and post-election action. From history we should know that most campaign promises are mere fluff. The ground realities of governing a Third World country like Sri Lanka is an arduous task coupled with endemic corruption at all levels, lethargy, lawlessness, inaction and with a nation having an entitlement mentality hard wired into their psyche. So who can change such a system? Civil society? I think not when when our civil society too have values which have largely contributed to the current mess. Perhaps a military General like President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Would army commander Mahesh Senanayake fit the bill? Can he be another Eisenhower? I can see that democratic puritans are already up in arms because of Mahesh Senanayake’s military background. Fair enough. While the principals of democratic governance are noble, ironically, there has not been a single Third World country (thus far) that has arisen to the level of a developed nation under a fully democratic system. Can Sri Lanka be the world’s first?

  • 0
    0

    Of course; that’s what they did last time in January 2015, and now Sri Lanka is heaven on earth!
    Jehan!, Give me a break, bro!

  • 0
    3

    Although I have had much praise for the NPM in the past, and still respect some of the constituents, it is difficult to consider the selection of the last Army Commander as a good choice. He retired only in August. I have nothing against him personally. The reason is that the civil society organizations should not encourage (or rather oppose) military personnel, police officers and judges coming into politics. They have a role to play professionally after retirement, although I understand that their services are not utilized or utilized properly. If they are so politically motivated (right or wrong), then their past official positions are also tainted. People who are now in office, also might get the motivations. Independence of these services would be spoiled. The civil society organizations should not act in desperation. One of Jehan’s justifications unfortunately is the following.

    “In this context, General Senanayake was the public face of reassurance that the security forces were in control and that similar attacks would not recur.”

    • 4
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      Laksri

      What a Joke. . Cabaral is the choice and he is a bottomless pit with bag full of Bounty. You talk of reassurance and I am sure Shavendra reassures the Minorities that atrocities under him will continue unabated. Even the UN has taken remedial measures. I cant wait for Gotha to take control for Pennies to drop from Heaven

    • 0
      0

      Not many people are willing to agree with anything said by Laksiri Fernando; he’s lost credibility because – to whom did he give an honorary higher degree ( PhD?).
      .
      However, I do agree with much of what he says. A retired soldier would never have been my first choice.
      .
      Yes, his speech was one of reconcilliation and reaching out to the minorities.
      .
      A number of readers have drawn attention to the fact that General S’s service was when the Army was fighting minority militancy. The turnout from the North – and their use of Preferences – may be low.
      .
      In any case, our Sri Lankan people just don’t want to learn how to do something, outside their profession seriously. This explanation from the “Macko” must be dinned into them:
      .
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mrz6RpzDaa4
      .
      That is just four minutes, excerpted from a longer speech by Deshapriya.
      .
      One despairs of ever getting our voters to listen. They actually say that if there is this system of Preferences, it must be explained to them! they just aren’t seekers of knowledge.
      .

  • 1
    1

    Civil Society groups are bunch jokers. If they are clean and honest then should support either UNP or Pohotuwa..

  • 3
    0

    Jehan

    Civil Society can play a crucial role in only intiating inquiries but the oucome depends on people who either make decisions ( Judges) based on their own allegiance ( Favour) or through fear of repercussins if it went against the accused. We have seen such decisions in the Avant Garde Case where Gotha was released in anticiation of his Presidency. But this time it looks as if he has finallly paid a price because there are missing links and the presidential aspirant is trying to pull a wool over everyones heads and I genuinly hope not the Judges. But this is Sinhala Lanka a country where Lansantha was killed for trying to expose the Scam.
    But what a choice if Gotha finally fails Lord Buddha willing Cabaral. What Mahendran did in the Bond Scam was miniscule compared to what he did as a Governer of Bank of Sri Lanka but Mahendran is being hounded because he is Tamil a Word which is anathema to the majority. Let us see how the cookie crumbles on Friday.

  • 1
    0

    I have just read that Gotha has asked for his Passport back to travel to Singapore for medical treament. .It is obvious why he wants to tarvel. It is possible that Court of Appeal might find him Guilty of obtaining Citizenship fradulently which is a jailable offence in Wellikade. So he is going to do a runner to Singapore and then to China his final resting place.
    Civil Sociey please do everything possible by taking out an INJUNCTION to prevent him from doing a runner
    CRIME NEVER PAYS.

    • 0
      0

      “It is possible that Court of Appeal might find him Guilty of obtaining Citizenship fradulently”

      Even if CoA find that is true, the Judges must state that fact unequivocally.

      Sori Sinhala justice system is mired in Sinhala buddist racism and exclusivity.

      Do you believe the Judges will go against GR? Get real.

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