By 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.
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.
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.