By Vishwamithra1984 –
“I always believe that ultimately, if people are paying attention, then we get good government and good leadership. And when we get lazy, as a democracy and civically start taking shortcuts, then it results in bad government and politics.” ~Barak Obama,
In this week’s column, this columnist decided to share with readers the views of a very experienced political campaigner about how “Colombo Society” (what he likes to call the “Cinnamon Garden Crowd”) and the big wig Colombo businessmen, view the current presidential campaign and their vote.
The seasoned campaigner expressing these views has, since the 1970s, seen many elections. He has worked at a senior level for both the government in power and the Opposition. The account he related was both interesting and in my view, important.
He said that many Colombo ladies ask him at social functions and parties about the campaign. They ask who will win and why. Some also express their own views about the main candidates. In the current contest, many of these “Colombo people” know about President Rajapaksa. Some of them have met him at many social functions and events in the past few years and refer to him as “Mahinda”. On the other hand, the joint opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena is comparatively unknown to many of them and they ask about his origins and career. They know Mahinda’s election symbol but not Maithripala’s.
Amusingly, before trying to explain what is currently happening in the political arena, my friend, the seasoned campaigner, poses one introductory question which is: “how many of you ladies who are asking me questions about the current campaign or even your husband’s (or partner’s), have the vote? In other words “are you registered voters? Are you eligible to vote on 8th January 2015?” The usual answer is “we are adult citizens and we should have the vote”.
My friend, the seasoned campaigner, is not satisfied. He says, “my question was not whether you are a citizen or not but have you registered as a voter? Also this election is based on the September 2014 voters list. So did you register as a voter in 2014?” Many are not certain of the answer to this question. Some say “even if we have not registered we will go with our National Identity cards or passports to prove who we are and then ask for ballot papers to cast our vote”. The seasoned campaigner says that regrettably, this is not possible. That may be permissible in western countries but not in Asian countries like in Sri Lanka. If your name is not on the current registered voters’ list (which was finalized in September 2014), then you are not an eligible voter and you cannot vote. According to my friend – the seasoned campaigner – this is the sad situation with many “Colombo Seven” or “Cinnamon Garden”-type people. They have not taken the trouble to ensure that they are in the voters’ list of the area in which they live. They may have voted earlier but each year the electoral list is revised and unless your name is included in the current voters’ list you cannot vote. The fact that you voted earlier (even in the 2010 Presidential election) does not mean that you can vote on 8th January 2015 unless your name is on the current list.
Next, my friend the seasoned campaigner, outlined his views about the bigwig businessmen of Colombo. He was not referring to the owners or senior managers of small and medium term enterprises but rather to the bigger private sector companies – especially the listed companies. He knows quite a few of the chairmen, directors and senior managers of the big-time Colombo based companies. He had organized a sample survey of the voting preference of these individuals. At a very personal level, for the sake of confidentiality, he had asked them for whom they intend voting. Is it for Mahinda or Maithripala?
On a sample of three hundred (300) businessmen personally interviewed and spoken to by this seasoned campaigner, the answer was clear. Seventy percent (70%) of them were voting for Mahinda, the incumbent President and only 30% wanted a change and were voting for Maithripala.
The seasoned campaigner was a little puzzled. These businessmen were all educated people. They were fully aware of the corruption and nepotism of the current regime. They even identified the corrupt ones! They admitted to nepotism and family bandyism, the wastage of public funds and the attacks on the free media and the interference with the judiciary. Then why did the majority of them (70%) opt to vote for Mahinda?
The following is the reason they had given: These businessmen who opted to go with the current incumbent had explained as follows. “We are all in the private sector. Although politicians say the private sector is the vehicle of growth, without the help of the state sector and public officials, we the private sector cannot function successfully. We need the Ministers and Ministries”.
One “Colombo businessmen” has elaborated on his decision to vote for Mahinda as follows. He had said: “for a long time, for over three to four years we expended a lot of time and effort and even money to get contacts and obtain access to the right people in the Government; the right people in the Presidential Secretariat and the right people who can even speak to the President on our behalf. Similarly, we took a long time to get to know the relevant Ministers and the key staff of the Ministries. We have even got very friendly with some of the Ministers and their key officers. We invite them over for functions and we have even funded their holidays both within Sri Lanka and abroad and sometimes even helped with the higher education of politician’s children and children of key Ministry officials. In fact, we are on first name terms with most of the Ministers and their key staff. With one telephone call we can overcome a lot of problems. We have also given them money. Now, if new men like Maithripala as President and Ranil as Prime Minister get elected, we have to start all over again. We will have to get to know the new Ministers and also their key officials. This will take a lot of time and effort and during such a process our business and profits will get badly affected. So, for all these reasons, we prefer the present system to remain”.
As regards lack of media freedom, many of the businessmen who preferred the current incumbent said that they saw no lack of media freedom and with the Internet and Mobile Technology, global news was readily available.
As regards the judiciary, the majority agreed that when it came to a Presidential issue, the judiciary was not independent and could be compromised but not in other matters like business transactions and there were enough senior lawyers in Sri Lanka to look after their interests.
Now I turn to the current campaign itself. Despite the above views expressed by some of the Colombo bigwig businessmen, the meeting organized by the Private Sector at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel had been a major success with an unprecedented attendance. Both Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe spoke to great reception and applause and if that meeting is any evidence of the “Colombo business” vote, then the survey of my friend, the seasoned campaigner, referred to above, may have to be re-examined and the 70% vote for Mahinda is acutely doubtful.
Three other issues are also being highlighted against the incumbent. Firstly, his non-declaration of assets as required by Election Law. Maithripala Sirisena has already done it and repeatedly reminded the President that he has not made a declaration.
Secondly, the Public Debate between the two candidates seems very unlikely. The President has bowed out.
Thirdly, to add to the woes, Minister S B Dissanayake’s crude gaffe about stripping Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunge naked and making her run down a public road is creating a huge uproar from all the women in the Island. It is a gaffe that S B Dissanayake will live to regret. It may be worse than when the former Chief Justice punished him with the loss of civic rights for over two years for referring to a Supreme Court judgment as a “Balu Theenduwak” (judgment fit for a dog).
Colombo businessmen may eventually open their eyes and ears. They may even realize that the so-called ‘stability’ they are enjoying is indeed a mirage. The sooner it dawns on them the better for themselves and indeed much better for the country’s business environment.