Local Buddhists believe that when the king, the ruler, is not righteous (dharmika), the three fears (thun biya) – epidemics, starvation and evil spirits – can take place in the country. Therefore, a Dharmika king is considered a blessing for the state in Buddhism. However, the irony is that the local Buddhists, with this great knowledge in them, largely have kept electing adharmika (unrighteous) kings (omnipotent executive presidents); or perhaps, the kings (executive presidents) who promised to be righteous have ended up being more Adharmika. So the Lankan society and its people exist with fears of diverse nature for long under different kings and queens (executive presidents) elected under the Constitution of 1978.
There is little hope that a single party or an individual can save the people from the fears they are engulfed with under the existing undemocratic conditions. More than the individual who would assume the kingship or the Presidency it is the institution that we need to reform immediately. Therefore, our basic problem today is how to go back to democracy from existing authoritarian conditions emanating from the system without changing the system itself. Will it be possible through a process of constitutional amendments including the abolishing of the executive presidential system? Certainly the civil society seems to think positively of it. According to prominent exponents of this argument, normalcy in governance can be brought back to the political process provided the authoritarian political system is transformed by constitutional means. Who would do it, if major parties have failed to do it so far? Here comes an eminent local follower of the Buddha, Rev. Sobhitha, at a time of this great ‘thun-biya’ affecting the nation.
Rev. Sobhitha: Potential Force?
Traditionally, Sri Lankan Buddhists believed in the “Sangha”, the Buddhist clergy, as a rescue force at the time of disasters and threats, internal or external. Nevertheless, now they have lost much hope in the institution of “Sangha” which has failed to prevail at the time of fears (Bhiya) that we face today. Because, today, the “Sangha” too have mostly become subservient as an element of the military armour of the regime, adding more fears to the ordinary people’s life. Nevertheless, as someone, none other than a Buddhist monk, has expressed his willingness to fight the system and exorcise the evil spirits in it, we need to give serious consideration of that gigantic task he is going to face, on behalf of the nation and its future. What are the potentials that Rev. Sobhitha carries in him and his support base to become a force against the existing fears and rekindle the hope for a vibrant democracy? Can his single agenda proposal mobilise the majority of poverty stricken people – rural peasant, urban poor, and marginalized minority people – to vote against the incumbency whose reputation for ending the war still remains quite high? I think we need to address these questions in order to embolden a common candidate and a common agenda (not necessarily Rev.Sobhitha and his single point agenda). The need of the hour is more than inflating an individual image, but creating a common virtuous force of people against all kind of systemic evils.
As some would introduce him, Rev. Madoluwawe Sobhitha is an eminent Buddhist monk who has fearlessly faced the current regime in promoting democratic values, securing the public sphere and people’s rights. His candidature in the next Presidential election is proposed by an Organization and civil society initiative called National Movement for a Just Society (NMJS). So far his name remains the only one proposed to become the candidate representing all parties in the opposition against the incumbency. Rev. Sobhitha Thero’s support base is constituted by eminent group of lawyers, university academics, journalists, trade unionists, rights activists and some political leaders of mainstream parties. They have argued, so far, in cyberspace and print and electronic media, that Rev. Sobhitha will be able to unite most of the oppositional forces and bring them under a single agenda manifesto to fight the Presidential election. The Thero will only remain, if he is elected, in the office till he is able to abolish the executive presidency with the help of other parties (within six months or so) who would support to contribute 2/3 majority in Parliament. Now this candidacy of Rev. Sobhitha remains tentative and is being still held up due to the indecision of the opposition parties. The common candidate could be Rev. Sobhitha or not, but the entire opposition has been forced by the circumstances, today, to create a common people’s force against the regime and its evil spirits.
Under the current political conditions, we are facing an authoritarian political system and a fast collapsing decadent economy, endless political revenge and impunity of law, militarized administration, cultural and religious conflicts and all sorts of violence. All in all, it is felt that the end of point of the logical evolution of a majoritarian system has arrived with disastrous consequences and the society has got to act fast in order to prevent a total collapse.
Always, the need for amending the Constitution has come from the elite strata and they have mobilised the people to carve out laws which will guarantee the interests of elite and not the general public. The JR Jayewardene regime’s Constitution of 1978 was severely criticised by the leftists of that day for being anti-people; but the Parliament approved it, as it had the 5/6 majority, thus in the name of a verdict given by the people for a new constitution. The major controversy over the 1978 constitution arose on the executive presidency. And today, after several amendments, the executive presidency stands only equal to the feudal kingship that this country had before colonialism. Therefore, the endeavour to abolish this office will have to be blessed both by the rightists and leftist elites in Sri Lanka. It is so important that the democracy prevail uninterrupted, for the left and the right can continue with their antagonistic politics.
For long several civil society initiatives and several intellectuals have argued that to abolish the executive presidency is necessary in order to ameliorate the deteriorating conditions of the democratic system. Such elements have backed the presidential candidates on the promise that they would abolish the very post that they were going to win. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunge made a major electoral promise to abolish the executive presidential system and even she brought a new constitution for discussion in Parliament which was blatantly attacked by the opposition. Then Mahinda Rajapaksha in the first Mahinda Chinthana manifesto promised to do it, but in the second version of the manifesto he did not include it as a proposal for his second term. The Rajapaksha regime has further strengthened the authoritarian powers of the executive presidency under the 18th amendment that replaced the 17th amendment which the nationalist forces like JHU and NFF complained of being detrimental to the exercise of the sovereign powers of the ruler. Constitutional making in this country has always remained an elitist affair. The people never actively participate in that process except for electing their representatives. The representatives somehow are subject to their party decisions and they cannot exercise their autonomy in proposing or the opposing the laws. Currently, the Rajapaksha regime enjoys an artificial (not given buy people but bought by offering perks) 2/3 majority in Parliament, but it never has wanted to abolish the system as it had promised sometime ago. The ordinary people never trust that this will ever become a reality, because once elected as Executive President they tend to enjoy the powers in office and not to curtail them. Therefore, people in this country would never believe in any mainstream party candidate to abolish the Presidency though he/she might propose it again and again. The common man will trust only a common candidate for this task, but this task alone may not be able to win the common man too.
Common Man and the Economic Crisis
As we know, the peasants, villagers, urban poor and slum dwellers bore the brunt of a long fought ethnic war by committing the precious labour force as soldiers in the war. Sometime ago, the sons and daughters of the poor who went to war as soldiers, as their last option for a meagre living, were labelled as ‘broilers’ by the high rich class, because they would have a short life and die in the battle. Certainly, most of the youth of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese communities hardly were able to achieve twenty years and lost their lives in the battlefield at the most prime age of life. Now after the war the poor of this country has never been able to see any solace in their endless battle against economic injustice, political patronage and even unfriendly climatic changes. The poor are over burdened today not only with heavy commodity taxes, but with droughts, poverty, malnutrition, agricultural kidney failure, etc that the authoritarian rulers have failed to find solutions.
Solutions for economic underdevelopment and need for welfare basically constitute the demands of the poor. But the problems facing them have got a diverse character due to the neo-liberal policies of the current regime. The average masses, rural and urban poor, have lost their right to development, land, water, food, education, health etc. For instance, the Colombo city is experiencing a kind of monotonous elitist imagination of development of Rajapaksha(s); and poor people are being banished from the urbanised space very fast. Lands grabbed from the poor, minorities and other marginalised people are being sold and offered to the global rich and cronies of the government. Poor people in Panama in Pottuvil, Monaragala, Puttalama, Mannar, Hambantota, Colombo, North and East and elsewhere are facing dire economic reality since the mainstay of their livelihood, the land and water is not guaranteed. The fisher folk have lost their livelihood in many areas as the hotel industry has intruded their traditional areas of fishing and poaching by foreign fishermen with and without blessings of the government. Politicos and multinational capital are fast exploiting the natural resources and throwing the poor people on to roads or forcing them to seek middle-east employment as domestic workers for a meagre salary under harsh working conditions. The country after the war has been economically ravaged by the regime and its supporters and the opposition is yet to seriously tackle these issues.
Mega Development and the Poor
In the post-war mega development spree, the Rajapaksha regime was never seriously concerned about the poor and the rurally marginalised communities who nevertheless were easily hypnotised by racist propaganda and patriotic story telling. It is obvious that the mega development projects that the UPFA under Rajapakshas launched, has largely benefited only the richest of the rich class. However, for reasons hitherto not well explored, the agricultural peasant and rural population (Sinhalese Buddhists) have remained faithful to Rajapaksha regime in the elections held after the war; perhaps, they think that for them Rajapaksha ended the war and as Gananatha Obesekere would call it their “Sasanaya” was protected from enemies.
Perhaps the political imagination of the poor is currently changing with acute economic crisis they are facing, but we have to decide its real change from the ongoing Uva election. The ongoing Uva elections will be testifying to such changes in the imagination of poor people’s mind of the regime’s achievements for them. Also the Mahanayake’s (Chief Prelates) have started to complain that ‘Buddha Sasanaya’ (the Buddhist church) is facing a huge decline now under current regime. Moreover, there are positive signs from the opposition circles too that in the forthcoming Presidential elections they might field a common candidate against the incumbency.
Undemocratic Polity and Lack of Social Justice
While the economic scenario remains such a grim picture for the masses the political scenario cannot certainly be a rosy picture. Because the economic exploitation is taking place under sever violations of democratic rights in the country. However, for the poor there is nothing much to worry about the condition of the democracy, or right to life, human rights or even freedom and individual liberty, which are mostly the civil society’s concerns in a democratic system. For the poor the major problem remains the provision of the basic amenities. Under Premadasa’s Janasaviya (Strength for People) they received Rs. 2500/= per month, school uniforms, etc. Chandrika launched Samurdhi (prosperity) and the amount the poor received was less than one tenth of what Premadasa gave. Under Mahinda various projects of infrastructure development (Gamaneguma (Village awakening), Maganeguma (road building) etc. ) were launched, but only the hard core SLFP carders who organize political participation at the grass-root level benefited from those schemes and not the average poor. After all these schemes of welfare politics, the poor have ever remained poor. Today, the taxation on basic commodities remains very high and the living standards of poor are fast declining. Educations expenses are rising fast and free education is becoming a dream. Health is almost privatised and most of the medicinal items have to be bought as the hospitals do not provide them. So, the life of the poor whose subsistence agriculture, self-employments and other primary livelihood methods are severely affected under this regime. Therefore social justice and economic justice are two separate areas of the same issue of justice the people are facing and have to be addressed separately.
Presidential System as Mother of all Evils
The huge democratic deficit in governance – due to nepotism, corruption, bribery, impunity and unconstitutional rule – is mostly blamed for the Presidential system. Governance by the incompetents and one particular sect/tribe has caused severe damages to the democratic system. President Rajapaksha’s ten year long rule has severely overturned the democratic character of the country and now, as political analysts are mostly on the opinion of it, he and his family will attempt to rule the country for another half century or so by attempting to hold power even by means of military. The belief on democracy is getting ever frustrated.
The regime fears losing of its power while poor fears the death without water and food, and the civil society fears being ruled and held up under a more militarily oriented system in future. However, whatever the economic, political and social condition the country is heading towards at present, the regime legitimises its rule by holding sporadic elections. The elections are held even ahead of the scheduled time. The forthcoming Presidential election would be held two prior to the end of the tenure. Anyway, since the constitution that the regime amended recently to bring the draconian 18th Amendment allows such elections. Nevertheless, the regime which is under pressure due to international allegations over its democratic deficit, violations of human rights and minority rights and authoritarian character has chosen to hold elections and win them when the time is ripe for it and before its popularity is severely lost.
The JVP and the Extreme Left
(This section is derived from a facebook comment I have made) An analysis of how the left parties will behave in the forthcoming Presidential elections is important. The new and more radical left elements will find the election as an opportunity to counter the major left party in Sri Lanka, the JVP, and to build an image of being the ‘true’ left and nothing else. Therefore the agenda of these new and extreme left elements will be limited to an image building exercise mostly and attacking the JVP’s next move, whether it will support or not the common candidate. However, the JVP as one of the mainstream political parties with a nationwide organizational mechanism, and with a proven record of attracting the voter has to carefully strategize its move, because its decision is going to determine the final outcome of the election. The JVP as a left party with a wide support base certainly will find it difficult to strengthen the right wing forces of the SLFP and the UNP. Rather it will tend to support its own non-party candidate or perhaps Rev. Sobhitha himself. Any division in the main opposition support base for any common candidate will benefit the incumbency. Already the extreme left elements seem to be opposing Rev.Sobhitha’s candidature, arguing that his history is replete with racially bias practices. Nevertheless, more ardent proponents of Rev.Sobhitha’s candidature, such as Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, argue that such allegations against Rev. Sobhitha by extreme leftists are baseless. Somehow, the JVP’s would be behavior is what the extreme left, the right and the centre-left are looking forward to seeing, because it has a crucial impact on the election as well as its own position as the third force in the country.
Making a Common People’s Force for Social Justice
It is understood that a common force constituted by diverse elements belonging to left, right, minority and majority etc. have to back a common candidate. However, the common force that the country requires is a moderate, democratic and centre left force that will guarantee the welfare and liberal political freedom for the individuals of all ethnic and religious groups. Winning a presidential election without a broad based agenda would be quite impossible considering the nature of the problems facing the majority of the people today. The left blocs already have pointed out this reality. However, the logic of fielding a common candidate cannot be flawed just because its manifesto is not quite appealing to the average people as suggested by some sections. The need is therefore to focus more on the issues of economic and social justice through which the extreme left’s criticisms could also be countered and make the agenda more appealing to the wider public. Considering that the first condition in fielding a common candidate is victory and not the defeat, the common agenda needs to be widely discussed among the constituent parties. Major issues of education, health, transport, commodity prices, pay hikes, employment, minority rights, human rights violation and several other issues can figure in this list. The role of the major opposition, UNP and the JVP are again will be critical and if the common candidate and the agenda seem more appealing to these two parties they will not field their own candidates. The TNA, SLMC etc. would better support a broader common agenda, because the disappointed and disgruntled minority, as critiques have shown, are sure to support an opposition candidate against the incumbency. All these calculations aside, our wish should be to fight the evil system through a virtuous agenda backed by common people for the benefit of the larger public of this country. Therefore, the debate on common candidate has to be immediately brought down from the elite circles in Colombo to the streets of cities and villages and make it a people’s force representing people’s aspirations.