By Jehan Perera –
There are five important issues that the country faces at the present time. They are dealing with the post-Easter Sunday bombing fallout and resulting anti-Muslim sentiment, taking forward the constitutional reform and inter-ethnic reconciliation process, reviving the economy that has not attracted the investments in productive capacity that are necessary for self-sustaining growth, finding an accommodation with the big powers that are putting contrary pressures on Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, and the latest problem of the reintroduction of the death penalty that is jeopardizing the country’s standing as a humane and civilized one, and also runs afoul of its commitments that will keep special economic privileges such as the European Union’s GSP plus tariff concession. So far hardly any of Sri Lanka’s political leaders have publicly demonstrated the intellectual capacity to grasp these challenges in their totality and find a framework to cope with them.
The presidential elections are due by the end of this year and these five issues are one that the contestants will necessarily have to take up. But with less than six months to go there is no definite indication of who might be the presidential candidates from the UNP and SLPP, which are two main parties at this time. The SLFP, which was hitherto one of the big two, has now dropped to third place and has made it clear that their choice is incumbent president Maithripala Sirisena. But here too there is a caveat. They want the president to be the common candidate of the SLFP and SLPP which is essentially a breakaway from the SLFP though it now dwarfs its party of origin. There is a realization within the SLFP that only in combination with the SLPP that President Sirisena will have a fighting chance to obtain re-election despite taking extreme measures, such as signing death warrants on convicted prisoners.
However, the present indications are that the SLPP is not willing to satisfy President Sirisena’s hope of becoming the common candidate of both the SLPP and SLFP. In these circumstances, the crucial contest will be between the presidential candidates put forward by the UNP and SLFP. Both of these parties speak in terms of forging political alliances, just as the SLFP is doing, that they will lead at the forthcoming presidential and general elections. They too are speaking in terms of common candidates. At the present time the SLPP’s choice of candidate is likely to be from within its own ranks. On the part of the UNP, the need for a common candidate arises from the fact that their natural choice, UNP leader and prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is generally seen as unable to mobilise the electorate sufficiently to vote for him.
Prime Minster Wickremesinghe faces many liabilities. The main one is that he is unable to provide the strong leadership that the country is believed to need to overcome its many challenges, not least the challenges to national security. The prime minister is unfortunate in that he has to share power with a president with whom he does not see eye to eye, and who is vested with considerable powers under the transitional clauses of the 19th Amendment to the constitution. With the president having the powers of commander-in-chief of the armed forces which ordinarily would be a symbolic power as it is in most other countries, when it is bolstered by the constitutional power of also being Minister of Defence, it becomes a real power. As a result, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is leading a government which has little or no control over security forces, including the police.
A state is a political organization with a centralized government that exerts authority within a certain geographical territory. A widely-used definition is a state being a polity that, within a given territory, maintains a monopoly on the use of force. A government which does not have the power over the security forces cannot be a strong government even if those who run the government are strong in their character and in their thinking. However, where winning presidential elections is concerned, Prime Minister Wickremesinge has further liabilities to overcome. He has contested and lost at two previous presidential elections, the first in 2000 when he lost to then incumbent president Chandrika Kumaratunga and then again in 2005 when he lost to then prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
On both occasions, the LTTE dealt him adverse blows. In 2000, the abortive assassination attempt on President Kumaratunga generated a sympathy wave for her, and in 2005 the LTTE blocked the Tamil voters in the North and East from voting for the then former prime minister. They were unhappy with him for engaging with them in a peace process that had not led to the advantages they had sought and instead led to their effective break up in 2004. It was this outcome that paved the way for the eventual military defeat of the LTTE by the government of President Rajapaksa.
The loss of confidence in the ability of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to win a presidential contest in the context of two defeats suffered previously, led the UNP to put forward common candidates from outside the party to contest the subsequent presidential elections of 2010 and 2015. This is an indication of the likely choice that will be made for the 2019 presidential election especially as it will be crucial in determining the outcome of the general elections that will soon follow. In the aftermath of the 19th Amendment to the constitution, the general elections are more important than the presidential elections in terms of the quantum of powers that will be on offer.
At the psychological level, the party that wins the presidential elections will hold a significant advantage when it comes to the general election as they will go into the elections on a winning wicket to borrow from the cricket parlance in vogue during the World Cup championship. This would suggest that both the UNP and SLPP would put forward their most charismatic and vote-pulling candidates to contest the presidential elections. Where the SLPP is concerned the front runner as potential candidate is former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The former defense secretary is widely credited as being a person who can achieve tasks that require unity of purpose and decisiveness, such as demonstrated by the government of which he was a member that defeated the LTTE in battle. On the UNP side no clear candidate has still emerged, though Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa appear to be the key contenders.
Even if the UNP were to decide that they will not put Prime Minister Wickremesinghe forward as the party’s presidential candidate, his relevance to Sri Lankan politics will remain. He is one of the very few national level politicians who has taken an enlightened public stand on the more controversial, but tremendously important, issues that the country faces. This became evident when he together with Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, accepted an invitation last week of the National Peace Council to attend a graduation event for community leaders who had passed out as master trainers on the topic of transitional justice. This is a most controversial area of political discourse, which hardly any politician is prepared to touch with a barge pole these days.
With elections approaching most politicians prefer to play safe and be patriotic towards their own community, and voter base, rather than address controversial issues that have to be dealt with such as the human rights violations that took place in the context of the war, and the truth seeking, accountability and reparations that must necessarily follow. The previous government refused to deal with the past, which led to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to mobilise international support against Sri Lanka and brought the country to the verge of travel embargoes on its leaders and to economic sanctions, such as the loss of GSP plus tariff concessions from the European Union.
At the graduation event, the prime minister was willing to address these issues, and to point out the strength of the reconciliation process that contributed to non-retaliation in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks that killed over 250 persons and injured another 500. With elections looming it is important that other political leaders with presidential or prime ministerial ambitions should demonstrate their thinking with regard to the five major issues that confront the country at the present time. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has done so, even though his views may not be conveyed adequately, or correctly, to the masses of people.
It is the tragedy of Sri Lanka that the demagogues and populists hold the upper hand in taking their message to the masses of people. Voltaire, one of the greatest thinkers of the European Enlightenment period of history wrote these words in 1765: “Those Who Can Make You Believe Absurdities, Can Make You Commit Atrocities.” The challenge for civil society and the intelligentsia in Sri Lanka is to educate the people and understand these challenges in their correct perspective, instead of believing in absurdities which can lead to further conflict within the country and with the world itself.