Colombo Telegraph

Election Or Arab Spring?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Have courage to free yourselves!” – Diderot (Encyclopédie)

What is scheduled to happen on January 8th is an election, a standard democratic exercise which will either give Mahinda Rajapaksa a third-term or send him, and his numerous family, home.

Why then does President Rajapaksa compare the election he himself called with the Arab Spring? Why does he see a similarity between the non-electoral ousters of anciens régimes in Egypt and Libya and the civil war in Syria and the seventh presidential election in Sri Lanka?

Is it because he called the election, confident of a victorious outcome and now sees that victory slipping away?

Is it because he identifies with the despots of Egypt, Libya and Syria? Is it because the path they treaded for decades is the path he too is on? Is it because, like them, he hopes to rule for life and create a dynasty?

Is it because he fears that January 8th will put an end to his dynastic dreams that he compares the election he himself called with the Arab Spring?

This presidential equation of a democratic election and a popular revolt is simply ludicrous. But it must be taken seriously because that wrong analogy says much about the Rajapaksa-worldview.

Up to 1977, Lankans changed their governments with each election. The victors assumed power and the losers went home, knowing that they have a chance of making it again. The country did not become ungovernable. There was post-election violence to varying degrees, but there was never anarchy.

Mahinda Rajapaksa decided on an early election because he believed he could win without having to resort to outcome-changing violence/rigging. That calculation was made on the assumption of a disunited opposition and a Ranil Wickremesinghe-candidacy. Those calculations have gone badly awry. An election, like a dice, can fall either way, but currently the Opposition has the edge. And the Rajapaksas are facing the prospect of losing power, constitutionally and democratically.

Since the only kind of election the Rajapaksas are willing to tolerate is an election with a pre-ordained outcome, the uncertainty is making them apoplectic. Instead of a positive message to counter the Opposition, they are resorting increasingly to luridly wild accusations.

The pre-democratic belief Cuius region, eius religio (the people of a state must accept the beliefs of the ruler)[i] is the basis of Rajapaksa-democracy. In that democracy people have the right to support the Rajapaksas to the point of veneration and to vote for them at every election. Those people are the patriots. The rest are traitors, especially if they express their opposition to the Rajapaksas by words or deeds. Therefore any election the Rajapaksas cannot win is not a democratic and constitutional exercise but a conspiracy, a revolt, a betrayal of the motherland.

The danger of this mindset is obvious – if the Rajapaksas equate a losing election with an undemocratic, unconstitutional national threat, they might feel justified in using undemocratic and unconstitutional means to counter it.

Future Prospects

Post-18th Amendment, there were only two real threats to the Rajapaksa project – an inner party rebellion and a military coup.

We are currently living through the first scenario. The inner-party rebellion could have happened only in the context of an election – and did so. If this election sends the Rajapaksas home, Sri Lanka can begin to hobble back to being a normally-dysfunctional democracy.

But if the Rajapaksas win, they will move forcefully to consolidate their power and to destroy every source of democratic and peaceful challenge to their rule. They will remove potential SLFP dissenters (the Maithripala-rebellion would have proved all their fears about SLFP old-timers). They will use their pawns to break up the UNP. And they will use illegal repression and ‘legal’ persecution to eviscerate the Opposition.

The Danuna Tillakaratne case is both a demonstration and a warning of how the Rajapaksas use the law as a tool of familial power.

Parliamentarian Jayantha Ketagoda revealed at the official UPFA media conference that he was instrumental in securing bail for Mr. Tilakaratne, as a quid-pro-quo for supporting the Rajapaksas: “I first held discussions with the Secretary of Defence …. I asked whether the cases against Sarath Fonseka and the case against his son-in-law can be removed…. He said he cannot do it but he will inform the respective teams of it. He said he will try to get some form of relief….” Asked whether Secretary Defence can influence a court case, he replied, “Not influence…. Investigations are carried out by the police department and the other teams. He can say to cast aside this case. The President can pardon him according to the constitution.” [ii] Asked whether the cases will be withdrawn he said, “Definitely it will happen…. The President said he will definitely act on it. The President has the entitlement to repeat an investigation about any problem again and act upon it.”[iii]

Disregard Mr. Ketagoda’s paucity of constitutional knowledge. What he inadvertently revealed is how the Rajapaksas use the judicial system to punish not just opponents but also politically-uninvolved family members (even Mr. Tilakaratne’s aged grandmother was taken to the Fourth Floor, for the crime of not betraying her grandson to the police).

The Danuna Tilakaratne and Nishantha Muthuhettigama[iv] incidents, in confluence, indicate how far down the path of lawlessness the Rajapaksas have brought the country. The Danuna Tilakaratne incident in particular is an omen of how illegal will become legal in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. In such a future, law enforcement/defence authorities and courts will be reduced to playing the role of the inquisition, charged with annihilating the heresy of anti-Rajapaksa politics.

If the Rajapaksas win this election, they will close off all democratic means of regime change. Only undemocratic means will remain, including the terrible prospect of a coup, a cure worse than the disease. The Siblings may succeed in preventing a generals-coup or even a colonels-coup by manipulating upper and middle rankers. But this will make even more likely that most terrible of military intervention – sergeants-coup. Given the growing resentfulness in the lower ranks about being turned into manual-labourers, this is a particular possibility. And sergeants-coups are normally the most vicious; in the Lankan context, the resulting violence will have a not only a political and socio-economic content also an ethno-religious direction.

What is happening in Egypt, Syria or Libya should not happen here. But those countries plunged into violence precisely because they were undemocratic, because they had been ruled by a single ruler/family for so long. The way to ensure that Sri Lanka never get there is to unseat the Rajapaksas, electorally.

It is not democratic change but the absence of it, which can turn life nasty and brutish, perhaps even poor and short Elections do not result in violent anarchy; it is the interruption/prevention of electoral change which does. If, for instance, Mr. Gaddafi allowed Libyans to unseat him electorally, they would not have had to revolt. And Libya would have been spared of civil war and dismemberment. By the time Libyans ousted Mr. Gaddafi, his long violent rule had transformed many of them into mini-Gaddafis.

That is the fate we must avoid, and on January 8th, we have the last chance to do it.

[i] The basis of the Peace of Westphalia


[iii] the direct translation from Sinhala is mine.

[iv] On Friday that notorious Rajapaksa footsoldier, Deputy Minister Nishatha Muthihettigama invaded a police station, rescued three of his men in custody for burning the Opposition platform Wanduramba, loaded them into a police jeep and escaped. After a car chase the police reportedly recovered the suspects.

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