By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“The iron hand of necessity commands….” – Goethe (Iphigenia in Tauris)
For the opposition, the presidential election will be an obstacle race on a non-level playing-field, overseen by a biased judge.
If the opposition can agree on a common candidate, it will be over the first hurdle. A common candidate is not a sufficient condition for electoral victory; but it is an absolutely necessary one. Without it, with an opposition divided and bickering, the election will be lost even before the nomination is over.
The CPA’s latest opinion survey, Democracy in Post-War Sri Lanka’, would be invaluable in this regard[i].
The survey confirms an important surmise: the core-constituency of the Rajapaksas – the Sinhalese – continues to erode. The survey also confirms that this erosion is caused mainly by rising economic distress and falling economic expectations.
According to the survey, 45.1% of Lankans think that the national economic situation got little or lot worse in the last two years; 43.5% of Sinhalese also feel the same.
In 2013, 44.3% of Lankans and 39.2% of Sinhalese thought that the national economic situation got a little or lot worse in the previous two years.
In just one year, pessimism about the direction of the national economy has increased by 1.8% among all Lankans and a very significant 11% among the Sinhalese.
According to the 2014 survey, 50.1% of Lankans and 48.2% of Sinhalese think that the current economic situation in the country is somewhat bad or very bad.
In 2013, 50.5% of Lankans and 45.4% of Sinhalese regarded the economic situation as somewhat or very bad.
While the percentage of Lankans who have a negative opinion of the national economic situation has decreased infinitesimally, the number of Sinhalese who are unhappy about the state of the economy has grown quite significantly, by more than 6%.
According to the latest survey, 54.1% Lankans and 54% of Sinhalese think that their own household economy got little or lot worse in the last two years.
In 2013, 52.7% of Lankans thought their household economy got a little or lot worse, as did 49.3% of Sinhalese.
In the last one year, the number of Lankans dissatisfied with their own personal economic conditions increased by 2.7% while the number of Sinhalese unhappy about their own economic situation increased by a telling 9.5%.
In 2014, 42.7% of Lankans and 43.1% of Sinhalese said that they had to cut back on the quantity/quality of the food they purchased.
In 2013, 30.6% of Lankans and 24.1% of Sinhalese said that they had to cut back on the quality of the food purchased.
In the last year, 39.5% of Lankans and 78.8% of Sinhalese had to reduce the quality/quantity of the food they purchased.
In 2014, 66.3% of Lankans and 67.4% of Sinhalese thought that the government should prioritise cost of living; in 2013, the figures were 58.5% for all Lankans and 58.5% for Sinhalese.
The survey paints a picture of an economically distressed and discontented electorate. Even more significantly it shows an economically despondent Sinhala majority. In the last year, economic pessimism exacerbated far more sharply among the Sinhalese. The conclusion seems obvious: the minorities became wise to and disenchanted with the Rajapaksa economics early; now the Sinhalese are catching up, and fast.
Little wonder that the Rajapaksas want to have national elections as soon as it is constitutionally possible.
The picture presented by the CPA survey indicates, yet again, the absolute importance of preventing a third Rajapaksa term. If Mahinda Rajapaksa wins a third term, the economic distress of the populace in general and the Sinhalese in particular will continue to increase. In order to divert Sinhala attention from the growing economic woes, the Rajapaksas will increasingly deploy religious and ethnic racism and xenophobia. In consequence, a new conflict with another minority might become unavoidable during a third Rajapaksa term.
The Rajapaksas must be defeated, for the sake of peace, stability and Sri Lanka’s future.
A Double-Barrelled Common Programme
The events of the last several years have proved beyond reasonable doubt the dangers inherent in the lopsided executive presidency created by the 1978 Constitution. So long as the term-limit provision was in place, and no single party/coalition possessed a two-thirds majority, the system remained workable. But a sea change occurred during the second Rajapaksa term. Using the victory over the LTTE as a window of opportunity, the Rajapaksas bribed, blackmailed and threatened a sufficient number of opposition lawmakers into crossing over, removed term-limits and further empowered the already powerful president. Then they proceeded to subjugate the judiciary by removing the Chief Justice via an illegal impeachment and replacing her with a total stooge. They also commenced disembowelling the 13th Amendment and occupying the private-sector economy via acolyte businessmen.
The Rajapaksas have shown the way; there is no guarantee that a non-Rajapaksa successor will not make a similar despotic attempt, if the system remains.
That is one reason why the all powerful presidency must be replaced with a system which combines enhanced democracy and enhanced devolution, a far more balanced set up with adequate constitutional safeguards for basic freedoms and minority rights.
There is another reason – the abolition of the executive presidency is the only platform on which the Opposition can unite and field a common candidate. This is the only basis on which the UNP, the JVP and Tamil and Muslim parties can come together. The slogan is therefore a necessary-glue, an indispensable unifying force. That unity alone cannot defeat the Rajapaksas; but without that shot in the arm, the opposition cannot be immunised against despair, inertia and dissolution.
In 1994, many foretold doom when the SLFP gave up the chair symbol and the party name and agreed to contest as Peoples Alliance with a totally new symbol, the chair. Events proved them wrong.
Similarly UNPers too can be persuaded to vote for a common candidate and a common symbol, by the UNP. The UNP base would be eager to get rid of the Rajapaksas. If all UNP leaders back a common candidate, the absolute majority of UNPers can be enthused into voting for a common symbol. Much will depend on what Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa will do. Given their past records, both are capable of sabotaging a common candidate. Going by media reports, Sajith Premadasa is more likely to do so this time than Ranil Wickremesinghe. That is a real and present danger which needs to be addressed.
A joint oppositional platform, in order to be successful, needs to have two basic planks. One is the replacement of the current presidential system; the other is a viable programme of action to alleviate the cost of living problem within a set time period, perhaps the first 100 days.
A reduction in indirect taxes on essentials and a commensurate reduction in monies allocated to wasteful entities/projects (the sort which exists solely for Rajapaksa profit and Rajapaksa glory, such as Mihin Lanka and Mattala) are entirely possible. Such a programme of action can make the connection between Rajapaksa rule and the growing economic distress of all Lankans, convincingly and eloquently.