By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“German history teaches us that…. nothing in the public realm is inevitable.” – Fritz Stein (Leo Baeck Lecture)
Before commencing his official election campaign, Candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa flew to Andra Pradesh with an entourage of 56 (including soon-to-be Health Minister Tissa Attanayake), for a special pooja in the Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple. In his eagerness to win divine backing for his election campaign, not only did he become a temporary-vegetarian; he reportedly ordered the entire Sri Lanka flight to follow suit: “There were strict orders to the Sri Lanka Airlines special flight….to serve only vegetarian food on board”[i].
The absolute majority of Lankan politicians are superstitious. Many of them, including most of President Rajapaksa’s predecessors, would have visited various religious establishments, seeking divine support for their political ventures. But however devout, none would have even thought of ordering an entire flight to go vegetarian to suit his/her needs. These leaders may have been corrupted by power – but not to the point of regarding the state as their private property. The Rajapaksas do, which is why a commercial flight was forced to go vegetarian. It is a telling indication of the future awaiting us if they win.
Since the Rajapaksas equate themselves with the country, their electoral needs become national needs; consequently the use of state power/resources in their election campaign becomes the normal and obvious thing to do, from their perspective.
Last week Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed that retired military officers have a right to participate in his brother’s election campaign. He is right. Retired military officials have a right to engage in electioneering. But serving senior public officials, particularly permanent secretaries to government ministries, do not. This week Gotabhaya Rajapaksa claimed that previous presidents did things contrary to good governance. He is right. Quite a few of the problems we face today are the accumulated results of decades of wrong-doing. But where did Mr. Rajapaksa make this statement? In Homagama, while opening an election-campaign office for his brother!
Mr. Rajapaksa is probably the second-most powerful man in Sri Lanka. But officially he is just another ministry secretary. When he engages in election activities to promote his brother, he is violating the Establishment Code and the Election Law. Such blatantly illegal conduct is another Lankan first, for which the Rajapaksa family can take complete credit. But, then, for a Family which chased away the legal Chief Justice and replaced her with an acolyte, what is the law worth? (Hopefully some members of the legal fraternity will file action against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for breaking election laws so openly.)
It is now beyond doubt that 1,000+ CTB buses, from all over the country, were used to transport crowds to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s inaugural meeting in Anuradhapura. It is logical to assume that similar gimmicks are being used to create optical illusions of success at other meetings. Once again the huge cost – and the inconvenience, especially to OL students dependent on public transport[ii] – will have to be borne by the Lankan people.
Election violence is obviously on the rise. During a twenty-four hour period, three opposition meetings were attacked. Some of the attackers had come in defender jeeps, the trademark vehicle of regime-mandated thugs during the Uva campaign.[iii] President Rajapaksa has ordered an immediate investigation – his favourite ploy, to deflect blame and evade responsibility.
Another disturbing first is the reported use of the military to promote Candidate Rajapaksa. In Galle, the Army had been carrying out programmes in tuition classes to ‘inform students about the war-victory’. A Deputy Election Commissioner has ordered this practice to be stopped. According to the report in Lankadeepa, the army officer in charge had claimed that the programme is not electioneering but part of an army recruitment drive[iv].
The country is not at war. Why does the army need to go into tuition classes to recruit youngsters? Is it even legal? What will the army do next? Go to schools? Isn’t this a part of the larger Rajapaksa programme of psychological and societal militarization, the militarization of hearts, minds and morals? (Incidentally, this is what the Tigers used to do – go to schools and show propaganda movies to persuade students to join their ranks.)
If guns, goons and gods do not suffice, the Rajapaksas will turn to racism.
This week the President himself accused the Opposition of having a deal with the TNA. “We are watching these things carefully. These things need to be revealed.”[v] Why cannot the Opposition – or the UPFA for that matter – have an election pact with the TNA? The TNA is not an illegal entity or a clandestine terror outfit. It is a legal political party functioning openly and peacefully in the democratic mainstream. But then, for the President every Tamil is somehow a Tiger, unless they support him, in which case they become miraculously transformed into patriots. So Jeyakumari Balendran is still under arrest for trying to discover the fate of her vanished son while Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s handpicked-successor, Kumaran Pathmanathan alias KP is a totally free man.
There are also indications that the Rajapaksas may be readying to use their Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist proxies to incite Muslim-phobia in the South. The BBS is once again talking about Jihadists in the East; at a recent media conference Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera claimed that “the government is in part ignoring some of the concerns as a result of attempts to win the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) at the Presidential elections”[vi]. There are unconfirmed reports about a possible link up between Udaya Gammanpila and the BBS[vii]. Inciting racist fires or staging ‘terrorist attacks’, can well become election-winning gimmicks of last resort.
The Rajapaksas will try to steal the election, if they have to. But stealing an election is not quite an easy thing, especially at the national level.
For instance, actual or paid supporters can be transported from place to place, to provide the illusion of hugely successful mass-meetings. But come election-day, supporters in sufficient numbers cannot be transported all over the country to engage in malpractices. A properly organised opposition, with polling agents and counting agents in place at every polling/counting centre, can do much to downsize rigging to negligible levels.
There are some positive-firsts too, in the campaign.
In an unprecedented development, several top-level Finance Ministry officials have reportedly protested against the use of state resources to promote Candidate Rajapaksa. At a recent meeting, reportedly chaired by the Treasury Secretary himself, these officials had complained about the misuse of financial and other resources and warned Dr. PB Jayasundera that they may be “compelled to refuse to carry out such orders or slow down the process in a work-to-rule scenario.”[viii]
Perhaps in another first, in Dambulla, President Rajapaksa had to stop his speech and leave the stage in high-dudgeon, due to persistent heckling from some members of the crowd[ix].
Nothing in human history is inevitable.
In Weimer Germany’s last democratic election, despite a campaign choking with violence and malpractices, the Nazis could win only 43.9% of the vote. Had the anti-Nazi parties contested as a united front, Hitler could have been defeated electorally.
It is a lesson we must remember and learn from.
[iv] Lankadeepa – 16.12.2014