By Laksiri Fernando –
If there is any example that Sri Lanka could emulate as a result of the Iranian presidential election held on 14 June, then that is to strengthen the prospects of moderate ‘cleric’ Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha winning the next presidential election against the Sri Lankan counterpart and friend of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Only snag seems to be that the example is little too early for the Sri Lankan voters to emulate even if our presidential election is held in 2014 or otherwise, the divide between the ‘conservatives’ and the ‘moderates’ in Sri Lanka would be very much similar to Iran at present.
There are obviously similarities and differences of the two cases. Unlike our Man (President) extending his term limit beyond the two terms stipulated in the Constitution, Ahmadinejad didn’t do so by bringing a dishonourable constitutional amendment like the 18A. Therefore, he didn’t contest at the last election at all and the electoral apparatus as a result remained fairly neutral unlike in the 2009 presidential election. Judging by all present indications and past behaviour of our present regime, any keenly contested election including elections for Provincial Councils would be manipulated let alone a future presidential election. This was exactly the case in Iran in 2009 and the main contenders of Ahmadinejad disputed the results until recently and the voters flocked to the streets in protest. The slogan was ‘Where is my vote?’
Better Than Sri Lanka
Iran’s presidential system at least appears to be better than the Sri Lankan system. No President could hold the office for more than two terms and a single term is restricted to only four years unlike in Sri Lanka. Six years for one term is obviously too long and this is a matter that JR Jayewardene himself expressed reservations on, of course after he completed full twelve years (1977-1989)! With the term limit completely removed through the inglorious 18A, the thinking of the Rajapaksa regime is obviously to keep a continuous grip on presidential powers as a ‘royal’ or family prerogative, if there is no viable contender like Hassan Rohani at the next election or through complete rigging of elections if it at all possible.
Whatever criticisms one could extend to the Iranian political system on human rights and democratic practice, it has proved to be a flexible system than Sri Lanka at least as far as the possibilities of ‘regime change’ are concerned. As an engineer and a former teacher from a poor background, Ahmadinejad also was a modest leader, although an arch conservative, unlike his friend in Sri Lanka was concerned. There were no direct allegations against him like ‘Helping Hambantota’ although he was severely questioned by the Iranian Parliament on corruption allegations last year while he was in office as the President of the country.
This is something unimaginable in Sri Lanka given President’s constitutional impunity and political culture of parliamentarians both within the government and the opposition at present. This is no way of saying that Ahmadinejad was a democratic leader. He may have to answer many charges against human rights and other violations and he has already been summoned by a Criminal Court in Tehran.
It is in the above background that the presidential election in Iran last Friday was exemplary for Sri Lanka to emulate in the future to break away from the present political impasse. The opposition which was built up against the 2009 election rigging through the Green Movement managed to achieve two key objectives. First was to ensure that at least voting and counting should be free and fair as much as possible although even at the election thuggery and harassment were predominant tactics of the conservative candidates and the ruling coalition. Second and most important was to enlist confidence among the voters that their participation matters and they could make a change from conservatism to moderation. This was achieved through massive campaigns throughout the country. People were asking for freedom and rights accompanied by social and economic justice.
Out of 50.5 million registered voters, there was an impressive turnout of 36.7 million or 72.7 per cent. Hassan Rohani, a moderate cleric and a former nuclear negotiator won the election outright, polling 18.6 million votes or 50.68 per cent of ballots cast. The most decisive at the election was that there was only one moderate candidate and all others were conservatives, splitting their vote bank among themselves. This may be difficult to achieve in the Sri Lankan context, given our perennial party and personal rivalries, but that should be the aim as much as possible. Otherwise there could be a second count in which the Rajapaksa regime would be in a better position to manipulate. It is high time that all aspirants to the presidential position give up their personal ambitions for a national cause.
In Iran, there were five conservative candidates; two of those predicted as likely winners, Mohammad Qalibaf polling 16.55 per cent and Saeed Jalili only 11.3 per cent. The others were well behind. There is opinion to perceive that the ‘regime change’ in Iran has come about as a result of the UN and Western sanctions on the nuclear issue. This may well be the case considering that Qalibaf and Jalili being nuclear hardliners following Ahmadinejad and Rohani promising to negotiate with the West, preserving Iran’s legitimate right to pursue nuclear power for civilian purposes.
Rohani has a credible track record on this matter being the chief negotiator during the reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s last years during 2003 and 2005, before the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over like Mahinda Rajapaksa taking over from reformist Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2005, even well before the constitutionally legitimate period. That is a different inglorious story altogether. It is also important to mention that Rohani obtained the endorsement of another former President of Iran, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), who is also considered as a moderate at least in relative terms apart from Khatami.
Drawing from this experience, it is important to note that whoever could effectively challenge Mahinda Rajapaksa at the next presidential election should have not only the endorsement or blessings of CBK but also the active support, unless she herself opt to challenge, which is in my opinion an unlikely scenario. CBK is the only living former President in Sri Lanka also with credentials as a moderate and a reformist or even a radical, whatever the weaknesses and mistakes during her tenure. She is the only person who could create a timely wedge within the SLFP and the UPFA, against the family dominance of the Rajapaksas to effectively engineer a regime change.
Role of UNP
Under normal circumstances, the leader of the alternative or the opposition party and that is Ranil Wickramasinghe of the UNP who should challenge the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa from the other dominant party, the SLFP. Wickramasinghe or RW undoubtedly is a moderate leader with experience and capabilities. He deserves a chance more than anybody else, if that is a criterion in Sri Lankan politics. However, the UNP has now come up with a ‘Constitutional Reform Proposal’ which categorically intends to abolish the presidential system and therefore there is no much point in the UNP leader becoming the presidential candidate to lead this transition.
This should be left for a better figurehead and even if the opposition fails to obtain the required 2/3 majority in Parliament to change the Constitution that figurehead could serve as a Ceremonial President somewhat like how President DB Wijetunga acted during 1993/94. There is no constitutional impediment for this eventuality if necessary. However, even a defeated or a reformed SLFP might be agreeable for a profound constitutional changes and the abolition of the presidential system, if a regime change can be effected ousting the Rajapaksa family which is undoubtedly has become a major fetter in the democratic system in Sri Lanka.
The role of the UNP and RW could be different in winning the parliamentary elections and forming a viable and an effective democratic government through a genuine coalition of (present) oppositional parties without playing mere power politics as in the past. It has to be admitted, however, that the UNP’s recent constitutional reform proposals are not that attractive except the objective to abolish the presidential system. The leading opposition party by this time should have come up with a more extensive and attractive program of action, countering Mahinda Chinthana for example. However unfortunately this is not the case at present.
As an alternative to the present Presidential System what might be required is a simple or straight forward Parliamentary System (no need to say Westminster) the people could understand and related to, even by referring to a basic ‘civics text book’ of SF de Silva or AJ Wilson vintage in the good old days. Why complicate matters when there are simple and viable solutions to put forward? Any advanced constitutional revisions could be undertaken by consensus later or it should be left for a much longer evolutionary process. Back to the basics is the present requirement.
The UNP proposals have unfortunately given much prominence for the ‘unitary state’ quite unnecessarily and as a result has attracted with much glee the far right wing forces of the JHU for discussions. This is not the way to forge a ‘moderate opposition’ to the right wing regime of Rajapaksas clocked as left wing and/or nationalist. A major task of a regime change should be genuine national reconciliation and people centred development.
Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha or someone like him might be the best common candidate to challenge Mahinda Rajapaksa at the next presidential election judging from the experience of Iran. ‘Moderates’ and ‘conservatives’ in Sri Lanka might be roughly fifty fifty like in Iran or judging from our own past electoral behaviour. If the moderate forces could properly be mobilized, a change could be definitely effected. It however requires much thought and hard work. RW or any other from the UNP could be the Prime Ministerial candidate if broader consensus could be forged between various present and future oppositional parties, the TNA and the JVP as major constituents. CBK could perhaps play a brokering role between different forces and facilitating forging a viable opposition to the regime behind the scenes.
There is one lesson that Sri Lanka should not draw from Iran hastily and that is to wait for some external sanctions to come about like ‘Waiting for Godot’ for a regime change. That will never be the case given the present circumstances while maximum and measured pressure (from India, US, EU and UN) could be feasible and useful. The regime at present has a formidable backing from China, for pragmatic reasons on China’s part, and this is something that the opposition should try to alter. It could be done since China does not appear to have a special love for the Rajapaksas other than their self-interests. If a viable opposition is on the move and some external influence is also exerted on China, it will change. At least it is worth trying. While China is moving in a progressive direction, Rajapaksa regime is on the opposite course.
In a way, the Iranian example is little too early to emulate in Sri Lanka as the next presidential election would be little far away from now. It is also possible that a moderate cleric like Hassan Rohani might spoil the chances of guiding the country in a proper direction because the balance of forces within and outside Iran is far too complicated. If there are set-backs for his tenure, it might also be a poor example for Sri Lanka. On the other hand, what is important for Sri Lanka is not necessarily the election lesson, but the process through which the people and the opposition forces chartered their way to the present regime change. That would definitely be a lasting example for Sri Lanka.