By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
Raise your hand
There’s no greater
Dictator in the land!
Everything I do, I do for you!”
Mel Brooks (Springtime for Hitler)
No one wants an early presidential election, except the Rajapaksas.
But the Rajapaksas seem determined to hold a presidential election at the earliest possible constitutional time.
Perhaps it is the stars. That superstition apart, two other reasons, both extremely rational, may be compelling the Rajapaksas to have presidential elections, one year ahead of time.
Firstly, the Rajapaksas are losing and not gaining popularity. Winning even an unfree and unfair election in 2016 would be much harder than doing so in 2015. In fact it might require a degree of illegality and violence which is systemically destabilising.
By 2016 Sri Lanka will have more highways and more hotels, possibly South Asia’s tallest tower and one or two artificial islands. But by 2016, more Lankans of every ethnicity, religion, gender, caste and class will be dissatisfied with their present living conditions and pessimistic about their future prospects. To win an election in such circumstances, targeted and localised violence will not suffice. Violence will have to be generalised, from North to South.
Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, there is the issue of succession.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is neither young nor immortal. Death or incapacity can come to him at any time. Ensuring that his chosen successor is positioned one constitutional step below the presidency is a sine-qua-non for the continuation of familial rule. Without a Rajapaksa occupying the prime ministerial post, dynastic succession cannot be assured – and by extension familial rule would be in peril.
DM Jayaratne will not oblige the Rajapaksas by resigning. Sacking him and appointing a Rajapaksa to the post will create too much bad blood within the SLFP. The Family might have risked it, but for the presence of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. So long as she is around, she has the potential to become a lightening rod for inner-party discontent. And the Rajapaksas are not sufficiently confident of the party’s loyalty and servility to risk such a move, yet.
But if Mahinda Rajapaksa wins the presidential election, his hand will be strengthened immensely vis-à-vis the party. The next obvious step would be to dissolve the parliament and hold a snap general election. With the opposition in post-defeat disarray and with the UNP submerged in a chaotic leadership battle (Sajith Premadasa will remount his leadership bid, post-defeat), winning a parliamentary election will be relatively easier. Basil Rajapaksa is effectively in control of the nomination process while Namal Rajapaksa has been appointed by his father to head the reorganisation of the SLFP youth wing[i]. The new parliament will be far more Rajapaksa-complexioned than the current one.
It may also contain Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Alternately, a victorious Mahinda Rajapaksa might bend the SLFP and the UPFA to his will with the threat of an early parliamentary election. The SLFP and the UPFA are as lacking in intelligence and foresight as they are in courage. That is why they knuckled down and backed the 18th Amendment (sans that monumental error, in fifteen months, they and the country would have been free of the Rajapaksa scourge). In a similar display of outstanding short-sightedness and outstanding cowardice, the SLFP and UPFA may agree to a Rajapaksa prime minister, in return for a 1982 style referendum in place of an election.
Either way, a Sibling can become the PM and the succession can be secured.
Realistically a united and revitalised opposition has a chance of pushing a presidential election into a second round. In such a scenario, currently inconceivable ripple-effects might loosen the Rajapaksa stranglehold over the state, the government and the ruling party. Even if Mahinda Rajapaksa wins in the second round, it may not give him the legitimacy and the authority he needs to impose his will on the party and the country.
But if Mahinda Rajapaksa wins outright, barring a miracle, Sri Lanka will be saddled with rule by the Rajapaksa Family – and their uncouth acolytes – for the foreseeable future.
This week, the EU imposed a ban on fish imports from Sri Lanka. The ban will come into effect from January 15th 2015. The potential loss to the country can be gleaned by the fact that last year, Lankan fish exports to EU amounted to more than Rs. 12billion[ii].
The EU ban was due to persistent use of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing practices by large fishing vessels flying the Lankan flag. The first EU warning came in 2012. Several other countries, which were issued similar warnings, did the sensible thing and began to cooperate with the EU. But Sri Lanka reportedly refused to curtail IUU practices which are in violation of both EU and international regulations.
And according to The Sunday Times, the IUU fishing practices are being used by Chinese vessels flying Lankan flags[iii].
The EU sanctions may be an early indication of the varied and multiple costs of Sri Lanka’s dependent relationship with China, a legacy of Rajapaksa rule which is likely to become infinitely worse during a third Rajapaksa term. Did Sri Lanka fail to cooperate with the EU because of Chinese pressure? Did the Rajapaksas agree to allow the Dragon to engage in illegal fishing under cover of the Lion flag, in return for financial and other favours?
Incidentally, if vessels flying Lankan flags continue to engage in IUU practices, more EU sanctions might follow.
This is what happens to a nation when its rulers have only one ‘idea world’[iv] – power at any cost.
Once national elections are safely out of the way, the Rajapaksas will be able to move ahead with their anti-popular and self-aggrandising agenda without bothering about public opinion or national interest. The Orwellian ID card system, which will enable the Siblings to access biometric, genealogical and other vital information about every Lankan at the touch of a key or two, will be implemented. The class-cleansing project in Colombo and other cities will be accelerated. Even if Indian pressure saves parts of the 13th Amendment it will not suffice to stop the demographic reengineering of the North/East, Israel and Chinese style. Minorities will become more alienated as the regime intensifies its alliance with Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism in an effort to retain majority support. Governance will become not just anti-democratic but also anti-meritocratic. The law will become a Rajapaksa-tool. As kinship and political allegiance become increasingly relevant in the private sector, brain drain will intensify. Internally Sri Lanka will become a Rajapaksa fiefdom internally and a Chinese fiefdom externally.
This week, former Chief Justice Sarath Silva publicly apologised for his ruling in the ‘Helping Hambantota’ case and JHU parliamentarian Athuraliye Rathana Thero publicly apologised for supporting the 18th Amendment. Let us hope that we will not be fated to hear various opposition leaders (those still at liberty, politically and legally) offering public apologies for losing a winnable election, thereby enabling the Rajapaksas to consolidate familial rule and ensure dynastic succession.
[iv] What should the Left propose – Roberto Unger