The Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena (MS) is not just a person. He is a symbol, as well. Different people have different interpretations of this symbol. The supporters of the Rajapakasa regime are the poorest interpreters of this symbol. According to Hudson Samarasinghe, who has reduced radio medium into a kind of booing at people who does not think the way he does, the Common Candidate is a conspirator supported by the West. This man Samarasinghe, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, has been insulting people with unimaginable impunity during his two-hour radio diatribe called “Rata Yana Atha” during the last few years. His kind of journalism, if one wants call it ‘journalism’, is only possible with the support of his tasteless master. Then there is another man Wimal Weerawansha. Only concept left in Weerawansha’s pool of thought is also “Western conspiracy.’ For him the Common Candidate is a plot designed in the US Embassy of Sri Lanka. As Gunadasa Amarasekara has put it, the Common Candidate is a conspiracy of the West whose handmaid is a group of Buddhist monks led by Rev. Maduluwawe Sobhita and Aturaliye Rathana. The aim of the West is to destroy the nationality of Sinhala people. For these uncritical defenders of the regime Rev. Sobhita and Rathna are evil monks equal to the robe wearers who assassinated former prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike. All these conspiracy theories have now lost their power of persuasion partly because that line of thinking has become so one-dimensional that it captures none of the complexities and nuances.
The response to the Common Candidate by the ideological supporters of the current regime shows one thing important to note: They do not have any fresh ideas and they have fallen into a kind of ideological slumber after the ending of the war in 2009. They have failed to create a mode of thinking suitable for the post-war Sri Lanka. That failure itself is a major cause of creating the Common Candidate – a fact the regime is still to recognize. After ending of the war, the ideologues of the regime fell into an ethical slumber in addition to the intellectual one. That is why they failed to produce an internal critique of the unprecedented corruption and waste of public resources by the regime, specially the ruling family. For that reason, all the stories of corruption narrated by the Common Candidate Movement have become extremely appealing. In fact they are stories of horror that can instantly make people hate the regime.
In addition to those pre-election corruption stories, the election campaign itself has become a display of corruption. People have begun to wonder how much money the regime is spending on the election campaign alone. Nearly one thousand buses of the state transport board took people to Anuradhapura for the inaugural rally of Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa. When questioned, the minister of transport told the media that the buses were hired by the president’s campaign. The minister implied that state buses can be hired by anyone paying the cost. Well, that is more of a rhetorical statement. No one believes that the Common Candidate can rent one thousand state-owned busses even at a higher price. In addition, by allowing that many buses to be taken for the rally, the minister created numerous difficulties for the public including the children who were taking the Ordinary Level exams. They, the children, had a great difficulty in some areas in getting to examination centers and getting back home. This is only a single example of misusing public resources, and, to be kind to him, Mr. Rajapaksa was not the first to abuse power that way. But that is a practice that needs to end. Arguably, the executive presidency, with its immense power, naturalizes and rationalizes such unethical practices by turning them into a tradition.
While the supporters of the regime argue that the whole story of common candidacy is a conspiracy, they themselves do not have an appealing content to their own campaign. Both the content and form of their campaign is Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. Larger than life cutouts of MR are ubiquitous signs making the figure of the president rather cheap spectacle, making people wonder how much money our good president has spent to display his own photo as the single most important of content of his third presidential campaign. One needs this artificial display of charisma when one knows that one’s natural aura is long gone.
The visual atmosphere of any little hamlet has been polluted by the president’s fantasy of his own omnipresence. There is another important semiotic aspect to these cutouts: these gigantic cutouts also include very small photos of the ‘patrons’ of them. More often than not those patrons are ministers or local politicians. Huge presidential cutouts and small photographs of ministers portray the very structural issue the Common Candidate is trying to highlight: the main problem of current constitution is that it creates a gigantic president under whose shadow the parliament and its members become extremely insignificant and small. The incumbent president’s publicity advisers must be commended for inadvertently supporting the Common Candidate’s main slogan! Too big cutouts of the presidents tell us that a too-big-president is in fact a problem for the country.
Those superhuman cutouts tell us something else as well: Mr. Rajapaksa’s election campaign has one key message, and it is Mr. Rajapaksa himself. The Common Candidate’s campaign, in contrast, has a much more substantial content. It talks of good governance, the reduction of corruption, depoliticizing the legal system, police and public service. In addition to abolishing the executive presidency, the Common Candidate promises re-implementing the 17th amendments of the constitution preventing politicization of key areas crucial for democracy to run smoothly. The Common Candidate also wants to revise the current system of preferential votes that has made election campaigns a kind of business into which only billionaires can enter. In addition, it is a system that encourages politicians to find those billions of campaign money by unethical and illegal means. It is a system that paves the way for those barons of black money to enter politics. That was how we ended up turning criminal drug lords, mafia bosses and the like into ‘respected politicos’. The Common Candidate and the movement around him want to put an end to all these.
With the arrival of the Common Candidate, a large number politically oriented Buddhists have found someone with whom they happily identify. For a long time in modern history, political Buddhists thought that their ethnic and cultural identity was at stake and the priority needed to be given to safeguarding that identity. After the ending of the war, however, some sections of the political Buddhists began to reflect on how they can they could bring back the Buddhist ethics to the current political debate. Reverend Maduluwawe Sobhitha and Reverend Athuraliya Rathana were two central Buddhist leaders who argued that the current form of government, specially the executive presidency, cannot be justified in a post-war Sri Lanka. From the point view of Buddhist ethics and Buddhist humanism, the executive presidency and the abuse of power and resources enabled by that presidency are fundamentally wrong. In that sense, there is a strong revival of Buddhist ethical reasoning within the Common Candidate movement. That is why all that ‘rhetoric of Western conspiracy’ by Rajapaksa’s most vocal supporters has failed to weaken the Common Candidate’s public appeal. One of the fatal mistakes made by the ideologues of the current regime was their failure to recognize that the phenomenon of Common Candidate resulted from a certain ethical reflection on the part of politically conscious Buddhists. In fact, liberal and left-wing intellectuals played a crucial role in getting those Buddhists to rediscover ethics instead of and in addition to Buddhist identity. The Common Candidate is symbol into which truly democratic Sri Lankans must join to breathe life before the election and, more importantly, after the election.