The presidential election is only two weeks away. The propaganda war between the UPFA and the NDF (National Democratic Front) is heating up. There are accusations and counter accusations. There is also sporadic violence by the supporters of the ruling party. These are to be expected and they are common features in any election in Sri Lanka. It has become part of our political culture.
When it comes to resources both man power and money power to fight an election, the opposition is no match to the governing party. Mahinda Rajapaksa is using the entire state machinery openly to further his election campaign. Retired army personnel have been pressed into service to canvass votes by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the de facto Defence Minister.
As usual the government controlled media, television channels and newspapers are made full use for election propaganda on behalf of the incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa. For Rajapaksa who is contesting for the third time, this election is a do or die battle. He cannot afford to lose the elections. If he loses his empire built around him, his siblings and close relatives will collapse like nine pins. In case of defeat he stands to lose not only political power but his ill gotten wealth from mega projects. Common opposition candidate Sirisena has publicly declared that he will appoint a commission to probe all financial scandals and corruption. He also said that all political appointees to Foreign Service will be sent home and only trained and experienced professionals appointed in their places. As well Sirisena should clean up the Temple Trees of Rajapaksa’s uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews.
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued the proclamation on November 20th fixing the presidential election for January, 08 he was expecting a ‘cakewalk’ over his opponent. In fact he was taunting the opposition to name the candidate who will contest him and lose the election. Mahinda Rajapaksa was expecting Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the UNP and the leader of the Opposition in parliament or Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike ex-president to contest him. He knows Ranil Wickremesinghe is a born loser who has lost every election since he took over the leadership of the UNP. The solitary exception is the 2001 parliamentary election. He has also lost about 60 MPs who contested on the UNP ticket but crossed over to the government. Half the Ministers and Deputy Ministers in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet are ex-UNPers. For example the lame duck minister of foreign affairs G.L. Peiris first crossed over to the UNP in 2001, but crossed back as soon as the UNP lost the elections in 2004.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointing Ministers, Deputy Ministers and presidential advisors on the drop of a hat. Ministers drew their salaries and enjoyed the perks without even a table or chair to sit. No wonder Mahinda Rajapaksa has a jumbo size cabinet with 60 or so ministers and another 40 deputy ministers. Recently a deputy minister was appointed in charge of Botanical Gardens!
Mahinda Rajapaksa could have gone on for another 2 years, if he wanted. The last presidential election was held on January 26, 2010 for a period of 6 years. The Supreme Court gave him an extra year to compensate him losing 2 years in his first term. The result is he could have stayed in office till November, 2016. If he is elected by any chance his term of office will extend to 2022 including a year as bonus. In all, he would have warmed the president’s seat for 17 years in a row! That will be a record for any president, except president Mugabe of Zimbabwe who at 90 is the longest serving head of state in the world. He first got elected in 1987, thus completing 27 years in office. It is relevant to mention that US president’s term is restricted to two each running for only 4 years.
Before Mahinda Rajapaksa called for the elections he consulted his astrologers, paid homage and received blessings from Hindu Gods locally and Lord Sri Venkateswara, also known as Balaji and Govinda, the presiding deity of the temple called Thiruppathy. Today, if we go by the available statistics, about 30 – 40 million pilgrims, from all over the world, visit this holy temple every year making Lord Sri Venkateswara the most worshiped Hindu God in the world and Tirumalai the most visited place of worship. The annual revenue runs into billions of Indian rupees beating Vatican as the richest pilgrimage center of faith globally.
However, it looks though the astrologer got his readings wrong and Lord Vekateswara withheld his blessing for another day. The entry of Maithripala Sirisena as opposition common presidential candidate came as a bolt from the blue to Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena is one of his powerful and senior ministers and also held the post of the Secretary of the SLFP since 2001. He first entered parliament in 1989 and served as minister from 1994 – 2014. Sirisena had breakfast with president in the morning and in the evening he announced his intention to contest the presidential elections as the common candidate. Rajapaksa was forced to taste his own medicine, since he had a dubious reputation of engineering cross over from the opposition ranks.
Since the cross over of Maithripala Sirisena, 5 Ministers, 4 Deputy Ministers, 8 MPs and an unspecified number of Provincial Council and other local government bodies have followed suit. He has also lost the 2/3 majority he enjoyed in the parliament.
These are no doubt bad omens for president Rajapaksa. The only tit for tat cross over is that of Tissa Attanayake, UNP Secretary and appointed MP. No doubt it was a consolation prize for the beleagued Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The meeting Rajapaksa had in Batticaloa was heckled by a section of the crowd led by a Buddhist Thero. This is something unheard of in the past. In the propaganda meetings he held in Puthukudieruppu and Kilinochchi, they were largely attended by Sinhalese from Weli Oya. Mahinda Rajapaksa asked the Thamil people to forget the past and reminded them that he had returned the jewellery to those who pawned it to the LTTE. What he did not tell the Thamils is that the jewellery was the property of the people. Not the property of Mahinda Rajapaksa and how the jewellery ended in the hands of the president and how it resurfaced on the eve of an election is more than a coincidence.
Thamil people will not be fooled by these cheap election gimmicks. What they want from Mahinda Rajapaksa is the return of their ancestral properties grabbed by the army to build cantonments, bases, luxury hotels, restaurants, Buddhist temples, statues, war memorials, play grounds, swimming pools etc. Their lands are also used for growing vegetables, cultivating paddy, constructing a coal-fired Thermal plant at Sampur etc. A village in Vanni has been named Namal village and several roads have been renamed after Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is a supreme insult to the Thamil people by an insensitive and arrogant president.
It is said troubles don’t come in singles, they come in rows! This is very true of Mahinda Rajapaksa. All sections of the society have rallied against his bid for re-election. Apart from the Thamils and Muslims, Sinhala academics, university teachers, university students, Buddhist clergy, political parties of all hues have joined together for the first time since May, 2009.
According to Mahinda Rajapaksa there is an ‘international conspiracy’ to unseat him like president Allende and destabilize Sri Lanka. There is also a threat to national security from the LTTE which is regrouping and reorganizing. Added is the Thamil Diaspora plotting to divide the country. These gimmicks worked in the past, but may be not this time around. If he gets defeated, then he is the owner of his own downfall from power.
The rule by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his siblings is an unmitigated disaster for the country. Sirisena has charged the government of corruption, waste, nepotism, cronyism, the undermining of the rule of law, erosion of judicial independence and generally bad governance. Mahinda Rajapaksa has emerged virtually an elected dictator sending home people who dare to cross his path. The former chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached humiliated and unceremoniously forced him out of his official residence merely because she gave a verdict unfavourable to the government on the Divi Neguma draft bill.
An appeal signed by a group of Academics mostly Sinhalese have called up on the people to act decisively in the name of generations to come. It appealed to the people to exercise their civic duty to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa at the forthcoming elections. Here are some excerpts from their appeal:
“It is our considered view that our country is at a historically important juncture at this moment and our decision at this election will have crucial implications for future generations.
While we do not believe that all the changes we desire can be achieved overnight, or simply through a regime change, we believe strongly that this presidential election offers a window of opportunity to re-establish democracy, the rule of law and good governance and to address issues of social justice.
We note with extreme concern that in the past decade we have witnessed a breakdown of the rule of law and all norms of democracy and good governance and the concentration of both political and economic power in the hands of a few. This has been particularly manifested in:
The unprecedented politicization of the judiciary and the manipulation of the judicial system which reached a crisis point with the unlawful impeachment of the former Chief Justice.
The political control over the police, lack of public accountability of the police force, and the alarming levels of human rights violations perpetrated by police personnel. The intimidation of journalists and suppression of the free media.
The breakdown of public institutions and services which are now mostly concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite. This breakdown has negatively impacted on our access to such institutions and services which is increasingly determined by the extent to which we can wield influence and power. It has further resulted in public servants being subject to political manipulations and being victimized for daring to demonstrate any form of independence. The politicization of universities which are struggling to function in an environment of poor governance, infringement of academic autonomy and lack of basic funding.
We urge our fellow citizens to carefully consider not only the above but also the future of the country when exercising their civic duty. It is only the power of the people that can ensure the protection of democratic rights. The time has arrived for each of us to act decisively in the name of generations to come and cast our valuable vote for a candidate who has committed ….”
For the first time during the last 10 years Rajapaksa feels he is vulnerable. Defeat is staring at his face and that is wise he talks about handing over power without much ado if he loses the election.
What are the chances for Sirisena to win the election? It must be realised that it is not easy to defeat an incumbent president who commands enormous state resources both manpower and financial power. In the elections held in 2010 Rajapaksa defeated Sarath Fonseka by a wide margin despite the fact both Thamils and Muslims voted for the latter in 5 electoral districts in the North and East plus Nuwara Eliya electoral district in the Central Province dominated by the minorities. The following Table shows the details of voting:
The following Table shows how the majority of Thamils and Muslims voted in the 5 electoral districts in North and East plus the Nuwara Eliya electoral district:
The results of the provincial elections held for the Eastern Province (2012) and the Northern Province (2013) is shown below:
Therefore, Thamils and Muslims voting for Sirisena will not help him to win the election unless it is a tight race between the two candidates.
Sirisena should garner enough Sinhala – Buddhist votes in a big way, if he wants to win the election. In the 2010 elections Rajapaksa polled 6,015,934 votes out of which at least 80% (4,812,747) came from Sinhala – Buddhists. Sirisena to win the election has to close this gap which means he should poll more than 921,375 (1/2 x1, 842,747 majority) more votes this time around.
Total registered voters for the 2015 elections are 14,752,168 (2010 – 14,088,500) an increase of only 663,668 compared to 2010. Assuming 74% will turn out to vote the total polled will be 10,916,604. So the winning candidate must poll at least 5,458, 303 (50%+1) of the valid votes, that is, half the total valid votes plus 1. Again assuming Sinhala – Buddhist votes is 70% of the valid votes the total is 7,641,622. Out of this Mahinda Rajapaksa must poll a sizable percentage of valid votes to past 50% plus 1 to clinch victory.
The election manifesto named as compassionate governance and stable country (palanayak stavara ratak) of common candidate Maithripala Sirisena was released on December 19 in front of the Buddha statue at Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo. Sirisena promised sweeping handouts to win the favour of different sections of voters in the run-up to next month’s presidential poll.
1) The first action to be implemented under its 100 day action plan is to appoint UNP Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe as the Prime Minister.
2) Abolish the current executive presidency and introduce a new system of governance with a Westminster-style parliamentary system with presidential powers.
3) Annul the 18th amendment and implement the 17th amendment to create independent commissions.
4) Equal relations will be established with India, China, Pakistan and Japan — the principal countries of Asia — while improving friendly relations with emerging Asian nations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Korea without distinction.
5) The subsidies in a 100 day program include a 3,500-rupee interim allowance for pensioners until salary their anomalies are corrected and a 5,000 rupees in February as part of a 10,000-rupee increment to state workers.
6) Fuel retail prices will be reduced by reducing taxes which now earn the state 40 billion rupees a year while the price of a household gas cylinder will be brought down by 300 rupees.
7) Reduce taxes on 10 essential goods if it wins the January 8, 2015 presidential poll but assured domestic producers their interests would also be protected.
8) Senior citizens with deposits in state banks will get 15 percent interest for the first one million rupees while `Samurdhi` recipients of welfare will have benefits raised up to a maximum of 200 percent.
9) Mothers of new-born children will be given 20,000 rupees for food.
10) Guaranteed price of paddy will be raised to 50 rupees a kilo, potatoes 80 rupees, green tea leaf 80-90 rupees and rubber 350 rupees a kilo, as commodity prices collapse due to a strengthening US dollar.
11) The price of milk bought from dairy farmers will be raised by 10 rupees to 60 rupees a litre and 50 percent of farmers` loans will be written off.
12) Non-resident foreign currency deposits will get 2.5 percent more interest while penal interest on up to 200,000 rupees of gold loans will be written off.
13) Development dimension 10 times more than that of the current development by halting mega type corruption that gripped in the ongoing projects.
14) Special rehabilitation centers are proposed to be set up to cure the drug addicts, and pictorial warnings on cigarette packets will be increased up to 80%.
15) Prohibit the import of pesticides that lead to kidney disease and the farmer pension payment will be increased.
16) An allowance of twenty thousand rupees to be paid to each pregnant mother to enable her to provide a nutritious meal to the new born baby.
17) To allocate 6% of the GDP for education sector and Mahapola scholarship allowance to be increased unto five thousand rupees.
Among the other relief and incentives are: special tax holidays for local entrepreneurs, one million new employment, remove 400 million rupees tax on oil to reduce fuel prices and provide relief to buy vehicles for public transport sector including three wheelers and motor cycles.
Addressing the gathering during the launch of his election manifesto on December 19, common candidate Maithripala Sirisena said that he would march forward without vengeance. His agenda appears good on paper, but the difficult part is its implementation. Former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and the current holder Mahinda Rajapaksa also promised to abolish the executive presidential system once elected to power. Sirisena also promises to abolish the post of president, but not the post itself and that he will hold for 6 years if elected.
Un-surprisingly, the manifesto is purposely silent on ethnic relations, long-delayed devolution of powers to provincial councils, including those in the North and East.
The explanation offered by the common candidate is to tackle these problems after forming a National government comprising all political parties. That makes sense, so let us wait for some time.
All in all 8th January, 2015 will be a decisive turning point in the annals of Sri Lanka. Whether a majority of Sinhalese – Buddhist voters will vote against the current dictatorial government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, his siblings Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa and son Namal Rajapaksa is left to be seen. Latest news is the decision by the All Ceylon People’s Congress led by Industries and Commerce Minister Rishard Bathiudeen to cross over to the opposition. This is further sign Rajapaksa’s support base is collapsing. The SLMC is left with no alternative but to follow the ACPC.
It looks fairly certain the majority of Sinhalese, Thamils, Hill Country Thamils and Muslims have decided to end family rule of President Rajapaksa. If by any chance he wins the elections on January 08, 2015, Sri Lanka will further slide into authoritarianism, ethnic strive and family dictatorship.
As for Thamil votes, the vast majority as usual will vote against Mahinda Rajapaksa. Unlike the turn out in 2010, turn out in 2015 will be definitely more.
Rajapaksa has alienated the Thamils by militarization, Sinhalization and out right discrimination. Land grab, re-settlement of IDPs, the plight of war widows, lack of housing, high unemployment, a dysfunctional Northern Provincial Council under a colonial era type military governor, abolition of Thamil National Anthem have estranged the Thamil people, The daily ignominy they suffer at the hands of the army will heavily weigh in their minds when walking to the polling booth on January 8, 2014.
The Thamils will take revenge on Mahinda Rajapaksa like goddess Kannagi for treating them shabbily and robbing them of their self respect and dignity. Thousands of mothers whose children have disappeared after arrest by the armed forces will not vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa. He cannot buy their votes by cheap gimmicks like handing over jewellery, on the eve of an election that rightly belonged to them in the first place.