By Laksiri Fernando –
In respect of the impending presidential election, the purpose of the opposition should be to defeat the incumbent President, in case that he contests which is almost sure given the present political dynamics. He should be defeated not merely as Mahinda Rajapaksa but as the presidential candidate of the UPFA, who is primarily responsible for the mess and mismanagement since 2010.
This is undoubtedly not an easy task particularly given the disunity and weaknesses within the opposition forces. While this remains the organizational situation within the opposition, there are so many issues why the incumbent President should be defeated or not allowed to run a third term. It would be a disaster for democracy and the country. One reason that can be utilized of course is his broken promise to abolish the executive presidency. However, the Sri Lankan voters do not seem to have much awareness or time to be concerned about ‘broken promises.’
EP and Other Issues
Apart from the broken promise, the executive presidential system undoubtedly is one of the root causes of the disintegration of democracy in the country. However, it is not the only root cause. Institutionally speaking, the deterioration started with the first republican constitution in 1972 while even the previous constitution was not completely satisfactory in terms of democracy or human rights protection. There are of course, non-institutional or extra-constitutional reasons for the deterioration of democracy. Some of them are within the party system and some others relate to the policy sphere. The purpose of this article however is not to deliberate on all those reasons. If we can identify a fundamental key area, it is sufficient to attack or address that concern in a practical manner.
The abolition of the executive presidential system undoubtedly can bring a momentum for the resurrection of democracy in the country. However, whether that could constitute a single issue which can defeat the incumbent president is wholly doubtful. As a political science student, I have learned and observed that people vote at national elections on multitude of issues. These issues could be identified through events and socio political analysis. Sri Lanka do not have reliable opinion polls unfortunately.
Economic issues undoubtedly constitute one of the major strands where people could be moved and mobilized. Irrespective of the much propagated economic progress, economic disparities have enlarged and people are not satisfied with only some sections reap the benefits. It is a known fact that ‘relative deprivation’ occurs not when an economy is stagnant but when it moves forward. Economic management is at the heart of the situation with issues such as corruption, mismanagement, favoritism that people easily understand. Political factors may be more profound such as the family rule, military interventions, breakdown of the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, human rights and minority rights etc.
The above is not an exhaustive list of issues but a gist of it. Apart from issues, people vote on the basis of the candidate/s. Undoubtedly the incumbent President has an established or rather an overblown charisma. It might be difficult to find a fitting competitor. That does not matter very much as that disadvantage can be countered through other factors or mobilizations.
There is largely a constant factor in voting behavior and that is the voting on party lines. The parties in the opposition have different support bases and if they can be put together the confidence of these supporters might be undoubtedly enhanced. That is the natural strength of a Common Candidate and a United Front. If that can be achieved, the government campaign can effectively be countered through socio-economic and political issues, however keeping in mind that any miss-adventures in respect of religious or ethnic issues could completely derail the campaign trail and even might split the opposition unity. There can be spoilers coming in.
I have never been enthusiastic about a SI candidate for the presidential election. The single issue campaigns or elections can be effective in smaller constituencies like local government or trade union/professional organizations but not in national elections where naturally a host of issues are involved. In rare circumstances, single issues take prominence in defending particular interest i.e. Block Quebecois in Canada. Otherwise, to the best of my knowledge, those are related to caucuses or interest groups.
When the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) came up with a 15 point program for constitutional reform it appeared as an admirable ‘single issue’ organization but with a broad framework including the objective of recognition of the ‘multicultural, multilingual and multireligious nature of the people that constitute the Sri Lankan nation.’ However, that program is insufficient for a presidential campaign. What might be more important is the unity and mobilization of the oppositional forces, obviously on multiple issues, but without neglecting the single purpose of abolition of the presidential system.
Plan of a Strategy
However, a strategy for the presidential election cannot be isolated from a strategy for the parliamentary election thereafter. After all, abolition or changing of the presidential system is a matter for the Parliament than for the President. It is wholly unrealistic for a presidential candidate to promise that he or she could abolish the presidential system let alone within six months. What an elected President can do is to call for immediate parliamentary election hoping that a two thirds would be obtained for the abolition of the constitution and framing of a new one. This also would mean defeating of the incumbent government at the parliamentary election for which undoubtedly require a multiple issue campaign.
With the risk of simplification and leaving some questions unanswered, let me explain what I would think a feasible strategy to unite and contest the elections. All opposition parties, including the UNP, have agreed and promised to abolish the presidential system. Under such conditions, there is no point in leaders of the UNP (Ranil Wickremesinghe) or the JVP (Anura Kumara Dissanayake) or any other party contesting the presidential election. They should prepare for the parliamentary election that could form a firm and alternative government jointly or separately.
The best strategy for the opposition is to have a Common Candidate. The common candidate should not be a party candidate when he or she contests. After selection of such a candidate through consensus by the parties in the opposition he or she should effectively resign from that party. The main purpose of that candidate should be to defeat the incumbent and move towards abolishing the presidential system. As a proviso of this strategy, she or he should not use any executive powers of the president from day one, except to preserve the national unity and ethnic peace in the country if any need arises. His or her promise should be to function as a nominal president/executive allowing a parliamentary system to operate whatever the party wins the majority in parliament.
Let me give you a scenario. Under the prevailing circumstances, if I were to pick a possible common candidate, I would pick Karu Jayasuriya on the proviso he resigns from the UNP. It is best that he contests with two vice presidential candidates informally though, one from the Tamil community and the other from the Muslim community. This is without additional or minimal expenses to the public coffers. The presidential candidate can reveal drastic cuts to his maintenance from the present budget that the incumbent president uses. This promise in itself will be an attraction to the voters.
I would also suggest that the Tamil vice presidential candidate should be selected with special consultation with the TNA (and possibly CWC), or through such mechanism, from the hill country community and the Muslim vice presidential candidate with special consultation with the JVP (and possibly SLMC). These nominal candidates also should resign from their respective parties if they belong to any. I would consider the proposal to have two nominal vice presidential candidates is important to symbolize national unity within the presidential campaign.
After the parliamentary elections what could preferably be constituted is a National Unity Government for five years. That is the best. Otherwise the parties can go their own way and see who gets the majority. I completely understand and even appreciate that the policies of the respective political parties are diverse in respect of the economy as well as on the national question. That is the very reason why it should be a national unity government. There can be difficult negotiations, however those should be conducted in possible good faith.
It is possible that different political parties or different individuals may have different proposals. My proposals are not at all hard and fast. Most important would be to make a move towards having a Common Candidate and take initiatives to convene discussions between parties and civil society and professional organizations towards that end. I would suggest that Ven. Maduluwawe Sobtha Thero and the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) or any such organization could play an important role as an intermediary or mediator in such a process and negotiations. It is already late.