By Lionel Bopage –
By far the most important issue for the constituents of Sri Lanka at the last week’s presidential election was about opening a pathway for the formation of good governance. However, simply electing a new president does not create good governance. A president and his/her government should allow, nurture and strengthen good governance by gradually institutionalizing political processes and promoting universal values that are intrinsic to good governance. The new President, Maithripala Sirisena, and his revamped government have embarked on a journey with the proclaimed aim of establishing good governance, although some measures taken so far appear counter-productive and certain pronouncements seem rather utopian.
Nevertheless, I believe, we could contribute ingeniously to moving towards good governance – by engaging constructively, patiently and vigilantly – keeping the momentum of all diverse forces that brought this unprecedented positive outcome for the people of Sri Lanka alive. What follows is a brief analysis to see where we are now before we look at the path ahead for achieving our aims.
Background of the election
The people have taken part in the election campaign overwhelmingly and enthusiastically, though it was not entirely free and fair, nor peaceful or democratic. Participation in the election was very high at 81.5 percent. There was a significant turn out by voters in the north. Despite the partisan interpretation of results by many groups with certain interests, this election can be considered as the first election since the 1990s where a candidate was elected by the participation of the diverse spectrum of communities belonging to Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. The issues related to ethnic or religious issues, which had been dominating the elections since the 1950s, did not play a major role in this election.
Unfortunately, the election occurred in an environment in which multifarious hurdles were laid against the campaign of the common opposition candidate. The Rajapaksa campaign was heavily racialist and abundantly financed. Almost all state resources including human, material, financial and media were used against the opposition campaign. One of the major issues impacting all other vexed issues in Sri Lanka – the national question – was not discussed at all.
The opposition’s election campaign, which highlighted the incumbent’s authoritarianism, corruption, fraud, waste, family nepotism and politicisation and militarisation of civil administration appears to have been effective in urban areas, but not as effective in the rural areas, particularly down south. The election campaign of the UNP has been more organised, coordinated, and well-oiled and more grass-roots based. The support the common opposition candidate received from Tamils and Muslims increased, due to the authoritarian and mono-cultural approach adopted by the Rajapaksa regime to stay in power.
This election outcome has been and will be analysed in many different ways according to the world outlook of the analyst (including myself), and whose interests and privileges that analyst is trying to safeguard. Already many interested parties including pro-Rajapaksas and nationalists with some from the Sri Lankan left groups have tried to interpret the election outcome through identity politics. While the ethnic breakdown of the electoral outcome may be not-so-important, it should not be under-emphasised. The abolition of executive presidency and appointment of independent commissions are being given priority at this presidential election. There were many other issues highlighted during the election campaign including good governance, rule of law and democratic practices, fight against corruption, cost of living, employment opportunities, and better access to healthcare and education etc. Those on the left also raised the issue of the need to address the national question, but it did not gain much traction.
Despite the support of the Tamil National Alliance in the North and East and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in the East and elsewhere, attributing the total election outcome just to ethnic or religious identity is an oversimplification. Although the overwhelming votes cast by the Tamils and Muslims of the North and East might have tipped the balance in favour of Maithripala Sirisena, the argument that the election outcome is in support of separatism or devolution of power is misplaced, for the statistical breakdown of the election results shows that 84% of the votes cast for Maithripala Sirisena came from the rest of the country.
The Rajapaksa regime and its torch-bearers carried out a massive all island TV and radio campaign based on mono-cultural nationalistic and racialist propaganda. This could have influenced more racialist thinking Sinhalese to vote for Rajapaksa, while more Tamils would have been influenced to vote for the common opposition candidate. We are also aware that some separatist groups and certain radical groups advocated boycotting the election. That was also an exercise of their bourgeois democratic right. By doing so they effectively forfeited their own democratic right. They may claim that they have collectively convinced about 20 percent of the voters to stay away from voting, though this is disproved by the fact that this time there were more people willing to cast their vote in favour of one of the two major candidates.
I believe the Tamil community needs to be applauded and welcomed for their participation in the election, despite the fierce propaganda of the pro-Rajapaksa elements of the previous regime, and the constrictions placed on the opposition’s agenda of having to maintain the national security status quo, and the unitary nature, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. My conclusion is that since the 1940s, this is the first election in the history of Sri Lanka, where ethnicity and religion did not play a major role in influencing the outcome of the election.
The immediate future
The President and the new Cabinet has assumed duties. Some secretaries have been appointed. The 100 day reforms program has been launched. The best advice I could provide to this new interim government, is that it should pick the ten most important issues pertinent to each department and Ministry, develop appropriate policy calculi to address those issues and implement them. This will greatly assist in building the confidence of people in the new President and the government. President, Ministers and Ministries need to take decisions in consultation with each other in a participative manner. Deferment of significant issues or vacillation on decisive issues could become deadly for the future.
This is essential because the Rajapaksas and Weerawansas will not stand idle. They have begun to spread the lie that they lost because of the voters in the north and east and the plantations. They are silent on the fact that they got part of their votes because they were able to use state resources to bribe, intimidate, frighten, and cajole some by raising the spectre of LTTE and separatism in the national psyche of the Sinhala Buddhist majority.
The Rajapaksa plot to stay in power using the military and emergency laws was thwarted, thanks to the integrity of Elections Commissioner, Inspector General of Police and the Army Commander – to all of whom we are grateful. This anti-democratic behaviour needs to be given ample exposure among the people and the suspects need to be charged according to the law. Some of the suspects in this regard have gone overseas, probably with the tacit knowledge of some bureaucrats, who have been directly helping them previously. Some of the prominent youth organisations who have been closely working with Rajapaksas and sometimes with Nil Balakaya (Blue Corps) have been trying at all costs to paint a democratic picture of the Rajapaksa’s reign. When required in future, they will no doubt try to help resurrect the remnants of the Rajapaksa regime dressed up in democratic clothes.
There have been many criminal allegations against the Rajapaksa regime including the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, disappearance of Frontline Socialist Party activists Lalith and Kuhan, assassination of Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, the massacre of 17 aid workers of Action Contre la Faim, the massacre of five high school students in Trinco, and assassination of arrested criminal suspects mostly in Colombo. There are allegations to the effect that unarmed and peaceful civilians have been killed during strikes, peaceful protests and during the civil war. The Rajapaksa regime openly, unhesitatingly and flagrantly violated the election laws by using violence, intimidation and bribery. Such criminal activities and offences need to be properly and independently investigated and the perpetrators must be brought to justice.
The new regime is taking its first baby steps in opening up a more democratic space for civil society to operate. However, in the implementation of its 100 day program before going for the next General Elections, the new regime is being forced to rely on at least some of the current politicians, bureaucrats and systems of the previous autocratic regime. Obviously, this situation is not in favour of the anticipated journey towards establishing good governance and rule of law. The new President and the regime need to stay vigilant in this regard. Vacillation and marching time will be deadly and tantamount to committing suicide.
The non-violent regime change was mainly a result of the social discontent of the suffering masses of the country including workers and peasants. The non-Sinhala communities have expressed their wish for democratic reform and a way forward to negotiate and resolve issues specific to their communities. If the hopes and expectations of these masses are not fulfilled, then the situation will be conducive for emerging struggles. The first step in the right direction will be for the new regime to take bold measures with the consent of the people to appropriately address such issues in the long term interest of the people and the country.
In the meantime, the remnants of the former Rajapaksa regime will try their best to resurrect the bogey of racialism and nationalism by resorting to the lowest levels of deception. This tendency and the autocratic and repressive nature of the Rajapaksa regime compelled many individuals, groups and organisations to come forward and support the common opposition candidate for overturning the autocratic executive presidential system.
This unprecedented dynamic collective that was not involved in partisan politics, opened the doors for this change of direction. We need to keep this momentum for change alive, through maintaining the peoples’ desire for change, so that any hesitation or vacillation on the part of the new regime can be prevented. Then the new regime will have no option but to implement what they have pledged during the election campaign. Despite the possibility of deferments and vacillations of the new regime, this social collective need to be more organised, energetic and vigilant so as to keep up its momentum for change lively.