By Rajan Philips –
The August election is a non-issue election in the traditional sense. There are no burning constitutional, economic, or ethno-national issues in the campaign. The 19th Amendment for all its imperfections has put a lid on the constitutional debate in this election. The economy is a serious matter, but there is no serious debate over the economy other than the unedifying bickering about the Central Bank bond scandal. So is the Tamil question, but there is studied silence about it, almost an August calm before the September storm. As in January, the August election is again about corruption and is a second referendum on Mahinda Rajapaksa. He asked for the first and got the verdict in January, and has forced the appeal against it in August. But the August appeal is not catching as much public fire as the January trial did.
The Rajapaksa alliance seems to have stalled after jumping out of the fence in Anuradhapura. Were they racing to the wrong finish line: July 13 nominations, and not the August 17 election? The battle over nominations has left the old men in the UPFA too exhausted for the election in August. They are too tired even to take on Maithripala Sirisena for disowning Mahinda Rajapaksa after formally agreeing to his nomination. There are two SLFPs now: one in which the Central Committee cannot formally meet; the other where the leader of the Party, President Sirisena, is going about appointing SLFP electoral organizers in targeted electorates. The August election will determine which section of the SLFP will prevail.
The JVP and the UNF have put out their manifestos. The UPFA has promised to release its manifesto tomorrow. What new policy, initiative, or approach will be in the UPFA manifesto? There will be nothing new in the pitch about development and the scare about national security. Is the UPFA going to promise to abolish the executive presidency with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister? That will be a joke. And there is no political diesel for the UPFA to get any mileage out of the White Van that appeared and was apprehended, a first for the Police, in Mirihana. The bond scandal is something new and is a gift from the UNP as election ammunition. But no one in the UPFA is morally qualified to talk about the Central Bank scandal. It is an old maxim, even a legal principle, that those who make ethical complaints must have clean hands. Even DEW Gunasekera, with all due respects, has his hands tainted by his decade long association with a regime with which the Communist Party of old would have had nothing to do. The Old Left leaders did not win power but they kept those in power on a tight leash from the opposition.
If at all it is the JVP that has some standing to take the UNP government to task over the Central Bank scandal and it should. Is the JVP ready to take on the mantle of being the Left Opposition in Sri Lankan politics? Or, will the JVP emerge as a powerful third force in Sri Lankan politics after the August election? True, the party is making a formal pitch to form the next government based on its new manifesto, or National Programme, but given the electoral realities the real goal of the JVP leadership would be to finish as a strong opposition, perhaps bettering their significant success in the April 2004 parliamentary election. The JVP was then part of the UPFA, under Chandrika Kumaratunga, and won 42 seats (40% of the UPFA seats), polling over an estimated 16% nationally, and with JVP candidates obtaining larger number of preferential votes than their SLFP counterparts in several electoral districts. Can the JVP repeat or improve on this earlier performance in the coming election? That is one of the more important political questions that the August election will answer for the future.
The JVP manifesto for the August election is preciously entitled “The Accord of Conscience.” It marks the Party’s break from its violent origins and adolescence and affirms its maturity as a democratic party competing for standing through the electoral process. The Accord is woven around five themes – People Friendly Rule; Human Resources; Modernization and Industrialization; A Just Society; and Liberal Citizenry. There is both poetry and polemics in the Accord, and sharp criticism of the failed politics of 67 years of independence alternatingly under UNP and SLFP led governments. There is promise of national reconciliation, and Wimal Weerawansa has already picked on the non-mention of the Unitary State in the JVP Manifesto. If it should please him, the UNF manifesto makes mention of the Unitary State and its commitment to devolve power within the framework of the Unitary State.
The UNF manifesto promises a “New Country in 60 Days”, and is also based on a Five Point plan. The five points of the UNF are not the same as the JVP’s five points but they cover overlapping areas. The UNF’s five points include: Strengthening the Economy; Eradication of Bribery and Corruption; Establishing Freedom and Democracy; Investment for Infrastructure Development; and Education. Prime Minister Wickremasinghe has clarified that it is not an election manifesto but a Development Plan that is being presented by the UNF to the people to receive their mandate in August. This is somewhat problematic because manifestos outline the general principles, policies and direction of government for people’s endorsement in an election, whereas development plans are detailed undertakings in specific areas that require levels of scrutiny that cannot be provided in the context of a national election. And it would not be consistent with good governance principles to use an election victory as mandate to implement specific projects without detailed studies, scrutiny and public consultation. Parliamentary approval should be preceded by and based on expert scrutiny and public consultation.
The UNF ‘Plan’ lists a plethora of regional zones for economic development (45), agricultural development (23), industrial and technological development (11), fisheries development (10), and tourism development. There is no indication as to where they will be located, or what criteria will be used in selecting their locations. There is also no indication of their relationship to the existing Provincial and Local levels of government. In fact, there is no mention of Provincial Councils in the manifesto, or plan. Whereas the 100-day programme promised to stop the Port City project, there is no mention of it in the new UNF Plan. The Plan refers to a Western Province Megapolis. Whose jurisdictional responsibility will it be? How will the detailed planning of the megapolis and implementation be undertaken? Will the megapolis provide the cover to bring back Port City with revised agreements but the same extent of land reclamation? What about urban planning and development in other Provinces?
As I said at the outset, this election is not about manifestos or issues. It is a second referendum on corruption and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Given the public disgust about corruption and the public knowledge of many individual MPs as agents of corruption, there is greater interest in the qualifications and ethical standards of individual candidates than in the formal policies and promises of political parties. The JVP, more than the other political parties, has made an effort to make a difference in the selection of candidates. For the first time, it has included as candidates on its National List, individuals who are not party members, but who have achieved distinction in public service, the professions and environmental stewardship. Their inclusion and their acceptance of JVP candidacy is also the sign that the JVP is now more openly acceptable in the broader society and not just among diehard socialists. It also contrasts positively against the same old faces with rundown batteries that one sees on the lists of other parties, especially the UPFA.
After the Old Left’s debacle in the 1977 election, JR Jayewardene publicly regretted the absence of the Left leaders in the new parliament. He would have been sincere in his regrets, but he may not have been prescient about the effect the absence of quality opposition in parliament would have on the development of the political system. Thirty eight years later, when President Sirisena appeals to the people to give him a new parliament in August to implement the mandate they gave him in January, he would be well advised to hope for a parliament that will have not only a clean government but also a cleaner opposition. It is up to the JVP to persuade the electorate that it is now ready for the mantle of the Left Opposition.