By Malinda Seneviratne –
It is four years since the 18th Amendment to the Constitution came into effect. It was dismissed at the time and occasionally since then as a subversion of the democratic spirit and further entrenchment of dictatorial provisions in the J R Jayewardene Constitution of 1978.
Now, four years later, the 18th Amendment is in the news ago. There’s little or no talk of democracy or dictatorship. The focus is one individual, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The question that is being addressed is whether or not he can run for a third term.
What is strange is that all the self-proclaimed constitutional pundits appear to have been in deep slumber for 4 years. That, or else, they were waiting for the right moment to spring this ‘objection’, aiming clearly to catch the President and his backers off guard.
It was the former Chief Justice Sarath N Silva who raised the issue first. Sections of the Opposition as well as prominent NGOs with dubious track records such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives (recently accused of widespread fraud) have got on the bandwagon. It smacks of regime-hatred more than democracy-love.
So there’s objection and objection to objection. Silva’s argument, notwithstanding the problematic nature of his position given his role in current political processes, has excited the Opposition to the point of distraction. The focus is not on promoting a candidate capable of winning it all (the Opposition seems hard pressed to find such a candidate, in fact), but on stopping the president from contesting. Silva’s argument however is just one interpretation and an interpretation that has too many holes as has been pointed out by commentators who are not exactly regime-lovers.
Time will tell if Silva’s objection will be upheld by the relevant authorities. Right now it seems that when the Opposition says ‘Mahinda Cannot’ it is really saying ‘Mahinda cannot be defeated’. It’s a sophomoric way of conceding that the President is too strong a candidate to contend with. In other words, the Opposition (either in parts of together) cannot come up with a candidate that can go head-to-head with the President on charisma, accomplishment and the promise of all-important political stability, even if such a candidate could come up with a plus in a compare-contrast of respective negatives (of Rajapaksa and the Government on one side and on the other the candidate and his/her backers). The best bet, then, is to get the man off the ballot!
Interestingly, this lack of human resources is not the preserve of the Opposition. Even the UPFA cannot come up with a name that has the kind of overall appeal the President enjoys. If he were to back down, for example, the Opposition might think, ‘we have an outside chance against an alternative candidate,’ while the ruling coalition would be less cock-sure than it is now.
It would be simplistic to attribute this state of affairs to the fact of incumbency. Incumbency helps no doubt, given constitutional provisions and a scandalous culture of abuse by whoever is in power. An alternative candidate has less edge than incumbent but edge there will certainly be. In this case, the seeming ‘invincibility’ derives from multiple factors. These include the defeat of the LTTE, a growing economy, a ‘doer’ image which is felt in concrete terms, a general deference of the voter to a person of proven strength and a general perception among a significant section of the population that whatever the faults (his and his government) Mahinda is ‘one of us’.
The voter might not like the Government, might be appalled by the strong arm tactics of ministers, MPs and members in other elected bodies, disgusted by the flaunting of wealth by the president’s ‘near and dear’ and yet might find no one half as suitable to lead the country. Not in the ranks of the government and not among the Opposition. This is why, perhaps, that the Opposition is clinging to the Sarath N Silva ‘point’ while those in the ruling party are so keen to dismiss the same.
‘Mahinda’, then, is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, whether anyone likes it or not and whether it is good or bad for democracy. “Government by Mahinda, with Mahinda and for Mahinda and his ‘near and dear’ over and above the rest of the people never mind budgetary tidbits tossed with election in mind” is, in a democratic sense, clearly second best to “Government by the people, with the people and for the people”.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com