By Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka –
The stubborn refusal of the SLPP candidate Gotabaya to accept Premadasa’s challenge to a face to face debate on national television may appear to be no more than a passing issue in a turbulent election campaign. However taken by itself it is something that has serious implications for the way the SLPP candidate might be perceived by people and the candidate for whom they vote. That is assuming an intelligent discriminating electorate that is concerned to know the true character and credibility of those who aspire to the highest office, rather than a gullible docile electorate where idiot voters have surrendered their critical faculties to unscrupulous pretenders who manipulate their feelings like puppets on a string ! Otherwise in many countries of the world the mere fact that a seemingly cowardly candidate chickens out of the challenge to stand on level ground with his opponents and defend his case in the public square, will probably weigh heavily against him or her. Indeed that alone might constitute that candidate’s ‘Waterloo’ !
According to Wilkipedia there are as many as 20 countries that hold ‘leaders debates’. They are said to include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Georgia, Germany, Ireland, Iran, Kenya, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Portugal, UK, USA, and Uruguay. However it is in the United States that such debates between presidential candidates have become a dominant obligatory part of election campaigns as contenders debate face to face in the full glare of national TV under the critical eye of the American public and watched by millions more across the world.
The most recent example of this process was the debates between the candidates competing for the nomination of the Democratic party telecast over CNN which many Sri Lankans might have witnessed. In the USA democracy has advanced to a point where even the choice of the party nominee for the presidency is made after a protracted process in which an open debate between different applicants is an integral component. Meanwhile in the lead up to the forthcoming British General Election it has now been announced that Prime Minister Johnson will debate Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn live on Independent Television (ITV) from Greater Manchester, hosted by Julie Etchingham on 19th November.
Sri Lankan voters are not so lucky. One of the two main antagonists is seemingly scared to confront his opponent in free and fair face to face public debate despite being repeatedly challenged to do so to the point of ridicule. Even more ironic is the fact that the candidate who is seen to be timidly backing off from the confrontation with a charismatic youthful civilian, happens to be a one time soldier whose campaign is marked by extravagant trumpeting about his accomplishments as a wartime bureaucrat !
Perhaps such reluctance to come out into the open and fight is not surprising considering the risk involved. The history of presidential elections in the USA for example shows that face to face national debates can make or break candidates as their true nature is revealed breaking through the false front manifested in interminable election meetings press conferences and the confusing deluge of propaganda flooding the media. It has been said that “One stumble, a flash of anger, an inappropriate joke, a memory lapse or just a failure to project your best image on live television , and the whole shooting match can be over. The fate of nations sometimes hang in the balance”.
Reportadly, in the famous 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon the latter looked pale, withdrawn and unshaven alongside the charismatic Kennedy and further let himself down by glancing shiftily up at the clock. Similarly in the 1992 debate against Clinton and Rus Perot, George Bush Snr kept looking at the clock giving the impression that he could not wait for it to finish. Presidential contender Al Gore’s painful sighs while his opponent George Bush responded damaged his image. He lost the election. The best example of a faux pas leading to instant political death was the 1992 TV debate for the Republican nomination where Rick Perry the Texas governor having confidently promised he would scrap three government departments if he was elected President could only remember two of them on TV ! And that was the end of his presidential bid. He was forced to withdraw from the race. One wonders whether the SLPP nominee a former American citizen having lived in the US for many years might be all too aware of such catastrophes, making him tremble at the prospect of a live TV debate with Sajith Premadasa !
Whatever that may be it is indeed a tragedy that confronted by a plethora of garrulous speeches at party rallies, the persistent confusing barrage of accusations and counter accusations, the lure of extravagant overlapping promises, the pat answers at interminable press conferences, and faced with mountains of paper propaganda through full page newspaper advertising extravagant manifestos and various leaflets in circulation – the Sri Lankan voter is being denied the opportunity to once and for all make up his mind by watching the two candidates justifying their candidature and defending their position in open face to face confrontation on national TV.
After all unlike a General election in the first and last analysis a presidential election is fundamentally a confrontation between two personalities It is a clash between two individuals. It is a choice between two human beings. More than policies promises and manifestos, what matters is their true character, their inward nature and temperament, their credibility, their humanity, their integrity honesty and trustworthiness, their motives, and above all their past record of violence or non violence, respect for the law or contempt for the law, arrogance or humility, simplicity or pomposity, sincerity or humbug tyranny or tenderness, tendency to lie or unswerving commitment to the truth.
Any incompetent fool despot or political charlatan can get on a platform and harangue thousands of screaming supporters in carefully choreographed contrived settings. But it is a no-holds-barred face to face debate with a neutral moderator that will expose the real man or woman behind the façade of the smiling faces raucous demagoguery and sweet words of a candidate and his or her fawning acolytes on stage.
Consequently it is hoped that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would even at this late stage have the humility to unconditionally accept his opponent’s challenge and the courage to confront him face to face in open debate before the people of Sri Lanka on national television. Indeed that might even be in his own interest. With days to go before the election that would also be a fitting climax to a bruising campaign the outcome of which may be a matter of life and death for many and the last chance for Sri Lanka. However if he for no apparent reason continues to slither away from the challenge with mulish obstinacy people are entitled to form their own conclusions.
Only Almighty God the creator of heaven and earth and the judge of all men knows the thoughts, motives and inhibitions that lurk in the depths of the human heart. Consequently one can only speculate on the reasons why the SLPP candidate continues to back off from public debate with his principal protagonist in accordance with what is now a fairly common political tradition in many parts of the world. On any rational assessment anywhere in the world, in any field of human competition, whatever happens to be at stake, whether in politics or sport, whether among mere schoolboys or mighty contenders for presidential office – there would appear to be three possible reasons why one protagonist stubbornly backs off from the opportunity to publicly prove his superiority through an open confrontation with his opposite number. They are arrogance, incompetence or plain cowardice.
It is the arrogance of those pampered by absolute power who being used to barking out orders with impunity have grown to resent being questioned criticized and held to account. Such individuals have existed from ancient times for the prophet Isaiah to proclaim God’s judgment on Babylon around 700 BC with the words “ I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless”. It is the incompetence of those who lacking the right temperament, the necessary communication skills, and confidence in their own credentials, feel vulnerable, diffident, nervous and uncomfortable faced with a debate on national TV watched by millions of citizens. Finally it is the perception of cowardice, that inevitably attaches to those who shrink from accepting a challenge thrown down by an opponent – a reality of human conflict down the ages.
The people’s verdict on 16th November will indicate how much importance they attach to this particular issue. That verdict will also be a test of the moral character of a nation. It has often been said that in a democracy people get the government they deserve. It would be equally true to say that the Presidents they choose will epitomize their own values attitudes and morality whether enlightened or debased.