By Ravi Perera –
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men” Lord Acton (1834-1902)
It is increasingly obvious that today President Mahinda Rajapaksa is facing the electoral challenge of his life. In a contest turning into a bruising battle, even if he were to squeeze in a win by a nose, that will be won only by an undertaking to cease to be a President. To win, he has to promise to abolish his office. Even Mahinda Rajapaksa’s closest supporters demand this and are quite emphatic that he would be the last Executive President of this country. As the holder of the office in the two terms immediately preceding, it is a damning indictment on the style and methods resorted to during his incumbency.
The negative perception of the Executive Presidency are not solely Mahinda Rajapaksa’s doing. Removed from the daily pressures exerted by the legislature (as would be felt by a Prime Minister who is a member of the legislature), fortified with extensive executive powers, a President, if so inclined, can soon become a source of tremendous power and patronage, with the capability to reduce all other offices and institutions of the State to mere instruments to be used and abused at will. While Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken patronage to an alarming level, the former holders of this office were not exactly free of such inclinations. The dangers inherent in a political office to which there are no common checks and balances were apparent from the times of JR Jayewardene, our first Executive President. Presidents’ Premadasa and subsequently Chandrika Bandarnaike also contributed to the negative perception of the office. But the inherent potential for abuse that this office carries was only realized fully in the last decade or so.
As a result today, among those with even a semblance of a democratic instinct, from Point Pedro to the Dondra Head, from the East Coast to the West Coast, there is near unanimity that the office of the Executive President must cease. Presidential challenger Maithripala Sirisensa is unequivocal on this issue. The incumbent Mahinda‘s camp too is apparently of the same opinion, although with less ardour and more ambiguity, for obvious reasons.
Only a few short weeks ago it could have been said of Mahinda Rajapaksa “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus; and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about…” Seemingly so above the fray he even despaired the weakness of his opposition. As a motley opposition struggled to find a common candidate Rajapaksa even offered himself in jest. And then Maithripala Sirisena, the low-key, mild mannered Secretary of his own party, the SLFP, crossed the floor to challenge his leader. Overnight, this lean smallish man from the ancient land of Polonnaruwa has completely changed the landscape of oppositional politics and thereby the certainties under which the Rajapakses ruled.
One of the cherished policies of the Rajapaksa regime is the expansion and further tightening of State control, of not only economic functions, but also the media and the dissemination of news and information. Their authority is not limited to the large media institutions, both print as well as electronic, that the government directly controls .The morality or even the legality of maintaining publicly funded media institutions which are put to use for personal and political agendas of whoever is in power seems lost today. When it comes to vitriol and abuse, the State media are even worse than the private media, some which make no bones about their partisanship!
There are many ways in which a government may subvert other media institutions; by striking deals with owners of private media establishments, by encouraging friendly businessmen to acquire media institutions, by controlling advertising revenue ( many methods are used here-while the government is a huge advertiser, it can also influence a submissive private sector on the choice of the forum for their advertising -this power ,unseen, yet very real could be appreciated when we observe the difficulties that the opposition is facing today in getting hotel bookings for its meetings and even space for election offices from worried landlords),by offering gifts and favours to journalists and finally physical intimidation of those who still refuse to bend.
The flip side of such control is now obvious. From a media under the thumb you only hear good things and eventually begin to believe your own propaganda. It was being commonly said that Mahinda Rajapaksa could easily remain President until 2020 when perhaps he could consider transferring power to his son Namal, in the manner of a royal succession! As the saying goes , the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, but to a regime fed on its own propaganda the sheer scale of the opposition to its rule may have come as a rude shock indeed.
To put it simply , had you gone by the stories in the fawning media Mahinda Rajapaksa was all things to all people; liberator, modernizer, statesman and great man. Such a person should not even deign to canvass the vote. The Pope need not ask for the endorsement of the Catholics. He is after all the Pope! Karl Marx need not apply for the post of Principal of the Marxist school. He is Karl Marx, the school is eponymous. But here, notwithstanding all the effusive praise of the press, all the deifying of the Mahinda Rajapaksa persona, he has been reduced to a mere politician, having to woo the voter, with every trick and promise in the book. Now it can be asked by the bard, “upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed, that he is grown so great?”
It seems that there has never been a Caesar with such a large extended family, almost all with the wish, as well as possessing the required qualifications, to hold public and government office. A government servant is expected to serve with transparency and a certain objectivity. This essential requirement of good governance is denied or diminished when a close relative of the political authority is also the administrator. In addition to those holding government service positions, several close relatives of the President such as Basil, Chamal, Namal and Sashindra, among others, hold elective office. Except for Chamal the other three won nominations to contest only after Mahinda Rajapaksa became President. It is true that they were in due course elected by the people. But as the recent Uva elections showed, there is no magic in the name. With the swing they come, and with the swing they will go.
While it is true that in several countries there are situations where persons from one family take to politics, it is not the same in every case. The stability, the culture and the strength of the political institutions of each country will shape the level of harm that can arise from such situations. There is a world of a difference between say the example of the time of President Bush of the United States when his brother Jed Bush was elected Governor of Florida and that of President Mubarak and his sons in Egypt. There was nothing that the family of Hosni Mubarak could not obtain in Egypt. The situation was more tragic in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Kaddafi’s Libya.
Political dynasties in certain countries are by chance, while in others it seems almost inevitable. But if it is a democracy, a political dynasty is a weakness and not a strength of that democracy. A greater leader will not exploit an immaturity or a weakness of the electorate.
It is hard to find a better argument for the absolute and essential value of democracy for each and every one, than the electoral drama unfolding before us. Men who once bestrode the stage in long and armed convoys of vehicles, men whose every trip was more urgent than ours (so we need to stop or move aside for their convoys), men whose every need was greater than ours, men whose every thought was nobler than ours, men who thought nothing of appointing relatives and associates to head important public positions and institutions with budgets commanding billions of public money, men who decided on a whim to locate huge projects funded with millions of borrowed dollars in Districts whose only suitability for the project appears to be that they hail from there, men whose mere word was law, are now vying hard to prove to the voter the simplicity of their ways and the honesty of their creed. Only democracy could have done this to them.
Elections are never about what someone has done in the past. It is always about what we, the voter, can get in the future.
But can we contemplate a future, if democracy itself is in peril? The last few years have shown us that elections alone do not define a democracy. On the contrary elections could be won while in every other way democratic ideals are assailed. The concept to have meaning needs many other factors: a free and robust media, an impartial learned and fearless judiciary, an independent and apolitical public service, and I would argue certain basic democratic values accepted by all stakeholders as inviolable, among many other things.
On the 08 of January 2015, our voters will have to decide who among these two contenders offers the best prospect for a democratic future for us.