By Rajan Philips –
To be clear, the government, rather the President, called the election prematurely for a third term without precedent. The opposition has turned it into a referendum on the presidency. If one looks for a historical parallel, the closest one can get to is the 1982 referendum. The people lost the referendum then, the government won, and nothing has remained the same thereafter. If the government wins this time, and the people lose again, everything that changed for the worse after 1982 will remain the same and get even worse. Who should win this time? That is the question.
The defection of the SLFP General Secretary to become the opposition’s common candidate has turned the January 8 election from being a farce into a real contest. When nominations close tomorrow, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena are expected to be the two principal candidates. There will be no other candidate from any of the political parties currently represented in parliament. So the election will be a straight contest between the continuation of the status quo and the need for a fundamental change.
I call this a referendum on the presidency. This is not an election, in the customary parliamentary sense. Strange as it may seem, even after 36 years of executive presidency our political narratives are dominated by our understanding and expectations of the parliamentary process. This fact is particularly evident in the criticisms of and expectations that are being projected upon the common candidate and the opposition by the so called public intellectuals. Apart from specific criticisms, there is also an expectation that the common candidate should run on a comprehensive platform, or manifesto, indicating how his victory will solve every one of Sri Lanka’s problems.
This is rather puzzling because the call for a single-issue common candidate has been in the political domain for quite some time. I believe the idea was first seriously mooted by Kumar David, but I do not think even Dr. David traced the historical connection to another Sama Samajist, the larger than life Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, who actually contested the 1982 presidential election, that preceded the fateful referendum that same year, as a single issue candidate. He lost the election badly but no one accused Colvin R. de Silva of running on an elitist agenda to get rid of the presidency without being sensitive to the subaltern concerns of students, trade unions, farmers and the minorities. So why pick on Maithripala Sirisena now? And since when did the Tamil and Muslim problems, or, for that matter, those of university students, middle class workers and hinterland framers, become a subaltern question? Put another way, would any of their questions be addressed sincerely and satisfactorily by the continuation of the incumbent presidency?
The record of the executive presidential system, in general, and its operation under the current incumbent, in particular, is bad on several counts, primarily including: 1) the dismantling of virtually all the institutions fundamental to a functioning democracy and the maintenance of law and order; 2) the total disregard to finding acceptable solutions to the political and humanitarian problems of the Tamils and the Muslims; 3) the rampant corruption and economic inefficiencies that characterize virtually every sector of the economy and impose almost a structural cost-of-living burden on the people; and 4) the institutionalization of family bandysim in a manner that Sri Lanka has never experienced before. This is only the shortest of lists of the problems facing Sri Lanka’s state and its politics, and there is no easy answer to any of them. There is no illusion that an opposition victory on January 8 will automatically unroll a magical road map to solving any or all of them. But the choice on January 8 is not about who has the better answers to these questions, but between the government’s barefaced denial of fundamental problems and the opposition’s bare recognition of at least some of them.
Significantly, the government has not taken any serious exception to the opposition’s call for fundamentally changing the executive presidential system, even though the President had earlier suggested that he could not abolish the executive presidential system while the TNA and the Tamil Diaspora might still be pursuing the goal of a separate state. Indeed, the government has come up with the rather late and lame promise of major constitutional changes after the election, including changes to the presidential system. The government might be wary of overtly defending the executive presidential system through fear of causing further dissension in government ranks. It was the government’s reluctance to engage the JHU over constitutional amendments that led to the JHU’s departure from the government to the opposition fold. The people including the JHU are finally tired of the Tiger bogey, and the government has no way of orchestrating a fatwa on the Tamil voter this time as it did in 2005.
The government that has got used to staging its own election shows and having its own campaign ways now seems flummoxed by the opposition solidarity around a common candidate emerging from within the government ranks. The smear of western conspiracy is not sticking on the common candidate from Polonnaruwa. What worked in 2010 seems too worn out for 2015. The government has no positive message to offer. It is unable to provide even one good reason why a presidential election is necessary two years too soon, and what additional good a third Rajapaksa term will bring to Sri Lanka. By going all out to protect its two-thirds size in parliament, the government is only exposing its isolation and vulnerability in the country.
The UPFA Secretary boasted to the media that the government alliance includes 14 registered political parties. So what? He might as well have said that the government still includes a record number of ministers for any country in the world, not to mention the renegade rumps of the oldest two political parties in the country. Unlike in India, it is not parliamentarians and political parties who elect the President in Sri Lanka, but the people. That system may change after January 8, but not before. Yet, any notion that the January 8 vote is the opposition’s election to lose is still too premature and too complacent. The opposition and the common candidate can underestimate the government’s resourcefulness to prevail only at their peril.