By Jehan Perera –
It looks more and more likely that presidential elections will be called early next year regardless of other consequences. The government spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has announced that Presidential Elections will be held in January. He has also said that he knows the date but will not reveal it. What is happening of the ground also strongly suggests that elections are around the corner. The Elections Commissioner has completed the voter registration process early this year in October and not in December as is usual. The national budget has been presented to Parliament in October earlier than the usual month of November.
It is clearly an election budget as it offers many concessions to the public but for which the sources of revenue are unknown. The days prior to the presentation of the budget saw a massive advertisement campaign in the national media regarding the government’s priorities and the bright future that awaits the country. In addition, the media has been reporting incidents involving the utilization of government resources to prepare for the elections, in the form of poster campaigns and the constructing of stages for speakers to stand on at meetings. However, despite this evidence of preparations for early elections the government will have to be ready for negative fallouts if it goes ahead with its plans.
The media has reported that the Catholic Church is particularly affected following the delay by the government to confirm whether the presidential election is likely to coincide with the Pope’s visit which is scheduled to take place in the middle of January. Under pressure from the Vatican, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has written to President Rajapaksa requesting him to inform the church about the date of election. But there has been no official reply so far. This has put the local church on the horns of a dilemma as they are unable to advise the Vatican which needs to know the situation. The Vatican takes care to ensure that papal visits steer clear of local party political issues including elections. The usual protocol with regard to such papal visits is that they do not take place within one month of an election.
Archbishop’s House Spokesman Fr Cyril Gamini has said that the Pope’s visit will be confirmed only after the official announcement of the Presidential Election by the Elections Commissioner. He said “nothing has been decided as yet and if an election is to be held in January 2015 the Catholic Church will reconsider the Pontiff’s decision to visit the country.” The special visit paid to him by President Rajapaksa and a large entourage from Sri Lanka to personally invite the Pope to Sri Lanka even after the Vatican had officially agreed to the visit and announced the dates came as a surprise. But it might have been a politically astute action on the part of the President to not only convince the Catholics of Sri Lanka of his sincerity in wishing the Pope to visit, but also to persuade the Pope to visit Sri Lanka regardless of other considerations.
Pope Francis is also known for his informal approach, and so it is not impossible that he will dispense with usual protocol. He has already earned himself the nickname the People’s Pope due to his candid nature and willingness to break from tradition. He is also a pope of firsts: the first Pope from the developing world, the first from Latin America, the first non-European in almost 1,300 years, the first Jesuit and the first to take the name Francis. He has proposed that unused convents and monasteries in the West could be converted into housing for immigrants and refugees. This is only one of many examples of the new thinking he has brought into the Vatican. Therefore he can dispense with past practices in regard to papal visits abroad. Further, the Pope’s visit to Sri Lanka is eagerly awaited by the country’s Catholic population. In the aftermath of the President’s visit to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis, a special team from the Vatican is expected to visit Sri Lanka soon in early November to ensure that the arrangements are in order. This is an indication that no decision has yet been taken that would prevent the Pope from visiting Sri Lanka.
However, there is a question about how the government will cope with the ultimatum delivered to the government by its own coalition partner, the JHU, which has opposed the President’s re-election bid in the absence of prior constitutional reforms. At its national convention, the JHU called for the removal of the Executive President’s power to appoint Supreme Court judges and Court of Appeal judges, to set out in the Constitution the ministries that can be held by the President and to ensure that the President was made answerable to parliament. This was reiterated to the President by the JHU leaders at a meeting with him. The President is reported to have said that there was not enough time to make these amendments prior to the election.
The government would also be aware that in an election to a third term presidency time is not on its side. In these circumstances, the government’s strategy will necessarily be to switch public attention back to issues of ethnic nationalism and national security, and away from those of good governance. Although the JHU has not been able to win many votes at elections, it is very influential in shaping the political thinking of the ethnic Sinhalese majority whose position it seeks to uphold. The JHU’s present focus on issues of good governance could lead to a crack in the ethno-nationalist alliance that has repeatedly propelled the government to electoral victory. But this will be to its own disadvantage, and the JHU leadership has also made it clear that it does not wish the present opposition leadership to win either.
Even now the issue of the country’s sovereignty has come to the fore again. The report of the UN investigative team that has been mandated to ascertain whether war crimes were committed during the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war will be formally presented to the UNHRC at its session in March. The holding of this session in Geneva can become a point of electoral mobilization for the government which has long described it as an international conspiracy to punish the country’s leaders who defeated the LTTE and ensured the unity of the country. Many if not most of the voting population agree with this government line of thinking which has become easier to put to the people following the unexpected decision of the EU Court of Justice to de-ban the LTTE on technical grounds. Therefore an election campaign that is held before the vote in Geneva will be able to mobilize the nationalism of the people to the government’s advantage.
While most people are distressed at the cost of living issues, they are less concerned with corruption and good governance issues as these have always been a problem in the country. The present budget which offers many concessions to the people on the cost of living is the government’s acknowledgement that it is a priority issue to the people. But it is unlikely to accept the JHU’s proposals for constitutional reforms as these will make it difficult for the government to govern in the centralized manner it has become accustomed to. The question is which party will reconsider its decision regarding the election. The signs are that it will not be the government. The government’s central issue once again will be national sovereignty. The government will be relying on the fact that when people go to the polls to vote, they will be asking the question in whose hands will the future of the country be safer at this time.