By W.A. Wijewardena –
Two different election platforms by the two main candidates
The two main contenders to the presidency at the recently-concluded elections fought their battle on two different election platforms.
The former President Mahinda Rajapaksa sought to sell his infrastructure development, war victory, continuity in government and fear of foreign intervention to the electorate. The current President Maithripala Sirisena fought the battle on restoring democracy, good governance, rule of law, independence of the Judiciary, elimination of corruption, fair treatment of minorities and constitutional reforms seeking to abolish the executive presidency and re-establishing parliamentary powers.
Voters throughout the island, compared to the Presidential Election of 2010, in a wave of around 15% and voters in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in almost entirety have rejected the first and approved the latter. An incumbent Executive President with all his powers to steer the election campaign to his favour has been voted out by the electorate. This is unthinkable in any other country.
The election outcome has left the rest of the world in wonder
Several acquaintances of this writer in South and East Asia through email and phone calls have expressed their wonder at what has happened in Sri Lanka. They have said that they had gone to bed on 8 January firmly believing that the incumbent President would certainly be re-elected going by the experiences in their countries and elsewhere. But they had woken up the following day to learn that the Opposition rival had been elected to the Presidency by the electorate.
Choosing good governance over infrastructure development
The secret is that Sri Lankan voters have overwhelmingly chosen ‘good governance’ over ‘infrastructure development’. The latter had been branded by the former President and his key policy advisors as an ‘Emerging Wonder of Asia’.
What was meant by the Emerging Wonder of Asia was not precisely explained in any government policy documents. Thus, the policymakers had left it to the citizens to figure out exactly what it meant.
This issue was raised by this writer in a previous article in this series titled ‘Sri Lanka as Emerging Wonder of Asia: Suitable ground conditions to realise the goal are a must’. This was what this writer said in the article under reference: “It therefore appears that the vision underlying the Emerging Wonder of Asia is just known only to a few top policymakers of the country and all others have defined it according to their own thinking and aspirations in life. This state of affairs is marred by two defects. First, it becomes difficult to say for sure whether the country has actually become the Emerging Wonder of Asia since it has not been properly defined and therefore cannot be tested. Second, it does not make everyone a participant in the development process, thereby making them the owners of development, a consultative process that must be put in place in terms of today’s democratic economic governance principles.”
Wonder of Asia to mean doing better than Asians
To clear the gray area surrounding the vision of making Sri Lanka the emerging wonder of Asia, Professor A.D.V. de S. Indraratna in his presidential address at the Sri Lanka Economic Association, known as SLEA, in 2012 tried to give a practical explanation of the vision in terms of the policy action program of the Government: That was to take Emerging Wonder of Asia to mean “doing better than other Asians” in terms of economic achievements.
But Sri Lanka has failed to do better than Asians
In this regard, Sri Lanka failed to do better than other Asians on a number of counts.
It failed to maintain a consistently high economic growth rate of above 10% to elevate its economy to a higher middle income country in real terms. It could not diversify its economy to sustain its economic growth in the medium to long run. It could not transform the structure of its exports from low technology products to high technology products. It had invested in infrastructure that did not yield a return, both in economic and social terms, that was sufficient to earn back the costs by putting them to proper economically productive use. It could not marshal sufficient foreign direct investments to key high technology sectors. It had to depend on borrowed money to boost the foreign reserves and its public debt repayments exceeded its government revenue thereby trapping it in ever expanding vicious cycle of indebtedness.
On account of these deficiencies, Sri Lanka could not convince the rest of the Asians that it was doing better than others.
The Opposition candidate was made purposely disabled
But the outcome of the recent battle for presidency is a unique example. On all counts, the ruling regime had made the opposition candidate a disabled contestant. Yet, he was able to outdo the incumbent President in the election causing a massive wave of votes to shift from the latter to his side. His battle for the presidency demonstrated the validity of an important principle in strategic management: Transform your disabilities into your strong points to achieve your strategic goals.
This was exactly what the opposition candidate for presidency did by converting the problems created by the ruling regime into opportunities. Accordingly, the final outcome of the election was totally unexpected. Sri Lanka voted out a very powerful executive President and elected a candidate who had to go through an unfair contest right from the beginning till the announcement of the final results. In the view of this writer, that was the ‘Wonder of Asia’ which Sri Lanka has demonstrated to the rest of the world.
An unfair contest between the two main candidates
The election was an unfair contest by any democratic norm. The incumbent President had selected the timing to his advantage. Thus, even before the elections were announced, a massive poster and cut-out campaign depicting him as a hero who could deliver Sri Lanka to a wonderful and stable future had been launched at very high costs.
The Opposition candidate did not have financial or physical resources to make a counterattack by having a matching poster and cut-out campaign. This was obviously a disability attached to him by his rival. He therefore announced in his maiden public meeting that he did not wish to paste posters on every wall and hang cut-outs on every lamppost which was not only eyesore from an environmental point but also a waste of scarce financial resources. Instead, he announced that all the moneys that had been intended for such posters and cut-outs would be used to build a special fund to assist the kidney patients in the North Central Province.
This strategy made the incumbent President a disabled person because it was considered an invaluable relief to long-term sufferers from that chronic as well as acute disease. Thus, it appealed very much to people in that region in particular and all others throughout the country in general.
The need for using alternative media outlets
The incumbent President had the first right of the meeting venues in regional towns, unlimited access to state resources and monopoly over media. At a national election, all these are considered to be very powerful advantages enjoyed by one candidate over his rivals. Hence, the denial of them to the Opposition candidate was a serious disability attached to him. There was no useful purpose in asking the powerful executive President to desist from these unfair practices. They were all a violation of the good governance principles which the opposition candidate stood for. Yet there was no means of seeking redress through either the election authorities or the judicial system.
In the meantime, the meetings of the incumbent president in the regional towns were swelled to brim with people transported by using the CTB bus fleets from all around the country. The media which had been under the control of the incumbent President had given wide publicity to such meetings with people cheering at his speeches all the time. Hence, the opposition candidate had to use an alternative mean to reach out the public and create a more effective debate on the issues.
Social media create thousands of spontaneous media editors
One such mean used to overcome this disability was the resort to social media, Twitter and Facebook. Both of them were free, had unlimited capacity, worked in real time and were beyond the control and outside the authority of the powerful incumbent executive President. Thousands of supporters of the opposition candidate spontaneously sprang up both in the Twitter and the Facebook generating a live debate and passing out what the media call ‘just-in news’ to others.
This writer very closely monitored the campaign launched by both parties throughout the election period. When CTB buses were used to transport people to the meetings of the incumbent President, video clips of same were instantly uploaded to the YouTube and pasted on the walls of the Facebook. Similarly, the video clips relating to the meetings of the Opposition candidate which had been well attended by supporters who had thronged to meeting sites on their own had been pasted to the wall. These meetings had been given the least prominence by the traditional electronic and printed media which were under the control of the incumbent president.
One deficiency with the traditional media was that they were a monologue without facility for viewers or readers to interact. They also published information with a time lag and viewers and readers had no access to information on a real time basis. Social media were free from these defects.
Live and real time debates on Facebook
The debate on Facebook was very live and challenging. The posters designed for pasting on the wall were eye-catching and conveyed the ideas very briefly and effectively in Sinhala, the language of the majority of the voters.
When a supporter of the incumbent president or the president himself had announced something against the Opposition candidate, immediately there was a counter poster on the wall. Within minutes, thousands of viewers would endorse the poster by clicking ‘like’ button on Facebook. Since one member could give one vote on the FaceBook, there were no multiple ‘likes’ as in the case of election meetings where the same person is transported the nearest meeting by using CTB buses. The comments that followed the posters so pasted revealed the true preference of the voters. Had the campaign managers of the incumbent President read through those comments, they could have changed their strategy to suit the changing public opinion of the country.
Instead, they were all harping on the same old story: The incumbent president won the war, it is the duty of the citizens to pay gratitude to him, he has started a massive development program in the country, there is a foreign conspiracy to take him to the ‘electric chair’ on account of his success at the war and if the opposition comes to power, there would be instability in the country. These arguments were successfully countered by thousands of spontaneously emerged individual Facebook editor who were more competent than the editors of the traditional media over which the incumbent president had control.
Facebook has spread widely
One would then ask the question how effective the Facebook has been in framing public opinion. Downplaying the role of the Facebook, they often argue that it is used predominantly by young people in Colombo, their concentration is very sparse and therefore, Facebook is not a media to be bothered about. But with smart phones available at low prices, many youth in outstation places have access to Facebook today. This category is not necessarily limited to young people of the country. They include older people as well. In a few training programs which this writer conducted for the officers of the education service from all over the country recently, a question was posed as to how many of them had Facebook accounts. An overwhelmingly large majority of those education service officers from all around the country were members of the Facebook.
If older people are not FaceBook savvy, their young children managed to pass the latest information on the election campaign to them by accessing the Facebook on their behalf. Thus, Facebook effectively removed the disability which the incumbent President had attached to the Opposition candidate by denying access to traditional media to him. The alternative free social media used by the voluntary supporters of the opposition candidate were more effective, powerful and costless.
Voting the most powerful executive president out of power
Thus, Sri Lanka was able to vote out a powerful executive president who had all the resources, powers and means. Even the drama that is said to have taken place on the night of 8 January while the votes were being counted was not alien to Facebook members.
With the types of the instantaneous postings made on the wall, one could conclude that it would not be easy for the incumbent President to continue his rule through any unlawful means.
Sri Lanka’s bloodless spring has made it the ‘Wonder of Asia’
This is Sri Lanka’s Spring in which a very powerful incumbent president has been voted out of power through peaceful means and without shedding a single drop of blood. Even after the peaceful transfer of power, the country is peaceful despite the warning that it would be unstable if the Opposition is elected to power. Thus, Sri Lanka has done better than the rest of Asia and for that matter better than the rest of the world.
That is the true ‘Wonder of Asia’ about which Sri Lanka can now proudly boast.
*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at email@example.com