President Mahinda Rajapakse’s proclamation on November 20 last year decreeing a Presidential election two years before the expiry of his second term of office has provided the voters of Sri Lanka with an unexpected opportunity to make a unique democratic choice on 8 January 2015. With the Sri Lankan voter enjoying universal adult franchise from 1931 – even when the country was a colony of Britain – this island nation has, since gaining independence in 1948, changed its rulers through the peaceful use of the ballot a total of nine times. The choice has been between the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) or coalitions led by each of them. Since 1978, under a Republican Constitution, the elections, with admirably high voter out-turns, have been for both Parliament and the Executive Presidency (EP). The electoral choices hitherto has resulted in a series of false dawns for the citizens of the country with extravagant promises only being implemented with more of the same – corruption in high places; jobs for the boys and girls; high costs of living; lumpen development and widening inequalities.
The unique feature of the 2015 Presidential Election is that it will be a de facto referendum on the continuation of the EP after over 35 years experience of this hybrid system disingenuously crafted by the late J.R.Jayewardene after his landslide victory at the 1977 polls securing a 5/6th majority in parliament. Both Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in her campaigns for the Presidency in 1994 and 1999 and Mahinda Rajapakse in both his manifestos in 2005 and 2010 promised the abolition of the EP on the basis that it had undemocratic dictatorial features inimical to the tenets of good governance. In extenuation of President Kumaratunga’s failure to implement her election pledge it is argued that she did not have the requisite 2/3rd majority in Parliament and did submit two draft Constitutions with both the EP abolished and a political solution to the ethnic problem which were rejected by the Opposition – one draft being actually burned in Parliament.
In President Rajapakse’s case there has been no attempt to conceal the blatant policy reversal as the incumbent enjoyed the sweeping powers of office consolidating himself with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing the safeguard of the limitation of two terms with a two-thirds majority obtained from cross-overs from the Opposition UNP and repealing the 17th Amendment. The Supreme Court, whose Chief Justice was subsequently impeached for not being always so obliging, ruled that the 18th Amendment was constitutional and did not require a referendum. Crossovers were ruled legal by a previous Chief Justice who took strangely political stances (for some of which he now apologizes publicly) despite the moral obligation of the Members of Parliament to resign having been elected as members of one party. Justification of the retention of the EP is now made through the argument that the LTTE could not have been defeated under any other system while the bogey of a revival of terrorism through the machinations of the Tamil Diaspora is used for the future. That the LTTE conducted its separatist-terrorist war through over three decades of the EP is conveniently overlooked.
The other unique aspect of the 2015 Presidential Election is the fact that there is the phenomenon of a Common Candidate (CC). First mooted by the Ven.Madulawe Sobitha Thero of the Naga Vihara, Kotte the proposal was that the opposition parties should unite to adopt a common candidate acceptable to all who would dismantle the Executive Presidency as the root cause of many of the deficiencies of the existing political system. After months of speculation on who the ideal CC would be Minister of Health and General Secretary of the SLFP Maitripala Sirisens dramatically announced himself as the CC on 21 November along with the defection of several others. A Memorandum of Understanding signed on 1 December clarifies the strategy of the coalition of opposition forces in their campaign to defeat the incumbent President Rajapakse cleverly punning on the CC’s name by calling for a “Maithri Palanayak” or a “Compassionate Administration”.
While the authoritarian nature of the EP is no doubt the focus of the opposition campaign, the fact that the incumbent Presidency is guilty of unprecedented nepotism, with a network of Rajapakse family members dominating key positions in the Government, is another important campaign platform. It was unlikely that the opposition – especially the main UNP – would field a credible alternative to the incumbent President because of internal squabbles and the absence of a charismatic leader. Thus an implosion within the governing party was the only hope to dislodge the powerful incumbent especially with his 2009 war victory a fading memory and rampant corruption being exposed. Indeed while corruption has been a feature of previous regimes its scale is reported to be staggeringly high under this regime. The President’s campaign has certainly not been helped by his claim to have incriminating files on his defecting Ministers which he will not use – begging the question that if he has evidence of wrong doing why does he not act. A further faux pas was Minister Mahinda Amaraweera’s bizarre admission that indeed there was corruption but a now fully sated Government would not need to engage in any further corruption unlike a newly elected Government which would start feeding off the gravy train with a voraciously fresh appetite
The decision to go to the polls two years ahead of schedule raises many questions although it is freely acknowledged that – as with many political decisions in Sri Lanka – this was influenced by astrological considerations. Secrecy surrounds the Supreme Court’s response to the President’s request for a ruling on the legality of the election. Political soothsayers however predicted that with the September 2014 Uva Provincial Council result being unfavourable for the Government, future trends would see the declining popularity of the President. There is also the fact that the UN Human Rights Council will conclude its investigation into Sri Lanka in March 2015 and an adverse report plus a condemnatory resolution would be a foreign policy disaster for President Rajapakse. An election victory in January could be interpreted as a mandate for the President to thumb his nose at foreign critics making a foreign policy of confusion worse confounded. A final line of speculation on the length of the term the President will seek in this election was clarified when the President announced he would take his oaths in November 2015 if re-elected.
Thus the major stakes involved in this election surpasses all others and makes a free, fair and violence-free election all the more important. The Commissioner for Elections has insisted that he is a public servant and will be politically neutral. There is some doubt that he will be ready to challenge the President on blatant violations of the election law which are already taking place. For example a rash of posters and expensive “cut-outs” in support of the President has spread throughout the country; receptions for academics and others thinly disguised as meetings to assess “progress” are being hosted in the President’s official residence at official cost and public openings of buildings and projects by the President are taking place with ostentatious advertising. The Budget, which was advanced deliberately, was a crudely contrived Election Budget with un-economic give-aways to all segments of the public so as to create a feel-good atmosphere. A Papal Visit – traditionally insulated from local political processes as a global policy – has been deliberately timed with the co-operation of a pliable Cardinal for five days after Election Day and posters tastelessly exploiting the link are being openly displayed despite protests. Additionally the electronic media were being misused to broadcast and telecast biased news and commentaries even before Nomination Day on December 8. The first of an objective programme series on the election -“Satana” – was deliberately shut out by the Government regulator on the Dialog and PeoTV networks while the second was boycotted by the Government party.
The conduct of the Commissioner of Elections and the Police in upholding the election law will be closely watched. The threat of violence may prevent pro-Opposition voters from coming to the polls whereas Government supporters will enjoy protected public transport and security tilting the result in favour of the incumbent. The role of the private sector, despite much vaunted protestations of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), is not expected to be neutral since the major business houses enjoy the regimented political culture of a Singapore or Malaysian model to make money their sole objective even at huge social costs. Hopes will remain with civil society bodies – if they are allowed to function freely – who will monitor the elections and the foreign election monitors who will be present at the elections albeit with some constraints.
Finally it will be the people of Sri Lanka, in whom ultimate sovereignty lies, who will decide on whether the Rajapakse regime is to have an unprecedented third term or whether the CC – mild-mannered Maitripala Sirisena of peasant origin from the historic Raja-rata (land of the kings) – will help Sri Lanka to revert to being the vibrant democracy it has been despite past episodes of political violence. A split in the majority Sinhala-Buddhist electorate influenced by the new left and first time youth voters and an anti-Rajapakse minority Tamil and Muslim vote fearful of Rajapakse’s chauvinism, will decide the outcome. No one in the newly created Opposition coalition who have been in office before has a proven track record of good governance and thus, apart from the key issue of the abolition of the EP, the public have a choice among different shades of grey.
*(Jayantha Dhanapala is a retired UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka)