The incumbent advantage usually lasts only 12 years. Not anymore. With the passing of the 18th Amendment, the incumbent President has a crucial head start in any electoral contest, potentially forever
Battle lines will be drawn this week when President Mahinda Rajapaksa moves to present his Government’s Budget for 2015, setting the stage for his re-election campaign, expected to kick off officially about six weeks from now.
It is the country’s worst kept secret that the Budget presentation has been advanced by several weeks in order to facilitate President Rajapaksa’s preferred dates to announce a presidential election early next year. Committee stages and second and third readings of the Budget will all be concluded before the announcement is expected shortly after the President completes his fourth year of his second term in office on 18 November.
Incumbency and enormous resources and untrammelled executive power within his grasp, President Rajapaksa looks set to optimise his head start in the presidential campaign, setting himself up as a clear frontrunner before the poll is even announced.
Opposition parties have accused the President of using his office and his official residences to conduct campaign meetings with different sections of the electorate. UNP Leadership Council Chairman Karu Jayasuriya, who remains a contender in the race to find the ‘common’ candidate, accused President Rajapaksa on Tuesday of violating election laws before the poll has been declared. Jayasuriya claims that lately, the President hosts regular buffets and food dansals at Temple Trees, flagrantly abusing his office and State residence to win votes.
Incumbent holds all the trumps
But when elections are declared based on what the stars favour, such violations become the norm rather than the exception. Under the executive presidential system, the incumbent holds all the trumps. The decision to declare elections rests not with an independent commissioner of elections. Nor do elections occur within a constitutionally-mandated period, as it should in a robust democracy. Instead, in sunny Sri Lanka, election dates are decided based on an individual horoscope.
Dates are set based on whether the fates shall favour or ruin one man, rather than when elections are democratically due and would best serve the interests of the nation at large. In essence, President Rajapaksa can call elections on a whim anytime between 18 November 2014 and 18 November 2016, when his second term official ends.
This kind of open-ended discretion, to be exercised by a single individual when it comes to the crucial question of electing the country’s next head of state, is one of many reasons the movement coalescing to effect Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat is resolved to make the January poll all about abolishing the executive presidency.
It is often said that President Junius Richard Jayewardene established the office of the executive president for himself and once he was finished, for men as much like him as possible. Since it was established, the Sri Lankan presidency has been best known for the power-hunger and space for abuse the office tends to create.
Despite the fact that it was created for political aristocracy, in an uncanny twist, no one has wielded the tools of JR’s presidency better than Mahinda Rajapaksa, a man few ever believed would ascend the highest office of the land. His presidency has outdone every predecessor because he managed to use the awesome power of the office to bend every independent democratic institution to his will.
Coupled with his Government’s triumph over the LTTE in 2009, this pliancy has helped the Rajapaksa regime to consolidate power. At the zenith of his popularity in 2010, President Rajapaksa introduced the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, effectively stripping the sole safeguard the Jayewardenes had written into the 1978 draft setting up the presidency. With presidential immunity and the removal of the two-term limit that a sitting president may contest, President Rajapaksa entrenched himself into incumbency, potentially forever.
Incumbents have always secured a second term in office – the might of the presidency and the resources at its command makes an incumbent executive president a difficult candidate to beat. The two-term limit was therefore an important provision in a deeply-flawed system.
The knowledge that however rotten an incumbent, however dictatorial and abusive, his reign would constitutionally end in a maximum of 12 years was a saving grace even within the executive presidential system. The two-term limit kept the people’s democratic impulses strong, just as an entrenched, seemingly unbeatable incumbency weakens democratic will and instinct.
Spectacularly badly timed
The suspense and disruption caused by the election that thus far exists only in the mind of the incumbent exemplifies the trouble with the presidency, and provides valuable fodder to the movement to change the system.
While it offers the Opposition a small window of opportunity, the election is spectacularly badly timed. After fighting hard to secure a Papal visit in early January, the regime looks willing to forego the honour if the Vatican rules that the tour is scheduled too near a crucial national election.
Secondly, the major poll will be a significant drain on the State coffers at a time when the country can ill afford it. The Budget is also likely to deliver economic promises and a bag of goodies by way of salary hikes and price reductions that the Government cannot pay for.
Yet all of these considerations pale in comparison to the purported knowledge of astrologers, who vow the period after February 2015 will be deeply electorally unfavourable to the incumbent.
The Opposition, made up of several political and apolitical players, appear to be engaged in mounting quiet and low profile challenges to the incumbent campaign.
Exceptional legal arguments are presently being crafted and articulated, pointing to why President Rajapaksa cannot contest a third term in office. Needless to say, the brightest legal minds articulating and defending these points will stand no chance in the country’s highest courts, after the ouster of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in 2013.
In nearly two years since her sacking, the Government is yet to receive a single word of censure or a ruling that is not in its favour on the key issues of the day and crucial fundamental rights petitions coming before Sri Lanka’s apex court.
There is little hope therefore that any challenge mounted against the Rajapaksa electoral juggernaut will be fought and won within the confines of a court of law. These will prove important challenges to the legitimacy of President Rajapaksa’s re-election campaign, but they are unlikely to put a dent in his determination to go ahead with the poll.
Ranil’s presidential ambitions
The main opposition United National Party appears to have settled on its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as the candidate to face off against President Rajapaksa in a January election. It is unclear if Wickremesinghe will play well as candidate within the broad Opposition movement forming around the issue of abolition and constitutional change.
For too long has Ranil Wickremesinghe entertained presidential ambitions. It will prove an uphill task for Wickremesinghe to earn the movement’s trust as a candidate ready and willing to give up office within the six-month timeframe the draft constitutional amendment will set in stone.
The Government appears to have accepted Wickremesinghe as President Rajapaksa’s most likely adversary from among the Opposition line-up. State media has ramped up the propaganda offensive against Wickremesinghe, who was bizarrely accused of conspiring to bring about the recent EU Court ruling lifting sanctions on the LTTE within the European Union territories, on a point of law.
The Rajapaksa administration’s kneejerk reaction in all its propaganda wars is to stick Tiger labels on its political opponents and Wickremesinghe’s recent visit to the UK proved a sufficiently suspicious coincidence for the State spin doctors to commence the offensive.
The UNP has hit back hard against the Government allegations, calling it a political gimmick and pointing out the regime’s own failure to make submissions during the trial.
The UNP, flushed with its significant gains in the Uva Province, may prove difficult negotiators in the process to set up a common platform. The election proved that any Opposition movement will require the UNP to take the lead, in order to get any traction against the Rajapaksa administration.
The UNP will have to be a gracious leader, accommodating of doubts and aspirations of its other partners in the rainbow alliance, if it wants to hold on to multi-stakeholder support in the run up to the poll. At present at least three draft constitutional amendments are in circulation, and at the heart of each of them is the abolition of the executive presidency.
The moderate monk Sobitha Thero’s National Movement for Social Justice, backed by prominent lawyers Jayampathi Wickremaratne PC and J.C. Weliamuna, has presented the most cohesive roadmap to date, with regard to abolition. The Jathika Hela Urumaya’s ‘Pivithuru Hetak’ manifesto also includes a 19th Amendment to the constitution that seeks the restoration of the rule of law and a hefty curb on executive power.
The key task before any Opposition contender for common candidate would be to find a way to bring these groups together, by formulating a broadly accommodating platform upon which each of these personalities, with their share of electoral support, can gather.
Despite claims about the irrelevancy of candidacy, therefore, personalities will play a key role in the January election.
President Rajapaksa is already the face of his party’s presidential campaign. After nine years in office, what he stands for is already abundantly clear to the electorate. His campaign slogans and themes will already be resonating in the people’s heads, long before he addresses his first rally. An Opposition presidential candidate therefore has a long catch up before the campaigning begins in earnest.
Voters may need to get to know him, or reacquaint themselves with a personality, before he can convince them about what he stands for. When President Rajapaksa plays the LTTE card and insists that the presidency is crucial in the battle against separatism, an Opposition candidate will have to convince the electorate that it is not. This is a tough sell, on the best of days.
The LTTE bogey has been kept alive and well, like a talisman for the regime against waning popularity and international challenges on the human rights questions. Any UNP candidate will carry the party’s baggage about peace talks and the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002 with the Tigers.
Undoubtedly, the LTTE card is playing less effectively than it did once, as the electorate is weighed down by economic concerns and rampant corruption and Government extravagance. But it will be incumbent upon an opposition challenger to take the offensive on this rhetoric and push back hard against Government allegations.
Karu Jayasuriya commenced this pushback with his hard-hitting statement, accusing the regime of nursing and nurturing ex-LTTE members while foisting Tiger labels on its political opponents.
In the fight to the death that this election is promising to be, the gloves will come off very early in the game. The battle may well be decided on how quickly the Opposition can begin playing offensive politics.
The UNP learned this lesson in the Uva Provincial election held last month. After years of playing defensive politics, its first and only attempt to take the fight back to the Government paid heavy dividends.
The Opposition candidate, whether Wickremesinghe or otherwise, will be required to battle it out the way Harin Fernando battled the UPFA in Uva. The candidate will have to project himself a winner, long before the election is declared. In essence, he will have to play President Rajapaksa’s game – and he already has a very big head start.