By Dr Jehan Perera
What is happening on the ground 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. 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 utilisation 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 there still remains a doubt as to whether the elections will actually take place in January.
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. On the other hand, if there is any possibility of the Pope cancelling his visit to Sri Lanka on account of the elections, the government may deem it advisable to delay holding the elections. The Pope’s visit to Sri Lanka is eagerly awaited by the country’s Catholic population who make up more than six percent of the national electorate. In a closely contested election each and every vote will count, which the forthcoming Presidential election is likely to be, the government will not wish to risk losing a single vote, let alone the large bloc of Catholic votes. Therefore the government is unlikely to do anything that will alienate the Catholic vote. 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 another factor that could make early Presidential elections disadvantageous to the government. This is 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 which, indeed, have widespread popular support. 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.
Despite the President’s bold public stance where he has dared his opponents to challenge him, it is likely that the deterioration in the level of voter support for the government, that was manifested in the last provincial election in Uva, and the possible fallouts of a cancellation of the Pope’s visit and the JHU’s stance would be deeply concerning to him. In particular, the JHU’s 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. 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. On second thoughts it is possible that the President will agree to postpone elections to ensure that a successful visit by Pope Francis helps to garner support of the Catholic Church and gains time to make the constitutional amendments called for by the JHU. In this context it is possible that the government will revert to the month of March to hold the Presidential elections. There is an important factor that will come into play in March. This is the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. 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 mobilisation 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. Therefore in an election campaign that is held just before the axe falls in Geneva, the government will be able to mobilise the nationalism of the people to its advantage.