It was intended to be an astrologically choreographed presidential coronation,but it is turning out to be anything but, even as astrology is finally being put in its place by political uncertainty and a meteorological disaster. The unprecedented Christmas-New Year holiday season election, with an impending Papal visit to follow, is now being literally inundated by the country’s heaviest rainfall and the worst floods since 1957. Although the rains seem to be subsiding after the non-stop Christmas day pour, several districts in the Eastern, North Central, Central and Uva Provinces are still threatened by floods and/or landslides due to overflowing rivers, overrun dams, and unstable land forms. There have been calls for the postponement of the election, and weather conditions during the next few days will determine whether postponement would be necessary. One would only hope that the decision will be made independently by the Election Commissioner based solely on humanitarian and logistical considerations, and that he will not be influenced by political calculations based on astrological prescriptions.
Even if, at the end of it all, President Rajapaksa were to win the election and secure his third term, he will be a much wounded President with a deeply divided government and parliament. The coveted third term will prove to be far more contested than the President could have imagined when he decided to go to the people with two years still to go on his second term. The constitutional changes that he has promised in his manifesto – “The Way to Conquer the World” (‘mendicant triumphalism’, as any old school Marxist internationalist will growl), will be dead in the water the day after his victory, and they deserve to be, because: (1) the government did not have to put the country through an election to implement changes that are to be determined by the current parliament acting as a constituent assembly; (2) the idea of a constituent assembly does not make sense now when constitutional changes are to be implemented within the framework of the existing constitution, unlike in 1972 when the instrument of constituent assembly was used to sever Sri Lanka’s constitutional ties with the British Monarch and the United Kingdom; and (3) the current parliament cannot use a Rajapaksa victory in January as a vicarious mandate to make constitutional changes; if at all, it will require a direct mandate from the people in the next parliamentary general election. And much water can and will flow between the two elections and will more than likely drown out the vague constitutional promises in the UPFA Manifesto.
On the other hand, the constitutional proposals of the common opposition candidate make for more constitutional sense and are politically more sincere even though none of them can or will be implemented unless Maithripala Sirisena manages to win the election. The opposition proposals have been in the public domain for some time and have been commented upon. There is no need for further ado here except for the following. It is absurd to ask Maithripala Sirisena, as it is being done by some government supporters, to explain to the people as to why they should vote for him on a six year term when he is promising to abolish the presidency in 100 days. The answer is that Maithripala Sirisena has come forward not to extend the executive presidency, as it is known and reviled today, but to replace it by re-empowering parliament at the expense of the personalized and uncheckable presidential powers. What will become of the presidency after the proposed changes? In a refreshingly conceptual response, Ranil Wickremesinghe has put forward the notion of a fourth branch of state power comprised of the reformed presidency, under which the President will become the ‘political umpire’ heading constitutional commissions, besides fulfilling the constitutional roles of being the Commander in Chief and the custodian of the Provincial Council system.
The opposition proposals hinge on winning the election and electing a new and unimpaired president with a binding mandate on the parliament and on the judiciary to implement the proposed constitutional changes within the Opposition’s 100 day timetable. This a bold but traversable road map unlike the UPFA proposals. However, while the opposition must win the election to implement the constitutional changes, it cannot use the constitution as the principal reason to win the election. The vast majority of the voters are not going to march to their polling booths thinking about the constitution. The constitutional mandate can only come about by piggybacking on a broader political victory, as it has been done before, first in 1970-72 and again in 1977-78. This time it is being promised to be a 100-day sprint. But can the opposition win the election? That is the question.
The opposition organizers are not unware of the limitations of the constitution as an electoral marketing slogan despite the importance of constitutional changes as a political project. Perhaps it is for this reason that the opposition again put the government on the defensive by producing a broad political manifesto ahead of the government. This political scope-creep did not go down well with some of the Single Issue (abolishment of the executive presidency) protagonists, but as a veteran historian and political observer told me the election campaign has developed its own dynamic and the single issue has come down to whether or not the common opposition candidate can win the election. While appearances can be deceptive we have only the campaign appearances to go by until the voters deliver their verdict on January 8.
The government campaign: Presidential fatigue
The government’s campaign more than appears to be centered on President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is by far not just the star batsman but the only batsman on government platforms. What is more the President is coming across as tired and overworked. His fatigue is understandable after 40 years in politics and nearly 10 years as President, and that is why retirements and term limits are a necessary part of institutional and public life. One can go on managing one’s private wealth or business affairs until death do them part, but in institutional and public life the tired and the old must invariably give way to the fresh and the young to avoid atrophy and stagnation.
To add to President Rajapaksa’s difficulties, the ministers in his oversized cabinet are looking like oversized zombies in a showcase. Collectively, they are providing a pathetic backdrop to the President on television images. They looked lost and disengaged at the BMICH ceremony on Tuesday, December 23, held to launch “The Way to Conquer the World” election manifesto. The release itself was marred by a scheduling screw up after the Opposition had taken the advantage by going first with its Manifesto four days earlier on December 19.
Although it was the Opposition that was expected to be the motley and unfocussed bunch, the lack of focus and cohesion now seem to be shortcomings on the government side. While it was the UNP that was expected NOT to pull its full organizational weight behind the common candidate, it is now the UPFA that seems to have come apart and left President Rajapaksa to fend for himself. As well, what has so far been the UPFA government’s winning formula in the plethora of elections since 2005 appears to have become its Achilles heel in the current campaign.
The formula of holding staggered elections and bombarding each election with the full weight of state resources is not working as effectively as it used to because the state resources are being stretched too thin in the current nationwide and keenly contested campaign. The government’s stock advantage in getting maximum coverage in the mainstream TV networks seems to be more than offset by the social media coverage of the opposition events. In addition the social media are also going viral in showing adverse crowd reactions in government rallies, and in exposing government thugs vandalizing the campaign infrastructure of the opposition.
The Opposition: Maithri looking Presidential
The striking feature of the opposition campaign is the calm presidential demeanour of Maithripala Sirisena. It is indeed a credit to his political abilities as well as to the egalitarian aspects of the Sinhalese political society that someone without the accredited pedigrees and vaunted professional credentials could become a serious contender for the country’s highest political office. A political leader does not have to be specialist in a professional field. Nor does he have to be an orator in English to lead a country that has a tradition of literacy in two of the world’s oldest languages. However, a political leader must be capable of choosing the right person for the right job by putting in place a transparent and traceable process for recruitment to public office at all levels. Knowledge of English and other international languages, and not family connections and personal favours, should be encouraged and must be a requirement for certain jobs especially for jobs in Sri Lanka’s overseas missions. The opposition manifesto is promising to overhaul the country’s discredited overseas missions. Be that as it may.
Maithripala Sirisena came across as being presidential especially when he expressed confidence in the electoral process, dismissing fears of rigging as well as fears of military interference in the event of an opposition victory. Such positive confidence is a necessary ingredient of good leadership and it is also necessary that the message spreads through the ranks of election officials and the men and women in the armed forces as they go about carrying out their duties fairly and impartially. They need the strength to stand up to potential miscreants looking to abuse the electoral process. On the other hand, and in fairness, President Rajapaksa has reportedly assured the Church Officials (MR-1 to MR-2 in Colombo’s political parlance) of a smooth continuity or transition after the January 8 election to prevent post-election violence or lawlessness which could result in the cancellation of the Pope’s visit a week after the election.
The other striking aspect of the opposition platform is the hitherto successful harnessing of the motley herd of opposition horses pulling in different directs into a positive and optimistic campaign. The opposition campaign is also benefiting from the collective and individual campaign efforts of the opposition parties including the DNF, the UNP, and even the JVP. Unlike the solo performances of President Rajapaksa in the government campaign, Maithripala Sirisena is receiving support from an array of hard hitters, including young, qualified female firebrands who recently defected from the government to the opposition.
But as the Americans would say “It ain’t over till it’s over.” And we have to wait until all the votes are in and counted, hopefully in a manner that is all free, fair and done by the rule under the supervision of impartial election officials. One would also hope that the people’s verdict will be accepted by both camps and that neither side will resort to violence either in victorious retribution or as the loser’s revenge. Hopefully, as well, those responsible for maintaining law and order will do their job for the rest of the campaign and in the period after the election in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law and in a manner befitting their status as state officials and not as state thugs.