The second week after nominations saw stark contrasts developing in the campaigns of the incumbent President and the common opposition candidate. President Rajapaksa, the acclaimed populist of the ordinary people, took to wooing the business community in Colombo that has traditionally been the bulwark and money baggers for the UNP. Last Wednesday, in what was a show and tell Momentum Forum, a so called “synchronized President” addressed a captive audience of 2,000 business leaders assembled in four hotels. The joint opposition response came on Friday in the more substantial and traditional form of a political manifesto. The Manifesto is a reasonably substantial document that can provide an effective platform for a cohesive opposition campaign.
The opposition managed to pull off the manifesto launch at the Colombo Viharamahadevi Park despite allegedly government efforts to disrupt the proceedings by shutting off space and cutting off electricity. The man from Polonnaruwa even showed off his touch for symbolism by surrounding himself with farmers as he launched the manifesto. The contrast could not have been starker: Is Mahinda now the champion of business captains, and Maithri, as assured in the preamble to the Manifesto, the new voice of peasants, workers and fisher folk; women and children; disenchanted professionals; and environmental stakeholders?
The Manifesto also includes the common candidate’s ‘vision’, a description of the ‘way forward’, and outlines of goals and objectives to address 11 critical areas of the opposition’s commitment for good governance: the Constitution; Economic Development; building a Moral Society; providing food security and promoting agriculture; ensuring a healthy society; Educational advancements; International Relations; Promoting Employment in the Industrial and Services sectors; Public Services; Energy security and availability; and Media Freedom. The proposed Way Forward provides for a two-stage approach: 1) the 100-day commitment to address urgent issues including the Constitutional Amendment; and a six-year program under a new parliament following the general election that will be held after the 100-day tasks have been accomplished.
The commitment to fulfilling these undertakings is made in the name of, interestingly, the SLFP, the UNP, the JHU, the Democratic Party, and the people’s representatives in the current parliament who are ready to support the proposed changes. The underlying premise is that the January 8 election will serve as a virtual ‘referendum’ on the proposed changes and that following an opposition victory at the election, the current parliament must act expeditiously and provide the required two-third majority to implement the verdict and the will of the people. The Manifesto categorically states that no amendment that will require direct referendum for implementation will be undertaken.
The main constitutional change will be the transition from the present executive presidential system to a cabinet-executive government, a transition that can be achieved by a two-third majority in parliament. Supporting changes will include: the abolition of 18A within 100 days; constitutional commissions for ensuring judicial and public service independence as envisaged by the old 17A; a revamped parliamentary Committee System and a Code of Ethics for parliamentarians and public officials; a new electoral system based on first-past-the post representatives for each electorate and proportional representation drawn from defeated candidates of political parties in accordance with their overall vote tallies.
There is nothing new in any of these proposals. What is new is a clear commitment by the common opposition candidate to implement them according to a definite timetable. How will President Rajapaksa respond to the opposition’s challenge is the question. Can he reject the opposition proposals and win a third term, or will he try to appropriate these proposals as his own and win the election by promising to implement them in his third term? Even if the President were to appropriate the opposition’s agenda as his own, will the voting people be ready to accept the sincerity of the President’s commitment, or will they spurn it as crass opportunism? Most importantly, are the voting people in the mood to support change, agree with the opposition’s proposals, and render a verdict in clear support of the opposition’s agenda?
Scared of win? Dare to debate?
While it is not impossible for President Rajapaksa to appropriate the opposition’s agenda, it is highly unlikely that he will do so. For doing so will run counter to what seems to the obvious government strategy of a simple two-plank platform of national security and development continuity. On national security, the government’s main argument is that the LTTE threat is not quite over and a third term is needed for President Rajapksa to defeat the LTTE a second time. While the absurdity of this argument should be obvious to most people, the Opposition still has work to do in explaining to the people that that this election is not about the LTTE or national security, but about what powerful sections in the government have been doing for the last five years after decimating the LTTE on the battleground.
On development continuity, the President seems to have played into the hands of the opposition rather too easily by proffering, at the business Momentum Forum in Colombo, breathtaking new definitions of governance and corruption: “Achieving results is good governance. Not achieving results is corruption.” In fairness to the President, this flippant definition of corruption is perhaps the only answer he could have given considering the numerous allegations of corruption that are being flung daily at his administration. His supporters have opened a different line in defence of government corruption in that corruption is an inseparable fact of government life and that it would be impossible to find a non-corrupt government anytime in history or anywhere at the present time. The opposition’s response has been swift and clinical. The Manifesto includes the following as Maithripala Sirisena’s vision for the future: While it is true that there has always been corruption and fraud in the affairs of people and government, corruption in Sri Lanka in the last few years has reached unprecedented levels. And the time has come for all main political parties to unite in their efforts to get rid of corruption in government.
With two weeks of campaign gone and two and half weeks over Christmas and New Year still left, the indications are that the opposition is seizing the momentum in the country at large. Perhaps, organizing the Momentum Forum in Colombo is an indication of the government’s concern over the situation in the rest of the country. We know not. But Udaya Gamanpila must know something we don’t, when he tells the media, “I am scared Maithripala would win.”
As well, Maithripala Sirisena must be sensing something we can’t, when he dares his former boss to a public debate and ups the ante by bragging, “I will come to this debate without a single piece of paper.” One would hope that President Rajapaksa would accept the challenge and give the voting people including the captains of businesses, the benefits of a public debate between the leading presidential contenders. Televised public debates during elections, whether parliamentary or presidential, are quite common in many countries. In an age when the television medium has become the message, public debates between candidates are ideal forums that people could use to form their own impressions of the leading candidates and their sincerity, competence, trustworthiness and accountability.
If President Rajapaksa chooses not to accept the challenge, that could harm his credibility as people might see him as a person refusing to give evidence on his own behalf in a trial that he started two years too soon. On the other hand, by participating in the debate, the President will have the opportunity to not only vindicate himself, but also create doubts about the opposition’s promises and Maithripala Sirisena’s abilities to deliver on them. He could bring to the debate all the implicating files he said he has on his detractors, and shame and silence them once and for all. Stranger things may still happen.a