By N Sathiya Moorthy
With only weeks to go for the presidential poll-date announcement, political parties still seem to be unclear about what one issue or issues to project before the electorate or how to go about it. If this reality has not hit the nation’s psyche thus far, first it owed to the controversy surrounding Gota Rajapaksas’s ‘foreigner issue’, followed since by the inability of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ruling UNP to name a candidate. It is now reportedly slated for 6 September.
Once the UNP also announces its candidate, and hoping that the party does not have to split and splinter over the Sajith Premadasa candidacy, then it would hurt all political parties and allies that there is nothing to fight over – even as there is everything to fight for. It is too early to invent a new and appealing electoral issue. It is even more difficult for them to re-invent an existing one.
The thumb-rule for elections is that barring price-rise and unemployment, no same issue appeals to the electorate after it had been exhausted in the first round itself. Maybe, rival political parties can cite more episodes and instances to support their past claims and promises, but they not having done anything about it while in power or even in the Opposition through the previous years, they stand exposed – the issues, too.
The abolition of Executive Presidency has run out of steam, owing to over-use and over-exposure almost since the days it was introduced as far back as 1978. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo had full five years to go beyond their invention of 19-A, after jointly coming to power in 2015. Now for either of them to say that this election is also would be about the abolition of Executive Presidency would be laughable.
On the opposite camp, the Rajapaksas cannot talk about the abolition of Executive Presidency, either. In present-day Sri Lanka, they are seen, or being projected as wanting to perpetuate an ‘autocratic family’ rule. It’s the kind of charge neither the founder-families of either the UNP or the breakaway SLFP faced despite everything pointing to it.
Otherwise, there was no compelling justification for the SLFP to accept Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaeatunga (CBK), the ‘prodigal daughter’, to return to the fold, and confer the prestigious presidential candidacy on her. She won the presidential polls of 1994, and with the highest-ever poll-percentage ever.
If anything, the Rajapaksas are repeating CBK this time round with their SLPP. There is, yes, a difference. CBK returned to win the presidential polls for the ‘family party’. The Rajapaksas, on the other hand, hope to win the presidential polls this time, and then re-unite with the parent SLFP, possibly on their terms.
War crimes probe
Much is also being made of the ‘war crimes probe’ as an election issue. The fact remains that a substantial section of the war-affected Tamil community may not vote for the Rajapaksas. This is despite their having voted for war-time Army commander Sarath Fonseka, since elevated Field Marshal, post-retirement.
Why, TNA parliamentarians still interacted with Fonseka when made Minister in the Wickremesinghe Government in the early part of the term. If Fonseka is not a Minister now, it is not because of ‘war crimes’ allegations of any kind against him. President Maithripala Sirisena seems to have concluded that he has had enough and more of him, both inside the Government and outside.
The TNA did not protest Fonseka’s candidacy, creation as Field Marshal or elevation as MP and Minister. So did the self-styled ‘international community’ (read: West), some of whose diplomats may have done actual business with Fonseka the Minister as long as he was in office. So for them all to protest the appoint of war-time division chief, Shavendra Silva as Army commander takes whatever seriousness still remains of the UNHRC process.
First and foremost, President Sirisena’s appointment of Silva as Army chief seems to have had the support of Wickremesinghe’s UNP. They have not opposed or protested to the appointment, either within the Government or outside. There is none of those usual beeline to the Supreme Court, challenging the appointment – even by the TNA, which had after all backed Fonseka in post-war Elections-2010.
It is an open secret that the West wanted Mahinda Rajapaksa out as President, both in 2010 and 2015, if not in 2005. He won two, but lost the crucial final one. It could thus be the only game where a 2-1 lead should mean the winner of the series still seen as having lost. Today, a victory for another Rajapaksa should be a winner still for the family. A defeat is not an equaliser, but a defeat, possibly for good.
In this background, the TNA’s protestations against Silva’s appointment might sound hollow, and at times anti-Sinhala among the Sinhala electorate. The Tamils are anyway going to vote against the Rajapaksas, or that is the perception. To them, the nonchalance with which the ‘majoritarian Sinhalas’ have appointed Silva as Army chief is a mockery of the UNHRC process, nothing more, nothing less.
All of it boils down, in the eyes of the average Sinhala but pertaining to their perception of western priorities for Sri Lanka thus: Fonseka is ‘our war-criminal’ and Silva is ‘your war-criminal’. In such a construct, the UNP dare not make the Silva appointment an election issue, now or later.
But one thing is clear. If the UNP presidential nominee wins, he may have more time at the UNHRC, which could well tantamount to easing the pressure, if any remaining on Sri Lanka. The party may also keep talking about it all until Silva’s term ends and then appoint an Army chief whose nomination the UNHRC may have no reason to be concerned about.
Yet, if it is Gota who is going to become President, you can be sure that UNHRC could develop new vocal cords, arms and legs…. It could be a tactic to pressure a Rajapaksa presidency to ‘behave’ on China, MMC and SOFA. Alternatively, Sri Lanka, not the Rajapaksas, would be dragged over the coals all over again.
Democracy vs Stability
What now remains is the issue of democracy vs stability. There is no denying that a whiff of free air and freedom of speech, et al, that blew across the country once Mahinda left Temple Trees. The situation has not changed for the better or the worse. With the result, to the first-time voters, ‘breathing free-air’ is not an option, it has become natural.
To this constituency, and such others from the previous generation(s), ‘political stability’ and attendant security concerns, as demonstrated for them by the ‘Easter blasts’ may be an issue. Again, it is only a perception. That is to say, if there are voters, especially among the Sinhala majority, who put a high value on national and personal security (as may even be different from personal freedom), then Gota is there man – no questions asked.
Of course, economy is an issue, but no one dare talk about it during election time. There was no denying that the Rajapksa regime took roads and street-lights to interior Sinhala villages as never before. It inducted more government servants than was required, paid salaries that may have been seen as higher than possible by then UNP Opposition economists, but they are doing the same, after all.
The UNP Government is distributing laptops to students (borrowed from across the Palk Strait, from the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu?) and have promised higher wages, etc. Taking forward the Rajapaksa-initiated express highway projects, the UNP has also gone to China after cursing them both for the ‘debt-trap’, to lay more roads.
If the Rajapaksas took road-making to village streets, now Sajith Premadasa, quietly as Housing Minister, is giving them or at least promising them new houses and housing colonies, funded mostly by neighbouring India. They all may curse the ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu otherwise and in every which way for backing the LTTE, but then, who knows this time round, one or the other of the presidential candidates promises ‘free rice’ and/or free cattle-head to voters, a la Tamil Nadu?
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)