Colombo, Elections, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Rajapaksa vs Fonseka: Tweedledum vs Tweedledee?

The results of the national elections are now by no means certain.  There is a contest and as a consequence, there is the possibility that the presidency could change hands, which in turn will have its impact on the general elections.  This is attributable to the Fonseka presidential candidacy and it depriving the incumbent of claiming sole credit for the defeat of the LTTE.

Contests in themselves are good.  Elections being the principal mechanism for choice and change in a functioning democracy, the lack of a contest could breed a lack of interest in elections on the part of the electorate, which in turn is not healthy for participatory and representative democracy.  The Fonseka candidacy ensures that the Rajapaksa dynasty is not assured.  They will have to fight and fight they will, to turn appreciation and gratitude for the defeat of the LTTE under their watch into a mandate for government into the next decade.  Yet, challenging the Rajapaksas or indeed defeating them is not a guarantee for a functioning democracy in Sri Lanka, anymore than defeating the LTTE in the way in which it was done is a guarantee for lasting democratic peace, reconciliation and national unity.

The Fonseka candidacy on the face of it is in the nature of the curate’s egg – some part good in ensuring a contest and other parts bad given the stink the general brings with him on human rights protection and the essential pluralism of the peoples he wants to be president of.   Moreover, what is the Sri Lanka that can be expected to emerge and evolve out of this contest, which some may characterize as one between war heroes and others as a pan Sinhala majoritarian fight fuelled by personal animosity between two individuals who should be held accountable for military excesses at least, war crimes at worst?  As it stands it is not unreasonable to assume that the minority communities in the country and what remains of liberal opinion are left effectively stranded by this choice before them – between the devil and the deep blue sea or between the frying pan and the fire are some of the remarks that this choice has elicited from these constituencies.  Oscar Wilde’s remarks about fox hunting – the unspeakable going after the uneatable – have also been used to describe this contest.

There is of course the possibility already identified by some, that both candidates will have to court the minorities and liberals to win the election – a pan Sinhala nationalist fight within the pan Sinhala nationalist community being insufficient to produce a clear winner.  Already, there is ostensible relief for the IDPs – screening and demining notwithstanding – and the general in some public pronouncements is sounding like a determined and enthusiastic aspirant for a human rights award!   Yet the ethnic conflict and bad governance in this country were not produced by promises made and kept, but by broken promises and the widening gap between promise, performance and delivery.  The minorities and liberals will be voting if they do, in an act of desperation, with hope trumping experience.  Can either candidate be reincarnated into being the president of all Sri Lankans?

There are those who have steadfastly maintained that Mahinda  Rajapaksa in a second term would be the model of national unity and reconciliation and the architect of a new and truly plural Sri Lanka in terms of constitutional design and political culture.   Pragmatist that he is, he will forge a new coalition of forces to embrace and institutionalize unity in diversity.  To this is now added the argument that he is the only bulwark against the militarization of our politics.  This is yet another leap of faith and trumping of hope over experience.  One need only look at the north and east, to identify the number of appointments in civilian governance that have gone to ex-military personnel.  And as for embracing unity in diversity, need one look beyond the protracted farce of the APRC, the absence of proposals from the regime for a political settlement and the cunning focus of debate in this respect on the Thirteenth Amendment, thereby making Thirteenth Amendment Minus a higher probability than Plus?

And General Fonseka?  The immediate political arguments for his candidacy are that it will stop the Rajapaksas in their dynastic tracks and deliver political reform as per the agenda set out by the opposition.  Fonseka is to stand as the common candidate of the opposition because they cannot field anyone from within their ranks with a ghost of a chance of defeating Rajapaksa and once elected to the executive presidency, Fonseka is to abolish that office and turn over government to the opposition, staying on however as minister of defence!  Truth is stranger than fiction and even more the case in politics.  Will the general agree to this?  Would you?

The story about two resignation letters suggests that he has every intention of being his own man and not one subject to the conditions and priorities of the joint opposition.  In any event, were he to be elected the executive president, the opposition will have no hold over him.  It is surely highly unlikely that General Fonseka will agree to be the presidential candidate who in effect will be campaigning to make Mr Wickremasinghe the Prime Minister and chief executive of the country?  Even if he agrees to do so, will the electorate accept this candidacy by proxy?

In either event – on his own or on behalf of – General Fonseka, like the incumbent owes the country honest and clear explanations on the culture of impunity in respect of human rights violations and the allegations of actions that could be tantamount to war crimes.  General Fonseka in particular, needs to, if he sincerely thinks it warranted, explain his remarks to the Canadian National Post and in his Ambalangoda speech, which is cited in the US State Department Report to the US Senate Appropriations Committee.   We must know what is on offer; we must know what we are getting or indeed getting into.  And we must know the real difference between the two candidates.

Is there any difference between them on a vision for a future Sri Lanka, on governance, the economy, the 13th and 17th Amendments, corruption, media freedom and human rights?

It looks like the choice is increasingly going to be between the incumbent and the general.  Bar some unforeseen, fortuitous and pleasant surprises, what if anything recommends this contest is the contest itself.  As such, it is important that we the peoples of this country ensure that there is a debate about the future of the country and that the result we deliver will facilitate a continuing dialogue on this most crucial of subjects beyond the contest.

However daunting the task may be, there are especially compelling arguments for effective checks and balances on the exercise of executive power in the event of either of these candidates winning the presidency.