Colombo, Elections, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

We will reap what we sow: Sri Lanka’s Presidential contenders

In a one dimensional interview with the Daily Mirror, General Sarath Fonseka outlined his grievances before the people and we got an idea why he is running for the highest office in the land.

It was a litany of personal woes. Just about the whole interview was about what has been taken away from him by the Rajapakse brothers since the end of the war. More specifically, the interview dealt almost exclusively with the issue of reducing his security detail. To give him credit, he knew exactly how many personnel, support staff, vehicles and special forces were involved in providing security for the President, the Secretary of Defense, his nemesis the former Navy Commander, wife of Lakshman Kadiragamar, the current Commander of the Army, one Brigadier and so on. He also knew how long former heads of armed forces had stayed at their official residences after retirement and the diplomatic posts bestowed on them. In between, almost as an after thought, he made a few general statements about the country being corrupt, the need to establish democracy in the country and the importance of freedom of the press.

Well, at least the people will know his priorities if elected the President. He will firstly increase his own security detail; secondly reduce the security detail of everyone else; and thirdly bring in legislation to streamline how long retired commanders of the armed forces can stay in their official residences after the end of their call of duty. And the country will be on its merry way to peace and prosperity.

When the General talked about restoring democracy, fighting corruption and restoring media freedom he sounded vague and less than convincing. According to the gospel of Sarath Fonseka, the country is corrupt. Well, I beg to differ on this. The way I see it, it’s the politicos that are occupying seats of power that are corrupt; not the country. These figures who have been elected (in most cases) by the people to serve the needs of the people have usurped that responsibility and powers bestowed on them for personal gain. The average citizen of SL may be resigned to their unfortunate fate, but he/she is definitely not part of this insidious behavior. The quickest and the most cost affective way to reduce a major portion of that corruption would be to call an emergency session of parliament where all are required to attend; lock the doors and, well, I will leave the rest for your imagination.

On a serious note, the General does not provide specifics on how he will tackle corruption. With regard to restoring democracy and the freedom of the press, he is even more vague. What does he mean by restoring democracy? Abolish the Executive Presidency in favor of an Executive Premier? Scrap the PR system in favor of direct elections to the Parliament a la pre-1978? Bring in spending caps? Public financing of elections and candidates? Strengthening the powers of Provincial Councils? Bring in independent civilian oversight committees?

We don’t know. We aren’t told.

In terms of expanding and guaranteeing the freedom of the media to be open, independent and critical, a President could do much by simply repealing/removing all of the restrictions placed under the guise of national security and the prevention of terrorism. Let the people be the judge of the veracity of the media. Not exactly rocket science or molecular biology, is it?

But, we don’t know what the General means when he refers to strengthening media freedom.

The General did not touch on the economy. I guess he needs to read up on the 25 year plan.

President Rajapakse on the other hand is a seasoned politician with good oratorical skills and a mean and efficient political machine at his disposal. He can most definitely talk the talk. However, outside the realm of overseeing the successful conclusion of the war against the LTTE, he has not walked the walk. His presidency seems a voyage of self discovery and self fulfillment. He has efficiently and calculatedly built up his image by espousing nationalist and religious causes. He has strengthened his rule by creating a cult of personality around himself. He has cowed all opponents by dividing and scaring them into submission. He has elevated the concept of divide and rule to an art form.

Most unfortunately, he has subjugated his vision of a united, self sufficient and peaceful SL to the more self indulgent need to cling on to the Presidency at any cost. He has equated the needs of the country with his personal needs and desires. As a result, the country has been left to lurch on auto-pilot on many fronts. Many of his economic and foreign policies have been purely reactionary. He has failed to translate his vision into the practical realm of governance.

Since 1982 the people of Sri Lanka have been going to presidential polls hoping for a heart of gold and they have ended up giving each president a pot of gold.

Currently, we have one sure candidate in the sitting president. It’s looking more and more likely that Sarath Fonseka will be the Common Opposition Candidate. If the general throws his hat in the ring, we will have 2 candidates with puffed up chests saying that he loves the country more than the other and that they will protect the country’s Sinhala Buddhist people from real and imaginary evil. Or yeah, both will also take credit for ending Prabakaran’s reign of terror. The General will bare his soul to the nation and tell us how hurt he is by the way the Rajapakses have treated him since he single handedly beat Prabakaran’s terrorists. He will (he has already started the ball rolling on this one) identify all the current and former GOSL officials who have a bigger security detail than him. He has and will pick personal fights with former and present military personnel who do not agree with his assertion that he is the personal savior of the nation. The President on the hand will likely say that he and his brother are the true heroes who single handedly wiped out terrorism from the land and that the General is an egomaniacal imposter. When you read between the lines, you will realize that the President is basically making the point that it is better to go with a tried and tested megalomaniac than an egomaniac in training. That would be the sum of their political platforms.

Sri Lanka’s economy has shown resilience even in a time of global recession. However, that is probably more due to the economy’s relative low exposure to global markets than any policy undertaken by the current regime. Inflation is running at double digits. Jobs with a living wage are hard to come by. Basic services such as garbage disposal are in need of urgent overhaul. The energy sector is heavily overburdened and cannot cope with the growing demands of the populace. The state sector is bloated with patronage jobs and is largely unproductive and a drain on the economy. Law seems to be in the written form only. Order is hanging by a thread. People have lost faith in the Police (look at the number of suspects in police custody who have been killed while trying to “escape”). The independence of the judiciary is severely compromised by political meddling as are the armed forces. Trade unions and student unions are up in arms against government policies or the lack of them. Public transportation cannot cope with the demand of a growing and an increasingly mobile population. The country is disturbingly polarized along ethnic and religious lines. The list goes on and on.  

One would think that with such a litany of concerns, all candidates would be dying to share their vision and mission to combat these issues with the electorate. One would also think that the long suffering people of the country would demand the same of their candidates. To the contrary, the rhetoric has been largely limited to the superficial and the people seem to have resigned themselves to a battle of machismo. Maybe we deserve the leaders we elect, but what about the generations to come? How are we going to answer our children and grand children when they ask; “didn’t you care?”

I am going to go out on a limb here and get on a soapbox. Presidential elections should be about leadership and not about aggrandizing or hanging on to power at any cost. It should be about putting the needs of the country before self. Leadership is not about occupying and controlling corridors of decision making so you can feel important and dish out favors to your friends and family. Leadership is not a job; it’s a calling. Leadership is not bestowed on one because of kinship, it must be earned. The President of a country has a sacred duty to act in a manner that serves the greater good and makes all its members feel included. In other words, the President is the patriarch or the matriarch of that society. A President should not choose favorites because everyone citizen is a member of his/her extended family. A leader holds things together; he/she does not sow division among his family to further personal gain.

A country such as ours with a diverse population with diverse views, religions and languages needs a Leader as its President. This is truer now than ever. Sadly, I only see opportunists and timer servers. The choice before the people is between the lesser of two evils.

Maybe my sense of gloom and doom is premature. Nobody would be happier to have been off the mark on this than I, but signs indicate that the next presidential election will be more of the same excrement with one new orifice.