Elections, Human Rights, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

From Politics of Fear to Politics of Hope

“The passion to be reckoned upon is fear.” Thomas Hobbes

“The very act of voting is a joyful statement that we are not under a tyrant. And there may be happy victories. But the best government we get is a foreshadowing. Peace and justice are approximated now.” John Piper

I admit to being a political junkie. I get my news from multiple papers, news sites and web blogs. I react to reports on our nation’s politics with hope or rage, despondence or encouragement, based on media reports. The “package of promises” presented by our two Presidential candidates continues to expand at lightning speed, and has come to include the settlement or relocation of IDPs, bail for journalist Tissaiyanagam, reopening A-9, International air port in Jaffna, equality between men and women, exposure of the killers of journalists, abolition of the executive presidency, speedy implementation of parity between languages, freedom for 700 child soldiers, and so on. At the same time both candidates levy charges of corruption and human rights abuses against each other – the same abuses they collectively denied during the war. For all their talk about uniting Sri Lankans behind a common purpose, Rajapaksha and Fonseka are running a polarizing general election campaign that cultivates fear, rather than debating the merits of their specific policies and discussing their ability to enact them. I am overwhelmed and desperate for clarity.

The best outcome we can expect from the forthcoming Presidential election is an increase in democratic space, so that political discussion is expanded into a legitimate forum where we can raise concerns and express ideas about our progress toward the future. We need more freedom to change the current political culture before we can effect specific changes in domestic and national policies. The political culture that has evolved since the war is distressingly militarized and undemocratic, and has provided undue advantages to incumbents while also limiting opportunities for citizens to make informed and reflective choices. I also believe that the voters have the power to make a difference, especially if we resist being overwhelmed and cynical. We are at most risk, when we lose hope and unwilling to make risky decisions at critical moments such as elections.

Our choice between the two candidates seems easy in some respects, and extremely difficult in others. Inevitably, choosing either candidate involves risk. There does currently seem to be a certain clarity and consensus about a number of issues that have divided the voters in the past. The majority of the voters who will choose between Mahinda Rajapaksha and Sarath Fonseka are not worried about devolution of power – even the 13th Amendment is a distant dream. Neither are voters very concerned about which candidate is more likely to end or support terrorism. Voters are complacent, equating peace with the absence of war, rather than seeing cessation of hostilities as a precondition for a just solution to the conflict.

Both candidates are committed to capitalist economic policies. The demands of the unholy trinity (WB, IMF, and WTO), coupled with our bankrupt economy, will not allow any government to reduce our cost of living or increase investments in public sectors, unless the arrangements are friendly towards global capitalism. This means that democratization will be limited by the imperatives of capitalism. We often forget that the executive presidency and the death of our democratic freedoms were brought about not only by a combination of J.R. Jayewardene and his followers’ personal political ambitions and the increasing power of ethnoreligious nationalism, but were also due to the administration’s commitment to turning Sri Lanka into the first “Tiger” of the South Asian economy. The sluggish global economy will force drastic austerity measures and encourage suppression of dissent against them.

In the area of foreign policy, both candidates are constrained by Indian, Chinese and Western negotiations over the “best” policies for Sri Lanka. Now that the war is over, easy dichotomies (i.e. “antagonistic” Western, and “friendly” non-Western countries) will lose their power and become less useful for managing domestic and international affairs. Meanwhile, normalizing international relations will be daunting task. The continuing saga over infamous ‘Channel 4 tape’ evidence that we need smart foreign policies, than those ‘over-determined’ by populism and anti-terrorism rhetoric.

Transition to a stable political order will also be difficult because the respective coalitions have conflicting interests. Attempts to bolster the regime through patronage will increase the risk of destabilizing the whole system, and will surely increase violence against so-called “soft targets.” We must not underestimate the enormous influence of smaller political parties and interest groups having on government policies.

But we are not doomed beyond any hope of recovery. There are plenty of creative ideas and enough positive energy to get out of this mess. Our choice is difficult because we are not sure of the relative costs and benefits of the change that would come with a Fonseka victory or the growth of a stronger opposition. My own opinion is that we would benefit from change.

Preserving the status quo is unacceptable and would be disastrous for the future. It would legitimize those responsible for current crises and absolve them from blame. The majority of current economic and political crises simply cannot be explained in the limited terminology of “terrorism” which dominates political discourse in this administration, and we voters have no obligation to reward the current regime by reelecting the President. The whole of Sri Lanka made enormous sacrifices to defeat terrorism, but a military victory is insufficient reason to justify continuity.

The war resulted from political failures on all sides, and there is no reason to believe that a re-elected Rajapaksha government would pursue an effective political solution. For example, former Chief Justice Sarath Silva in recent interview with Daily Mirror said that ‘although the war was concluded, no improvements were evident in the areas of human rights, governance, and any solution to the ethnic conflict. For the first time in the country’s history, this government has insulted the Court by defying its orders. The powers of the current Presidents have ballooned to the extent that they cover virtually all areas of life. Holding him accountable to law and order is impossible, as there are no checks and balances. People remain alienated from the government and public services. This is not democracy.’

If the excesses of the LTTE justified the war against it, then the excesses of the current regime detrimental to Sri Lanka’s economic, political and environmental interests do not qualify it to continue. Our choice at the next election is difficult because it is a decision between penalizing these excesses and having confidence in their respective promises, though the two options may or may not be mutually exclusive.

Fonseka’s rising popularity shows that the ruling regime cannot rest on the laurels of their war victory. Postwar Sri Lanka is more polarized than ever. If reelected, the ruling party will further tighten its control over political and economic affairs and foreclose all means of dissent and opposition, in an attempt to counter the domestic and international pressures that undermine its stability. Re-electing the UPFA would allow institutionalized nepotism and patronage to continue unchallenged, at a level unprecedented in the political history of our country, further constraining the space for democracy and progress.

Both candidates accuse the other of the same crimes they collectively denied during the war. Many newspaper articles and statements by Ministers GL, Peries, Mahinda Samarasinghe, and some legal experts imply that the international community is serious about prosecuting war crimes. They argue that Fonseka would be a liability to the country if he is charged in international court. But none of the articles makes a good case that Fonseka is more of a liability than Mahinda Rajapaksha himself.

According to two articles in the Asian Tribune, Fonseka is a Permanent Resident of the United States. They claim that if he ran for Sri Lanka’s highest office, it could lead to “‘invitation’ of foreign interference, manipulations and influence in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka never experienced before.” The argument is based on the assumption that Fonseka has “dual loyalties,” but even a cursory examination of Sri Lanka’s ruling class will turn up many more permanent residents and dual-citizens of the United States. While it may be possible, in some cases, for the international community to exploit the sometimes complex multi-identities of some Sri Lankans, it is rather simplistic to believe that a country’s vulnerability to international interferences would solely depend on a single individual possessing such a mild form of dual identity – the mere right to live and work on foreign soil.

Equally weak are the current administration’s protests of Fonseka’s indictment of the Secretary of Defense for ordering the murder of surrendered LTTE cadres. Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe angrily accused Fonseka of re-awakening international interest in investigating war crimes; in reality, the international probe into war crimes has been ongoing and Fonseka’s statement is simply one piece of evidence among others. Fonseka’s statement appears incidental and will not make any difference to the proceedings by the UN and ICC.

Minster Bogollagama charges the international community with using war crimes investigations as a cover for influencing highly sensitive elections. Other Ministers claim Fonseka is part of an international conspiracy against his own country, but curiously fail to detail the nature of the conspiracy. Such wild charges are powerful only as long as they are shrouded in secrecy – they fade to nothing when exposed to the light of day. It is unlikely that the international community has an exclusive preference for one candidate in this race, and whoever is elected may have to address the concerns of the U.N. and the international courts. International wrath has descended on Sri Lanka due to the current administration’s injustices and inconsistencies in applying rule of law, and the failure of the government to conduct effective investigations into human rights abuses, leaving perpetrators at large and unpunished. If the Rajapaksa government had acted responsibly, international pressures could have been mitigated or avoided altogether..

Minister GL Pries, in an Island article, (dis)ingenuously cautioned Sarath Fonseka against traveling abroad, pointing to a number of historical examples of military personal arrested and charged with war crimes. The good Minister showed no such concern for Fonseka before he declared his candidacy for Presidency, which suggests that the political strategy of UPFA is to appeal to public fears and uncertainty. Indeed, the current government would be the “winner” if the international community, irked by continuing rejection of UN allegations about the authenticity of the infamous tape, formed a tribunal against Sri Lanka and directly implicated Fonseka.

It is also unclear why the UPFA believes only Fonseka would be assumed to be liable for war crimes, and no other persons who were responsible for the war. Nor is there a reason to believe that UPFA is more capable of defending the country against charges of war crimes than the opposition. What we do know is that the government has so far failed to defuse the international community’s interests in war crime investigations. A sweeping change in the cast of characters in charge of foreign affairs could be just the thing Sri Lanka needs to reduce the strain in our foreign relations.

Both candidates were part of the same regime during the war. We know Rajapaksha’s record as a civilian administrator and we were introduced to Fonseka as a successful military commander who obeyed Rajapaksha’s orders. Rajapaksha is as likely as Fonseka to continue to expand the role of the military in civilian affairs; remember that the militarization of our society began with decisions made by our civilian leaders. It is unclear which of the two candidates would be a better civilian leader. World history provides many examples of ex-military commanders elected to civilian office. Some of them expanded economic development without corruption and violence, insulated economic decision-making from unproductive political interference, guaranteed general social safety networks, and implemented law and order in civilian affairs. Can Fonseka do this better than Rajapaksha? The answer is: we do not know. What we do know is that Rajapaksha has been tried, and his performances have been less than satisfactory.

One could argue that as an independent candidate, Fonseka would not be beholden to any political party or interest group. Such autonomy, coupled with lack of a political legacy could be a blessing in disguise. At the same time, the lack of a broad political base and experience in civilian administration could make him more vulnerable to the demands of smaller political parties and interest groups. Though lacking in electoral power, these groups are nonetheless powerful in terms of their influence on political decisions and popular conscious.

Whether or not Fonseka will honor his promise to abolish the executive Presidency depends on members of the opposition coalition, who now seem to be committed. While I have no reason to be optimistic given that Chandrika Kumaranathunga did not honor the same promise, we do know that Rajapaksha’s UPFA is committed to sustaining the executive presidency, while its abolition is the common factor and the promise that binds all members of Fonseka’s UDF.

At the moment, the odds favor Rajpaksha. Important as they are, the issues of the executive Presidency, corruption, and devolution of power are not the immediate concerns for the majority of voters who live in non-urban areas. These are urban issues. The majority is more likely reward (or be enticed into rewarding) Rajapaksha for his leadership in defeating the LTTE. The Fonseka camp does not have the infrastructure to mobilize rural support. The UNP has been a miserable failure in reaching out to rural folks, but the JVP is quite capable doing so.

The widely publicized claim that Rajapaksha is a ‘Tin-Pot’ dictator is based on his 6-year legacy of governance. The counter claim that Fonseka is a ‘traitor’ is based on his statement to the Sunday Leader. ‘Traitor’ in its broadest meaning should include betrayals of the country by outrageous abuses of power and public resources, and the failure to live up to promises. The entire country has sacrificed for the war in manifold ways. Everyone should be rewarded for his or her sacrifice, not just a privileged few. The collective reward should be hope for a better future, not an extension of gratitude for past achievements, and most certainly should not be limited to defeating the LTTE. This makes the choice between Rajapaksha and Fonseka a difficult one, as history does not provide us any guarantees or confidence as to what the winner will do once in power.

Whether or not Fonseka can win, if we work to increase the number of votes he receives, we can hope for a stronger opposition in the future, and we can successfully expand the space for democracy. We can make it more likely that one day we will be able to hold the ruling party accountable, and we can exert pressure to make the next general election much more just and fair. This is the way I suggest that we approach this election. By struggling to build the opposition, even behind a less than optimal candidate, we can avoid the trap of cynicism and the mire of hopelessness. We can reject indifference and embrace activism intelligently and responsibly. We can, in short, make progress, though we understand our goal is not yet within reach.