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

Believable Change or Promises Delivered? Sarath Fonseka vs. Mahinda Rajapaksa

With just about a week to go for elections and both candidates having gone public with their manifests along with the policy commitments, this is an opportune time to have a comparative look at what’s been offered by each of them.

The Fonseka camp has almost always been the first to come up with policy and welfare offers whereas Rajapaksa camp has been offering their side of the solutions thereafter. Up until recently, the Rajapaksa had focused the campaign on “votes for gratitude” rather than specific pledges to be expected during the next term. This was very evident on many occasions including the release of the election Manifesto, Issues Concerning Minorities, Cost of Living and Social Welfare to name a few.

Let’s start with the key tagline of Mr Fonseka which is “an end to corruption, nepotism and despotism”. He outlined that there will be a high powered independent authority setup to investigate and take action against fraud  and corruption as the key priority upon his election. Having argued for a long time in the campaign that there is no such major corruption as the opposition claims, Mr Rajapaksa’s manifesto, released a few days after Mr Fonseka’s says his 1st Act to be introduced in the parliament upon election as president will be to set up and empower an independent body to eliminate fraud & corruption.

The next most talked point has been on governance and accountability. Mr Fonseka started to focus on this with clear focus on implementing the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and thus activating the independent commissions on Police, Public Service, Elections and others as well as abolishing the Executive presidency where parliament is more empowered in decision making. He has also said that the abolishment will not result in a “puppet” presidency but a president who is answerable to the parliament. On the other hand, having said Executive Presidency is indeed necessary for a country like Sri Lanka, Mr Rajapaksa seems to have backtracked on that of late, and now talks of Presidency being converted to a Trusteeship and being answerable to the parliament. Also talks of an All Party Discussion on the Executive Presidency but I have my doubts on the All Party Process which is mentioned considering the virtual no result of such process being held on constitutional areas in the first term also known as APRC. Then last week he told English and Tamil newspaper reporters that “unnecessary powers in the presidency” will be abolished. Mr Rajapaksa has also been very upfront that his administration will not activate the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which surely raises question marks on the governance area.

Another key area Mr Fonseka has been emphasising is on Media Freedom. The most noteworthy commitment being the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act while abolishing the controversial Press Council Bill. On the other hand Mr Rajapaksa hasn’t shown any sign of acknowledgement of the widespread intimidation on media persons nor any promise on freedom of expression where he talks of changing the practices of “certain media institutions which strive to tarnish the image of the country by portraying Sri Lanka as a state with an unsatisfactory track record”; which gives an obvious indication on justification for curtailing dissent based on how the words like “good image”, “patriot”, etc are used as per the whims and fancies of a few people in present day Sri Lanka.

The issue of cost of living and social welfare comes next. Mr Fonseka has, from initial stages of his campaign, been talking about salary increases to meet the rising cost of living, slashing the multitude of taxes on fuel, essential food, etc along with employment generation through improved FDIs, enhanced Business Environment and securing GSP+ though Good Governance practices, upholding Human Rights and accountability. Mr Rajapaksa talks about further distribution of “Budget Packs” with essential items through government run supermarkets, rate reductions for value added tax, personal tax and excise tax and employment generation through new ventures. This is quite intriguing considering that government has always been saying the prices of goods are lower, there is no cost of living burden (even though after almost 9 months from the end of war still costs have been on an upward trend whereas during those days the war was blamed for all the costs and taxes) and doesn’t have any real commitment on how they would face reality on this. On the development sector, though it is highly thought of and wide-ranging, still unfortunately lacks the basic issue as to how transparency and accountability on these mega projects proposed will be maintained contrary to what is being seen nowadays.

It is interesting though that while talking of increasing Samurdhi benefits for people below the poverty line, none of the candidates talk of their vision as to how many of those people they would want to be moved beyond the poverty line in their respective terms.

Same way, another noteworthy area is on women’s issues and empowerment.  Mr Fonseka has clearly been talking of this area pretty much as a key point in his agenda and facilities offered to women entrepreneurs has been a remarkable pledge. And a few days later we see an identical proposal in Mr Rajapaksa’s manifesto though his campaign stage has been quite silent on such issues up until then. Probably like their perception on youth empowerment, the present administration may have been assuming that women’s empowerment is also no longer an issue in Sri Lanka which needs a very high priority.

Similarly while Mr Fonseka has been committing on reducing the “jumbo” cabinet with close to 90& of ruling party MPs holding ministerial positions and multitudes of perks; Mr Rajapaksa has failed to give a definite answer on this matter, which again raises a number of valid questions.

The other interesting point has been the pledges made by Mr Fonseka to the Tamil community on national reconciliation through answers for root causes, resettlement benefits of IDPs, war-time High Security Zones which still exist in Jaffna peninsula (even though he mentioned only 4 such Zones explicitly), Tamil youth who have been arrested under Emergency rule and held without charges and most importantly a commitment to remove the war-time Emergency Regulations. As soon as these were spelt out, he was painted as a traitor to the country who was “trying to please the LTTE sympathisers” by the government which showed a clear indication as to how difficult it has been for Mr Rajapaksa’s administration, probably due to the fact that the government higher-ups are well influenced by Sinhala chauvinistic elements, to understand some of the genuine issues faced by Tamil community in the country. But, another U-turn was seen days after Mr Fonseka’s statement where measures were taken by Mr Rajapaksa’s administration to promise almost the same list of measures mentioned above and try to appease the Tamil voters. For example Mr Rajapakse mentioned about “a solution of his own” will be developed during his second term (though without clarifying about the time, money, resources spent on APRC process so far with the same objective), increased allowance on the Rs 50,000 resettlement benefit, removal of High Security Zones and expedite “screening” of 11,000 odd Tamil youth who are under arrest.

These are some of the key pointers which show the impact Mr Fonseka’s campaign has been able to achieve in a very short period of time in getting the government to react with impulsive measures to counter Mr Fonseka’s pledges which were being originally tainted as impractical, misleading or sometimes as treacherous. It also raised the question as to why the government had been so much lethargic rather than being proactive on thinking of the masses, waiting up until Mr Fonseka comes up with proposals for changes.

This gives a fine closure in combining the campaign slogans used by both candidates in to one saying that some of Mr Fonseka’s Promises for Believable Change have already been started to be Delivered.

Whether it is out fear of Mr Fonseka’s popularity being on the rise or due to a the fact that the government has taken everything for granted so far under the guise of showing “gratitude for president”; is a question voters of Sri Lanka will answer on the 26th of January 2010. Let us all hope, pray and work towards making every effort to make that vote a democratic choice of our citizens unhindered by any other.