Colombo, Elections, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Presidential promises and necessity for change? Sri Lankan voters at crossroads

This note concerns the forthcoming Presidential election in Sri Lanka, due on 27 January 2010. As several insightful articles on the polls have already appeared on Groundviews, all I propose here is to give a brief ‘view from afar’, i.e. perceptions from a citizen living away, who will unfortunately not be able to cast his vote during what could be described as the most crucial of elections since the enactment of the 1978 Constitution of the Second Republic.

As many writers have outlined here and elsewhere, it is an election where many a Sri Lankan finds him/herself in a dilemma over casting their vote. The two main contenders highlight their respective roles in the military offensive leading to the decimation of the LTTE, the most violent exponent of Tamil separatist militarism Sri Lanka has ever known. While it is clear that both individuals in question played key roles in the military offensive, the question ‘Who’s the real hero?’ should not constitute a criterion that determines one’s vote at this election. Instead, choices at a crucial election need to be focused on policy issues, realistically achievable goals, and the best interests of the state and the citizenry. Some writers and politicos speculate possible ‘outcomes’ if a given candidate wins the election; once again this type of forecasts on the post-election scenario are of little use to the critically-minded voter. In politics, as in many other fields, it is not feasible to make today’s decisions by focusing on an unknown future; instead, it is much more worthwhile to focus on the present while pondering on the past, and work face-to-face with the dire realities that surround us.

The Common (opposition) Candidate (hereinafter referred to as CC) and the incumbent President (hereinafter referred to as IP) have both presented their election manifestos to the voters. As the campaign advances in full swing, one can notice several inherent features not uncommon to electoral politics in Sri Lanka:

  1. Election-related violence (one TV channel renders a commendable service by reporting incidents of election-related violence on a nearly day-to-day basis)
  2. Use of shallow argumentation and melodrama to woo a large portion of the electorate – with the fullest patronage of the state-owned media institutions
  3. Absence of large-scale critical thinking

In a Sri Lankan weekend newspaper (edition of Sunday 10 January 2010), I read an interesting article, written by a regular columnist who gives a brief explanation of why he will be voting for CC on 27/01/2010.  The comments that follow this article are equally interesting; they provide a glimpse of some of the concerns that seem to cross the minds of many a Sri Lankan voter. On a very basic, surface level, I see the presence of three primary public stances on the 2010 Presidential polls:

  1. Voters who think that ‘a free country’ (devoid of LTTE suicide bomb attacks, united from North to South) has been ensured by IP’s political leadership, hence the necessity of rewarding him with a mandate for a second term of office (opinion visibly rampant among the rural areas, especially in regions where only state-owned radio and TV channels operate – disclaimer: opinions may differ on this matter, and this is the writer’s basic, personal view)
  2. Voters who notice many a flaw under IP’s administration, and therefore conclude that Sri Lanka is definitely in need of change (hence their decision to vote for CC)
  3. A third group, unarguably the most critically-minded, see clear flaws in both CC and IP. They maintain that voters ought to demonstrate their discontent by voting for a third candidate (preferably a well-known politician with a leftist political ideology), thereby preventing either of the main candidates from getting a landslide majority. A Sri Lankan blogger recently noted that if this path is taken, even if IP is re-elected on 26/01/2010, it will be with a very low margin, which will make him less inclined exercise family politicking and play excessively with executive prerogatives during his second term.

This is an election where voters ought to seriously consider several salient realities of the contemporary socio-political, economic and cultural landscape of Sri Lanka, which notably include the following:

  1. Economic situation of the country: as the economy dwindles, state expenditures remain high (jumbo cabinet, colossal costs incurred by diplomatic missions with little concrete services to the state, large-scale mismanagement of public finances )
  2. Breakdown of essential services: especially in the sectors of public healthcare and education (secondary and third level) – and the blatant inability of respective cabinet ministers and the Head of State to effectively manage the situation
  3. Incumbent administration’s unwillingness to promote post-war reconciliation, a just political arrangement, combat extremist/fundamentalist forces operating from all ends; its tendency to ‘use’ the ethnic issue for short-term political gains
  4. Absence of overall consistency, an approach to governance based on objective, realistic policy planning and implementation

Concerning CC, one could make the following initial observations:

  1. His entry into politics as an act of revenge against IP and his younger brother in charge of state defence administration
  2. A pronounced plea to manage mismanagement and corruption in government – one that does not strongly impress the voter as this is a point generally upheld by opposition candidates during election campaigns.
  3. Lack of strength in combating Sinhala nationalist propaganda since the TNA extended its support to CC – this writer maintains that dealing with such critiques requires a strong, well-organised and consistent wave of retort, strong enough to reach out to the entire Sinhala community. It should be strong enough to counteract the propaganda machine of the state-owned print and electronic media.
  4. A visible reluctance to address issues that are crucial to Sri Lankan society at the present juncture (i.e. promoting active mobilisation of educated youth from all ethnic groups, high emphasis on parity and gender equality, standing for an agenda for constructive socio-political transformation, an agenda which realistically proposes to make Sri Lankan society an increasingly non-violent and tolerant entity marked by mutual respect and sophistication)

[The list could go on…]

Now, to make life even more difficult for the Sri Lankan voter, IP’s bid for re-election remains thoroughly questionable due to the following realities (among many others…):

  1. Excesses and melodrama characterise his government (jumbo cabinet, use of artists and media personnel to lure popular votes, massive Burmese military junta-like cut-outs all over, attempts at capitalising on anything and everything…)
  2. Tolerance of violence against media personnel and upholders of opposed viewpoints
  3. Tolerance of state-sponsored terror (the Executive’s carte blanche to one infamous individual in a ministerial position is a prime example)
  4. Tolerance of individuals with daring records of impunity (appointing someone with numerous allegations of sexual abuse against women and minors as an organiser of a Colombo district constituency, absence of any prompt steps to probe such allegations and comfortably turning a blind eye to such issues as long as the said individual supports IP and his government
  5. Bad management: placing the most crucial positions of power to totally unsuitable hands (notable examples include the office of Prime Minister, policymakers heading the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Ports and Aviation, Education and Healthcare.
  6. IP’s clear initiative to promote his family members at any cost, including the sidelining of qualified government servants – paving the way to a 21st century oligarchy
  7. Absence of any concrete plan and total unwillingness to address the ethnic question. In an article to Groundviews, a prominent analyst recently re-emphasised the virtues of the 13th Constitutional Amendment, upholding that IP needs to, and will eventually implement it. To any observer of IP’s first term of office even at a surface level, it appears to be clear that there is no such willingness on IP’s behalf, and that an arrangement for political accommodation and a ‘just peace’, together with a viable mechanism for inter-ethnic reconciliation will not be possible as long as IP is in power.

The question then, is ‘Who can I vote for?’ After all, a vote is a strictly personal decision, and each voter will make the choice they deem appropriate. I wish to note one key point that voters ought to take into account very seriously: in a democratic republic, the real wielders of power are the people, whose vote is the key mechanism that determines the fate of political leaders. In a republic with a powerful executive presidency, voters must consider if the Head of State has been magnanimous enough in his/her usage of the powers entrusted to the high office. Excessive use of the said powers can be extremely detrimental to the maintenance of democracy. If the bearer of high office [i.e. the executive president] seems to play the role of a quintessential family man/woman, by strongly prioritising his/her kith and kin over the wider citizenry, constantly resorts to full-swing melodrama, demonstrates no control in managing impunity, promotes his/her offspring in a hilarious and shameless mannerism, then such a leader deserves a firm call for a reality check from the power-wielders: the citizenry. Elections are occasions to remind such individuals as to who really possesses the power in this ballgame, and make them realise crystal clearly that we Sri Lankans no longer live in a feudal system, oligarchy or a monarchy, but in a democratic political structure (however corrupt and ‘galactic polity-like’ it is), where the key norms at interplay are (or should I say ‘ought to be’) mutual respect, tolerance, commitment to maintain law and order in all aspects of governance, and above all, a commendable degree of sophistication.

If the wider citizenry thus rule in favour of a reality check for IP, they should have a viable option to replace IP. It is here that the critically-minded Sri Lankan voter is likely to face a challenging situation. Despite the reality that ‘change at any cost’ may not always be the best way forward, change, in a democracy, is an essential component, and constitutes the very logic that underlies the electoral process. Voters therefore need to rally around the electoral process to convey a strong message loudly to the country and to the world at large, and establish their control over the state apparatus; despite the prevalent sorry state of our democratic system, this will at least amply demonstrate the democratic potential of our citizenry – a crucial necessity of the hour.