Photo via wx135

The announcement that Maithripala Sirisena, General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Minister of Health in the Rajapaksa regime is to be The Common Candidate of the Opposition to Mahinda Rajapaksa has turned the Presidential Election of 15th January 2015 into a contest. Moreover the electoral arithmetic, most popularly quoted, appears to favour the challenger on the premise that the vast majority of minority votes will go to him leaving the incumbent the challenge of securing some 60-65% of the majority Sinhala Buddhist vote to win. This begs the question as to why there is a presidential contest at all and in the height of the tourist season, given that the incumbent’s current term expires in November 2016. Astrology perhaps, may provide the answer in terms of waxing and waning powers during this or that major or sub-period.

Anyway, it is still early days and the campaigns are yet to get into full gear. Some comments are in order.

The first is that the campaign is expected to be violent – the most violent according to the reckoning of some. This is based on the argument that unfortunately, closely fought electoral contests in Sri Lanka are indeed violent and in this instance, that the Rajapaksa regime would use violence to retain power – losing it, literally and metaphorically speaking being a matter of life and death to them. There are reports already of violence, of threat and intimidation of voters to attend meetings, retribution against crossovers, damage to property and threats of more to come. There are fears of the threat of violence and of violence being used to reduce the turn- out throughout the country and especially the vote in the North. Irony indeed in the case of the latter, since it was the LTTE enforced boycott with violence that handed Rajapaksa the presidency in the first place in 2005. Fear is the key in this election, in more than one sense and more of that later.

Second, there is a school of thought, allegedly concentrated in the business community that argues that continuity is best for business on the grounds that there is no saying what the Rajapaksa’s would do if they actually lost power or were convinced that they were going to. Chaos would ensue. There is also another school that argues that continuity is best on the general principle that “the known devil is better than the unknown”. This in turn is attributable to the perceived confusion amongst some with regard to the opposition programme – can the executive presidency be abolished in a 100 days? Will there still be a president and with what powers? Who will be Prime Minister and with what powers?

Thirdly, if the joint opposition is presenting itself as the force of change then it must do so coherently and in a language that is accessible to the voters at large. So far, the Opposition campaign has focused on corruption and family rule – the abolition of the executive presidency aside – and with the JHU on its side and the JVP supportive, it has made headway. Where it needs to get its act together is on dispelling perceived ambiguity and lack of clarity in its constitutional reform programme and the perception that this is all a ruse to return to 2005 and establish the CBK-RW entente that then, never was. There is a need here to project the candidate and not by default, the former president and her once prime minister. Change cannot be projected if there is a perception that this is all about revenge and purely about getting rid of the Rajapaksas. It is a short campaign, presidential elections anywhere, anyway are beauty contests and the Common Candidate needs to be known island-wide as the next president and not as a proxy for a past one.

Electoral arithmetic notwithstanding, organization on the ground is going to matter for the opposition, particularly with regard to projecting the Common Candidate, communicating the message on the ground and getting the voters to the booths on 8th January. Turn out is pivotal. Party organizations may only be galvanized to life at the time of elections, but the relative stupor of the main opposition party over the last two decades means that there is a lot of catching up to do in this regard to sustain the message of change and deliver the mandate for it on January 8th. Whatever shock and surprise and expectation the Sirisena candidacy has generated at the outset, needs to be sustained on the ground, if it is to amount to much on the day.

The assumption about the minority vote is now being questioned on the grounds that the reluctance on the part of the Common Candidate to address a political settlement of the ethnic conflict, lest he alienate Sinhala Buddhist voters whose support his candidacy is to a great extent predicated upon, could give ammunition to Tamil nationalists and result in Tamil voters staying away from the polls. The dire disincentive of violence and the threat thereof, rendered moot in this eventuality. As to what the manifesto of the Common Candidate will say on a political settlement remains to be seen. For sure it cannot ignore it.

Quite frankly, it could at best be fudged, motivated by the political calculation of keeping Sinhala nationalists on board whilst at the same time attempting to retain Tamil votes. Both vote banks are critical. None of this makes it easier for the Northern voter who may be having doubts. The bottom line at the end of the day should be surely, that the election matters to all the citizens of this country. Who wins will affect their daily lives, aspirations and grievances. Change is surely in order; not voting will only consolidate continuity and entrench the current dispensation. The North must vote and be counted in this election.

The incumbent’s campaign so far has been about fear – the loss of sovereignty, the “two nations” of those who love this country and those who do not respectively, the machinations of the Tamil diaspora, the return to the treachery of the CFA, secret deals between the sections of the opposition and the TNA, the chaos and uncertainty that is supposedly implicit in the opposition’s constitutional reform programme, etc. This of course is interspersed with platitudes about the future and the pleasing prospects for the next generation a third term will deliver. The strategy seems to be to make the opposition and all it portends the issue, set against the reference point of the 2009 victory and infrastructural development.

There is every possibility that if a swing towards the opposition is confirmed mid-way into the campaign, violence will escalate and not just the generalized violence of threat, intimidation, assault and arson. It could be much more serious, even extending to real and/or fake assassination attempts as dramatic events to stem the tide and redirect the vote. Prof Rajiva Wijesinha in his current series of lamentations notes that the President and his cohorts “will use every trick in the book now to win re-election, and he might even succeed, he knows that the methods he is now using serve only to make crystal clear how very unpopular he has become”. Things will not be left to Election Day – if there is a swing and one that is strong enough, it is unlikely that public servants, the police and the armed forces will be party to bucking the trend. They will stand with their fellow citizens.

Is this going to be enough to counter the sentiment that the third term is all about greed – for power and resources?   Where is the convincing rebuttal of the argument that on economic grounds, the regime has not delivered to the people –according to the last CPA/Social Indicator poll, the numbers that believe, that things have got worse economically register at over 50%. Over 40% registers as compromising on the amount and quality of the food they purchase and some 24% admit to not purchasing medication.

This is a historic, decisive election. It is the first time an incumbent has sought a third term. His victory will consolidate an authoritarian populism as the form of government and political culture. We will cease to be even the formal functioning, albeit flawed democracy, some believe we are. Rights will be irrelevant at best and subversive at worst and the roots of conflict will be sustained and reproduced.

Of course there are risks with the opposition. Most importantly, there is hope and it is most certainly more than bad enough to take the risk for the sake of the country.