AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena via Yahoo News
As the presidential election heads into its final stretch, handwringing over the lesser of the two evils is reaching its tortured apex. The most terrible strain of this that has emerged at the eleventh hour has been the chorus of voices claiming that only a vote for Sajith Premadasa will protect democracy in the country. Consequently, this argument goes, anyone considering voting for third party candidates – in particular, the JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake – are morally self-righteous and self-indulgent voters who double as enablers of the fascism Gotabaya Rajapaksa will bring. These contentions are being served alongside laborious number crunching to show how even using the preferential vote to preference Dissanayake first and Premadasa second is a wasted, Gotabhaya-enabling vote (premised as they are, self-admittedly, on entirely intuitive statistical assumptions).
This article is not concerned with instructing people how to vote, but rather, on the thornier question of who bears what responsibility for what outcome. To do this, it will take apart the claim that only a vote for the UNP will protect democracy in the country, by examining first the party’s record on democracy over the last four years; second, how the Gotabaya presidential candidacy came to be; and third, the likely shape of democracy under a Premadasa presidency. This examination will show that the responsibility for a Gotabaya presidency must lie not in the fraction of voters who opt for third options, but with the political force that drove them to such choices through both its past actions and future promises, and literally engineered the choice of candidate Rajapaksa on the ballot paper. Such an examination ultimately reveals disappointingly regressive understandings of democracy which underpin discussions of electoral responsibility.
A dismal record on democracy
The UNP’s main claim on democracy is that it has greatly expanded democratic freedoms in the country. While there is indeed greater space for expression and association than before, these freedoms are enjoyed by some us far more than others. For instance, Tamil activists and journalists in the north campaigning on issues such as for justice for enforced disappearances and for the return of lands occupied by the military, are routinely surveilled, harassed and assaulted by military and intelligence operatives, even if they are “allowed” to protest. Student protesters are routinely and brutally cracked down on by the Police, even if this is ignored or dismissed because of the great inconvenience they cause to our daily commutes. Hundreds of Muslims arrested after the Easter Sunday attacks still languish in detention under repressive anti-terrorism laws, with rights of due process a distant dream. And some topics are still out of bounds for discussion, especially if they offend the militant Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that has only intensified under this government’s watch. For example, Shakthika Sathkumara was detained for over four months under a still-pending ICCPR Act charge for penning a short story that hinted at sexual abuse by the Buddhist clergy.
Even under limited, strictly liberal conceptions of democracy accounting for only civil and political rights and freedoms, these examples paint a hugely deficient, and unequal, picture of democracy. Anyone who dares defy racist Sinhala majoritarianism or the government’s piecemeal economic priorities, either through their expression or their very existence, is simply not afforded the same democracy. All this under a shambolic environment of governance where political instability has been a constant, and where the spectre of violence has been very real, especially for minorities, making it difficult for to enjoy whatever democracy there is. Even if one were to dismiss these examples as outliers and somehow insist that democratic freedoms have significantly expanded under the UNP, there is there is no escaping the fact that this state of affairs is decidedly temporary. If the operative fear, stoked by the UNP now, is that a single person’s ascension to the presidency can plunge the country into illiberal autocracy, then whatever democracy that exists must be weak indeed.
It remains the case that the UNP has done little to ensure that the limited democratic space it has created is sustainable and can withstand anti-democratic assault. It is here that we must take stock of the deeper, structural changes the UNP promised, on which it has decidedly failed. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, while containing important reforms, was only ever a partial fulfilment of the original yahapalanaya promise of abolishing the executive presidency and fundamentally changing the democratic culture of this country. That task was meant to be completed through the introduction of a new constitution which would expand democratic freedoms and strengthen the rule of law. The work of the Constitutional Assembly’s subcommittees produced a series of recommendations, if implemented, would perhaps have done just that, broadening the number and scope of rights afforded to Sri Lankans and backing this up with institutional reforms to better protect the rule of law from arbitrary political interference. Yet, the UNP dragged its feet and presided over the disintegration of the reform exercise, all the while leaving unchallenged the opposition’s poisoning of people’s minds about the very idea of constitutional reform. As a result, progressive constitutional reform is now lost for a generation.
The creation of candidate Gotabhaya
This weak record on democracy can, of course, be justified by recourse to the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime’s authoritarianism and the on-steroids version of that his brother promises. But this is an acutely disingenuous move, for it absolves the UNP of its own undemocratic impulses and failures to secure democracy. Moreover, it brings us to the fact that the option we are to fear is one that the UNP had a large hand in engineering. Presidential candidate Gotabaya appears on the ballot paper almost entirely due to the machinations of the UNP. There is the government’s complete failure to, and in fact, active interference with judicial processes prevent the prosecution of Gotabaya for his crimes of gross human rights violations and mass corruption. There are then the administrative manoeuvres on citizenship to ensure Rajapaksa was eligible to run for president, which the UNP appears to have orchestrated under the belief that Rajapaksa would be the ideal candidate to face. There is, more broadly, the party’s failure to repudiate the right wing Sinhala nationalism which powers Gotabhaya’s candidacy; in fact, the party’s members, including Premadasa, have and continue to happily affirm Sinhala supremacy.
All this has ensured not only the Gotabaya presidential candidacy, but also its appearance in the exact form and manner it does now – he displays absolutely no remorse for his horrific crimes and provides no assurance he will not engage in them again. The UNP government has, through its silence on, abetting of and complicity in the same, created absolutely no atmosphere where contrition or reassurance is necessary. This tragic farce is neatly captured by the utterly repulsive spectacle of Rajitha Senaratne scaremongering about Gotabhaya’s return whilst appearing with a driver of the white vans used to carry out enforced disappearances under the orders of Gotabhaya. Meanwhile, the mothers of the disappeared across the north – whose protests to find out about their loved ones forcibly disappeared during the last stages of the war were first met with false promises then complete disregard by the government – will reach 1,000 days of continuous protest by election day. In the end, then, it takes a special kind of cognitive dissonance to advocate for the “lesser” evil when that very same lesser evil has effectively created the greater evil, and seems quite comfortable with that evil itself.
The prospects of democracy under Premadasa
It is here where we must question what kind of democracy would transpire under Premadasa. In everything from the weak promises he makes on furthering democracy; to his strident defence of Army Commander Shavendra Silva who faces numerous war crimes allegations; to his open advocacy of the death penalty; to those who he has surrounded himself with, including ruthless racists like Champika Ranawaka (who, by some accounts, is in line to be Prime Minister); a Premadasa presidency will be an exceedingly poor gloss on democracy. What is being advocated as a last stand against fascism will likely be a continuation of the status quo at best, and more likely a severe deterioration of that. Under a President who openly affirms Sinhala nationalism, and offers no pushback against its extreme proponents, we will likely see continued attacks against ethnic minorities, and wanton curtailments of civil liberties. For these reasons, a possible Premadasa victory over Rajapaksa is unlikely to be a decisive defeat of ‘fascism’. Instead, it will likely continue to flourish under Premadasa, duly nourished by him and his accomplices. Worse yet, a defeated and incensed Rajapaksa machinery will work towards the eventual electoral validation of such fascism in an even more terrifying form.
Given all this, there is actually little substantive reason to vote for the UNP if one is concerned about democracy. And so it comes down to voting based on fear. In Sri Lanka, this is perfectly valid. The possibility of a free democratic choice is one that is, in truth, available mostly to Sinhala voters. Tamil and Muslim voters, trapped as they are within a grotesque system which treats them alternately as disposable vote banks and spectres of fear, must once again vote for their survival. The UNP and its supporters should simply be more honest about the vote for fear they advocate, and drop the pretence that it is actually a vote for greater democracy.
Making different choices
Moreover, they should not be attempting to deter voters who, through dejection, frustration or genuine hope, bet on other options with more substantive promise. In this regard, the JVP offers stronger democratic credentials, both over the past four years when it has more consistently stood up against democratic abuses; and in what it promises, including the abolition of the executive presidency and historic if basic guarantees of rights and protections for marginalised Sri Lankans, including women, the LGBTQI community and people with disabilities. Progressive voters may very well see that best defence against fascism may be option that is unambiguously democratic, instead of weakly and calculatingly so. It is breathtakingly cynical then to advocate for the protection of democracy by advising people to not only reject options that may in substance offer a stronger democracy, but also to place them at moral fault if they choose to do so.
There are perfectly valid reasons to not for the JVP. Its obfuscation over the national question where it alternately claims credit for the war victory all the while promising justice to Tamil voters is a primary one. Relatedly, its resolution for ethnic harmony which is premised on building a single ‘Sri Lankan’ identity appears hopelessly naïve at best. Even its modest social democratic economic programme (which is decidedly not socialist) is a weak counter to the militarised neoliberal development both Gotabaya and Premadasa offer. But claiming that the JVP’s progressive policies are merely vote grabbing measures is a nonsensical counter. That is entirely what they are because the JVP happens to be a political party attempting to get elected, just as Premadasa’s tepid manifesto is not being offered altruistically out of the goodness of his heart. If anything, the JVP’s policies have been developed collaboratively with multiple citizen groups over a long period of time, and not hastily crowdsourced over WhatsApp groups over a single weekend. In the context of Sri Lanka’s opaque and hierarchical political party structures, this offers at least a small level of democratic accountability. Equally absurd is raising the spectre of the JVP returning to its pre-political party existence as an armed insurrection group. This alarmism appears especially ludicrous considering the UNP’s own, exhaustive history of violence, particularly under Sajith Premadasa’s very own father.
The democracy we deserve
In the end, claiming yourself to be not fascist when you’ve paved the way for fascism is a truly terrible electoral argument. Claiming to be for democracy when you’re actively demeaning others’ exercise of their democratic choices is even worse. Ultimately, these claims reveal a deeply depressing conception of democracy itself. One where Sri Lankans must be content with the crumbs thrown at them by both greater and lesser evils who are shamelessly content with actually being evil. Where political parties are entitled to the votes of their assumed constituencies without needing to lift a finger to earn that support. Where voters are deemed immoral and have their intelligence insulted for making the complex, complicated choices they must, after factoring in their own lived experiences against a political system that continually exploits, gaslights and betrays them.
A richer understanding of democracy – one that all Sri Lankans deserve even if we have been conditioned to accept less – would acknowledge all votes, including those motivated by fear and by hope. It would try to move the needle so that democratic choices can be made more freely by everyone. And for the practical consequences of voters attempting to make the best of poor choices, it would hold to account not those voters themselves but the political parties offering those paltry choices in the first place.
As ever, Sri Lankans must make difficult choices at the ballot box. This time, however, what votes they cast and whatever configuration of democracy they choose as they see fit will be entirely in spite of the UNP. If, and when, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa materialises, the UNP will have no one to blame but itself.