BOTH MAIN CONTENDERS NEED TO DO MORE TO WIN VOTERS
Posted on December 8th, 2014

Don Wijewardana (1) Courtesy: The Island

With less than a month to go to the polls there seems to be many outstanding issues that either candidate needs to address to convince the 11 million voters that he is the better man for the job. There are of course the diehards on either side who will not change but it is the swing voter who could make the difference that needs to be convinced. In this, President Rajapaksa is at an advantage with established credentials while the common candidate is yet to prove his. In case he wins it will mark a watershed in Sri Lankan politics. If President Rajapaksa wins, it offers him a longer reign allowing the opportunity to establish how he wants history to remember him. Leading up to the elections there are some key issues both candidates need to address.

The common candidate

More we look closely at the common candidate, his credentials, the programme and the MOU recently signed, the more we find that things won’t gel.

Maithripala Sirisena seems a nice guy. Apart from that there is nothing that distinguishes him to be the candidate to replace charismatic Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sarath Fonseka as the commander who led the army that defeated the ‘invincible’ LTTE had much better appeal for the task. Sirisena has been a Minister of course. But he has not done anything spectacular or out of the ordinary that sets him apart from the many other Ministers and ex-ministers. If he had got the premiership that he had been yearning for it could have made some difference but that did not come to pass.

The US has tried to remedy this deficit by facilitating the Harvard University’s Health Leadership Award. But within the country no one is raving about his performance in that area. So in the end the only qualification he seems to have is the acceptability to all parties opposing Rajapaksa, over the host of names that had been floating around including Ranil, Chandrika, Sajith, Karu and Maduluwawe Sobitha thera. But being acceptable to parties with diverse interests alone does not win elections as Fonseka learned during the previous election. Sirisena has to work hard to offer himself as a credible alternative to Rajapaksa.

More bewildering to the average voter are the two key pronouncements Sirisena made: to abolish executive presidency within 100 days and appoint Ranil Wickramasinghe as Prime Minister. Apart from the difficulty associated with achieving these aims within the short time frame the pronouncements leave much confusion for the elector. If Sirisena is going to be a ‘100-day wonder’ it is a ruse to get Ranil voted in as Prime Minister who will have the reins of power end of the three months.  The question is if so, why not Ranil front up without adopting this devious means? Perhaps the rationale for the stance may have been that it would be win: win with Sirisena attracting both SLFP and UNP votes. But that is a big ask and a terrible risk. If both SLFP and UNP voters move away, especially with Sirisena committed to self-destruct in 100 days and adopting an entirely different symbol from the well-used hand or elephant, it could be a lose-lose situation.

More to the point, can Sirisena deliver on the two promises? To start with the executive presidency cannot be abolished by a Presidential decree. It has to be done through an amendment to the constitution that requires a two third majority in parliament.  Within the current composition it would require 80 members from the UPFA crossing over to join the 65 in the opposition. Such mass move is unlikely and even if it does then it is the UPFA that maintains the majority.  On the other hand if a parliamentary election is to be held (which would be difficult within three months of the Presidential election) there is no guarantee that they will get the required numbers.

Further complicating the issue is the need to have an alternative constitution ready if a bill to remove existing instrument of government is to be deleted. Such a bill will not only take time for drafting apart from the considerable period required to get through parliament and with two thirds majority.

With regard to appointment of Mr Wickramasinghe as Prime Minister it is not that straightforward since the constitution requires it be the leader of the party that commands a majority in the house.

Besides all these the MOUs signed between different political parties and the common candidate seem more like a wish list rather than an arrangement to meet selected aims within a given time frame. For instance once the immediate tasks of constitutional matters related to abolishing executive presidency, repeal of 18th amendment and the preferential voting system as well as higher salaries are implemented the new President will prevent large scale corruption, guarantee the primacy of the Rule of Law, restore democracy on a sustainable foundation of good governance, further develop the right to live in human dignity through re-establishment of the welfare state, empower youth to successfully meet the challenges of the rapidly changing world, guarantee dignity and equal opportunity for all citizen and create a civilized and moral society and in particular reform the political culture of the country.

They are all things to all men intended to appeal to the voter with the promise of heaven on earth. But on close examination one finds they are nothing but ‘motherhood and apple pie’ stuff that sound nice but hard to pin down. Everyone who governed the country so far will claim they had been already doing them for there is no way to verify.  Was the MOU intended to hoodwink the voters than to achieve meaningful objectives?

In their haste to ordain the common candidate parties in the coalition had overlooked the practical difficulties associated with implementing some of Sirisena’s fundamental claims. But as time went by this realisation seem to have crept in. The latest pronouncements seem to add on the missing bits though sometimes they raise more questions than answers. For instance the idea of forming a national government to ensure the two-thirds majority is a recent pronouncement by Sirisena.  But this is another ‘pie in the sky’ idea. All these politicians could not come together when the whole country was clamouring for it, to address a more pressing national issue – the LTTE on the brink of capturing a third of the country. And the war dragged on for 30 years amidst the bickering. The very same leaders spearheading the present coalition, in particular Chandrika and Ranil, at different stages offered the administration of the north entirely to the LTTE rather than form a national government to fight it. And now they have returned to make the same claim.  They all seem blinded by the desire to oust Rajapaksa and gain power before they are banished to the wilderness for at least another eight yeas.  Are they honest? Will the people believe them?

Somewhat surprising is that JHU, which had earned a healthy respect as an honest and principled party has also joined the fray signing a MOU with Sirisena. It is more specific than the other, yet it may prove unworthy of the paper written on as Sirisena’s term ends at the end of three months. A central idea of the MOU is the formation of a national government. Sirisena is in no position to offer any enduring commitment. Perhaps the agreement should have been with Ranil as Fonseka has done. Most principled stand is by JVP, which is staying on the sidelines.

Former JHU Minister Ranawaka also extols the virtues of a situation where President being from one party and the Prime Minister from another as bringing about the right balance. He is either naïve (which is not likely) or deliberately underplaying the risk associated with such a situation. He very well knows of the hiatus during the period when Chandrika was President and Ranil PM that ended with the dissolution of parliament. He should also be aware that Obama has become a lame duck President because Republicans control the legislature. The second term is an ineffective period for the US President anyway. We would never have been able to rid the country of the LTTE menace if Rajapaksa was in a similar position. Even with such powers all previous Presidents failed.

Problem is not with executive presidency

Although the coalition, excluding JHU, has come together to abolish the executive presidency (EP) the problem is not with the EP.  There are many successful governments that are executive presidencies. For example, as Dayan Jayatillake has pointed out, of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, four (the US, Russia, China, France) have executive presidential systems. Only the UK does not. Of the members of the emerging/pivotal powers represented in the BRICS, (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) all except India have presidential systems. In fact it was the executive presidency, to a very large extent, that enabled not only to win the war but also to usher an era of rapid economic growth for Sri Lanka since it ended.

Also the abolition of EP will have other implications. One of those relates to the hounding by the West of the commander in chief and the armed force personnel who saved the country. They have been pining for a regime change ever since Rajapaksa won the war ignoring their advice to negotiate with the LTTE. Belatedly, probably at JHU urging, Sirisena has announced he will protect the President and the armed forces but it is not a united voice from coalition partners.

Clarification will also be needed from the common candidate (and backers) on some further burning issues such as the 13th amendment and armed forces in the north. Even as Sirisena commits himself there could be attempts by the West to buy over decision makers as Resettlement Minister Gunaratna Weerakoon divulged recently. The situation is further complicated by Sirisena’s commitment to hand over power to Wickramasinghe within 100 days. It raises the question whether the MoUs signed with him are worth the paper they are written on. If the common candidate is to attract the floating vote he has a lot of explaining to do on these issues within the next few weeks.

President Rajapaksa

The current incumbent is not immune from the need to explain his policies for the next period although he has well-established credentials for the job. The foremost among these is the defeat of the LTTE. The kudos he has gained from the victory has served him well for the past five years as reflected in the results of the last Presidential election and several regional elections. But that lustre is gradually fading. Here he has to heed Machiavelli’s advice to the prince that people have short memories. Ironically memories of negative deeds tend to linger longer, like a bad odour, than positive achievements.

The monumental victory over terrorism also created several enemies. Foremost among them were western powers who were incensed by Rajapksa’s refusal to accept their advice not to fight but to negotiate. With the defeat the west also lost the leverage it had on the government. The Diaspora pressure was to add fuel to the fire. So the pressure for regime change continues through every possible means. And an election is the closest they get to oust Rajapaksa from his perch.

Winning the unwinnable war also created powerful domestic enemies especially among the failed political leaders who used the terrorist issue as a beggar’s wound to hold the helpless public to ransom. It is this common interest that brings them together to defeat Rajapaksa through clandestine external support, financially, logistically and in every other possible way. Leaders who make statements that they would protect the President once in power will not be unhappy to do eve thing to see his back. That is the reason Rajapaksa has to work hard to ensure he remains the preferred candidate at this election.

Victory is also an opportunity for him to determine what legacy he wants to leave behind. If he wins Rajapaksa would be the only leader in modern Sri Lankan history to have had such a long reign, and could probably be the only person for many generations to come. That is a golden opportunity to etch his name in the history of Sri Lanka along side greats like Dutugemunu. He is already on the way to that with the enduring peace he has brought to the country. But that could be only the beginning if he utilises the long spell to change the lives of the 20 million people and their descendents.

Maintaining a majority in a volatile parliament where MPs change sides not on principles but on various other considerations is a difficult task. Rajapaksa seems to have mastered the art even to the extent of maintaining a two third majority. Obviously that has come at a price.

There are widespread accusations of corruption and blatant lack of good governance. These may be true or may be not. But when the claims are so pervasive the President needs to assure the public that addressing them is a top priority for his next term. Having achieved a historic peace for the country he will not want to contaminate his record with such accusations. A government free of  corruption and good governance are pillars of democracy. Under his watch Sri Lanka has made major strides as shown by many national and international indicators of success. What the President needs to do build on them is to commit to address accusations in his next term, not necessarily in the first 100 days.

There are several key issues the two candidates need to address in the next few weeks to convince the voters.

(1)Don Wijewardana is an economist. [email protected]

3 Responses to “BOTH MAIN CONTENDERS NEED TO DO MORE TO WIN VOTERS”

  1. ranjit Says:

    Mahinda Rajapaksa has shown the countrymen and whole world his capabilities.No one should argue on that. He has proved that he can do something and you wait and see what he will do after Jan.9th after he wins the election for the 3rd time. Corruption was there in Sri Lankan politics for decades. So many articles were written about corruption and I hope the President will look in to this subject very carefully this time and do something about it. He should get rid of CORRUPTION,MONEY LAUNDERING,DRUGS,and Dirty politics. He must clean up the whole system for every citizen to live a decent life.

    Sirisena is Zero. He is nothing but a Pambaya. They were all financed by the western evil stooges. They were all friends of LTTE terrorists. This Govt must act fast on these evil elements before they destroy the country again. Those who talk of division and separation must be brought to justice and put behind bars. They cannot be peoples representatives at all.They are enemies of my country. LTTE should be wiped out from our soil completely. Those who supports it also should be destroyed without fear. We must all support our savior Mahinda Rajapksa at all cost and help him to win this election with a big win.

  2. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    YES RANJIT !!! FULLY AGREE WITH YOU.

    SIRISENA IS A ZERO. HE IS ALSO A NERO, FIDDLING WHILE, SETTING FIRE TO PARLIAMENT. ANOTHER GUY FAWKES.

  3. Ananda-USA Says:

    Briefly, I gather from the Letter of Resignation of Tissa Attanayake from the UNP, that he resigned because:

    1. The Malik-Ravi-Mangala group gutted his position, and his ability to function, as UNP General Secretary,

    2. The Common Candidate is not a UNP Party leader committed to UNP’s political agenda and acceptable to rank-and-file party members,

    3. The 3 Conditions in the Agreement to back Maithripala Sirisena as the Common Candidate negotiated by the Malik-Ravi-Mangala group, to wit

    3.1 Upon Maithripala Sirisena being elected as Executive President, he would within 24 hours appoint Ranil Wickramasinghe as the Prime Minister and transfer the Executive Powers of the Presidency to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet of Ministers.

    3.2 Maithripala Sirisena would be accepted and named as the Common Candidate upon bringing with him 20-25 UPFA members, defecting the Common Opposition.

    3.3 Maithripala Sirisena would revise the Constitution completely, and abolish the Executve Presidency within 100 days.

    have already been violated in that Maithripala Sirisena did not bring 20-25 defectors, and, therefore, should not have been named the Common Candidate.

    4. After winning the Executive Presidency, Maitripala Sirisena and the JHU ship-jumpers INTEND to create a new political party of THEIR OWN, outside the UNP, viloating UNP expectations and creating another split within the Common Opposition, and not giving the UNP the benefit of the defectors from the SLFP!

    This letter CLEARLY DEMONSTRATES to me THREE THINGS:

    1. The EXTENT of the MONUMENTAL TREACHERY committed by the Maithripala Sirisena in agreeing in SECRET to GUT the Constitution of the Nation and hand over the nation to its AVOWED enemies that he had fought against as an SLFP party member for 47-years!

    Does this STUPID Common Candidate DESERVE our TRUST?

    2. The EXTENT of the INTERNECINE FACTIONAL INFIGHTING, CORROSIVE ROT & DECAY within the UNP itself. This does not begin to touch the issue of MINORITY INTERESTS with the UNP that TIME & AGAIN PREVENTS the UNP from adequately PROTECTING & DEFENDING the Nation.

    Does this FRACTURED United National Party DESERVE our TRUST?

    3. The Common Opposition is “Common” in name only, its FRACTURING into MORE opposing camps within itself, is ALREADY UNDERWAY!

    What an UNHOLY Alliance and Three-Ring-Circus of Untrustworthy Bunglers!

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