Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Elections: Get on your marks
Though the UNP leader and some others have called for another postponement of the August 5 parliamentary elections, it is unlikely to happen -- at least right now. The Election Commissioner has the starter’s pistol in hand but his finger is not on the trigger.
Unless the coronavirus intervenes once more and the Health Ministry’s predictions that all is ready to go despite some infected cases being noted here and there, it appears to be no obstacle to holding a nationwide election.
Yet the Government’s delay in still not legalising the health guidelines such as social distancing had Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya worried to the point that he has said it would be difficult to hold elections on the due date if the health requirement is ignored even though health big-wigs have signalled the okay.
Yet not everybody puts their trust on the ‘clearance’ announced by the health top brass with even the GMOA calling for precautions ahead of a possible second wave that would upend all the preparations for an election already postponed twice.
With one arm of the health sector sounding the all clear and the GMOA reaching for a “mayday” warning this election has none of the characteristics of Sri Lankan elections of the past decades.
The mass rallies with loudmouthed politicians hitting the high decibels in front of microphones, of loud music (sic!) to attract those who have nothing to do save gape at politicians whose piles of promises to the public are broken as soon as they step down from the stage, of posters of political leaders and their minions plastering city walls, are all missing. If the threatened use of the election law more rigorously to punish the recalcitrant has not driven the wall plasterers and other campaigners off the streets, the coronovirus seems to have had a more frightening effect on electioneering than EC chairman Deshapriya’ purported belligerence to bring some order into place this time round.
If all this has turned this election into a dull and dreary affair unlike those of the past, especially with the introduction of proportional representation with candidates and followers of the same party clawing each other or hurling brickbats, under the seeming calm, things are happening that the average voter would not like to know. If they did their diminishing faith in politics and politicians will sink deeper into the mire.
Sri Lanka, we are told, is a country like no other. The coming election is one like no other too. Sri Lanka’s political tectonic plates had moved nearly six years ago when the yahapalana government was elected. Now they are ready to move again -- where and how far is what the people will discover in the coming months and years?
Therein lies a journey into the unknown. What the repercussions of such change would be at a time when the world itself is in the throes of what might be seen as cataclysmic change could -- and possibly would -- have on Sri Lanka one cannot foretell today.
Throw your mind back to 2014 and thereabouts when an agglomeration of civil society organisations and groups and other activists including artists and journalists eager for political change gathered round a learned and highly-respected Buddhist monk Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhita thera and his People’s Movement for a Just Society determined to clean up the country’s political life and bring to society a moral purity.
When Maithripala Sirisena, the presidential candidate of this movement who was expected to be the forerunner of this newly cleansed society was elected president ahead of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa it was hailed as a new dawn.
At first it was, with constitutional changes that reduced the powers of the president and strengthened the powers of parliament and of the prime minister.
I recall President Sirisena attending the world anti-corruption summit launched by Prime Minister David Cameron in May 2016 at which the Sri Lanka president announced how by his own volition renounced some of the presidential powers to strengthen the powers of the people and their elected representatives.
But before long when the experiment in power-sharing between the partners in political cohabitation -- President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe -- gradually turned to be fractious and even acrimonious, Sirisena was lamenting his relinquishing some of the presidential powers which he told the London conference he had voluntarily surrendered, one of the few leaders who had done so, for the benefit of the people.
This might have been a personal battle for power. But let it not be forgotten that this was a clash between Sri Lanka’s oldest postindependence parties that had ruled the country most of the time since 1948. Not just that. A new actor had appeared on the horizon. This was the armed services that fought the LTTE and defeated it militarily a decade ago under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and earned the plaudits of the people.
The dissolution of parliament last March allowed new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to appoint retired military officers to key positions as he had more faith in his one-time military colleagues than in civil administrators though not all who wore the uniform had sufficient experience in running civil institutions and district administrations.
When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa inaugurated the 4th session of the 8th parliament, he said that the “existing constitution has given rise to many problems at the present time because of its inherent ambiguities and confusions.”
The president said that in order to safeguard security, sovereignty, stability and integrity it was necessary to reform the constitution “to establish a strong executive, legislature and an independent judiciary that can ensure the sovereignty of the people”.
This has been the theme song of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his inner circle. With this goal in mind, President Rajapaksa and his party want to jettison the 19th amendment that Sirisena himself helped pass initially but found deprived of the powers he wished to have.
If the president and the SLPP are targeting a two-third majority on August 5 in order to do so the easy way, the question being asked by some Sri Lankans is what would happen if they do not gain the desired target?
With the UNP and the SLFP in tatters and their leaders have outlived their political shelf life, the Sinhala-Buddhist community that once supported the UNP and SLFP is looking for strong leadership that can govern the country. So they look to the president and a new Sinhala-Buddhist elite buttressed by retired soldiers they believe can provide that leadership.
The question is what happens if the two-thirds majority the president, prime minister and party seek eludes them? Will they have to turn to the traditional political gimmickry that Sri Lanka has been accustomed to over the years to engineer crossovers with inducements to strengthen party support in parliament?
Or will the government go further to ensure that its goal of strong leadership and political governance is achievable?
These are the questions that Sri Lankans will mull over as the election approaches.
For the Sri Lankan people this would surely be the tectonic plate settling in another direction as a new era in the island’s politics takes shape. But while a new government seeks to consolidate power and take control of the apparatus of governance there are external factors that cannot be ignored. Even before the current pandemic new alliances and groups of countries were emerging with fresh agendas and new geostrategic interests in our own Indian Ocean region and beyond.
Sri Lanka cannot but be caught in the vortex of such regional and global changes. The country is already enmeshed in a vicious economic cycle from which it will be hard put to extricate itself. Life will not be easy. Politics could be worse for those who try to adjust themselves to a new order.
(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist before moving to London and joining Gemini News Service. Later he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London before returning to journalism).