The Opposition has made good governance the central issue of the forthcoming presidential election. We have to wait until January 8 see if the strategy will pay off. If it does, much of the credit will go to Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha and his dedicated small group in the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ). But [...]

Sunday Times 2

The fight is on: Good governance versus stability, foreign conspiracies, and development


The Opposition has made good governance the central issue of the forthcoming presidential election. We have to wait until January 8 see if the strategy will pay off. If it does, much of the credit will go to Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha and his dedicated small group in the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ). But it is risky for the Opposition to count the chickens before they are hatched.

Good governance

From 1977 onwards, good governance has been one of the prominent components in the package on offer from opposition political parties and formations to secure power. Basing his 1977 campaign on a promise of ushering in a Dharmishta Samajaya (a Righteous Society), J. R. Jayewardene, accused Sirima Bandaranaike of misrule, denouncing in particular the latter’s arbitrary two-year extension of the life of the 1970 Parliament from 1975 to 1977.

Jayewardene won the election handsomely and promptly forgot promises made on the campaign trail. He craftily extended the life of the 1977 Parliament by six years using a referendum instead of a regular parliamentary election. These unfortunate undemocratic acts of Sirima Bandaranaike and Jayewardene set a disastrous precedent.

In 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga promised to abolish the executive presidency by July 15, 1995, failed to keep her word, and retired from the presidency in 2005 after eleven years in office.

Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to do the same in 2005 and history repeated itself. He not only secured two terms of office but also so amended the constitution as to enable himself and his successors to continue to seek office without any term limits whatsoever. That the average voter now is more than wary of promises that politicians make with regard to good governance should, therefore, not surprise us in the least.

But, then, hope springs eternal in the human breast. The Opposition is again promising the voter good governance (maithree palanayak)!
The Government appears to avoid the issue altogether, tacitly admitting guilt. In its stead it is offering stability, protection of the country from foreign conspiracies, real or imagined, and economic development. Voters have about five weeks to make up their minds about whom to believe in.

Tight race

We are not psephologists and we do not have a reliable poll to go by to make even an educated guess. However, as one of the present authors in a contribution to the Sunday Times of November 23, 2014 pointed out, if recent other election results are any guide, the January presidential race would be very tight. The religious and ethnic minorities account for 30 per cent of the electorate and the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority for 70 per cent of it. In 2010, Rajapaksa, riding a wave of popularity following the defeat of the LTTE, polled 58 per cent of the national vote to win comfortably. He then secured about 65 per cent of the Sinhalese Buddhist vote. If that performance is repeated in January 2015, he will have secured almost 46 per cent of the national poll and will need only another 4 percentage points from the minority (about 13 per cent of the minority vote) to win. In 2010, he won about 25 per cent of the votes in the overwhelmingly Tamil electorates in the North and East and around 40 per cent in electorates in the East where Muslims are a strong presence.

The recent Provincial Council polls suggest that Rajapaksa has lost ground among minority voters and even the 13 per cent he needs is no longer assured. To add to his electoral woes, recent polls in the south suggest that Rajapaksa no longer enjoys the absolute confidence of the 65 per cent of the Sinhalese Buddhist population that voted for him in 2010.

Smaller parties

Rajapaksa’s loss of popularity alone would have made the race tight. The wholly unanticipated entry of the veteran SLFP politician Maithripala Sirisena to challenge him makes the race even tighter for several reasons: Sirisena appeals to rural Buddhist voters, to a segment of the overall SLFP voters, and he has the full backing of the JHU. All three factors will erode the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote base of Rajapaksa.

The JVP has declared that it will canvas against Rajapaksa. The Sirisena-JHU MoU signed recently gives the JVP an opening to enter into a similar agreement sidestepping the main MoU that the other parties of the coalition including the UNP have signed.

The TNA is marking time but there is no reason to believe that it would not give at least a wink and nod to its supporters to vote for Sirisena. Should it not do so, on ‘a plague on both your houses’ approach, the TNA will jeopardise the possibility of a return to more inclusive politics. A few prominent Muslim political personalities have declared their support for Sirisena and more may come on board. The smoke signals emanating from the upcountry Tamil community are not too encouraging either for Rajapaksa.

Election fever on the rise (file pic)

Six years or eight?

Should Rajapaksa win even by the narrowest of margins, he will continue in office. Whether or not his new term would begin after the January results are declared is something Mr. Rajapaksa has so far left vague. Now that we have a legal precedent for the president to seek an opinion from the Supreme Court on constitutional matters, he may well ask the Court to rule that he is eligible to finish the remaining two years of his current term initially and thereafter begin his third term of six more years. The voters have the right demand an unambiguous answer from candidate Rajapaksa of his post-election intentions in this regard.

Even if Sirisena wins Rajapaksa could ask the Supreme Court to rule that he could continue in office for two more years before handing over power. However, such a move is purely theoretical bordering almost on fantasy, because public opinion may not tolerate impunity of this magnitude in the changed post-election circumstances in particular.

UPFA themes

It is rarely that an election is decided on a single issue. The opposition, for now, is heavily banking on the issue of good governance. As noted above, Rajapaksa is raising at least three major issues, namely, political stability, protection from foreign conspiracies, and development. He believes that they are closer to the hearts and minds of the average voter than good governance.

Of these three campaign themes of the Government, we shall now review the first two: stability and foreign conspiracies. Development, the third, is a theme that merits separate consideration and will be briefly referenced at the end of this discussion.

Poltical stability

Political stability may be defined in multiple ways. For example, both South Korea and North Korea have poltical stability and so do India and China. But the two pairs of states have two very different political systems and institutions of governance. North Korea and China do not hold periodic elections to choose their rulers. South Korea and India do. It is possible to debate the merits and demerits of the two systems. The Sri Lankan system has been closer to the Indian in its origins and function. India has over the past six plus decades managed to maintain a vibrant democracy notwithstanding the extraordinary ethnic and social diversity of the country. Sri Lanka is yet struggling to emulate India in this respect. January 8 will thus be a crucial battle for the future of our democratic system of governance.

The Government is offering political “stability” as one of the most important reasons as to why the electorate should vote again for Rajapaksa. It is useful to scrutinise what precisely this promised stability is. To be sure, continuity in the sense of having no major change of political personalities and policies may arguably ensure a kind of stability. But the problem here is that the citizens are being asked to buy into the entire Rajapaksa package, warts and all. That package includes family rule, manipulation of the judiciary, erosion of the rule of law, crony capitalism, inflated contracts to rob public money, a subservient and pliant public service, a politicised and degraded foreign service, a media under intimidation, and a host of other negatives. In sum, this is the stability of the graveyard.

Foreign conspiracies

Then there is the much-touted bogey of “foreign conspiracies”. The electorate, however, is yet to be told what these conspiracies and precisely who the conspirators are. Usually the Americans are in by default. The British are thrown in for good measure as the nasty old colonial power. Norwegians represent the rest of the wicked western world that is conspiring against little Sri Lanka. The Indians are presumably on the list but they will perhaps be the last to be named because they are too close to home and the repercussions arising from such a naming could be serious and unpredictable.

The distant foreigners are thus fair game. It is hard to imagine why the rest of the world, let alone the big powers, should worry about a small country like Sri Lanka when they have better and more pressing things to focus on. It is perhaps Sri Lanka’s insularity that makes these preposterous claims of politicians seem plausible to some. Neither Sirima. Bandaranaike’s infamous ‘rapacious west’ comment nor Premadasa’s closing down of the then Israeli Interests Section and his unprecedented declaration of the then British High Commissioner persona non grata evoked any western or big power ire. For, these states and their governments are able to recognise political action and rhetoric meant for domestic consumption for what they are. The people of Sri Lanka similarly need to recognise such bluffing for what it is and not allow wily politicians to so easily manipulate them.

Candidate Sirisena

The voters need to be convinced that Sirisena means what he says on the restoration of good governance and that should he win, he and his supporters would deliver on the promises made. We are under no illusion about the gap that usually exists between election rhetoric and the reality of post-election governance.

Our scepticism notwithstanding, there is some evidence to believe that the Opposition may keep its word this time around. The JHU pulled out of the government sacrificing its privileges of office to fight for good governance. The JVP leadership has been unequivocal in its advocacy of good governance. Whatever shortcomings the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe may have, he did deliver on the 17th Amendment when he wielded political power. These latter factors and, above all, the close involvement of Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera and other members of the NMJS in the opposition campaign do offer hope for a better tomorrow.

Good governance and development

There appears to be a chance that the voters may come to the realisation that good governance and development are strongly inter-connected. Development in the fullest sense of the term is not simply building a few four-lane highways on inflated contracts that yield commissions for those in power. Neither is development the construction of hardly used airports and harbours with borrowed money.

Development is not building fancy shopping arcades for the nouveau riche. Meaningful development must and does include equity, rational use of scarce tax money for the benefit of the people, and a fair chance for all citizens to build a happy and contented life. There is ample evidence that may be garnered from the world over to prove that good governance is an important enabler in the achievement of such meaningful development.

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