They say ‘fool me once — shame on you, fool me twice — shame on me’. This election it’s as if the People said executive presidents could only fool them twice — no thirds allowed. At first everybody thought Mahinda Rajapaksa would win. Then in their heads some were thinking he would somehow win. If [...]

Sunday Times 2

What does this election mean?


They say ‘fool me once — shame on you, fool me twice — shame on me’. This election it’s as if the People said executive presidents could only fool them twice — no thirds allowed.

At first everybody thought Mahinda Rajapaksa would win. Then in their heads some were thinking he would somehow win. If an incumbent calls for a snap election, it’s because he expects to win while the odds are skewed in his favour. Granted, the freedom of manoeuvre of our Executive President invariably gives that office the privilege of having the organisational power to reduce electoral competition.

The supremacy of that office gives whoever holding the rank an enormous appetite. As a polity we saw many things amiss this presidential race — from the misuse of state-run media to deploying public buses for campaigning. The relevance of Salman’s looks to democratic alternation in office is, however, still unclear. It was perhaps an acute case of Maithripala envy that led to the rather unfortunate incident of calling upon the second biggest Bollywood star (you surely know who the first is). So, it was not a fair election — meaning that all candidates didn’t have a level playing field. And it was not entirely free — in the sense that people weren’t totally free from the carrots of vote buying. Despite all this, the common candidate won the vote and the count. And despite all this, the apparent act of an incumbent willingly parting office after losing an election marked at the very least a minimal democracy.

It was encouraging to see a collective opposition operating as a check on the abuse of government power in a country that suffers from a historic lack of checks and balances since its first Republic. So, could this be the start of a happy ending to all national problems? Most I’m sure had a tough time believing the new-country-in-a-100-days promise. We always hear lots of election pledges. It’s hard to say which ones are ephemeral and which ones are not. But, voting in the hope that politicians will deliver what they say is a necessary gamble in representative democracies. And that’s what any election means.

Two reasons basically contributed to the new President’s win. First, too much of negative campaigning from Mr. Rajapaksa’s side somewhat attenuated his chances of winning. To gain insight — Tony Blair’s memoir reveals that aiming low blows at your opponent is a mistake, as it might not get the ‘non-politician to nod’. The more subtle the criticism the more likely it would stay with the floating voter. So, massive amounts of unhealthy reproach might be a bit of a downer in that case. Second, and more important factor, was the crossovers. For rational members of the government crossing over meant joining a game that everyone wanted to play — which is reforming the presidential system.

The ethos of Sri Lankan politics is a strong executive. But, a presidential system in itself is not a bad thing. Particularly in plural societies a President elected directly by the people is a source of solidarity as it generates cross-ethnic voting and is a useful mechanism to inoculate the system against division. However, a centralisation of power was a bad start in the post-war period as it denoted self-perpetuation in office. The only meaningful check that existed to prevent permanent electoral domination was the two-term limit, which constitutional pre-commitment was removed in 2010. And this election proves that the people’s democratic convictions run deep enough to understand that there’s no such thing as consolidating power for the greater good.

Past voting patterns explain that Sinhalese ruling parties have managed to poll a large percentage of the country’s majority Sinhalese vote by promoting populist agendas. Sri Lankan politics is therefore essentially characteristic of building on prevailing biases. Politically sparked nationalism has worked as an electoral tactic by increasing the salience of an already existing group consciousness. However, the closely divided Sinhalese vote in the 2015 election explains that it doesn’t always work — not amidst undertones of a tenured Presidency which threatens democratic alternation in office.

So, it is true that a collective opposition and the people together set a democratic process in motion. It’s great that the people voted to get rid of an executive presidency that holds both the purse and the sword of the polity. It’s also great that the people realised the economic liabilities of presidentialism and voted to bring in a system that sustains productivity growth. But we are not yet out of the woods. Not until we graduate to a level where we rid ourselves of two things (a) our xenophobic problem of hating the West and (b) the problem of seeing power sharing as something horrible. Powerful States like the US and China will always engage in balancing of power by using smaller States like us. So there’s no need to hate either because all States engage in competitive cooperation with each other not out of benevolence, but out of self-love.

More, being ethnically snobby and biased against power sharing and liberalism will always be in the way of sustained reconciliation.Representation issues and variances between ethnicities will always be there as has been in the past. This was seen when Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam quit the Ceylon National Congress and formed the Ceylon Tamil League; it was seen when Ponnambalam Ramanathan opposed the Donoughmore reforms by characterising it as death to the minorities; it was seen when the Sinhala Maha Sabha was formed by the late SWRD Bandaranaike; it was seen when the fifty-fifty demand was made by G.G. Ponnambalam, it was seen during the Sinhala-only era of SWRD Bandaranaike, and it was seen when V. Dharmalingam proposed a federal state in the 1971 Constituent Assembly.Clashes are predominant in the politics of plural societies. But the diverse and representative nature of this election’s winning vote has given us an opening to think about finding a middle ground between chest-thumping nationalism and separatism. Let’s hope we get there.

(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law)

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