Days before the November 2019 presidential polls on Saturday, a roadside fruit vendor in Colombo confessed his dissatisfaction to me in pungent terms, ‘see, what turmoil this election has caused’, he said bitterly, ‘all my four daughters and my wife are voting for Saji putha while I am determined to vote for the Pohottuwa.’ Canny [...]


Resisting political adventurism following Sri Lanka’s presidential polls


Days before the November 2019 presidential polls on Saturday, a roadside fruit vendor in Colombo confessed his dissatisfaction to me in pungent terms, ‘see, what turmoil this election has caused’, he said bitterly, ‘all my four daughters and my wife are voting for Saji putha while I am determined to vote for the Pohottuwa.’

Canny campaigns and the gender factor

Rather remarkably, his predicament is not unusual nor is it singular. In a country normally known for family voting patterns supportive of two mainstream parties (blue for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and green for the United National Party), the trend is somewhat different this time. Saturday’s poll characterises the bifurcation of political opinion down the middle of families, societies and communities, signalling that the modern Sri Lankan voter has at last, started looking beyond the traditional party vote. While the blue of the SLFP has been replaced by the usurping red colour of the Sri Lanka Podujana Party, (with its symbol being the Pohottuwa or the lotus bud), the UNP led coalition’s contender Sajith Premadasa (affectionately referred to as ‘Saji putha’ or the ‘young Sajith’) has cannily attempted to turn the women’s vote in a campaign targeting fifty percent of the country’s electorate.

By Sunday, we would (probably) know if the Premadasa campaign’s focus on issues ranging from affordable sanitary hygiene products, a dire problem in rural areas where girls cannot afford these products most often leading to serious health complications, to the safety and security of Sri Lankan women, has succeeded or not in the nation-wide vote. Notorious cases of rape of women by Rajapaksa-linked local politicians during the Rajapaksa Presidency, who terrorised entire districts such as Deraniyagala, Kuruwita, Akuressa with impunity while police officers either looked on helplessly or colluded in the attacks lent much fodder to that focus. So did the rape of a foreign tourist and the killing of her British boyfriend at a hotel in Tangalle which was brought to court only following intense pressure by the United Kingdom.

Indeed, the difficulties in bringing these perpetrators before the law in all these cases was meticulously documented. In a column that I wrote, I remember asking if the victim had to be of foreign nationality for Sri Lanka’s legal system to work and if so, what of justice then for Sri Lankan women, Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil? The subversion of the legal process occurred right from the initial law enforcement stage where women could not even record their complaints at police stations to the enforced apathy of prosecutorial officers, nervous to move against Rajapksa confidantes. There was ample reason for this nervousness. This was a period where the Chief Justice and the Attorney General of the day were more often found in the residences of the former President and his brothers rather than in their offices, belying a bland denial by a retired senior state law officer caught in the crossfire of politically aligned statements, that there was no Rajapaksa interference into the prosecutorial process.


Projecting a future Sri Lanka

So when Pohottuwa candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and his brother, the former President holds forth on womens’ rights, there is manifest condescension at play. But leaving aside this Saturday’s electoral outcome, the shift in gender focus and the deliberate courting of the ‘youth vote’ has been a refreshing change to the exaggeratedly nauseating machismo that normally dominates election rhetoric. This emphasis needs to continue during the forthcoming General Elections. By the time this column is printed, we would also know if a pan-Sinhala vote has evolved for the Pohottuwa candidate notwithstanding the robust challenge offered by Premadasa who took the attack into the Rajapaksa camp by stressing that the core of Buddhist teachings is not to evoke fear in the minds of minorities and not to repress and harass those who have different opinions.

This is an obvious truth, yet, it needed to be said with force and vigour on the election stage, facing off against Pohottuwa campaigners whose hate-filled rhetoric against Muslims and Tamils pervaded social media spaces. That again is a message that must be continued. On that rests Sri Lanka’s future; will this country be governed by racism and fear or will it be a ‘work in progress’, warts and all, slowly building on growing institutional strengths and fashioning democratic systems to stand against repression. Over and above these factors and in a deliberate departure from the past two decades, the Premadasa-driven welfarist thrust has deliberately courted Sri Lanka’s rural vote as opposed to kowtowing to urban corporate giants who unhesitatingly lean towards his opposing candidate, the former Defence Secretary of Pohottuwa colours. In a way, this replicates the Ranasinghe Premadasa period where the traditional elitism of the United National Party was discarded.

In sum, this election illustrates several positives that must not be lost sight of in the tug and pull of political imperatives. In significant ways, the obeying of election laws apart from disgracefully partisan behaviour of certain media houses, the commitment of the Elections Commission and the police to ensuring a free and fair election has indicated that institutional democracy had held its own, despite considerable fears. This must prove true once the winner in November’s presidential polls is declared. There must be adherence to constitutional norms, despite foolhardy declarations by Presidential candidates relating to ‘instant’ dismissal of the sitting Prime Minister.

Warnings for Sri Lanka’s future President

Clearly, such a scenario only follows if the Government ‘loses the confidence’ of Parliament in defined constitutional terms, ie; on a vote of no confidence in the government, on the government losing the vote on the budget, on the government being defeated on its statement of policy, or on the resignation or death of the Prime Minister or by him/her ceasing to be a Member of Parliament. These constitutional parameters must not be lost sight of in the aftermath of Saturday’s poll.

As Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court declared late last year in holding the 2018 dissolution of Parliament by outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena, unconstitutional, ‘…this Court has emphasized on several occasions, the President is subject to the Constitution and the law, and must act within the terms of the Constitution and the law…the guiding principle must be the furtherance and maintenance of the Rule of Law.‘ Almost a year later, England’s Supreme Court warned in a similarly reflective reprimand to the British Prime Minister that his decision to prorogue or suspend Parliament was unlawful.

Writing for the Court, its President, Justice Lady Hale observed witheringly that the Prime Minister had an ‘improper purpose’ in so proroguing the House and that this ran counter to the established principle of parliamentary democracy, affecting the ‘democratic legitimacy of the Government.’ These are wise words of caution that the incoming Executive President would do well to remember. As Sri Lanka faces politically tumultuous weeks if not months ahead, political adventurism that undermines the Rule of Law must be strongly and unequivocally resisted.

That is what Saturday’s poll is all about, after all.

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