5th December 1999
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CBK loses her charm and Ranil may be too late!

Two weeks, or so it is said, is a long time in politics. In two weeks and two days from today, Sri Lankan voters will elect their fifth Executive President in the country's fourth Presidential election in 22 years. Ever since polls were announced on October 20 politicking has been going on at a frantic pace, gaining further momentum after nomination day. And it should be so, for this Presidential race, by far, will be the closest the Sri Lankan electorate has seen. Ironically, the three previous contests have been essentially one-horse races. 

In 1982, when J. R. Jayewardene ran for a second term of office he was at the zenith of his popularity and there was no ethnic war. Hector Kobbekaduwe, a good man though he was, was essentially an 'also-ran'. J.R. having disabled the long-suffering Sirima Bandaranaike by stripping her of her civic rights won, of course and in hindsight, he may well have won even if Ms. Bandaranaike was his opponent. 

In 1988, the climate had changed somewhat, the ethnic issue was a boiling cauldron of conflict, the Indian PeaceKeeping Force occupied the north and east of the country and there was a southern insurrection to boot. R. Premadasa may not have been the finest of steel; nevertheless he came through the hottest of fires. Sirima Bandaranaike, though by then back in the arena was frail and her party woefully lacked the organisational structure to combat both the JVP and the state political machinery at the same time. Six years later, there was a wave of support for who was then a neophyte in Sri Lankan politics- a lady by the name of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Dingiri Banda Wijetunga who became President by default had dismantled his predecessor's ruthless state apparatus but the suspicion still lingered and the masses did not like the UNP anymore. Just a few months before the poll, the SLFP appeared hopelessly divided but with the advent of Kumaratunga, everything went just right. Later, with a PA cabinet in office, the final nail was driven into the UNP coffin-literally and metaphorically- when Gamini Dissanayake was blown up in a suicide bomb and his wife became the alternative candidate. 

It is therefore clear the 1999 Presidential contest would be the most interesting. The playing field may not be exactly level, but it is close to it. There are 13 candidates, yes, but anyone on the street will tell you it is only the big two who matter- though they will add, almost as an after thought, 'JVP ekath chanda tikak ganeevi'. But, beyond that, even with just 16 days to go for the polls, prediction becomes increasingly difficult. The first to realise that would have been Chandrika Kumaratunga. That she is no longer the white-sareed, smiling, second coming of Vihara Maha Devi is apparent. Calling for an early Presidential election, almost a year ahead of schedule, and in the absence of any decisive victory anywhere- in the war, the economy, the devolution package or politically- was a tacit admission by the President that she felt matters can only get worse next year-not better. But for all her faults, Chandrika Kumaratunga-maybe because she was chip of the old block- in this instance displayed some political savvy. She caught the opposition, especially the UNP off-guard and ill-prepared organisationally at the grass-roots level. Since that initial announcement which gave her the advantage of the surprise element however, Chandrika Kumaratunga must be thinking about Murphy's Law: if something could have gone wrong, it did. At the outset of the campaign, Saumyamoorthy Thondaman who would have been a strong ally, died. An attempt to gain some ground in the north went horribly wrong and the military lost in weeks what it had gained in years- and at the cost of many, many lives. A crossover by UNPers has now turned sour and probably- though it is still premature to pass a definite judgement- has lost more votes to the PA than gained. 

Attempts to link Ranil Wickremesinghe to a fanciful pact with the LTTE has ended in embarrassment when Velupillai Prabhakaran announced that President Kumaratunga herself desired secret talks- a statement that has still not been denied. And, the performances of PA politicians on television talk shows have further alienated at least some of the floating votes. Faced with these setbacks, what has Chandrika Kumaratunga done? It has resulted in her abandoning the "Saama kathaa" with the LTTE and adopting a war-mongering posture referring to them as the 'mineemaru koti kalliya' and still valiantly trying to link the UNP with the Tigers. 

Suddenly then, she has abandoned - or been forced to abandon- the Tamil vote bank and now target the Sinhalese with whatever votes she can get from Ministers M. H. M. Ashraff (Muslims, mostly in the east) and Arumugam Thondaman (estate sector Tamils). One noteworthy fact here is that Minister Ashraff's votes in the east and elsewhere is not what it was in 1994 and though that bloc of votes is still substantial, there is a definite decline. 

In the estate sector Periya Thalaivar is no more and Arumugam Thondaman hardly carries the kind of clout with voters that his grandfather wielded- not yet, anyway. The Sellasamy inspired splits within the CWC are also surfacing and it is anybody's guess as to how that sector will vote- essentially, another setback for President Kumaratunga. 

So, perhaps understandably, the panic buttons have been pressed in the PA camp. We see a knee-jerk reaction from the government trying to pounce on every false move of Ranil Wickremesinghe going even to the extent of capitalising on his rather dry sense of humour. For a moment, maybe, PA tacticians feel they have lost the initial advantage gained by calling for early elections and that it may have even been better had they waited until the year 2000. Hence the insensitive propaganda on state media and the intimidation at the grass-roots level. From Ranil Wickremesinghe's point of view, it is not uncharitable to say there was nowhere to go from where he was, except up- and he has done that at a pace that has surprised the government and those within his own party. Suddenly, there appears to be an awakening among hardcore UNPers: hey, they seem to say, there is a real chance to throw out the PA and get something for ourselves. Now, there is more vigour and enthusiasm in the UNP camp and the 'it's us or them' attitude has crept in, sweeping aside whatever problems they have about Ranil Wickremesinghe's leadership qualities. Blunders by the PA have helped- attacks on Eppawala and Kotte, the attempt to regulate private media networks, and the Tamil Net propaganda issue- they all add up: in favour of Ranil Wickremesinghe. To be fair by him, his stage presence has improved and in his performances on television he has come across as convincing if somewhat blunt. 

"I can't make false promises" is a favourite theme and some like that kind of candour from a candidate simply because it is so hard to come by. Ranil Wickremesinghe also says that his policies will guide the country- not his personality or charisma because he knows he cannot beat Kumaratunga on that score. It is a good line to sell because Kumaratunga has performed so poorly on policies and the promises she made five years ago. The fact that Kumaratunga has left out the PA heavyweights- the likes of G. L. Peiris, Mangala Samaraweera, S. B. Dissanayake and C. V. Gooneratne, a rather lacklustre lot anyway- from spearheading the campaign and is relying solely on recapping her 1994 magic goes to show that it is her personality that she is counting on. It is, then a Chandrika Kumaratunga vs. the UNP battle. 

Ranil Wickremesinghe might not mind that. And that is because unfortunately for the President, the turn of events since announcing early elections has made Chandrika Kumaratunga lose her smile. Instead, she looks angry, a little disheveled in stark contrast to the display of dimples and all- which was her trademark in 1994 and had such a devastating effect on the UNP. That she is seen increasingly with the UNP breakaway group- some of whom were so bitterly attacked by Kumaratunga herself not so long ago- is the ugly side of her campaign. It amply demonstrates that Kumaratunga abandoned principled politics and embraced some questionable personalities in the local political milieu- because of her fear that every single vote might count in the end. 

Ironically, getting Sarath Amunugama to do the hatchet work on the campaign trail and on the media has alienated voters who respected Kumaratunga for her integrity. What's more, it has spurred UNPers and galvanised them into unquestionably supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe. What's the down side for Wickremesinghe, then? He is gaining ground, yes, but it might be too little, too late. He has certainly made inroads into Kumaratunga's votes in urban areas, but that assessment at present is intangible and whether it would suffice is not certain. He is more relaxed now than he ever was on stage but his attempts at humour still look contrived. And the big unknown factor is, what is his standing in rural areas? 

The masses in these regions -without being patronizing-are not impressed with internet and computers, the advent of the new millennium or English for everyone. They need water for cultivation and a good price for their produce. Their horizons end there. They, mostly of the older generation, are still a significant sector, numerically. They vote with their hearts, not with their minds. And Ranil Wickremesinghe - who makes no promises about bread, the Presidency or the war-has not said anything to win their hearts. The question is, will that cost him the election? The bottomline then would be that none of the principal contenders would obtain fifty per cent of the vote outright to win on the first count. The battle must then be for the second preferential vote. And interestingly- though there are 13 candidates in the fray- most say they are there as 'spoilers': to tell the people to demonstrate their disgust with the 'Thattu maaru' UNP-SLFP system. 

Most of them do not campaign for a second preferential vote, so that decision would entirely be with the voter. And that is an imponderable factor because spoilt votes and JVP votes- which together will form the bulk of votes apart from the PA and UNP votes- are not likely to have a second preference because they are essentially protest votes. And that is why predictions become a perilous pastime and a winner may not be known even on December 22- the preferential count may take much longer to complete. 

But there are more certain parameters. Whoever wins, privatization will continue. The war too will continue. And so will the Executive Presidency. The economy, overburdened by war will continue to be sustained by a handful of exports and West Asian remittances. While that is the reality, both principal contenders have promised democracy, jobs, development and milk and honey. In this context, one must bear with those who are averse or apathetic to the election process and those who say 'unuth ekai, munuth ekai'. They have seen with disgust how corruption, intimidation, and political expediency prevail over fairplay, democracy and principles. They believe that these undesirable features have become facts of life and a sine qua non for survival in Sri Lankan politics. And they are convinced that it is this bankrupt, delinquent political culture that has earned Sri Lanka a war and little progress in over 50 years of independence. They would be, in a sense, right. 

Nevertheless, it would be important for the hoi polloi to have a say about who their high and mighty would be even if, what Alphonse Karr said over a hundred years ago seems not to have changed: "The more things change, the more they are the same…" 


Justice for all in a new strong centre

By Kumbakarna
The tough action Governor Oliver Goonetillake took in quelling the 1958 riots is said to have influenced J. R. Jayewardene to introduce the executive presidential system. 

The success of Governor Goonetillake in bringing order into anarchy was impressive by his standards. Mr. Jayewardene learnt that a strong central dictatorship was necessary to ensure the smooth transition from a closed static economy to an open market economy. Further a proportional representation system tied to the executive presidency was desirable from his point of view. 

It was believed that such a strong presidency was useful in suppressing the forces arraigned against the commercialisation of life brought upon by the open economy. Such a strategy was successful till about 1983.

But this success was paradoxically the reason for many of the ensuing problems such as the attempt to forcefully implement the Indo-Lanka pact. The decay of cultural values, the economic downturn and the rebellions against the state could also be traced back to this power vested in the executive presidency. 

Although a majority of the people had long realised this state of affairs, the elite had not until R. Premadasa who was not from the traditional elitist class, took over the mantle of the presidency. 

The UNP came to realise these shortcomings only after the executive presidency left its hand and went to the PA. 

It has to be admitted that it was the traditional left which first opposed the executive presidency, in spite of authoritarian style of governance in many of the socialist countries of the Eastern Bloc. There was as a result no clear understanding among the left as to why it was in opposition to an executive presidency.

The minority parties did not have or do not at present have a unified stand on the presidency. Instead they seem to have a variety of views. The late S. Thondaman, for instance, supported the executive presidency because he perceived that the demands of the Tamils of Indian origin could be furthered only by authoritarian means. 

The Thondaman factor was supported by Mr. Jayewardene (from 1978 to 1982), because of Indian pressure and he saw it as a useful foil against the TULF. In 1988, the people of Indian origin who were to be repatriated to India under the Sirima-Shastri pact was promised citizenship rights by Mr. Jayewardene. This brought some 350,000 upcountry votes for the UNP. 

Mr. Thondaman therefore came to see the presidency as a useful method of bargaining for his sectarian demands. However, once its power base has been consolidated the CWC may in the future give up his support for the presidential system. 

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress perceived and followed a similar strategy towards the executive presidency. The SLMC leader wanted all those Muslims who supported the UNP and the SLFP to vote for his party so that he will be in a position to bargain with the executive president.

He, too, after consolidating his power base, may oppose this authoritarian system of governance. 

The TULF leadership did not initially support the presidency idea as they correctly perceived it as a threat to a real pact for power sharing. The LTTE had similar views. But with the weakening of both the LTTE and the TULF, they began to give tactical support for an authoritarian regime at the centre. For example the bargains struck by the LTTE with President Premadasa, were part of this thinking. 

The current thinking in the LTTE suggests a rotating presidency — three years for a Sinhala president and three years for a Tamil president. The defunct state of Yugoslavia, experimented for a while with such a system. 

The views and support for the executive leadership have been based on narrow objectives and short-term instrumental strategies. 

The general slogan of the Sinhala based nationalistic forces has rejected the executive system of governance as a left over of left thinking, without any in-depth reasoning. 

There is considerable confusion on the stand taken against the presidency. There is a legitimate fear of authoritarianism. This could mean a weakening of central power. The need of the hour is for a strong democratic but centralised system of governance for the country. 

The immense problems faced by the country cannot otherwise be solved. Such a strong but democratically supported central government is necessary to both oppose the various divisional forces within the country and the forces of globalisation, which attempt to control weak governments. 

Within this democratic polity, there will be ample room for minority problems to be discussed and resolved. What should be a matter of debate at the coming election should be the restructuring of the Sri Lankan state, which will allow for a non-authoritarian but powerful and democratically elected central government. In such a system, the genuine voices of all races who are not opposed to a weakened and easily controllable Sri Lankan state can be heard. 

Depoliticisation of police: hopes re-kindled

Thee best way a political party in office can lose votes is by getting the police to do its dirty work. The average Sri Lankan values his independence and freedom so much that he deplores any form of oppression by police. 

Whatever the intentions of the politician, especially picked policemen become over zealous and their actions tend to be partial and oppressive as seen here time and again. This short-sighted advantage sought by politicians, apart from ruining the image of the police service, has led to the downfall of many governments, but politicians don't seem to learn.

The majority of Police Officers too think and vote similarly. In spite of the fact that the public have been let down as often as promises are made, they vote for promises because, "hope springs eternal in the human breast."

What the Sri Lanka Police Inspectors Association had to tell its members in a newsletter during the period leading to the 1977 General elections, is relevant even today from the point of view of the public, if not the Inspectors' Association: "As much as the welfare of our members is the prime concern of the Association, in the context of what has happened in the past and what is yet happening, it is also our aim to ensure that the actions of our members do not tarnish the reputation of the service. Your action in connection with the forthcoming hustings should be above reproach and non-partisan.

"We exhort you to perform your duties correctly in accordance with the law. We also wish to remind you that you are expected to carry out only legal orders and you would not be justified in carrying out illegal orders from whatever sources they emanate.

"We hope your actions in the months to come would enhance the prestige of the Inspectorate and project a better image of the Association and the Service."

Police officers by and large acted impartially during the aforesaid elections. Those specially selected by politicians however resorted to dirty work and contributed to the waning popularity of the ruling party that eventually lost the elections.

Charges were framed against several Inspectors, while the big ones (the real villains whose roles are too long for narration here) were spared.

I remember an episode narrated to me by Professor W.S. Karunaratne: He was to address a meeting in support of the U.N.P. at Medawachchiya. The O.I.C. Medawachchiya had allegedly disrupted the meeting and demolished the stage in the presence of Prof. Karunaratne who made an immediate complaint. Months later, after the new government came to office, the Police authorities contacted Prof. Karunaratne and requested him to be a witness at a disciplinary inquiry against the officer. Prof. Karunaratne had declined stating that his complaint against the O.I.C. was no longer relevant, and that his current complaint was against the I.G. P. for not taking appropriate action at the appropriate time.Judging from what we hear from around us and what we read in the media, impartial observers of our political scene are despondent over our electoral process, which is subject to so much abuse, usually in favour of the ruling party. No party coming to office has yet ventured to rectify the obvious drawbacks for equally obvious reasons. Man is so susceptible to crookedness that institutionalized and compulsive means such as the Constitutional Council, and Independent Public services, Elections and Police Commissions, are essential for good governance to pull the country out of the ever-deteriorating law and order situation.

Presidential candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, sort of re-kindled our forlorn-hopes in his T.N.L. interview on 30.11.99. when he repeatedly emphasized two important aspects: -

1. That he does not wish to make promises which he on his own (if elected) cannot implement without the people's consent to amend the Constitution.

2. He repeatedly stated that the Independent Public Services, Elections and the Police Commissions, which he promises on a priority basis, can be established without constitutional amendments by the existing parliament 

By such emphasis, he committed himself to an irrevocable promise – with general elections to follow, on the all-important issues that will undoubtedly create a favourable ground situation paving the way to solving other major problems. Also forewarning deterrent punishment against errant Police officers during the forthcoming election, will not be out of place. 

Whoever wins the elections, the establishment of independent commissions, sooner than later, will give the public the relief they have been craving for all along.

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