In a witty word play Dayan Jayatilleka has called my article in the last Sunday Island, a philippic. So I offer a second Sri Lankan philippic – on the presidential election and political possibilities. The term ‘philippic’ arose in ancient Athens after Demosthenes, the master Greek rhetorician, inveighed against King Philip of Macedonia to rally Athenians to fight Macedonian invasion. It is not my purpose to rally the Tamils by verbally savaging some imagined king of Sri Lanka, but to argue, as I did last Sunday, that Tamils living in Sri Lanka cannot overcome their political predicaments by isolating themselves from Sri Lankan politics, and that they should not boycott the January Presidential election but use it for effective political leveraging.
Specifically, I argued that the Tamils should think about voting in a manner to bring about change that will recreate the political possibilities of 1994 and 1999, when Chandrika Kumaratunga won the presidency on a platform of national reconciliation and constitutional inclusion. Her dismal failure to deliver on the grand expectations she created does not diminish the significance of her victories, nor should it detract from the policy goals she pursued with sincerity of heart but without discipline or direction in her head.
It is not a manifestation of Tamil nationalist arrogance but an assertion of progressive politics to insist that the example of Chandrika Kumaratunga gives the lie to the claim that the Sinhalese are not amenable to accommodating the rights of other Sri Lankans. I have argued elsewhere that this claim of Sinhalese immutability is held axiomatically by Tamil nationalists and opportunistically by Sinhalese politicians. Following Ranjith Amarasinghe, I have also pointed out that in 1956, at the height of the Sinhala Only campaign and in the face of real threats to their lives, the LSSP and the CP leaders were elected to parliament with comfortable majorities from Sinhala Buddhist electorates in the Kelani Valley and in the deep South. In July 1960, the SLFP led by Mrs. Bandaranaike won a landslide victory in spite of the UNP campaign that there was a secret understanding between the SLFP and the Federal Party to divide the country.
The argument now is that what might be right may not be realistic insofar as Tamil rights are concerned. This argument can be turned on its head because what may appear to be unrealistic now under the current president may become realistic under a different president. The realistic argument is really an argument for the niggardly status quo and to attenuate it even further; an argument, in other words, for governmental inaction, if not intransigence. In my view, such an argument is untenable given the regional and international pressures that Sri Lanka cannot escape from.
The niggardliness of the status quo stems not so much from the inadequacy of constitutional provisions as from the absence of political willingness and will to nurture a Sri Lankan polity that is fair, just and inclusive. God knows, with electorally responsible and feudally disinterested leadership, the Soulbury Constitution could easily have been used as the framework for the development of such a polity. Alas, neither the UNP nor the SLFP was interested in providing that leadership and even the limited steps towards accommodation by the founding leaders of the two parties (D. S. Senanayake was steadfastly opposed to Sinhala Only and S.WR.D Bandaranaike fully appreciated the multiple merits of regional power sharing) were repudiated by their disastrous successors. Post-independence nationalisms in Sri Lanka are not spontaneous eruptions among the people but politically led outcomes – led by the State among the Sinhalese and the counter-State among the Tamils. Muslim nationalism arrived late as enough-is-enough reaction to the other two.
The 13th Amendment may yet provide a new framework and a starting point but one searches in vain for national leadership to faithfully use the 13th Amendment in that manner. When one points out that the search for positive leadership has not only come empty but has in fact found leaders determined to frustrate the 13th Amendment (and the 17th Amendment), one is accused of being nationalistic, arrogant, unrealistic, intransigent and unable to take responsibility. Perhaps the Tamils should be thankful for these epithets for at least they are tantamount to recognizing their being in Sri Lanka. It is somewhat better than the denial of their existence as a distinct group for that is what Mahinda Rajapakse did when he sweepingly declared with presidential certainty after the war that there are no minorities in Sri Lanka – only Sri Lankans. Rajapakse, the President, did better than K.M. de Silva, the historian, whom Qadri Ismail memorably chides, in his book Abiding by Sri Lanka, for de Silva’s failure to "find(s) no Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka", only Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.
The election question: Not competence, but new direction
Writing in support of Mahinda Rajapakse soon after the election was announced, Sumanasiri Liyanage ranked Chandrika Kumaratunga as the worst president Sri Lanka has had since 1978, and attributed her multiple failures to her lack of experience and competence. He was trying to make the point that by contrast Mahinda Rajapakse is both experienced and competent and therefore deserves a second term against the political neophyte, Sarath Fonseka.
Never mind that the experienced and competent President Rajapakse has cut short his first term after four years just to make sure that he won a second term. Even the incompetent Kumaratunga waited one year longer in her first term. Liyanage does not tell us how and when Rajapakse demonstrated experience and competence during his truncated first term. We know why, because there is none other than the war. But who takes the credit for the war – Rajapakse or Fonseka, me or him? It is to answer this egotistical question that an election has been prematurely called at great expense, but as it has so often happened in Sri Lankan politics many a plan of men and mice can go still go astray.
The important question that Sumanasiri Liyanage, given his impressive record of advocacy for several years for a just and fair solution to the Tamil question, fails to ask is about Rajapakse’s commitment to and his parameters for resolving it. The four-year record speaks for itself. President Rajapakse tenaciously repudiated and reversed government policy and the SLFP position, on the Tamil question, that were the achievements of Chandrika Kumaratunga over ten years between 1994 and 2005. As I noted at the outset, the fact that Kumaratunga failed to deliver on those policies because of her incompetence, should have been no reason for the supposedly more competent and experienced Rajapakse to jettison them lock, stock and barrel.
Even the urgency of an election has so far not been enough for President Rajapakse to articulate how he would address the Tamil question should he be elected to a second term. Unless he comes out with a clear, sincere and convincing position to allay the anxieties of Tamils and Muslims, it would be difficult to persuade them to vote for him at the polls. In the absence of a positive commitment for the second term, the election will be a plebiscite on his first term record insofar as the Tamil and Muslim voters are concerned. It should be so for the Sinhalese as well if only they could dispel the illusion of patriotism and look at the four-year record of constitutional mischief (not implementing the 17th Amendment), economic mismanagement, administrative collapse, corruption and abuse of power, and blatant family bandyism.
Competence became a convenient criterion for those who supported the war and viewed Rajapakse and Fonseka as the common heroes of the war, to rationalize their preference for Rajapakse after Fonseka broke loose from being common hero in government to become the common candidate of the opposition. The other red herring thrown into the political waters is the now too common accusation that anyone who opposes the Rajapakses is an agent of the West. Recently a queer secretary and a professorial minister embarrassed themselves hugely in trying to take on the UN and the EU respectively, on behalf of their masters. At the higher levels of the government, however, there is growing realization that they have to do business with the West regardless of whatever they want to do with Burma and China. As Kumar David has insightfully pointed out, the economic reality is that Chinese (and even Indian) capital is state-to-state and infrastructure oriented but the investment for private sector businesses will have to come primarily from the West.
This election is not about the competence of individual candidates, but about the alignment and realignment of political forces and whether they stand for the same old, same old, or they would be catalysts for change. The presidential system has vitiated the tradition of party loyalties in Sri Lankan politics, more so under this President than under any other. It is not a totally positive outcome but in this election it has brought about alignments that would make no sense in terms of established ideologies and loyalties but makes every sense if one looks for ways to save Sri Lanka from falling under a third, and easily the least commendable, family dynasty in sixty years.
Admittedly, the chief contender and the common opposition candidate, General Sarath Fonseka has no presidential record to defend but that does not let him off the hook as he will have to explain some of the public positions – on minorities and human rights - he articulated while in uniform. He should also outline what he proposes to do if elected President and how he would do them. As a political neophyte candidate untrammeled by party considerations and IOUs to vested interests he is more open to pressures from informed publics than the incumbent.
Already, the Citizen's Movement for Good Governance which has been steadfast in calling for the implementation of the 17th Amendment has put out fourteen questions on a range of constitutional, political and governance matters, for the candidates to answer along with their commitments to act on them within specified time limits (ranging from one month to one and a half years).
A student group from the University of Jaffna has come out against Tamils boycotting the election and Tamil candidates running in the election. The group has called for Tamil political organizations to present a unified set of questions to the presidential candidates. The group’s statement while appreciating the contributions made by the Tamil Diaspora to help Tamils living in Sri Lanka stresses the need for Tamil leaders to make political decisions based on realities at home and not on emotions. This is a good sign and hopefully will have a positive effect on Tamil political organizations, including the Tamil Congress, to come together and engage the presidential candidates and elicit their positions on matters affecting the Tamils.
Pressures should equally come from other publics – Muslim organizations, upcountry Tamils, women’s groups, students, trade unions, professionals and businesses. Twenty days is a long time in a campaign, enough to raise questions, stir debates, and most of all hold the feet of the two leading candidates to the people’s fire. All of this will, in democratic fairness, provide the opportunity for the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapakse, to demonstrate how he will do things differently in a second term, and for the principal opponent, Sarath Fonseka, to define his ‘change platform’ in greater detail and with firm commitments. The voters can then make an informed decision as to which of the two qualifies for their vote, or decide to spurn both and vote for someone else based on political principle or personal preference.
One of the common arguments in favour of incumbents is that a known devil is better than an unknown one. In this election, the plea has been to stick with the President and to throw the rascals out in the parliamentary election that is due before April, so that the President will have better men to work with. This is grasping at the straws for this President has rewarded rascals with ministerial appointments. I beg to plead the opposite: if you want to shake up the system start with the presidential election and continue the shake up in the parliamentary election. Neither election is going to bring about sensational transformations, but if we can get a new president and a new parliament who are committed to lay the ground work to build a new system that respects the norms of constitutional governance, is flexible to constitutional changes, is equally inclusive of all Sri Lankans, provides efficient administration free of corruption, and manages the economy to improve the welfare of all – the electoral shake-ups in 2010 would be worth the trouble.