The People’s Verdict: Poetic Justice and the Path Ahead



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by Rajan Philips


The people have spoken. A new President has been sworn in by an untainted Senior Supreme Court Judge. A new Prime Minister too has been sworn in by the new President, necessarily in keeping with his electoral commitment even if not necessarily consistent with the constitution. Most important of all, the outgoing President conceded defeat and left office even before the final results were released, paving the way for a smooth and peaceful transition of power. The final phase of electoral democracy worked to text book perfection thanks to a strong minded Election Commissioner, his able officials, and the police finally doing their duty after years of enforced dereliction.


None of this was even a remote possibility before Friday November 21, 2014, when Maithripala Sirisena defected from the governing UPFA alliance to become the common opposition candidate against his erstwhile leader and incumbent President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The unthinkable has happened and Sri Lanka is at the cusp of a new beginning. The future is yet to unfold but the country can celebrate the end of a decadent regime that had veered too far off-course from every known norm in Sri Lankan society and was determined to keep going by manipulating electoral democracy to its own nefarious ends.


Poetic Justice


That the regime was not far from succeeding again is evident from the closeness of the final tallies and the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa prevailed in 10 of the 22 electoral districts including all of the five districts in the Southern (Galle, Matara and Hambantota) and Sabragamuwa (Kegalle and Ratnapura) Provinces, and a district each in the Western (Kalutara), North Western (Kurunegala), North Central (Anuradhapura), Central (Matale), and Uva (Moneragala) Provinces. Maithripala Sirisena won the remaining 12 districts including all of the five districts in the Northern (Jaffna, Vanni) and Eastern (Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Digamadualle) Provinces, along with two districts each in the Western (Colombo and Gampaha) and Central (Kandy and Nuwara Eliya) Provinces, and one each in the North Western (Puttalam), North Central (Polonnaruwa), and Uva (Badulla) Provinces.


Last week, I suggested that winning a majority of the five districts in the two Northeastern provinces, and a majority of the 17 districts in the seven Southern provinces (i.e. the double majority) would be a ‘convincing victory’. Sensing the opposition momentum at that time, I speculated that Maithripala Sirisena could potentially add four districts to the 11 districts won by Ranil Wickremasinghe in 2005, by winning the districts of Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Moneragala, and Gampaha. As it turned out, Mr. Sirisena won two of those four districts, namely Polonnaruwa, his home district, and Gampaha which proved to be a closely fought terrain. At the same time Sirisena lost the Matale District, won by RW in 2005, to Rajapaksa.


Looked at it another way, President Rajapaksa won 16 of the 17 southern districts in 2010 against Sarath Fonseka, and he lost six of them to the new President in 2015. These include the districts of Colombo, Gampaha, Puttalam, Kandy, Badulla and Polonnaruwa. Significantly, he lost the main urban centres even in the districts he won, including Galle, Matara and Kurunegala. As well, having increased his vote total from 4.9 million (against RW’s 4.7 million in 2005) to 6 million (against SF’s 4.2 million in 2010), President Rajapaksa saw it drop to 5.8 million against Maithripala Sirisena’s 6.2 million votes in 2015. In contrast, Maithripala Sirisena has garnered an impressive two million votes over what Sarath Fonseka managed to poll in 2010.


This is the first time an incumbent president has been defeated in a presidential election in Sri Lanka. It is poetic justice for an incumbent seeking an illegitimate third term and all the hangers on who thought they could go on for ever. Usually, incumbency is a negative factor in most electoral systems, but not so in Sri Lanka because of the incumbent’s abuse of state power and resources. And it got worse than ever before with the Rajapaksa regime resorting to the total abuse of state power and the full deployment of state resources right up to voting day. The state media went vulgar and personal spewing lies and spreading scare stories. As against this, the opposition campaign was hampered by lack of resources, insufficient time, the holiday season and even the monsoon floods. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the cunning and consummate electoral politician, has always been in a state of electoral readiness and has always been catching the opposition by surprise. This time the people called his bluff.


What the close voting tallies do not reveal are the subterranean urge for change and the desire for good governance that swept the entire country. The government’s heavy handedness and the opposition’s resource limitations mostly account for the urge for change not being translated into an even more spectacular victory for the opposition. But there should be no mistaking the mood of the people. It was this mood that gave courage to public officials to stand their ground and do their duty without bending to government pressures. It was this public mood that finally convinced President Rajapaksa to accept the rules of the game rather than change the rules as has been his regime’s wont for much of its tenure.


The Path Ahead


As I wrote during the campaign, the opposition’s post-election strategy appears to be predicated on making the current parliament act in accordance with the people’s verdict that was delivered last Thursday. The constitutional situation is quite unprecedented in that a newly elected president has to cohabit with an existing parliament that still has two years left in its term. The symbolism of appointing Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister needs to be substantiated by Mr. Wickremesinghe succeeding in turning the current parliament into a consensual forum to implement the proposed constitutional changes requiring two-thirds majority. The delicate task of cabinet making will be closely watched by the people to see if the new President and Prime Minister will use principled criteria (i.e., honesty, ability, regional representation, etc.) in appointing new ministers, or if they will lapse into the old habit of rewarding proven rascals to everyone’s horror.


The appointment of ministers and allocation of portfolios will send the right signals to public servants, government institutions, the business sector, trade unions and professionals. The President does not have to be in charge of any single portfolio but provide general oversight in the interim period. After the proposed constitutional changes, the President may cease to be the head of government and cabinet. The dreadful practice of combining urban development, defence and legal drafting under one ministry secretary should be ended as soon as possible. The urban development of Colombo, or any other Sri Lankan City, does not need such concentration of power as was exercised by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The morals and ethos of Sri Lankan people deserve much better recreational avenues than car racing and casino culture. The urban voters, not only in Colombo but in every major City, made this quite clear on January 8.


Politicized public officials including judges, corrupt institutions, unprincipled business cronies, and insatiable family members constituted the outgoing regime. Hopefully, those in exalted public and judicial offices and who owe their positions to political cooption will follow the example of the Central Bank Governor, submit their resignations and exit as quietly as they can. And the businesses have only to follow the advice given by the new President and new Prime Minister to business forums during the campaign: the businesses have to be on the good side of law, if they can, and they don’t have to worry. Business cronyism and mindless over-investment in physical infrastructure has sucked the air out of all other economic sectors. A new beginning is badly needed to breathe life and direct investments into the neglected sectors of the economy.


As has been widely noted, the Tamil and Muslim questions did not figure at all during the campaign, because of the implicit recognition that justice and fairness to minorities and good governance are two sides of the same political coin. Accordingly, the TNA and the SLMC threw their lot behind the opposition candidate, and President Sirisena is the beneficiary of the unusually high voter turnout in the Northeastern districts. Suffice it to say for now that the new President will not be able to deliver on his promises of good governance without addressing the problems of the Tamil and Muslim people in way that is fundamentally different from that of his predecessor.


The Opposition Manifesto presented to the people included a detailed road map and a tight time table. The new President, his Prime Minister and their team must demonstrate to the people that they are following the map and the time table to the best of their abilities. All MPs including those in the UPFA must respect the verdict of the people and act to implement the changes that were proposed during the elections. Ironically, the institutions of the Executive President and Parliament are being expected to co-operate as they have never done since 1978 in order to transform the presidential form of government. President Sirisena has promised the people that he will not come before them for a second term. Could it be that he has promised that there will not be another presidential election? That is a good enough start even though there are plenty of devilish details to be worked out before the new government can deliver on any of its promises.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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