Presidential candidates vying to serve society or for personal power? 

"The abyss between appearance and reality" - Shakespeare


by Gnana Moonesinghe

We are once again on the threshold of yet another Presidential election- between Nov. 15 and Dec. 7, says the Elections Commissioner. Many are the ambitious contestants to the post but there seems to be a temerity about making firm announcements of contestants. This is by and large because the sponsors, the political parties and whoever else, are still not clear as to the winnable potential of the candidates now being bandied around among the public.

"Someone with the ability to win should be handpicked for the purpose" says a politically savvy individual. No one is talking about who can best serve society.  Ability to win is the basis on which candidates are usually sponsored and not on who would make the ideal candidate after an assessment on the potential to perform for the people and the nation.   

A quick review of the past performance of presidents and their secretariats during their tenure in office give a pathetic, damning evidence of illiberal tendencies in operation. This demands a large dose of integrity, responsibility and accountability in any candidate vying for the post of president. In the absence of these qualities once elected the president’s performance will be usually prejudicial to public interest and in favour of himself. Of great concern is the missing link in awareness between the word and spirit of the constitution despite the fact that all without exception pay homily to the relevance of the constitution to the system.

The main criticism of the institution is the disproportionate share of power vested in the president over and above that of the other organs of government which it is claimed creates space for the growth of authoritarianism. Many ‘intrusions’ into the constitution can be cited which has made the system abusive. Post 2015, the president who was specifically voted to remove the abusive practices that prevailed in the then government, appointed defeated candidates to the national list in violation of the constitution.  

Agitation to do away with the institution of presidency was ever present on a high octave. Many of the elected presidents and parliamentarians have themselves professed the desire to abolish the executive presidency but to date, for over three decades, the institution has survived.  Once in the seat of power the election pledge is forgotten. The pomp, pageant and power associated with the office are such, that no president was inclined to abolish the institution. 

An appropriate choice of candidate will be one with a vision tinged with pragmatism while being focused on the needs and interests of the people; a man of learning with intuition who will not be blown over with the power packed placement he/she occupies would be the ideal. Despite the checks and balances in the constitution, incumbent Presidents have been able to bypass them and spread out their tentacles to behave in an autocratic manner. "l’etat c’est moi" –I am the State – Louis XIV’s perception of himself seems to be more attractive to incumbent presidents more than the humility associated within an active democratic state. 

To keep away dictatorial trends a contender for presidency must also have an inbuilt commitment to the letter and spirit of the constitution and to constitutionalism.  Constitution is a compilation of a set of rules to guide governance in the best interests of you, me and the people; a list of do’s and don’ts by which power and responsibility is portioned out, a legal document.

A review of past performance of Presidents and their secretariats reveal that despite the constitutional provisions of checks and balances alarming possibilities for undemocratic practices had crept into the presidential system.  In the absence of integrity in political leadership the moral responsibility to the manifesto presented to the public (candidates’ intentions and a work profile) has more often than not become an election gimmick. Very little pressure is exerted to implement the manifesto; it is as if a barrier is erected between the president and the public soon after the election.

Several examples of violations and abuse of the constitution are available. Abuse of the rule of law and human rights take precedence in the long list of violations.Candidates must aspire to accommodate harmonious cohabitation within the reality of a multi ethnic multi religious society in Sri Lanka; the spirit of pluralism has to become a byword among the people. Communal disharmony which resulted in the three decade war destabilized the economy and the peace of the nation.  Despite pronouncements to bring about reconciliation for the development of the economy, indulgence of hate speech and tolerance of individuals spouting disharmony within the plural state has heightened anti communal activity as can be observed in the post Easter Sunday happenings.

Presidential aspirants must be tolerant of cultural and religious differences in the country. People should not be permitted to provoke divisive politics to collect votes. Majoritarian supremacy trends, and such others should be clipped to permit the spirit of cohabitation to soar. For a long time racial and religious hatred and fear mongering among the people has prevailed instead of making national pride and patriotism a part of our driving spirit disallowing abrasive hostility among the ethnic groups.

From the point of view of humanity and progress hostility towards other ethnic groups should be abandoned.  This will help us to retain our sovereignty without others trespassing into our national affairs. We must avoid foreign interference as with the Indo Lanka Accord which has ruptured relations within the country much more than uniting the people.

Corruption has reached epidemic proportion. Expectation from persons who come to serve society is that there will be strict adherence to moral and ethical values. On the contrary in practice people seem to come into politics to build up their personal finances unabashedly. When politicians are in the collecting mode, others around too exploit the available opportunities with the same laxity. We are a notoriously corrupt country.

While some become rich those who voted for their candidate hoping for a better quality of life remain stagnant without hope for a better future.  It is a sacrilege if civil society refrains from sanctioning corrupt individuals. A definitive understanding should be- no future for such persons in the political domain.  It is strange that the present president should observe that if the loss of revenue to the Treasury because of corruption and corrupt practices can be stopped it would be possible to bridge the budget deficit. The President adds that for the last six decades no politician has been prosecuted for looting public funds. (Daily Mirror 29. 7.19) Whose irresponsible act of omission is it?

Presidents are elected to give national and personal security to the nation. Security concerns, while it is a live issue is also used as a vote gathering tactic.  Often the tactics used in this are misleading.  Religious and racial differences are fermented by spreading misinformation either that the country will be divided or secede to serve the interests of Tamils or that Christians are proselytizing or by spreading bogus stories that Muslims because of their large families will overturn the majority status of the Sinhalese or that they are giving doctored sweets to Sinhalese women with the perverse intent to reduce their fertility levels. People have also become gullible and are willing to listen to any wild story.

To date the party that constituted the government when the LTTE was defeated has enjoyed the victory benefits, usurping the national hero status. The national character of the armed forces remain unquestioned. Once the national character of the forces is recognized it will give an overarching national complexion to the defeat of the terrorist forces.  The victory over the terrorist forces cannot be confined to the party in power at the time or can it be narrowed down to make it a mere majority minority conflict. It must be drilled into people’s minds that the role of the army is to provide security both to the nation and to the people.  No one person or political party is entitled to claim glory from the achievements of the armed forces who are a part of the national asset of the country.  Gotabaya  Rajapaksa , the aspiring presidential candidate’s major claim to leadership is that he was the defense secretary at the time that the LTTE was defeated; he was only one among others in command. 

Despite the victory over terrorists, the country remains condemned for human rights abuses by the International Human Rights Commission. The war crimes investigation floundered on the modus operandi of the process to investigate. We are looked upon as pariahs among the international community for our failure to comply with human rights norms.  Not many among those who condemn can however claim to be clean on this score. Violations can be cited with ease in the countries charging us of violations. However, it is necessary that we maintain high standards on this score irrespective of comparison with other countries.

Consequent to the Easter Sunday mayhem the country stands exposed as to its weak intelligence service. None can ignore the urgency to ‘repair’ this sector.  Intelligence and security services must be strengthened with a clear line in the management of the system and the line of accountability in relaying information gathered or received so that there can never be a repeat of the fault line that resulted in tragedy. In the event of intelligence failure the head of State should be strong enough to accept responsibility and take corrective steps. The country cannot afford a weak president or others in line of responsibility to shift the onus on others as an escape route. This area needs immediate attention regarding solutions from aspiring candidates.

Another area for attention is to the foreign policy directions of candidates to assess their suitability. Independence of power blocs should have primacy in foreign policy to keep the country independent of power blocs. From the time we abandoned non alignment we have wavered towards the West and recently towards China. China has invested heavily in Sri Lanka and its Belt and Road Initiative by which she seeks to develop trade infrastructure with partner states. 

Some of the previous economic engagements with China have not added value to the economy; merely trapped Lanka in a vicious circle of indebtedness. The present government has been compelled to negotiate a debt restructuring deal in which a Chinese company assumed control of the southern port of Hambantota. Debt sustainability must not become a bigger problem than it is for us now. More debts means more borrowing to pay the debt. This cannot continue because of balance of payments compulsions.

Apart from all these considerations, the increasing presence of China in Sri Lanka can bring us into conflict with India who looks upon South Asia as India’s area of influence, which position it jealously guards.  We cannot afford to play games with India; they can clutch us in a death trap as it happened earlier over the LTTE issue.

The above mentioned are some areas of concern for the credible presidential hopefuls to consider. Civil society must be empowered on all these accounts to assess the viability of the candidates. Avenues to improve the quality of life for the needy has to be the moral compulsion to judge whether the heart is in the right place for the aspiring candidate to be considered for selection. The habit of voting for the corrupt man, the immoral man, the vile man is to secure some particular need of the voter. 

It is not that the voter is not aware of the right and wrong of his decision but he is in dire need to have his wants fulfilled.  Who can be critical of him? If you are starving and need a job you vote for the man who promises to make it possible. As simple as that.  A corrupt, immoral society snowballs into absorbing the vulnerable into their orbit, the vulnerable being the poor helpless ones. The mindset described earlier is what produces the pithy epithet "munthuth ekai, unuth ekai."

Asset declaration, bribery commissions, legal sanctions all have failed to cleanse the Augean stables. A strong focused person willing to lose votes doing the right thing that will restore health of the democratic state is essential.


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