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Referendum or Re-election?

"Post-war, President Rajapaksa is more powerful than any other democratically-elected leader in the island-nation. His decision not to have his term extended through a referendum thus assumes significance and relevance."

By N.Sathiya Moorthy

(June 29, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The ruling party has done itself and the Sri Lankan nation a service by nipping in the bud, early initiatives for having President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s term extended through a referendum, and not re-election. It is another matter if the President should advance re-election by full two years when the going is still good, and when there is no real competition in the foreseeable future.

It is not as if Sri Lanka has not witnessed referendum of the kind so far. President J R Jayewardene, the author and beneficiary of the Second Republican Constitution, was not satisfied with the conversion into a ‘unitary State’ and the creation of the Executive Presidency, both of which were centred on him. The personalisation of the presidency during his time was so complete that the referendum became an end in itself, and not a means to any purposeful or useful end.

JRJ got Parliament’s term extended through a referendum, lest the Opposition SLFP should return to the House with higher numbers than the lowly lows to which it had sunk in the 1977 polls. There are those who still blame the referendum for all the continuing ills, starting with the ethnic issue, war and violence.

Likewise, the early disenfranchisement of Sirimavo Bandaranaike did more damage to the Sri Lankan State structure, polity and society than the purported good it was meant to achieve, if at all there was any. In the absence of an authoritative Opposition, the nation ended up paying a heavy price. The irony is that all these were done under the Constitution with Democracy standing mute witness. It is thus that a political/parliamentary review of the Executive Presidency has become a democratic necessity. Talks about the abolition of the high office thus gains greater significance than is commonly understood. The move needs to be followed up vigorously, if only to ensure that there is a national debate on the subject.

Post-war, President Rajapaksa is more powerful than any other democratically-elected leader in the island-nation. His decision not to have his term extended through a referendum thus assumes significance and relevance. Existing complaints of large-scale poaching of Parliament members from other parties still impacting on the image of the ruling combine in general and President Rajapaksa in particular did leave a bad taste. It lingers. A referendum-based extension of presidential term would have made it unacceptable, if not wholly untenable.

Indications are that the President would seek re-election early on, instead. Yet, the current declaration against the ‘referendum’ may require certain clarity and clarification. The text of Article 30 (3a) (i) of the Constitution reads that the “President may, at any time

after the expiration of four years from the commencement of his first term of office, by Proclamation, declare his intention of appealing to the People for a mandate to hold office, by election, for a further term.”

The clause reads more like a provision for referendum than re-election. The former is a one-horse race, and the latter alone provides for multiple candidacy. The former is an aberration. The latter is the cornerstone of democracy.

It is interesting to note that the parliamentary polls are anyway due by April next. Under the circumstances, two rounds of elections within a four-month period may not serve any additional purpose, even if it is not counter-productive. A nation that is already war-weary has also become poll-weary after President Rajapaksa ordered Provincial Council polls one after another in quick succession, starting with the one in the Eastern Province in March last year. A few more are also to follow, culminating possibly in one for the Northern Province.

For now, Sri Lankan voters are also weary of victories of every kind – those won in the war, and those won in the electoral arena. Over the past months, war-related media reports had over-shadowed poll-related news items. Not any more. Already, no one is talking about war victory on the streets of Colombo, for instance. They are weighed down instead by the cares and worries of their daily chores. It is no different elsewhere in the country.

If statistics is anything to go by, rarely has a democratically-elected leader won re-election in the immediate aftermath of a credible war victory. George Bush Jr in the US was one of a kind. President Rajapaksa stands alone on this score, as his re-election would be won not only on the strength of a war victory. It will also be facilitated by a demoralised Opposition, which has no credible candidate to field. A victory in presidential polls is a victory still, if won now or two years later, when alone it becomes due -- if won by a lower margin or a higher margin.

Nor has the same issue won or lost two successive elections. If a particular party or group has won a second successive round of elections, it has often derived from the demoralisation that had set in, in the rival camp with the first round of defeat. It does not derive from the original issue that had won the winner, the first round. It may not be any different in the Sri Lanka of today.

Time was when JRJ could win a four-fifth majority in Parliament for the UNP – but in circumstances that cannot be, and in ways that should not be repeated. Post-war, the ruling SLFP-UPFA is not talking about a three-fourth majority either. An ‘absolute majority’ with a comfortable margin is all that they are aspiring for – and can aspire for, given the inherent strengths and weaknesses of individual parties, yet.

It does not stop there. At least a section of the ruling combine seems to feel that alien-bashing could increase the Government’s victory margins, both in terms of votes and seats. Call it ‘patriotic votes’ or ‘hard-line votes’, the war victory has ensured that they are already in the pocket of President Rajapaksa and the ruling combine.

Fresh attacks on foreign Governments and international agencies thus are not going to garner one extra vote. They can actually lose those additional votes for the ruling combine. The voter has put the war and victory already behind him. With the ‘war hurdle’ removed, he is naturally looking for the Government to perform on the economic, social and political fronts – burying the biases and positions of the past with the war.

Is anyone out there, listening?
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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