The nation must decide: did or did not Mahinda Rajapaksa deliver?

By Malinda Seneviratne

(January 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Two days after this article is published, the nation will vote for a president. Millions will go to the polling booths and cast their vote for the candidate they believe is best suited to rule this country. It seems clear that most people have already weighed the pros and cons of the candidates, their track-records as politicians and as human beings, their manifestos, their statements, their retractions/contradictions (if any), the company they choose to keep, their demeanour, language-use and treatment of subordinates and of course the true dimensions of their nationalism.

Elections are testing times for a nation. They are more ‘testing’ for the candidates and their key supporters, especially those who are waiting to pick some crumbs off the winner’s table. Elections, especially national-level elections such as parliamentary or presidential affairs, can change the general thrust of policy direction but in the short-term they don’t give the people much to cheer about outside of being happy that they backed a winner or being sad that their guy lost.

We saw this in 2005. Some backed Ranil Wickremesinghe, other backed Mahinda Rajapaksa. Mahinda won. Barely. There’s nothing to gain from imagining what kind of Sri Lanka we would be in today had he lost and Ranil become the President, except that it would give us some perspective in assessing the worth of an incumbent who is running for re-election.

What if Ranil had one, have you wondered? What is the guarantee (going on his past record, faith in a ‘negotiated political settlement’, a penchant for implementing the bidding of the ‘co-chairs’) that on January 26, 2010 we would have a Prabhakaran-less Sri Lanka? I would think, all things considered, it would be very unlikely.

I doubt also that the conflict would have been ‘resolved’ in any way. The LTTE withdrew from negotiations one year after the CFA was signed and was happily eliminating the Tamil political leadership opposed to its methods and ideas. The LTTE was even at that time taking out key intelligence operatives. Ranil couldn’t get the LTTE to even whisper the term ‘core issues’. A tenuous ‘peace’ does not push tourist arrivals up or encourages investment the way that political stability and the wiping out of terrorism have.

Things could have got worse of course, because a live and kicking Prabhakaran would be capable of anything and everything. He was a man marked by unpredictability and a tendency to unleash violence and re-ignite conflict at any given moment.

The consequences are not difficult to imagine: political instability, insecurity all around, few tourist arrivals, a political climate that would be unfriendly to investors.

Then there’s the economy. In 2005, few predicted that we would be in the middle of a ‘global financial crisis’. Few predicted that there would be an oil price crisis or that food prices would escalate and so on. How would Ranil have responded? Unless he suffered some kind of ideological shock, he would do what the UNP has always done: privatized remaining national assets. The People’s Bank, Bank of Ceylon, State Mortgage and Investment Bank and the National Savings Bank would have gone the way the Insurance Corporation went. For a song, no doubt. To cronies, no doubt. We would have USAID writing our agricultural policies and Robert Blake (and later Patricia Butenis) becoming de-facto leaders of this country.

We would have a national agricultural policy whose cardinal and non-negotiable principle of operation would be the following: ‘Sri Lanka’s food security lies in the wheat fields of North America’. A few rich businessmen in Colombo would be thrilled. The SMEs would have perished, as would the small farmer and the small holders in agriculture.

It didn’t happen. We are now a middle-income country with a decent growth rate; inflation is at manageable levels; the unemployment rate has come down, and all economic indicators are positive and indeed far more positive I am sure that those who voted for Ranil Wickremsinghe in 2005 would have imagined they would be.

Today Ranil Wickremesinghe is not contesting. It is essentially a contest between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka. It is also an opportunity for the voters to pronounce an approval rating of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure.

No president can deliver 100% on all promises made and certainly not if he/she is plagued by a political reality that includes an intransigent and ruthless terrorist outfit, a disadvantaged location in a global political economy, constrains flowing from a horrendously flawed constitution that is a recipe for ungovernability and a political culture that only the most optimistic would think could be changed in 4 years. There were of course ‘doables’ that were not done and for these it is necessary that marks be taken off. Then again there were those things that were considered ‘impossible’. They were made ‘possible’. For those, ‘extra credit’ ought to be given. That is the way to assess track record.

Sunil Madhava Premathilake has asked a question: What kind of nation would kick out a man in four years after he ended in three years a war that had dragged on for 30 years? That’s one issue albeit a key one. A person is assessed on the ‘overall’. Mahinda Rajapaksa will be assessed by all of us.

In the end, it is up to the voter. It is his/her moment. It is your moment and mine. Let’s get about our business in peace and live with the consequences of our collective decision. Let us try to keep in mind that there is one thing that is larger than the candidates: our motherland. It belongs as much to us as those we vote for. May fidelity to the sathara brahma viharana (compassion, ability to rejoice in another’s happiness, kindness and equanimity) guide us in our thoughts and actions, on January 26, 2010 and always!

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at