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Elections 2015: The Stakes

| by Dayan Jayatilleka

( April 20, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Sunday newspapers carried credible reports that the Presidential election would be held anytime after November this year, most probably in January 2015 while parliamentary elections would be held before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year 2015. What this means is that over the coming year, the serious political participant or student of politics should think almost entirely in terms of three subjects:

(i) Sri Lanka’s external relations (the OHCHR probe, relations with the incoming Indian administration),
(ii) The Sri Lankan elections and
(iii) North –South or Tamil-Sinhala relations in the light of (i) & (ii).

The crisis in Sri Lanka’s external relations can be successfully addressed only if there is a change for the better in the political behaviour of the regime, which may depend on a change in regime composition. If there is no change for the better, we may expect a dramatic denouement along the lines of what I would term ‘1987 Plus’.

Simply out, the full and expeditious implementation of the 13th amendment would enable us to secure the support of the new Indian administration and neutralise one front. We could then secure the support of India to face and blunt the buzz saw of the international inquiry originating on the Western front. The 13th amendment is the smallest price we have to pay. The window for a settlement based on the implementation of 13 A won’t remain open for much longer. If we do not implement it fully and expeditiously, if the Sinhala hardliners prevent it, the next stop will be externally-driven federalization or worse. If we alienate the incoming Indian administration Sri Lanka will be caught on two fronts. An economic squeeze and legal pressures from the west and a push on Tamil autonomy or more from India will mean a siege that Sri Lanka cannot sustainably resist.

President Rajapaksa knows much of this or intuits it, despite the sunshine stories given to him by his clan and courtiers. Hence the likely timetable for elections. The President is attempting to outrun the external pressures. He obviously does not wish to run for re-election with an economic squeeze in place. Therefore the Presidential election will probably be held before March 2015, when the OHCHR is to report in writing to the UN HRC about the progress of the 2014 resolution, but after November 2014, when he passes the four year mark.

The Opposition which seeks to capitalise on mass disaffection in the wake of sanctions will be unable to simply because the economic crunch will follow, not precede the crucial election.

If the crisis in Sri Lanka’s external relations is not to cause a crash in Sri Lanka’s economy and the living standards of the citizenry, the regime’s policies on the Tamils, India, human rights, good governance and accountability will have to change. The LLRC’s recommendations on reconciliation and limited accountability, as well as the 13th amendment, must be implemented within compressed time frames.

The elections of 2015 and the run-up to them can be utilised to unfreeze the situation, prise open political space, catalyse reform and improve regime behaviour. This requires certain shifts in the Opposition, which can only be undertaken by the Opposition itself.

The most crucial data in preparing for the election came in a poll by the local affiliate of an international polling giant commissioned by the LBO, published in the LMD and reproduced in the Daily FT. The data revealed that 95% of the citizenry regard the West as having double standards on human rights and 85% stand opposed to any external inquiry into Sri Lanka’s human rights record. This is far in excess of the percentage of Sinhala Buddhists in the island.

It is huge patriotic-nationalist ocean of opinion that the regime frolics in but has proven unable to fully utilise because of its poor performance in Geneva over the past three years. However, the enormously widespread nature of anti-external interventionist sentiment among the citizenry almost certainly puts paid to the prospect of a win by the UNP as it stands, given that its spokesperson Mr Lakshman Kiriella called upon Sri Lanka to cooperate with the OHCHR probe.

If Ranil Wickremesinghe or Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is the Opposition candidate, the margin of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory— the gap between Mahinda and either Ranil or CBK— will be roughly equivalent or even more than the percentage of the vote that either of them obtain. Right now the gap between Ranil’s UNP and Mahinda’s UPFA is larger than the percentage that the UNP has obtained.

While there is considerable disaffection within the SLFP at the glass ceiling imposed by the rigidification of clan-based rule, this disaffection is limited to the party’s barons; the old guard whose upward mobility has been unfairly blocked. Just as their grievances are, these barons cannot take their vote bases away from Mahinda Rajapaksa and switch them over to Chandrika Kumaratunga.

There is another quite salient factor which is swept under the rug by the pro-Chandrika ideologues and ‘intellectuals’. In her heyday CBK ran against and beat two of the weakest candidates the UNP ever put up: Mrs Srima Dissanaike who was not even a UNP member when she was pressed into service after the assassination of her husband Gamini Dissanaike by the Tigers (1994) and the incomparable Mr Wickremesinghe (1999). Even in her political prime — which is way past her— CBK never climbed into the ring with a candidate weighing in with as historic an achievement and as an organic a mass appeal as Mahinda Rajapaksa.

As for a Buddhist monk as an opponent of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the less said the better.

What happens if the Opposition gets it wrong and fields any one of these three non-starters against Mahinda? This brings us to the question: What is really at stake at this election? I submit that it is the margin of victory. Mahinda Rajapaksa will most probably win the upcoming presidential election and it is logical that he would do so. If the country gave two terms to CBK who signally failed to overcome the main challenge facing the nation, it is almost certain to give a third term to Mahinda Rajapaksa who did so. Personally I have no problem with that outcome, except that Mahinda Rajapaksa today is part of a package or a matrix— a ruling clan. To me Mahinda Rajapaksa (singular) is not the problem and is not even a problem— but The Rajapaksas (plural) are, and the perpetuation of their rule is.

If Mahinda wins by a handsome margin, he will in all probability purge the SLFP of dissident or suspected dissident elements, give nomination to those who are loyal to the Rajapaksa clan, thereby remaking the SLFP in the Rajapaksa image in a manner that secures the succession, and have a snap parliamentary election capitalising on the momentum of his own win. The ruling clan will secure a greater grip on the legislature than it has today.

If Ranil or CBK has been the Opposition candidate, the UNP’s defeat at the Presidential election will reduce its parliamentary representation by half the current, wholly inadequate number.

These facts, together with the greater grip that the ruling clan and its most hawkish member will have on the President himself, will almost certainly thwart the chances for re-opening of space and democratic reform. This means that the Sri Lankan state will be far less flexible, far more brittle and far less smartly resistant to external pressures from all quarters. The State will splinter at its North-Eastern periphery and the country will be divided. Repression and anarchy will war with each other in the South.

Thus the stakes cannot be higher than those at the coming elections of 2015. What is needed to prevent a catastrophe is a Hassan Rowhani type Opposition candidacy: a moderate patriot/nationalist i.e. a liberal or progressive Sinhala Buddhist.

Even today, only that subset of the Opposition with a patriotic profile and track record showed growth at the recently concluded provincial election: Sarath Fonseka’s DP, the JVP and Sajith Premadasa in Tissamaharama/Hambantota.

Though they will be very difficult to withstand, economic sanctions won’t bring the desired result for the West. In Iran it did because there was an election down the road. In Sri Lanka, a regime re-legitimised by electoral victories will crush economically driven street protests with an iron fist, on the pretext of preventing externally motivated regime change ( what used to be called ‘ destabilisation’ in the 1970s and ’80s).

The only thing that’s work to improve rather than worsen the situation is not economic sanctions but electoral competition.

What analysts and commentators have failed to grasp is that the provincial council results show something new in Sri Lanka’s political landscape: for the first time, the Opposition is multi-polar. To re-state it, the overall national situation is not dictatorial but uni-polar (‘one-party dominance’), while the Opposition has turned multi-polar. The reasons for national uni-polarity and Oppositional multi-polarity are the same—the electoral implosion of the opposition under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. If (a) the Opposition goes into the 2015 elections under the very leader who has caused the drastic degeneration of the UNP and the splintering of the opposition, or (b) if it fields Chandrika whom the UNP voters will not cast their ballots for and UNP grassroots workers will not work for, the regime and its oligarchic character will be strengthened at the two elections. If so the country will have a crash landing.

Let me take the bull by the horns. Who would be a Hassan Rowhani type candidate? President Rajapaksa retains the option of fully re-enfranchising Sarath Fonseka and tempting him into a ‘wild card’ candidacy or keeping him in the grey zone. In any case, Gen. Fonseka is hardly a moderate, liberal or progressive Sinhala Buddhist. Therefore I can think of only three possibilities: Sajith Premadasa (with Karu Jayasuriya as No 2), Karu Jayasuriya (with Sajith Premadasa as No 2), and Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

If Sajith and Karu deadlock each other and Ranil emerges the candidate with either one in support, then the country would be better served by rallying round an out-of-the box presidential candidacy from the Left Opposition: Anura Kumara Dissanayake. I regard him as a far more serious moral, ethical and ideological challenge to the Rajapaksa Raj, than Ranil, CBK or Reverend Sobitha.

If and only if there is a Hassan Rowhani-type candidacy, Mahinda will have a real race on his hands. If his margin of victory is whittled down, the dominoes will begin to fall at the parliamentary election. The two-thirds majority will be lost, opening the way for the reintroduction of the independent commissions and control of finances. The oligarchy can be dismantled through ‘salami tactics’. The resultant return of rationality and realism will resolve the crisis in Sri Lanka’s relations with its neighbours and the world.

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