| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena
Courtesy: the Sunday Times

( November 23, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Four short years ago, it would have seemed quite unbelievable that esoteric concepts such as ‘an independent judiciary,’ ‘the Rule of Law, ‘the 17th Amendment’ and ‘abolition of the Executive Presidency’ would be tripping off the tongues of Sri Lanka’s citizenry, from a humble tea kiosk owner in an obscure corner off Pilimatalawa to a rural school principal in Mahiyangana.

Launching a full frontal attack

At that time, the Rajapaksa Presidency’s 18th Amendment enthroning an already powerful Executive Presidency was accomplished by a pliant Supreme Court with protests therein confined to a few solitary voices. The general citizenry, as it were, remained blissfully untroubled by these sophisticated goings-on in the far-away capital.

And amongst the so-called intelligentsia, (if Sri Lanka ever possessed such a class), extreme myopia prevailed. Indeed, some opined, notwithstanding the profound perversity of this sentiment, that a ‘little bit of authoritarianism’ would be good for the country. Certainly the ruinous impact of this thinking could not have become more evident in the years that followed.

This week, as the shock breakaway of formidable sections of the old-guard Sri Lanka Freedom Party from ‘Raja-pakshaya’ dominance, led by none other than the now deposed General Secretary of the Party, Minneriya’s Maithripala Sirisena transfixed the nation, we have come full circle. At this group’s first press conference on Friday, a full frontal attack was launched on the Rajapaksa capture of Sri Lanka’s democratic process, including the judiciary, the police, the public service and electoral mechanisms. An unequivocal promise to restore the 17th Amendment and abolish the Executive Presidency was made with definitive time limits.

Adopting practical electoral strategies

This momentum follows the surprisingly commendable approach adopted by the United National Party during the past month where it refused to engage in futile debates regarding the constitutionality of a Rajapaksa Presidential third term which had many of Colombo’s effete legal pundits chasing their own tails in wild confusion.

The self–evident absurdity of pontifications on constitutional matters in the absence of an independent Sri Lankan judiciary to adjudicate on such questions was discussed in these column spaces previously. But even apart from this, the danger in giving undue prominence to this question was apparent in the message being conveyed through state propaganda channels that these legal tricks were being resorted to as no opposition challenger was strong enough to contest the incumbent President.

Thankfully however, the thrust of the combined opposition gathering force against the Rajapaksa regime appears to be focusing on infinitely more practical electoral strategies as evidenced this Friday. It was predicted in these column spaces a few weeks ago that apologies and more apologies will be forthcoming from those who now see the error of their ways. This time around, we witnessed heartfelt apologies by erstwhile Minster Rajitha Senaratne for acquiescing in the enactment of the 18th Amendment. More ‘mea culpas’ will certainly follow, one would assume.

The angry discomfiture of the Government

Regardless, while the Rajapaksa Government and its various hysterical minions in the state media may scoff at the sight of the SLFP’s own General Secretary breaking away to contest the President as the common candidate of the opposition (including the United National Party), it is not difficult to read the exceedingly angry discomfiture underlying its reactions.

The point is not only that the opposition to the Rajapaksa regime has been situated in the person of a seasoned politician from the North Central Province with demonstrably strong rural backing and untainted party loyalty but also that the focus has been clearly identified as going beyond the interests of one political party alone. So for those who may ask petulantly as to why Maithripala Sirisena cannot come forward without aligning himself with the opposition, the answer is simple. As fragile as this consensus may be currently, what we have fairly and squarely is an emphasis on national interests instead of political game playing. This is undoubtedly creditable.

And if Friday is to be any indication, the combined opposition is successfully making that difficult link between complicated questions of the Rule of Law and the ordinary Sri Lankan’s yearning for a better life. This invokes cautious optimism. Unlike the Indian constitutional experiment where fierce public pressure emboldened the legal elite to rise above petty concerns, Sri Lanka faced vastly different realities. The degradation of our constitutional systems by a cynical few was brought about in the face of public inaction. The awakening of the electorate to these matters is therefore an extraordinarily welcome transformation.

Providing a realistic democratic alternative 

Presently Sri Lanka experiences our worst democratic crisis since independence. As our systems implode under the sheer weight of unprecedentedly corrupt rule, we have carelessly squandered away a reservoir of international goodwill earlier evidenced even in the most difficult of times. We now conjure up, not the struggle of a small country fighting for its democratic existence against all odds but crudeness, crassness and savagery on the part of the majority peoples. These images need to be transformed.

In 2010, when the Presidential election was held between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, the mantra favoured by some was ‘better the devil that we know rather than the (possible) angel that we do not know.’ Now, we face yet another Presidential election well before its due time due to the political exigencies of a regime on the defensive. In this scenario, chants of devils and angels have lost all practical meaning.

Granted, it is far too early to point to the political convulsions evidenced this week as a harbinger of the sustained systemic change that we need to see. But they provide the first signs of a viable political challenge to this barbaric regime. The priority for the combined opposition will therefore be to provide a realistically democratic alternative which finds resonance both with the majority and the minorities. Concerned Sri Lankans can only applaud these efforts for the greater good of the country and brace themselves for the inevitable violence that will follow.

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