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2015: Year of awakening

| The Sunday Times , Colombo - Editorial

( January 4, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In four days’ time, 14.5 million registered voters are entitled to trek to the polling booth allotted to them and cast their vote for the Chief Executive of the Republic; half a million having already done so by postal voting. That this country still has the choice of the ballot over the bullet in choosing governments is a blessing now taken for granted. Many people around the world yearn for this right and are prepared to die for it.

“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with an average voter” said Sir Winston Churchill who was deeply ambivalent about democracy. Having won a world war, he lost an election. Then, he added; “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

Last time round in 2010, the elections were flawed. The then Elections Commissioner complained in public in his first post-election media conference of “unbearable pressure” being brought upon him, but he never disclosed what that pressure was. He meekly issued his certificate that the election was “successfully conducted”, declared a winner, and slipped into retirement shortly thereafter. It left a bad taste on the fruits of victory for the incumbent President who otherwise handsomely won a second term.
In Sri Lanka’s rural areas, the cost of living and unemployment remain high on the voter’s agenda, but in more urban areas of the country, the debate, inter-alia, is the choice of the system of government. The Executive Presidency that we have had for 36 years is the subject of this debate. Its proponents argue in favour of the stability it offers – and cite countries which have economically developed through that system while its detractors point out to the authoritarianism it breeds.

We have been fond of quoting the wise old poet of yore who said “for forms of government let fools contest; that which is best administered is best”. We have seen parliamentary dictatorships no less authoritarian than presidential dictatorships.

A good statesman will be a good advertisement for an Executive Presidency and likewise, a bad politician, a bad example. The one thing that is undisputed is that it is partisan; it tilts heavily towards the ruling party against others, thus dividing the country. The Head of State must be an apolitical figure who can unite the nation and all Sri Lankans when in trouble – even if the Head of Government could be a political person. And, with no checks and balances like those that exist in other Executive Presidencies, there is credence in the theory that such a system drifts towards one-party; one-man or woman rule.

The choice before the people of Sri Lanka on Thursday is for more of the same; or the ‘same difference’ (in that pillows are merely being changed for the same headache) or for the uncharted waters of a new coalition. As in most cases, it’s a difficult choice for many, but it is a call they will have to make nevertheless next Thursday. The job at stake is that of the President of the Republic, after all, and to which candidate the mandate of the majority will be given to govern this country for the next six years.

The voting public has been overfed on half-truths, lies, deception, propaganda, misinformation, and undeliverable promises by both sides competing to outdo the other to hoodwink the people. They have built “a castle of dreams in 2014; 2015 could be the year of awakening” as an Indian political commentator wrote on the similar political canvas in his country as well.

The President’s campaign is on the “stability, development and nationalism” plank as opposed to those seeking his ouster from office with a multi-pronged attack on “autocracy, nepotism, crony capitalism and majoritarian rule”.

As is often the case in such elections, the choice before many voters is whether to close their nose and vote for the Government, or close their eyes and vote for the Opposition; a case of voting for the known devil or the unknown angel.

The fact that this election has been called two years earlier than scheduled, and then the date for polling fixed on the now well-known advice of the Presidential soothsayer must not be the case in a modern democracy.

All constituent parties must agree to fixed dates, like in the United States of America for any national election; and not for an incumbent to indulge in mathematical gymnastics that disrupt the life of its citizens and leave the entire country working out the calculations about the period of his term of office, when it starts, when it ends, and which term he is serving.

From all accounts, Thursday’s election will not be a ‘walk in the park’, so to say for either of the two main presidential candidates. The incumbent has anti-incumbency weighed against him, and a growing public perception that two terms are sufficient for any president with such enormous powers at his command. On the other hand, the Opposition is disorganised, a motley collection of ‘has-beens’ and ‘wannabes’. On both sides are politicians disgruntled with their own leaders and engaged in back-stabbing. The battle is clearly; Mahinda Rajapaksa versus The Rest.

Last time round in 2010, the elections were flawed. The then Elections Commissioner complained in public in his first post-election media conference of “unbearable pressure” being brought upon him, but he never disclosed what that pressure was. He meekly issued his certificate that the election was “successfully conducted”, declared a winner, and slipped into retirement shortly thereafter. It left a bad taste on the fruits of victory for the incumbent President who otherwise handsomely won a second term.

Mercifully, the country was spared a test of brinkmanship that could have seen the Armed Forces loyal to the opposing sides of the political divide, eyeball to eyeball on the streets of the capital and a period of tension, uncertainty and chaos. The Government that won a second term moved swiftly into action to take control, diffuse the situation and purge senior officers in the tri-services and the Police whom they suspected were disloyal to the ruling party. We just hope that there will be no replay of such a scenario and the verdict of the people from a free vote will be honoured by all concerned, victor and vanquished alike. The Election Commissioner has a huge responsibility to declare a legitimate winner.

We have heard some interesting pronouncements during this campaign, but none so astounding as that by the cabinet minister who said that those in the present Government have had their fill at the table (in power) and there’s no more room in their fat bellies, while opposition members are merely waiting to come to the table and salivating as they are, waiting to fill their own starving stomachs. While what he said does have a ring of truth to it, it shows the depths to which politics has sunk in Sri Lanka.

We have not had the benefit of a debate between the two main candidates, and the traditional TV broadcast to the nation aired at the allocated time went largely un-noticed. And so, we can only wish 2015 will be ushered in with Sri Lanka’s long and cherished democracy tag intact, and not in tatters. And may, then, the best man win.

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