A Difficult Choice Between Continuity And Change
By Jude Fernando
It may be the best of times, because the upcoming election offers us a “package of promises” from our presidential candidates, expanding at lightning speed as they compete to outperform each other, resulting in virtually identical campaigns. It is also the worst time, because we are overwhelmed, and have little guarantee that either candidate will fulfill his promises.
The candidates also levy charges of corruption and human rights abuses against each other – the same abuses they collectively denied during the war. For all their talk about uniting Sri Lankans behind a common purpose, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka are running a polarising general election campaign that cultivates fear, rather than debating the merits of their specific policies and their ability to enact them.
Since the beginning of the war, the pattern has been to hold an election immediately after every significant military victory over the LTTE, resulting in a distressingly militarised and undemocratic political culture that provides undue advantage to incumbents, while limiting opportunities for citizens to make informed and reflective choices. The fundamental issue we face is the institutionalisation of the rapid erosion of democratic institutions. The best outcome we can expect from the current election is that it will increase democratic space, buy us some time to shift current political culture, and eventually effect specific changes in domestic and national policies.
The choice between the two candidates seems easy in some respects, and extremely difficult in others. There does currently seem to be a certain clarity and consensus about a number of issues that have divided voters in the past. The majority of the voters are not worried about devolution of power – even the 13th Amendment is a distant dream. Neither are they very concerned about terrorism. Voters are complacent, equating peace with the absence of war, rather than acknowledging that cessation of hostilities is only a precondition for a just solution to conflict.
The two candidates have little incentive to offer a political solution because the victory over the LTTE has strengthened forces opposed to devolution and set back forces who seek peace with justice. The LTTE’s defeat has weakened the bargaining power of Tamil political parties.
Both candidates are committed to capitalist economic policies. The demands of the unholy trinity (WB, IMF, and WTO), coupled with our bankrupt economy, will prevent the government from reducing our cost of living or increasing investments in the public sector, unless the arrangements are friendly towards global capitalism. This means that democratisation (good governance) will be limited by the imperatives of capitalism and tolerate the suppression of dissent.
In the area of foreign policy, the candidates are constrained by Indian, Chinese and Western negotiations over the “best” policies for Sri Lanka. Two years of aggressive anti-Western bias in our foreign policy has opened a greater space for non-Western actors to increase their influence over the internal affairs of Sri Lanka in an unprecedented fashion, though it is less extensive than the influence of Western countries. Now that the war is over, anti-Western conspiracy theories will lose their power and become less useful for managing domestic and international affairs.
Transition to a stable political order will also be difficult because the respective coalitions have conflicting interests. Attempts to bolster the regime through patronage will increase the risk of destabilising the whole system, and will surely increase violence against so-called “soft targets.” We must not underestimate the enormous influence smaller political parties and interest groups have on government policy. The presence of the JVP in the UNF could stabilise the coalition if Fonseka is able to balance the demands of redistribution with demands for market-based growth, minus corruption. The opposite could happen if Fonseka fails and if the JVP’s intention is to destabilise the government in order to capture state power.
One could argue that as an independent candidate, Fonseka would not be beholden to any political party or interest group. Such autonomy, coupled with a lack of political legacy could be a blessing in disguise. At the same time, the lack of a broad political base and experience in civilian administration could make him more vulnerable to compromises. The extent to which the candidates will reduce the powers of the executive presidency depends on their vulnerability to the demands of their respective coalitions and neoliberal institutions.
Preserving the status quo is unacceptable and would be disastrous for the future. It would legitimise those responsible for current crises and absolve them from blame. The majority of current economic and political crises simply cannot be explained in the limited terminology of “terrorism” that dominates political discourse in this administration, and we voters have no obligation to reward the current regime by re-electing the President. Re-electing the UPFA would allow institutionalized nepotism and patronage to continue unchallenged, at a level unprecedented in the political history of our country, further constraining the space for democracy and progress.
The widely publicised claim that Rajapaksa is a “tin-pot dictator” is based on his four-year legacy of governance. The counter claim that Fonseka is a “traitor” is based on his oft-quoted statement to The Sunday Leader. But the label of ‘traitor’ should apply to all those who betray the country through outrageous abuses of power and public resources, and the failure to live up to promises. The entire country has sacrificed for the war in manifold ways, and everyone should be rewarded for his or her sacrifice, not just a privileged few. Our collective reward should be a better future, not an extension of gratitude for past achievements; it most certainly should not be limited to defeating the LTTE. In this regard, the choice between Rajapaksa and Fonseka is difficult because we have no guarantees or confidence in the winner’s actions after he takes power.
The war was a result of political failures on all sides and there is no evidence that a re-elected Rajapaksa Government would pursue effective policies to correct them.
Former Chief Justice Sarath Silva, in a recent interview with Daily Mirror, noted that “although the war was concluded, no improvements were evident in the areas of human rights, governance, and any solution to the ethnic conflict. For the first time in the country’s history, this government has insulted the Court by defying its orders. The powers of the current President have ballooned to the extent that they cover virtually all areas of life. Holding him accountable to law and order is impossible, as there are no checks and balances. People remain alienated from the government and public services. This is not democracy.”
If the excesses of the LTTE justified the war against it, then the excesses of the current regime do not qualify it to continue. Our choice at the next election is difficult because it is a decision between penalising the candidates for the evil they have already done, and believing their respective promises to do better in the future. Perhaps we should do a bit of both.
Some claim that a Fonseka presidency could lead to an “invitation for foreign interference, manipulation and influence in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka never experienced before.” In their eyes Fonseka has “dual loyalties,” because he is a Green Card holder of the United States, but this is far too simplistic an understanding. There are many permanent residents and dual-citizens of the United States in the current ruling party, and the country’s vulnerability to international interference does not depend on a single individual possessing such a mild form of dual identity – the mere right to live and work on foreign soil.
There is fear that Fonseka’s candidacy has re-awakened international interest in investigating war crimes, but the international probe has been ongoing. Internationally, references to Fonseka’s statement are incidental and do not make a difference in UN and ICC proceedings. Charges levied against Fonseka distract from the fact that the Rajapaksa government has so far failed to defuse the international community’s interests in war crime investigations and penalties for human rights abuses.
It is unlikely that the international community has an exclusive preference for one candidate in this race, and whoever is elected may have to address the concerns of the UN and the international courts. International wrath has descended on Sri Lanka due to the current administration’s injustices and inconsistencies in applying rule of law, and the failure of the government to conduct effective investigations into human rights abuses, leaving perpetrators unpunished. It is worth noting that the current government would benefit if the international community, irked by the continued rejection of UN allegations about the authenticity of the infamous tape, formed a tribunal against Sri Lanka and directly implicated Fonseka.
The fear of rapid militarisation of the society under Fonseka is unfounded. Rajapaksa is as likely as Fonseka to continue to expand the role of the military in civilian affairs; remember that the militarisation of our society began with decisions made by our civilian leaders. The reason for militarisation is the erosion of democracy under the ruling party. World history provides examples of ex-military commanders elected to civilian office. Some of them expanded economic development without corruption and violence, insulated economic decision-making from unproductive political interference, guaranteed general social safety networks, and implemented law and order in civilian affairs. Can Fonseka do this better than Rajapaksa? The answer is: we do not know. What we do know is that Rajapaksa has been tried, and his performance has been less than satisfactory.
Whether or not Fonseka can win, if we work to increase the number of votes he receives, we can hope for a stronger opposition in the future, and we can successfully expand the space for democracy. We can make it more likely that one day we will be able to hold the ruling party accountable, and we can exert pressure to make the next general election more just and fair.