2nd December  2001, Volume 8, Issue 20















Ranil's task

If the pollsters tell us true, there is a widespread expectation that Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance government will be overthrown in the coming week. Everyone seems to have a pet prediction of the outcome, and in each case it is prefaced by the same proviso: 'depending on the rigging'. Rigging elections have become such a way of life in Chandrika Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka that an upset victory has always to be by a margin sufficiently large to overcome this untoward factor.

This year we have an additional undertaking from Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake that should there be evidence of ballot stuffing in any polling booth, he reserves the right to disallow the count from that booth and order a fresh poll a week hence. With the European Union election monitors staring over his shoulder (hopefully to do a better job than they did in October 2000), he will have to keep his word. Clearly, the commissioner's independence is irksome to many in the PA. Last week, several senior ministers took the unprecedented step of writing to Kumaratunga, asking her to remove the commissioner. To drive their point home, the President passed the letter on to Dissanayake for his comments. A less veiled threat could scarcely have been made.

In addition to the pressure on the commissioner, the level of violence too, has reached unprecedented levels: the death toll now exceeds twelve, a record even by the standards of the eleven elections conducted under the PA government since 1994. The PA and LTTE have both taken their toll on UNF party organisers and supporters, though after seven years of violence, calumny and invective hurled against it, the opposition's resilience too, seems to have grown. Despite Kumaratunga's malicious, criminally outrageous 'eye for an eye' rhetoric, the opposition has fought on unbowed. This is an election that was forced on Kumaratunga against severe odds, and the opposition knows full well that if it fails this time, it will be many years before the PA can again be brought to book.

An opposition victory next Thursday however, is no cause for great rejoicing. The country is in a terrible mess, with the economy in the pits, and unemployment and the cost of living at all-time highs. Unlike in 1977, this time there are no quick fixes. The task before J. R. Jayewardene in 1977 was not nearly as daunting as that before Ranil Wickremesinghe today. Seven years of Sirimavo Bandaranaike's insular, restrictive and leftist policies were relatively easy to erase simply by opening the doors to investment and liberalising the economy. Kumaratunga however, has worked within a liberal economy and driven it into the ground through mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption. Picking up the pieces from there is a very different matter altogether.

Notwithstanding that, Wickremesinghe's first task in office will be neither peace nor the economy: it will be neutralising Kumaratunga. The legacy of evil that Kumaratunga has left behind is so rich that she is driven to defend her turf with all the tenacity she can muster. This is in part the genesis of her evil rhetoric in recent days, with talk of murders, plots and killing, and getting rid of the elections commissioner. Here is a despot who has gone off the rails and can think of no democratic device by which she can hold on to power.

The UNF knows this full well at grass-roots level. It would be a mistake however, for it to vent its frustration with Kumaratunga against the PA at large. The election violence that followed J. R. Jayewardene's upset victory over Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1977 was to live with the UNP for its entire 17 years in office. Kumaratunga still refers to this, embellishing her tale with all the bells and whistles that come to her fertile imagination at any given time. Ranil Wickremesinghe's first task is to ensure, using all the authority at his command, that there is no violence after the outcome of this election is known. Sri Lanka has seen enough bloodletting thanks to seven years of government-inspired violence and a cruel separatist war. This is no time for brothers to kill one another, however estranged they may be.

A hallmark of the Kumaratunga regime has been retrospection: the president continues to look back and not ahead. She draws her inspiration more from the nightmares she perceives in the past and not a living, breathing vision for the future. In her first four years in office, she was obsessed with persecuting her perceived political foes through a series of politically inspired, maliciously motivated commissions of inquiry. Each one of these was designed simply to harass her imagined opponents and not to deliver truth or justice. In short, she was merely giving vent to malice and vindictiveness she was ill equipped to conceal. During the last few years, she has run out of topics on which to appoint commissions. The commissions on the 1994 elections 'coup', Batalanda, Vijaya Kumaratunga, Kobbekaduwa and Lalith Athulathmudali have all run their course and come up with nought. What is more, the distraction she hoped these would offer the electorate against the signal lack of progress her government was making also failed to materialise. In short, her commissions laid a resounding egg.

It would be a grave mistake for Ranil Wickremesinghe to follow suit. In the event of a UNF victory next Wednesday, he must cast aside the cupboards-full of IOUs he and his party have accumulated through Kumaratunga's slights, malice and ill-will. This is no time for looking back. The people of this country expect results, and right quickly, too. Of course, there have been serious crimes committed against the state and its people by the Kumaratunga administration. We have often said that this has been the most corrupt government ever to hold office in Sri Lanka. We have with responsibility referred to Kumaratunga herself as an evil and malevolent person. However, the remedies for these iniquities do not lie in commissions and politically inspired vendettas. They lie with the courts of justice, and justice must be administered according to the law of the land according to due process, without political steering. If Kumaratunga and her cronies must face the law, they should face it without any machination by the government in office.

If Wickremesinghe can bring himself to do these things, and set an example to the people of Sri Lanka that he has risen above cheap politics and point-scoring, he will have no trouble in earning the respect of all those with whom he needs to parley in order to bring about a lasting peace. The negotiations he will have to embark upon with the LTTE are not a purely objective process: he will have to lead by example, and in order to erase the wealth of suspicion that has been engendered these past eighteen years, he will have to show almost superhuman qualities: reliability, patriotism, benevolence, introspection, charity and indeed, mercy. The nation demands nothing less, for opportunities such as those that present themselves to us at this moment come rarely.

In Wickremesinghe, the hour has produced the man. He must feel as if he were walking with destiny and that all his life must have been but a preparation for the trial he is about to endure. Inheriting the prime ministership, while cause for rejoicing, is hardly cause for lighting crackers, beating drums and dancing in the street. The task that is ahead of him is almost superhuman and failure can come all too easily not just from outside, but also from within. He has to ensure a squeaky clean administration and not tolerate excess by any of his ministers. This is not a time for indulging in bribes, or for that matter in BMWs. The people of Sri Lanka are tired of lies, damned lies and excuses; the charismatic smiles no longer impress. The time has come for results, and Wickremesinghe had better gird his loins and set to work right speedily. Sri Lanka has waited patiently for 53 years since independence and its patience is fast running out.




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