Elections Must Move Sri Lanka from Personalised to System-Based Governance
COLOMBO: Elections in a democratic polity provide an opportunity to assess the mind of the people. They are superior in gauging public opinion in comparison to any opinion poll which is necessarily of a sample of society only. During the last phase of the election campaign, there were reports of opinion polls that showed a last minute surge for the opposition. This countered previous surveys that showed a comfortable lead for the government. These coexisted with still other surveys that claimed the opposite.
The choice of the electorate at this general election would provide an invaluable insight into the priorities of the Sri Lankan voter, especially whether they are moved more by emotion than by rationality. This applies both in the North as well as the South.
In the North, the main issue is whether the voters will support Tamil nationalism, and a confrontational posture against the government that is elected, or an accommodation with the government. The northern Tamil dominated electorate will have a choice of parties that are prepared to work with the government as well as those that are more geared to opt for confrontation and have the support of the separatist section of the Tamil Diaspora. Emotion might dictate confrontation but rationality suggests moderation, especially after the tragic experience of three decades of war. An indication of the strengthening of the post-war ethos of reconciliation is the entry into the electoral battle of rehabilitated LTTE cadre amongst whom the best known is a former bodyguard of the slain LTTE leader.
In the rest of the country, the main line of contestation is between the personality-based politics of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who has headed the opposition campaign on the one hand, and the good governance promise of those who governed the country for the past seven months on the other. A positive feature of the new order is the conduct of the elections by the election authorities. Unlike the presidential elections which took place under the former president’s government, there has been no significant abuse of either state resources or one-sided violence perpetrated against political opponents. Instead there has been a general observation of the election law by the contesting political parties and aspirants for parliamentary seats. These elections can be said to be the cleanest and fairest in a long time.
The predominant feature of these elections has been the deference given to rulings of the Election Commissioner by the government, contesting political parties and by the supporters of the political parties. There is no sense of a powerless Election Department struggling to cope with the excesses and violations of the government. On the contrary these elections have showed a real shift in power towards the elections commissioner who is not battling the government to ensure that the law was implemented. This was especially stark in relation to the election that preceded this, the presidential election of January 2015 in which violations of election law that involved the gross abuse and misuse of state resources took place on a large scale with impunity, including on Election Day itself.
The pasting of posters and displaying of cut outs was only permitted next to registered election offices and not anywhere the candidates wanted, as has been the case in the past. Election meetings could only be held with permission and at designated places only. There was no distribution of state resources as personalised gifts to voters on a large scale or any scale this time unlike at the presidential election. While this limited the scope of campaigning, there was also a level playing field, unlike in the past elections, when the opposition was routinely denied places where they could hold their election meetings. Due to the discipline imposed on political campaigning it was easy to forget that the country was in the midst of a hard fought election. It was mostly in front of the television that the passion and energy of the election campaign was manifest to the majority of the population.
However, there was a unique feature at this election that put the opposition into a disadvantageous situation. This was the antagonism between President Sirisena and former President Rajapaksa who led the opposition’s election campaign. This led the president to undermine the former president’s leadership on three separate occasions. The first occasion was shortly after nominations had been submitted when he said that regardless of the result of the elections, he would not appoint the former president as the prime minister. President Sirisena repeated this warning just prior to the end of the election campaign. He then followed up by sacking the two secretaries of the main opposition party and opposition coalition that he leads and replacing them with his confidantes.
There is a legal dispute regarding a party leader’s ability to sack a party secretary during the course of the election campaign. This matter is now before the court, and the court has asked the parties to come before it on August 24, which is a week after the election takes place. By then the new MPs will have been declared, and national list MPs too would be appointed, and decisions taken may not be easy to reverse. It can be argued that the president’s actions are not in keeping with the premises of good governance. On the other hand, the fact of an internal party struggle taking place during the election campaign, and finding expression it it, needs to be seen as part of the transition of Sri Lanka’s system of governance from a leader-centric one to a system-based one in which the rule of law prevails.
The political clash between the president and former president reflects the personality-based and leadership-centred politics in Sri Lanka that needs to be changed. The previous decade in which former president Mahinda Rajapaksa held sway was marked by the increased centralisation of power in the presidency. Centralised rule was initially justified on the basis of the need for rapid economic development in the 1970s and it was reinforced by the need to cope with the war in the 1990s. It reached its apogee in the last phase of the war under former president Rajapaksa and led to dismantling of democratic procedures to enable quick decisions to be made. Contracts for armaments were entered into without tenders being called and without transparency. Even worse decisions regarding life and death were made on the spot.
This explains why the recurrent theme of this election campaign, which was also seen at the presidential election earlier this year, was the issue of abuse of power, impunity and corruption. It is widely believed that the level of corruption in the country, and especially amongst politicians who hold positions of power, reached outrageous proportions. Dealing with the problem of corruption especially is going to be difficult. Corruption is embedded in political and administrative structures at all levels. The bond issue on which the new government committed to good governance stumbled so soon is an indication of the nature of the challenge for the future. As the preliminary inquiries by the government indicated, patterns set in the past continue to operate in the present.
At the election campaign, civil society activists conducted voter education campaigns that urged voters to choose candidates who were clean and not corrupt. If Sri Lanka is to evolve as a democracy, it needs parliamentarians who understand, and respect, the need for systems of government in which the corruption and political favouritism has no place. It will need leaders with an unwavering commitment to the rule of law. The voters have been so much disempowered by the political system over the past decades that they feel it is necessary to go to politicians to sort out their basic problems. It is easy for politicians to play god, and become abusive, if systems are not strong. The outcome of the election will show what path, and which leaders the people have chosen for the country. Much more will also need to be done to further educate the population to hold their leaders to account.