By Laksiri Fernando –
Dr. Laksiri Fernando
When people vote they do it on the basis of multitude of factors. These factors also might differ from parliamentary election to presidential election, or any other election. In the case of a presidential election, the candidate and his/her profile becomes crucially important among other factors. At any election, a voter first considers almost by instinct his or her interests. They are largely economic and then to a great extent ethnic, religious, class, caste or even local interests. In the case of minorities, ethnic or religious interests become prominent particularly in the present context of Sri Lanka.
On political or electoral matters, people build their own party affiliations or support in the long run, but they also can change under certain circumstances. The present SLFP crisis is the best example. In a maturing democracy, depending on education, economic status and availability of information, voters become increasingly independent. If the first category can be called party voters, the second category is the ‘floating voters.’ This second category at the moment can be considered 20 to 25 percent or even more. There are also new voters who might not have decided yet, even whether to vote or not.
What would the voters consider most before voting particularly at a presidential election? (1) The candidate and his/her profile, and the past and (2) the policies and promises put forward by the candidate. There are events influencing, such as the Ester terror attacks. Then security becomes an issue, and that should be addressed through policies and promises. Of course the party/organizations that back a candidate also become important. None of these happen in abstract or in a vacuum, but within the existing conditions. Therefore, if a candidate is from the existing government, and that government has not performed well, that undoubtedly goes against that candidate.
It would have been better if the forthcoming presidential election could have been considered as a ‘matter of fact’ or just part of democratic competition between political parties and personalities. It is still not good to exaggerate or picture a catastrophe, if the opposition candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins (except in the case of an election campaign!). It is not possible for anyone to become a ‘Hitler’ under the present circumstances, as the democratic foundations are fairly firm in the country. Whatever the weaknesses and defects, people should think positively, and negative thinking is not good for democratic sustainability.
However, if GR wins, there can be several reversals to democratic progress, and even the economy might be arbitrarily controlled. He is undoubtedly an authoritarian personality. Then all or most of the gains of the 2015 change would be lost. Press and media freedom might be first casualties. His authoritarian rule can be a particular disaster in ethnic and religious relations.
When all these factors are taken into consideration, defeating GR undoubtedly would be a democratic task. How can this best be done might be the question?
The 2015 change undoubtedly was a progress, whatever the weaknesses and betrayals. The political system became freer and the government-citizen relations more cordial. The family rule was ended, and that is what now trying to re-emerge due to those weaknesses. The following was what I said within two weeks.
“If there is any overall lesson from the Rajapaksa collapse, that is ‘not to abuse power or position.’ Although this lesson is loud and clear for anyone in politics, it is difficult to believe that they would readily follow, unless strict rules are in place.” (Colombo Telegraph, 21 January 2015).
I was particularly referring to ‘Code of Ethics’ and other measures for Ministers, MP’s and top public servants, preventing corruption and abuse of power. It never came into effect. Most of the weaknesses of the UNF-SLFP coalition government were due to inefficiency, both in the economic and political spheres, apart from trying to emulate ‘family rule’ with a ‘elite rule’ although not that successfully. Therefore the country should not be given any impression that those weaknesses would continue. That is one reason why Ranil Wickremesinghe should not be the common democratic candidate.
Pros and Cons of Candidates
At any election, the incumbent government has disadvantages. People always consider whether they themselves are better off than before. The gap that can emerge between people’s expectations and the delivery or achievements under any government can be high. Certain achievements in the sphere of individual freedoms or constitutional change may be dear to certain sections of the middle class. Although the ordinary people are not unmindful of those freedoms or changes, most dear to them are economic, educational, housing and social conditions.
Given those disadvantages from the government side, it would be unwise to put forward a person who has been very clearly identified with those weaknesses, not to speak of bond scams. The contesting candidate should show a determination for change and not to continue the past weaknesses. RW has been in politics for a very long time. He has exhausted his maximum potential. The new potential is for a young and a dynamic candidate who is willing to work as a team, taking ideas from colleagues, professionals and civil society. There should be a strong economic program with a clear security promise/determination.
There appears some other moves to put forward Karu Jayasuriya as the common democratic candidate (finally!) to abolish the executive presidential system (and then go home!). KJ is undoubtedly an untainted person, but simply too old and too exhausted. He should have been good at the last 2015 elections and that is what some suggested then. Other than that, the single issue of abolition of the presidential system might be a good recipe for democratic defeat this time. Jahan Perera (Colombo Telegraph, 16 September 2019) has clearly investigated this matter carefully. He has said very clearly that ‘Abolishing Executive Presidency is not a Viable Electoral Strategy.’ Although I usually don’t agree with him, his common sense and intelligence on this matter are highly appreciated.
Undoubtedly, Sajith Peremadasa also has some disadvantages as a common democratic candidate. Particularly on the national question he should listen more to the minority communities. However, his cautious policies without giving false promises might be better for the minority communities than what a person like RW promises but not deliver.
What Could Constitute a Winning Program?
A winning program should be positive, and not negative. A winning candidate should go beyond a single issue, but with a clear focus. Too many issues or ‘grand vision’ also can dilute attention and confuse the voters. This is mainly what happened to the Australian Labor Party in the federal election in May 2019 that they lost. GR already has this disadvantage with his flawed ‘grand vision.’
Even though the abolition issue was a positive slogan in 2015, it is no longer the case today. Under the present circumstances, defeating the opposition candidate is difficult given the poor performance of the government. That has to be admitted. Only possibility might be to effect a change within the existing, with a new dynamic face and with a new and a positive program. Some of the program pointers could be the following.
(1) To eliminate inefficiency, corruption and waste and revamp the economy.
(2) To deliver public services to the poor and the needy.
(3) To encourage the private sector and promise not to nationalize.
(4) To ensure peace in the country both through security and national harmony.
(5) To soon change the electoral system and give people a responsible MP for an electorate.
(6) To encourage youth and women for gainful employment and enterprises, irrespective of ethnicity and religion or any other distinction.
(7) To ensure and implement rule of law to all from top to bottom.
A common democratic candidate also could counter GR’s manifesto and ask the people:
(1) Do you need a family rule again?
(2) Do you really need a military man for security??
(3) Do you need to risk democracy and freedoms (speech and media) in the country?
(4) Do you need nationalizations or arbitrary takeover of property and land by the state?
(5) Do you need conflicts on ethnic and religious lines in the country again?
(6) Do you need control over your professional, academic and business life and serve a ruler?
(7) Do you need the suppression of trade unions and free associations in the name of discipline?