President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s call to Tamil voters during a rally in the North this week to vote for the ‘known devil’ is typical of the unabashedly unapologetic tone of his election campaign. After four years of relentlessly rolling back Sri Lanka’s constitutional freedoms and the Rule of Law, much needed humility would have been well in order on the part of this Presidency.
Instead, what we have are arrogant, brash and let it be clearly said, foolish boasts. Even at the bare minimum, the focus is not, (borrowing from opposing candidate Maithripala Sirisena’s theme), on confession of past mistakes coupled with promises of redress.
Calling for governmental sanity
What are the actions of this ‘known devil’ that the Tamils are supposed to welcome back for a third term? Is it that thousands of civilians were herded together during the end of the war? The fact that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) exposed the Tamil people to this horrendous plight scarcely detracts from state responsibility in this regard.
Or is it that post-war, many Tamils remain locked up without charges under anti-terrorism laws despite frantic pleas to be either released or brought before a court of law? Then again, perhaps it is that lands of the war displaced were acquired for building opulent hotels for the benefit of a favoured few? If this is what the ‘known devil’ does, could any other alternative be more ‘devilish?’
Surely, even after all the signs to the contrary in recent Northern provincial elections, the Rajapaksa Presidency cannot think sensibly that merely bringing train services back and building an expressway to the Jaffna peninsula can win the hearts and minds of grievously wronged Tamil citizens?
Impact on the Southern debates
Moreover the Tamil National Alliance’s well positioned support for the South’s call for restoration of the Rule of Law has punctured the Government’s enthusiastic claim that elected minority representatives are advocating separatism. Thus in a most welcome development, we see questioning of this divisive and deadly propaganda refrain in Southern political debates by Sinhala journalists, dramatists, artists and academics for the first time since 2009.
Indeed the appeal by President Rajapaksa to vote for the ‘known devil’ has little resonance in the South as well. Juggernaut-type violations of the law, hourly attacks on the opposition’s rallies, campaign offices and supporters continue even as the Government abuses state resources wholesale. This Friday’s stoning of a well attended Sirisena rally in Pelmadulla is an excellent case in point. But systemic attacks on the opposition only results in more sympathy for a ‘Maithri’ government which a dangerously unstable Government appears not to recognize. Its mindless propaganda includes for example, a sickening advertisement featuring caricatures of Sirisena frontliners cackling over a fire rather like the ancient witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth while a figure in the flag of the United States swoops down on the gold. Yet another advertisement uses disabled soldiers to solicit votes blissfully disregarding the fact that the war disabled had to get onto the streets recently to obtain their due entitlements.
Such cheap gimmicks insults the citizenry as much as when an Indian film actor is paraded to prominently praise the President and strut on a podium with the President’s son while anti-government local artistes are mercilessly kicked. The opposition’s frequent derision of these basic contradictions in electoral strategy can only strike a sympathetic chord. This is what the Government should recognize without relying on its state media hacks and sycophants.
Voting for the opposition with eyes open
On the other hand, the opposition has been equivocal on the abolition of the Executive Presidency and is silent on minority concerns. Maithripala Sirisena’s frank identification of himself as a Sinhala speaking farmer from Polonnaruwa not transfixed by power, prestige or greed and his promise to bring back clean governance awakens recollections of the best of rural Buddhist Sri Lanka. Having said this however, cynicism remains in regard to his far from angelic associates. For instance, the Jathika Hela Urumaya and former government parliamentarians (Liberal, Muslim or otherwise) played a significant part in undermining the 17th Amendment even though they may now shout hoarsely to the contrary.
I recall vividly a heated conversation with one such crossover some years ago in Hulftsdorp when the Government’s throwing aside of the 17th Amendment was justified as being ‘necessary’ for political purposes. These same parliamentarians moreover raised their hand for the 18th Amendment and shamelessly voted for the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. Where were the conscientious objectors then?
Neither does the (intermittent) presence of others on the opposition platform serve to reassure us. Ex-Chief Justice Sarath Silva has thought it fit to raise one of his innumerable legal points recently, this time on the vulnerability of President Rajapaksa to impeachment if he is re-elected. But for the determination of this or any legal issue, we need an independent judiciary. What is the public trust placed in the Supreme Court tasked with looking into challenges? This ex-Chief Justice needs therefore to take a moment to reflect on the sordid political controversies that besieged his Court under the Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa presidencies which set the judiciary well on its way to its eventual decline.
Expectations of a different future
In the final result, days before this pivotal Presidential election, we are faced with an unenviable choice between a regime gone mad and a collection of crossovers repenting for past sins. The Government’s voter base will depend on recipients of the ‘patronage Presidency’ and those laboring under the illusion of gratefulness for post-war ‘peace.’ The opposition vote will be propelled by citizens who desperately want change to bring about social justice and the freeing up of democratic space. The one saving grace in this regard is opposition contender Maithripala Sirisena himself whose deft handling of the election podium and measured tolerance despite grave provocation and deadly attacks evokes praise.
Yet the spirit of collective resistance that is so clearly evidenced now in the Sinhalese polity should be continued post January polls regardless of whoever comes to power. Assuredly this demand, above all, is crucial.