President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who just lost the support of the Muslim political parties this week, is facing political isolation of an unprecedented character. Unfortunately for the President, he has neither a political manifesto to help him, nor clever political strategy to back him in this crisis. Political violence appears to be on the rise. And times have indeed changed; today it’s the regime that’s making all the blunders – the opposition only needs to sit and watch.
Amidst the maddening number of crossovers taking place, the release of the two manifestos by the two main candidates was the highlight of the past week. While manifestos are never trustworthy, they do reflect something of the character of the candidates, the strength of their alliances, as well as the political pulse of the people.
Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto is not one released by just another candidate; rather it’s that of a candidate whose popularity is palpably growing, whose voice is more confident, whose message sounds comparatively more sincere to the Southern voter. This is not only because he challenged the President for a public debate; a challenge which will never be accepted. It’s also because when compared with the President, it is Sirisena who has been able to portray himself as the ‘reformist’. His brief manifesto, its short and long term agendas, the 100-days programme with a timetable – all show that there is drive and purpose, however practical the programme may be. – See more at: http://www.dailymirror.lk/59999/manifestos-and-the-political-pulse#sthash.
The central theme that the manifesto appears to tackle is corruption, which has emerged as the dominant theme of this election. Even a recent online poll (conducted by CPA’s Social Indicator) proved this. Sirisena promises to take strong action against the corrupt, at all levels and tiers of government; to recognize the Commission on Bribery and Corruption under the Constitution and introduce the Right to Information Act (which will, inter alia, further help the citizens to fight corruption). The commitment to fight corruption was equally pronounced in the responses given by Maithripala Sirisena during a Business-forum held in Colombo, recently.
Another central issue is the abolition of the Executive Presidency (EP). Sirisena’s manifesto, while promising the abolition of that disastrous 18th Amendment (which re-introduced the notion of kingship to Sri Lanka), does not promise the total abolition of the EP; it only seeks to reform the EP. This position has been critiqued, even by some anti-regime critics who tend to have believed that this election was about a single-issue (i.e. abolition of EP) and that the abolition of the EP can be divorced from the broader issue of state reform. But this belief was misplaced: because this election was not about a single-issue; and more precisely, because to abolish the EP comprehensively and prevent the EP from re-emerging in a different guise means that one needs to also address the Tamil question. This link (between the EP and the ethnic question) was clearly drawn when the Sirisena-camp announced that under the reformed EP system, the executive powers over defence and the provincial councils (as per 13A) will remain with the new President.
Given this broader context, Sirisena’s pledge to reform the EP is no surprise. In fact, it’s a more genuine position to adopt rather than promising abolition of the EP and then re-introducing the same in a different guise. While this is not to suggest that little reforms are better, it’s simply to acknowledge that nothing more could have been expected anyway, that it was ‘reform’ not ‘abolition’ that was always going to be on the agenda as long as one remained silent on the ethnic question.
One of the more problematic aspects of the Sirisena-manifesto then, according to my own political convictions, is its inability to offer a solution to the most intractable issue in the country — the ethnic conflict. This reflects the poverty of contemporary Sri Lankan politics, and the inability of Southern politicians to effectively develop a discourse necessitating serious structural reform of the state, especially after the end of the war. This said, it would be wrong if the critics say that Sirisena will not guarantee the implementation of the (ineffective) 13th Amendment.
The nature of the political alliance he has created would ensure that the 13th Amendment is on the agenda, given also that regional and global powers operate within the framework of the 13th Amendment.
As regards the issue of inter-ethnic/religious harmony (especially, between the Sinhala-Buddhist and the Muslim peoples), the Sirisena-manifesto does suggest that there are ‘extremist religious sects’ operating on both sides of the divide. But in a passage that could be interpreted in many ways, the manifesto also states that the autocratic actions recently conducted by the Rajapaksa-family have been a disgrace to the religion and the country. This could well be an acknowledgment, not only of the car race held near the Dalada Maligawa, but also of the influence of groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
The Sirisena-manifesto appears to have been very much influenced by the JHU. This was clearly evident in the manner in which Patali Champika Ranawaka addressed the questions posed to him at the Satana programme (Sirasa), soon after the manifesto was launched. It’s a compromise the UNP would be comfortable with; for every party would know that coalition politics is anyway more complex after elections are held and won – the main task for now being the defeat of an oppressive regime.
On the other hand, President Rajapaksa’s manifesto is no doubt a detailed one, well written, with a vast array of political promises. But it has to be read in the context of the political setback he has faced and continues to face, as well as the mistrust shown by leading politicians within his own camp. That his campaign is operating under a confused state was clear when his manifesto was launched on the very day that postal voting began. Furthermore, coming after the launch of the Sirisena-manifesto, the Rajapaksa-camp only strengthened the sentiment that this was now a campaign which reacts to the rules of the game set by the opposition camp.
The manifesto, therefore, offers nothing new and lacks credibility. For example, the promise of a new constitution is not believable, given that it was the same leadership which passed the 18th Amendment and also failed to introduce reform when it had the 2/3rds majority (which it doesn’t, anymore). Another promise, of another investigation in case human rights violations have occurred during the war, defies meaning or logic, when a local investigation (the Paranagama Commission) is already underway. The manifesto also hopes to establish a special Mahinda Chinthana (MC) Secretariat which seeks to provide guidance on how to implement the MC-model, to those countries in the world which wish to realise developmental goals. One could have imagined the Defence Ministry setting out a similar policy, given the attention its forces have attracted from states and defence establishments after the war. But to promote an inconclusive and failed model to the world is downright hilarious.
Given some such policies, the President’s camp appears to have firmly decided that it’s not the manifesto that will guarantee its success. After all, the practice of this campaign suggests that it’s based on negative-advertising, the use of state resources, and conspiracy theories. It’s a campaign which basically asks its voters to close their eyes and conjure up the worst possible conspiracy or the worst possible situation the country could be in – and there you have the government’s slogan. This points to the fundamental problem engulfing the Rajapaksa-camp: the lack of credible political slogans and convincing responses to the critique developed by the Sirisena camp; for no promise made by the regime – be it on introducing constitutional reform, fighting corruption, minimizing costs, evolving a political solution, developing religious harmony, a new education policy, improving the public service, tackling the drug menace, etc – is believable.
In the above context, President Rajapaksa’s body language appears to be giving signals his voters and supporters didn’t expect. The event held to mark the launch of his manifesto – wherein a visibly tired and stressed President appeared to be in deep thought, surrounded by some disillusioned faces – was perhaps the worst possible advertisement to promote the manifesto. And as President Rajapaksa looks with deep suspicion, at those who promise him their undivided support today but suddenly decide to leave him tomorrow, he would have come to realize that he can only trust the little children who sing before him; not the confused men and women who surround him and proffer their advice, either in Cabinet, or over breakfast. He would of course know well that anything is possible in politics. But at this moment, Mahinda Rajapaksa – that most accurate reader of the Sinhala mindset – is not at his best.