by Kumar David
A significant political development that has gained momentum this month is that a substantial and growing number of political organizations and individuals have begun to promote the candidacy of Ven. Maduluwewa Sobitha Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Kotte Naga Vihara, as a presidential challenger to Mahinda Rajapaksa. This was implicit (there was no explicit reference to a candidacy) at a meeting of the National Movement for Social Justice at the Colombo Public Library Hall on Wednesday 15 August. The meeting was well attended (the hall was full but not overflowing). General Fonseka and his stalwarts, UNP types mainly but not only from the among the dissidents, and several leftists like yours faithfully more out of curiosity than pledge, and a large contingent of Buddhist clergy made up the audience.
The podium was reserved for religious big-wigs including Buddhist high priests, two bishops (Chickera and Gomis) and one body each as token reps of the Hindu and Islamic creeds. No denying it was an impressive launch with upside potential.
The sixty-four thousand question is can he do it? Can Sobitha pull off victory where Fonseka flunked? Given the drought of credible alternatives to the incumbent whose popularity remains high, is Sobitha the best option, and more important, does he look like a winner? The second question first. I think Sobitha is a winner if two conditions can be met:-
a) He presents himself as a clear-cut single-issue candidate.
b) The UNP can be persuaded to drop counter bids and throw its weight behind him.
Both are doable and in the interests of several persons and parties, the UNP included, so my guess is that Sobitha’s candidature has better than even odds of materialising. However, I need to emphasise that unless both conditions are met, he will lose. A hundred other things can happen on the political and economic front between now and the next elections, so frankly all bets are off at this early stage. However a crucial point is that unless the Thero announces his candidature early, preferably now and as a single-issue aspirant, he will lose vital time.
A single-issue candidate
Sobitha, to rally the largest possible support, must present himself in the following frame: “I am contesting this election seeking a mandate to abolish the Executive Presidency (EP). Apart from that I have no political ambitions and will not attempt to run the country. Upon election I will set in motion the mechanism to abolish the EP – I will dissolve the then existing parliament if does not respect the mandate that the people give me. I will initiate procedures to replace the present dysfunctional mess by a genuine parliamentary system. I will ask the then existing or a fresh parliament, depending on circumstances, to function as a constituent assembly. Once these changes are in place I have no further political ambitions; I will get back to my temple and return to my religious duties”.
So it is clear what I mean by a single-issue candidate. It is a candidate who has no long-term ambitions to be a politician, but rather, focuses on one supremely important task. Such a candidate must not wish to hang on as president for even one term – actually that’s an oxymoron; once EP is abolished there will be no EP to hang on to – nor have prime ministerial ambitions for the subsequent phase. It is only a sharp well focussed bare minimum, single-issue program that can enthuse every section of the community. Take people like me, that is, leftists. A programme to run the economy, deal with the national question, foreign policy, reform the administration, and so on, well the good Thero and the left may have difficulty in finding a much common ground. But a one-shot, single-issue, task oriented abolish-the-EP strategy, will delight even the most sectarian leftists. What do they care what his ideology? What do they care if he likes socialist or capitalist economics? None of this matters in a one-issue task oriented front.
Taking the left as an example is not the best, but the same consideration applies to the minorities (more on that later), persons of other faiths, the UNP, the JVP, the Frontline, the Backline, (Can the Dead-Left which waxed so eloquent against the EP before it sold its soul, get time-off from its own funeral to attend?). Everybody who is fed-up with the EP and thinks the Eighteenth Amendment and this rotten regime is blight upon the country can unite for this single well targeted objective. The one-issue framework is a necessary condition for victory.
And there is another elemental consideration. Chandrika and Mahinda swore on all they held sacred (if anything) to abolish the EP as soon as elected and both turned out to be liars. There is a crucial difference with Sobitha; everyone I have met who knows him, is certain that if he says it, he will do it. He is that type of character I have been assured, which is a relief. In any case, having won on a single-issue mandate how on earth can he not implement it!
There is however a nagging worry. It has come to light that the actors behind his candidacy are drafting a 10-point programme. Oh so what’s that, is it a governmental and socio-economic programme? Ah so after winning the elections the Thero will stay on as president and implement the programme eh? Otherwise what’s the need for a governmental programme? Hmm shades of Chandrika and Mahinda! Perhaps the Thero will not bow out of politics but hopes to continue as prime minister (Executive Prime Minister!), lead a cabinet and enter governmental politics. Most unwise, most unwise; any suspicion of ambitions beyond the single-issue task will spell difficulty in gathering together an alliance.
I will withdraw my criticism if the other nine points pertain to the new constitution to replace the rotten JR Constitution as amended by MR. If the nine supplementary points are matters such as (a) the new parliamentary system, (b) separation of powers, (c) a bicameral legislature, (d) devolution, (e) protection of minority rights, and such like, directly flowing from the repeal of the present constitutional system, that would make sense. But not a governmental programme please; that will have to be mandated by fresh elections, after the new constitutional dispensation is in place.
The UNP’s febrile initiatives
The UNP it seems is building up former High Court Judge W. T. M. Warawewa along similar lines; by which I mean that both Sobitha and Warawewa are scorching, scathing, blistering in their indictment of this rotten, corrupt government.
“Today only rogues, thieves and drug lords and other dubious characters can dabble in politics”.
“There is no law in the country, people don’t trust the police. Any murderer or rogue affiliated to the ruling party is set free.”
“We could see that good governance, social justice, fairness and equality are fading away from Sri Lanka under the present political setup”.
“Today people have no right to information, and the Bribery Commission is defunct. These inactions have opened mass scale irregularities and malpractices in the country”.
Some of this was said by one and some by the other of the two putative candidates, it matters not. In so far as frying the regime is concerned both keep the oil scorching hot.
I have not met either contender but know a little about Sobitha’s politics since he has sometimes been in the news. I know absolutely nothing about Warawewa’s politics (the White Flag dissent, strictly speaking, is not politics) hence it is inappropriate for me to venture an opinion upon who personally is the better choice. What I will say is that Sobitha is much better known in the country and may be a better vote fetcher. And more important; I understand that Sobitha Thero is on record having made what I have called single-issue promises, but nowhere have I come across a single-issue type pronouncement from Judge Warawewa. If Warawewa intends to be a UNP programmatic candidate and not a clear-cut abolish-the-EP style one-issue contender, I can see many sections of the community not lining up with him. If it’s a three way run, it will be a one horse race with Mahinda romping home like Usain Bolt.
A word about the minorities who once imagined that a presidential system would afford them greater protection than a parliamentary system: the JR presidency and the last five years have proved that this is mythical. If a Sinhalese candidate collects 60% of the Sinhalese (75% of the population) vote he/she garners 45% of the national vote; a fraction more help from here and there (Upcountry, Muslims or Colombo Tamils) and victory is in the pocket. No, the minorities are in cloud cuckoo land if they wish to play off one part of the Sinhalese against the other and become king makers. History has proved them wrong at tragic cost. All Lanka’s minorities are better off in a parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature incorporating constitutional checks and balances.
Mursi defangs Egypt’s military
I wish to close my argument in favour of a resolute single-issue thrust with a reference to Egypt. In a bold and decisive move Egypt’s new president Mohammad Mursi dismissed the army’s three top commanders, annulled the decrees that the Supreme Military Council had adopted awarding itself overall control of the budget, constitution making and of itself (the president was not to be the supreme commander). He transformed the balance of forces in the country by asserting the supremacy of the elected civilian authorities – president and parliament. Timing, boldness and determination, this is the stuff of victory. A bold single-issue candidacy in Lanka can also achieve decisive changes.
From time to time it is necessary to support a compromise candidate for the purpose of defeating a dictator or a hardening autocrat. One may, or may not have much confidence in the government that such a figure may establish, but stalling a plunge to dictatorship circumvents a worse fate. I was impatient with so-called Egyptian revolutionaries who attempted to sabotage Mursi’s presidential election bid with a boycott, but fortunately the people of Egypt were less irrational and turned up in large numbers to defeat the military sponsored candidate Ahmad Shafi. Electing Mursi fulfilled an urgent need to defeat and dethrone the military dictatorship that ruled Egypt for decades but this does not imply that those who support this tactic support the government and programme that may unfold under Mursi. I think my point is unambiguously clear.