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Presidential Election 2015: The Issue Is Salvaging Democracy – Dr Saravanamuttu

[Sri Lanka: protest against 18th Amendment]

Sri Lanka is facing a crucial presidential election on January 8. Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the Executive Director of Centre for Policy Alternative (CPA), a well-reputed independent think tank in Colombo, will periodically be answering questions on issues pertaining to the political climate in Sri Lanka via our special segment – Sara Online. Readers could participate with their questions strictly on socio, economic and political situation in Sri Lanka and related development internationally. The questions could be sent in to [email protected]

Colombo Mirror (CM): Many people, especially the diplomatic community are talking about a regime change. Do you think January 8 presidential election can be described as an effort for a regime change in real sense? Or will it merely be a face changing exercise?

Dr Saravanamuttu (Sara): I do think the January 08th election is about regime change. For the first time in Sri Lankan politics, there is a rainbow coalition with the JHU at one end and the TNA at another that has come together under the banner of governance and anti- corruption, opposition to the dynastic project of the Rajapaksa regime and to its reinforcement by the constitutional dispensation of the executive presidency.

Dr Saravanamuttu
Dr Saravanamuttu

Having said that, there should be no let -up on the part of the polity and civil society to ensure that this coalition, were it to come to power, does not renege or dilute the promises and commitments made in the campaign. I do not think it will be a “face changing exercise” alone. In the ultimate analysis, it is the polity that will have to ensure that it is not.

CM: How does this election differ from the 2010 presidential poll during which the then popular Army Commander got the backing of all the opposition parties, including the TNA?

Sara: This election differs from 2010 in a number of respects. That election was held in the aftermath of the victory against the LTTE; this one five years later. This election is also the first in which the entire opposition is united against the incumbent – there are defections from within the ruling alliance and from within its key constituent party -and the first election in which an incumbent is seeking a third term.

Most importantly, this election will decide as to whether the country at large endorses the dynastic project with its populist, majoritarian triumphalism and over-prioritisation on state-centric economic development in which rights are considered irrelevant at best and subversive at worst. The deeper significance of the election for me is about salvaging democratic governance for all the peoples of Sri Lanka from the jaws of authoritarianism.

CM: The International Crisis Group recently expressed a strong fear that President Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers could resort to other means to retain power – such as the politically compliant Supreme Court to invalidate the result, or using the military as a last resort. How do you view this?

Sara: For many, myself included, it is difficult to imagine the Rajapaksas relinquishing office on the 9th of January consequent to a defeat at the polls. Therefore the genuine concern and speculation as to what could happen. I expect the use of the military to ensure a low turn -out in areas where there is a concentration of Tamil, Muslim and non- Sinhala Buddhist votes, especially in the North and East. We know what was done in the 2013 Northern Provincial Council election and in previous national elections. In particular, 2005.

I have said that this regime and the LTTE are the mirror image of each other in key respects and in this context hold to this view. I do believe, however, that if there is a solid and substantial swing in favour of the opposition, that it would be difficult for the regime to secure the support of public officials, military and police to reverse or invalidate its effect.

The last week of the campaign will therefore be crucial. The behaviour of the regime will provide an insight into its perception of its fate on the 8th. Were this to be adverse, egregious acts of violence to remind the polity of the centrality and pertinence of the Rajapaksa regime for the defeat of terrorism, cannot be ruled out.

CM: This is widely seen as a final chance to save the country from further anarchy. Still, except for the TNA and the UNP, all the other forces that are strongly backing Sirisena are the same people who had been solidly backing incumbent President Rajapaksa over the past nine years. These are the same people who backed the worst military onslaught on the Tamil civilians, rejected international war crime probe, terror campaign against the media, the creation of the 18th Amendment and the illegal impeachment of the CJ, and now shedding crocodile tears. In short, they were an essential component of the corrupted regime and family rule. Do you think they hold the necessary credibility and capabilities to deliver all what they promise?

Sara: Yes, this is a broad coalition that has come together ostensibly for democratic governance and as with all such groupings of this nature the actual reasons for doing so may differ and may not be as noble as made out. No denying the presence of the good, the bad and ugly as it were in any such grouping. I am as confident as I am hopeful at present, that the forces for democratic governance in this grouping will prevail. As I said earlier, the crucial guarantee of this is not the bona fides of the coalition but rather the vigilance of the polity.

CM: Sri Lanka had a bitter experience of government of co-habitation with the president (keeping the defence portfolio) from one party and the prime minister from the other. Mr Sirisena, who initially vowed on record to abolish the executive presidency, is now talking about clipping the sweeping powers of it. He has also said he would keep the Defence portfolio with him. The country which might get rid of Rajapaksa, could be heading towards yet another political turmoil. Your views on this please.

Sara: Disagree. The earlier exercise of co-habitation should not be trotted out to doom every other possible one to disaster. There is a 100 day programme and there will be a general election to follow and in any case by 2016, when the term of the current parliament expires. You refer to the stand on the executive presidency and the changes now mooted in respect of it. I too am disappointed. I would like to see abolition. However, any diminution of these powers is to be welcomed.

CM: The TNA, which was badly criticised for publicly supporting Sarath Fonseka’s candidacy in 2010, has declared an unconditional support for Maithripala Sirisena, who in turn has failed to utter a single word in his manifesto about the pressing issues either of their grievances including the search for justice, truth and accountability or the just political rights and aspirations of the Tamil people. Do you think their decision is politically justifiable and prudent?

Sara: The political calculation of the opposition in this election has been that Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot be defeated unless his apparent stranglehold on the majority Sinhala Buddhist constituency is broken and in particular, the SLFP vote as being illustrative of this. Hence the Maithripala Sirisena candidacy. The costs of this has been the silence on the national question, a political settlement and on accountability – here there is a rejection of any international mechanism – a rejection that is consistent with the political objective of breaking the Sinhala Buddhist vote and denying Mahinda Rajapaksa a monopoly of ” patriotism”, misconceived though this may be.

My understanding of the TNA position is that given the above and given the record of the Rajapaksa regime, restoration of democratic governance is a necessary but not sufficient condition for addressing the grievances and aspirations of the Tamil people. I agree with this position.

It is important that the Tamil people of Sri Lanka exercise their franchise as citizens of Sri Lanka. A Sirisena victory is certainly not a panacea in respect of addressing Tamil grievances and aspirations, but I am convinced that it will make for a more conducive environment for doing so than another Rajapaksa term.

CM: The independent Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) in a statement last week said both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and common opposition candidate Maithiripala Sirisena “have taken positions contrary to Tamil interests”, and therefore, explicitly calling for “a vote for either of the main candidate will be tantamount to accepting a unitary constitution and to rejecting international investigations”. Your take on this please!

Sara: My answer to your previous question is relevant here. I do not believe that the TNA position for instance is tantamount to accepting a unitary constitution and to rejecting international investigations. Politics entails the balance between upholding principle and pursuing the art of the possible in practice. Moving away and beyond the unitary state is a work in progress and not something amenable to linear progression – there will be setbacks and it must involve perseverance within a democratic framework.

International investigations will hinge on the Commission report to be released in March 2015 and will also require perseverance. At the same time, there are a host of issues on a daily basis that confront the Tamil people. All of this I believe will be helped, not in full measure or to the extent desired, but to some degree at least, by voting and voting for change on 08 Jan 2015

[Original heading: Military could be used to ensure low voter turn-out in NE: Sara]


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