By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“….doing violence to the spirit of thousands of laws without actually running afoul of so much as a city ordinance.”
— Kurt Vonnegut (The Sirens Of Titan)
The campaign to replace popular sovereignty with Rajapaksa sovereignty swung into top-gear last week. The regime announced that the Colombo Municipal Council and four other local authorities will be placed under the control of a new, unelected, entity: the Colombo Metropolitan Corporation.
The new CMC (selecting a title with the identical acronym is quintessential Rajapaksa; this way the new CMC can replace the old CMC effortlessly, initially on official documents and assets and eventually in the public mind) is to be vested with the powers enjoyed by the existing CMC et al, via a Parliamentary Act. While the unelected Corporation is thus empowered, the elected CMC et al will be left with trivia, such as authorising (or not) the “construction of a parapet wall, drainage line” etc. (The Sunday Observer – 27.3.2011).
Colombo Metropolitan Corporation will do to the CMC, Kotte MC, Dehiwala-Mt.Lavinia MC, Kolonnawa UC and Kotikawatta-Mulleriyawa PS (and Jana Sabhas will do to other local authorities and provincial councils) what the 18th Amendment did to the Independent Commissions – submit them to presidential control. This is how the Rajapaksas pursue absolute power – not by abolishing existing constitutional arrangements or institutions but by hollowing them out, rendering them impotent and void.
Under Rajapaksa Rule, Lankan democracy is becoming like a Hollywood film-set: all razzle-dazzle outside, empty inside; a massive edifice fronting for nothingness, a convincing illusion created to please the eye and deceive the mind, for a time. Sri Lanka will have regular elections for powerless entities; Sri Lankans will vote regularly to elect powerless representatives. This is democracy as ‘a stage’ with voters and elected representatives as actors. A ‘democracy’ which is democratic in the same way a ghost town is a town.
But even as they render Lankan democracy hollow and meaningless, the Rajapaksas will assiduously maintain its shell, caring for it attentively, so that the myth of a democratic Sri Lanka can be retained, and the odium of anti-democracy evaded, for a while.
Colombo Metropolitan Corporation is an archetypal Rajapaksa-solution to the problem that is the Colombo Municipal Council. The Rajapaksas know that they cannot win in Colombo city, without unleashing a tidal-wave of violence and malpractice – too gargantuan to be invisible, too blatant to be denied. Such an electoral fraud will cause far more bad publicity internationally than even the most expensive lobbying firm can wash away. It may also seriously impede the Rajapaksa desiderata of hosting the 2013 Commonwealth Summit and the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the family bastion of Hambantota.
And yet, the Rajapaksas cannot afford to let the UNP win the CMC at the next election — not only because of the symbolic value of the CMC. Losing its last politico-electoral bastion will make it almost impossible for the UNP to return to life from its current state of political-somnambulance. After all, the UNP’s long march from the humiliating defeat of 1970 to the historic victory of 1977 began in the CMC. A by-election was held for Suduwella ward in 1971. As B. Sirisena Cooray, who was the UNP’s candidate, reminisced, “Since this was to be the first by-election after the UNP’s massive defeat, the party was very keen to win it… I went house to house canvassing in the entire ward four times….. I also came up with a slogan for my poster which became very popular in the county later: ‘Unta Choon, Apata Chaan’ – ‘For them, all the fun; for us, the simple life’” (President Premadasa And I: Our Story).
The UNP won that election, proving that it was not dead, politico-electorally, as a triumphant UF government had claimed. The hard work and the enthusiasm of Colombo’s poor and underprivileged played a key role in many of the UNP’s subsequent campaigns of resistance. Depriving the UNP of this unfailing source of electoral support and political energy would be vital to the Rajapaksa project of Dynastic Rule.
Since its leadership woes are over, will the UNP focus on saving its final politico-electoral stronghold? Or will it get embroiled in another ludicrous controversy about who should be the new National Organiser? Incidentally, this confounding lack of interest in the fate of the UNP’s last stronghold is proof-positive that Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa are but two sides of the same counterfeit-coin. Neither can save the UNP because neither is interested in saving the UNP. That task may take many years and a new generation of leaders – if at all.
Political Autocracy; Developmental Despotism
The Rajapaksas have a grand developmental plan for Colombo — selling innumerable acres of prime real estate to foreign companies for uncountable dollars. Unfortunately, much of this land is occupied by Lankan citizens, who must be forcibly evicted from their homes, before their land can be occupied, ‘developed’ and sold. This mass-eviction would become easier, if the Rajapaksas (not the UNP) control the CMC. Incidentally the inhabitants of Mews Street, who were forcibly evicted on May 5, 2010, are still homeless, and have had to go to courts, seeking the promised alternate accommodation. “The Attorney General…informed the Supreme Court that houses are being constructed…” (Daily Mirror – 30.3.2011).
Colombo Metropolitan Corporation will enable the Rajapaksas to grab the powers of the CMC without having to win power in the CMC. An unelected governor appointed by the President will head the Corporation. A legislative council with an oppositional presence will be maintained to keep the myth of electoral sovereignty alive.
Under the new system, local authorities will exist without administrative decentralisation and provincial councils will exist without devolution of power. Plus parliamentarians will lose the power over their own decentralised budgets. Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, SLFPers and anti-SLFPers – all will be rendered powerless and placed at the mercy of the Rajapaksas.
The Ruling Family’s real aim is Rajapaksas supremacism; even Sinhala supremacism is a means to and a mantle for this ultimate end.
Currently the regime is making much of its continuing dialogue with the TNA about a political solution to the ethnic problem. This piece of cynical-theatre is identical to the ruse the government perpetrated prior to the 18th Amendment. Highly touted discussions were commenced with the UNP about a new constitution, while, surreptitiously, the 18th Amendment was being readied. Similarly, the Rajapaksas will string the TNA – and India – along, until time is apposite to unveil the new legislations.
The new system will marry developmental despotism to political autocracy, behind the façade of populism and direct democracy. This is the model of Sarath Fonseka and Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) enlarged to a national-scale — a new reward-punishment system, in which pro-Rajapaksaism is the greatest merit and anti-Rajapaksaism the ultimate sin. Lankans willing to submit to Rajapaksa-rule will prosper while those who refuse will suffer. Obey the Rajapaksas and live your life in peace: that will be the unexpressed but ubiquitous Faustian bargain premising normal everyday existence in this new Sri Lanka.
Such disempowerment will (further) alienate the minorities, immediately, and the majority eventually, but repressive laws and military might are there to take care of such malaises – in the name of patriotism!