Until President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared his intention by proclamation, to hold an early presidential election on November 20, a day after he completed four years of his current term, the Opposition seemed to be struggling to find a common candidate for the presidential election that was unofficially announced at the time.
However, the Opposition had been so secretive that even the government’s intelligence apparatuses seemed to have been caught on the wrong foot. The Opposition had by then chosen its common candidate from within the Government’s top rank itself.
Maithripala Sirisena, while being the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Rajapaksa and Health Minister in the Rajapaksa Government announced his policies and plans as the common opposition candidate on November 21. During his first media conference he said he would appoint Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as his Prime Minister and abolish the controversial executive presidency within 100 days of his election as President on January 8, next year.
Accusing President Rajapaksa of running an administrative and financial dictatorship through the executive presidency, he said the 18th Amendment that had done away with the democratic institutions such as the independent commissions would be replaced with the 17th Amendment and those commissions re-instated.
The main allegation of the Opposition and of its common candidate is that the Government is treading a dictatorial path. They accuse President Rajapaksa of not keeping his promises, especially the abolition of the executive Presidency. They also charge that ministers have been deprived of their powers making them puppets of the President and that the entire economy was being handled like something that belonged to the ruling family.
These are not just empty rhetoric but rather serious allegations which the Government leaders have to answer. However, they seem to be careful not to go deep into these policy matters, but are rather bent on ridiculing the Opposition.
They poke fun at the Opposition’s common candidate saying that he would become a figurehead after he fulfilled his main promise of abolishing the executive presidency while conveniently avoiding to answer the Opposition claim that the ministers have become mere figureheads or puppets because the President has usurped their powers and functions. Government leaders have also pulled out of the trash bin their decade-old weapon -- the allegation that their opponents are agents of Western powers.
The presidential election is the most important election under Sri Lanka’s Constitution. This is the real election that would decide what the future regime is going to be. Once that is decided all other elections including the parliamentary elections would in most cases end in favour of that regime. Therefore it is vital for the people to be offered an opportunity for a free and informed choice at this election.
If Maithipala is prepared to sacrifice all his powers and privileges for the singular purpose of scraping the executive presidency, it should not be an issue with the people or the Government. It is his personal choice. It is the objective and the possible outcome of his action that matter most to the people of the country.
Almost all issues that have been raised by Mr. Sirisena and the Opposition are policy matters pertaining to good governance. Mode of governance, media freedom, freedom of the judiciary, nepotism, cronyism and dictatorship are some of the issues he and the Opposition have raised and the discourse among the voters this time should therefore focus on these matters before casting their vote at the forthcoming presidential election. Attempts to divert the attention of the voters and scare them with non-issues such as foreign conspiracies which are raised even at the drop of a hat would serve as a smokescreen to conceal the real issues.
Media freedom and balanced reporting is extremely important in this regard and the alleged blocking of a talk show attended by Maithripala Sirisena and telecast by a private TV channel last week runs counter to the provision of free choice and is highly regrettable.