When the Donoughmore Reforms which included proposals for granting universal franchise to all citizens, were being discussed, the legislators who belonged to the nobility (to whom the voting rights were confined up to then) raised objection to it. As Sir James Pieris argued, giving such right to all and sundry, with barely any experience in governance, would allow shrewd and cunning individuals to deceive them and come to power through their vote. Such efforts thus to thwart universal franchise were seen then, as reactionary, feudalistic and class-conscious action intent on keeping the masses at the fringes of governance and decried and condemned. Ultimately the Donoughmore Constitution granted the right to vote to all citizens of mature age without any distinction in 1931, at a time when the United Kingdom had done so barely three years earlier. We boast of being one of the first countries to give the voting right, considered the basis of democratic governance and have been voting rulers in and out of office for more than seven decades now.
Unclaimed power of the ballot
Yet again we are on the threshold of another election, the Presidential one, in the year 2019, when the voter will be going to the polling booth to elect a President as the Head of State in terms of the 1978 Constitution. Although the powers of the President have been greatly curtailed with the 19th Amendment and many of the policies and promises given by the candidates therefore could be well beyond their powers in terms of implementation, the office of President still holds considerable power in governing. A look at the promises of the two main candidates to entice the voter to cast a ballot in their favour, we are reminded of the words of the likes of Sir James Pieris that the franchise can be used by shrewd politicians to deceive the citizenry. But what is most disappointing is that despite the lapse of seventy years and dozens of elections, we seem to be lacking perception in terms of the power of the vote and the know how as to use it effectively. We were not prepared to receive such a power way back in 1931 and are not equipped to use it even today.
The campaign of the two leading candidates are focused on two overriding issues: National security and welfare state. They have managed to narrow down all the issues that would have been raised at an election of this nature in to these two ‘items’ and therefore restricted the scope of the mandate of the people. In terms of national security, an area where Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Secretary of Defence was thought to be leading at the very outset has now become one of the main features of his rival Sajith Premadasa’s campaign, too. Now we hear Sajith too, waxing eloquent on the issue of national security if not more than Gotabaya himself, then to the same extent at least.
Security State Vs. Welfare State
On the other hand, it was clear that Sajith’s bid for Presidency was going to be based on his promises of alleviation of poverty which was the flagship project of his father Ranasinghe Premadasa, especially through the Gam Udawa programme which the former has made his own. Along with that a welfare package, covering many aspects of life was to be expected from him. He has not disappointed, going by what he promises to the ‘down trodden and poverty stricken ‘masses of the country, undertaking to dole out everything under the sun, thus creating a dependent, top to bottom welfare society. Gotabaya, to the surprise of many has wasted no time in promising as many welfare measures as possible so that he does not fall short behind Sajith in that regard and come close, if not surpassed the latter in clawing at a considerable chunk of votes in the lower strata of society.
By effectively narrowing down the policy landscape in terms of their candidacy to national security and welfare measures they have managed to push many issues that begged to be raised at an election that is held in one of the oldest practicing democracies in Asia, specially at a time when the country is just emerging from a 30 year old civil war that has done so much damage to the body politic, let alone the physical damage. Many issues that figured large at the 2015 Presidential election and in reality, decided the outcome in favour of Maithripala Sirisena the defector against Mahinda Rajapaksa, the authoritarian strongman, do not seem to figure, at least substantially, in the policy landscape of either of the main contenders this time.
Issues such as rule of law, anti-corruption, transparency, strengthening democratic structures, constitutional amendments, racial and religious reconciliation, participatory democracy are left to the back seat and the past record of the main two ‘horses’ do not leave any room to be hopeful of any breakthroughs in that direction. To be fair by them, they have little to draw from in terms of the records of respective governments that they represented. It is embarrassing to Sajith to mention good governance as the very government of which he is a leading figure has made a flop of it and would be counter productive as an election promise. For Gotabaya, with so many accusations of murder, abduction, corruption and rights violation, he would wish to stay clear of such things at any cost.
Despite much hype and expectation, the alternative or the third force, will fritter out to become a distant third as always. Even the floating voter will be forced to vote for either of the two main candidates on a ‘cut path’. Those who harbour fears of terrorist threats, more imagined than real, to the country would think who would be the best ‘Hitler’ or ‘Terminator’ while others who would be dead scared of the theatrics of such ‘Hitler’s in the past will vote for the lesser evil even if they are not impressed at all by the pedigree of the beneficiary of their vote. As far as the poor and the marginalized who are always insecure, whether the national security is at threat or not, will be compelled by the bleak prospect of hunger and financial incapacity to elect the better ‘Santa Clause’ who promises them, not candies and toys but a parsley daily subsistence.
Kettle or the pot?
In 2005 it was Rajapaksa Vs Wickremesinghe; in 2010 Rajapaksa Vs Fonseka; in 2015 it was Rajapaksa Vs Sirisena and now, in 2019 it is Rajapaksa Vs Premadasa! The so-called floating voter who is so apprehensive of the Rajapaksas, have had no free choice, during all three previous presidential elections, in effect, but to vote for the lesser evil. Those who support the Rajapaksas, whom others derogatorily call ‘wahallu’,(slaves) too, obviously have no choice.
After seven decades of voting, this is where we are now; a pick between the kettle and the pot! When will we ever prove Sir James Pieris (may the Lord bless his soul) wrong?