The anti-regime camp led by Maithripala Sirisena is posing the most significant challenge to the present regime. President Rajapaksa has never faced such a challenge. But this is his decisive struggle, he knows it and his opponents know it very well, too.
It’s not that the Sinhala voters fail to acknowledge the leadership given by President Rajapaksa to defeat the LTTE; talk to them, and they will tell you that they appreciate the political leadership given (and no, they don’t buy former President Kumaratunga’s argument that she did 75% of the job before leaving office). But, many of these voters are unwilling to go beyond acknowledging this mundane fact. This election means more to them than showing gratitude to a politician. Rather, the Sinhala voters expect change; and even though they fear it would not be easy, a democratic, peaceful change of political leadership is what many desire.
One of the strengths of the anti-regime campaign lies in its ability to revive the idea that even the most unthinkable win over a leadership/regime is always possible in politics. It was this idea that was most forcefully revived in 2006-2007. For, the principal reason why the ‘peace-lobby’ lost the battle with the ‘pro-war’ establishment was largely because unlike ever before, those who supported the war truly believed that the LTTE could be defeated.
So just as in the 2006-2007 era, the war was not just a policy decision taken by one man alone. It was a culmination of a strong ideological movement (which also explains the inability to introduce a political solution to the ethnic conflict) – with some of its most prominent forces, advocates and propagandists coming from the JHU and the JVP, which are now in the anti-regime camp. Such a formation could only grow in strength when other political parties, groups and associations come together for a common cause; the political and democratic defeat of an existing regime.
And it’s not just a regime that is sought to be defeated here. Rather, it is, by all accounts, one of the most corrupt and regressive regimes that Sri Lanka has come to see in recent history. Here too, the Sirisena-camp has been successful, through its staggering critique of corruption and nepotism, in showing that the regime is so incompetent and regressive that it cannot be trusted with any kind of reform, or is one which even lacks a meaningful reformist agenda.
This critique was at its best during the recent launch of Patali Champika Ranawaka’s very useful booklet, titled Alapalu Arthikaya, which exposes the many facets of corruption and economic bankruptcy that have come to define this regime. It’s this message, equally well articulated by the likes of Anura Kumara Dissanayaka (JVP) and Dr. Harsha de Silva (UNP), that the public has now embraced. After all, we are living in an age when the humble taxi-drivers and workers at petrol stations quote the very same statistics to show their opposition to the regime and its many cronies.
This critique is no simple matter, and it should be of serious concern to any citizen of this country. Take just one example; the cost incurred on the construction of railways. The standard cost (benchmark) is set at US$0.5 per kilometre (km). But the cost of constructing the stretch from Vavuniya to Thaleimannar of 106 km has cost the regime US$231 million, which is US$2.18 per km -- a 436% increase in the cost. It gets worse. The stretch from Matara to Beliatta of just 28 km costs US$292 million, which is US$10.43 million per km -- an increase of 2086%. These figures and many more, make the looting and plunder of colonial powers look modest and respectable.
And what is the regime’s response?
One is amusing (i.e. the same argument with which certain monks tried to justify the introduction of casinos) that corruption happened under every regime, it happened during the time of ancient kings and it happened even during the Buddha’s time! It’s with this kind of logic that the regime expects to win the election. Either President Rajapaksa isn’t thinking, or those to whom he has outsourced the task of thinking aren’t doing a good job.
The second is the now famous, revival of the LTTE spectre. It is the revival of this threat – the idea that whatever the case may be with corruption and nepotism, this leadership has to be protected because if not the country will break into pieces and President Rajapaksa will be taken to an international tribunal – that the regime’s propagandists are engaged in. The various arguments adduced in favour of propagating this hypothesis (promoted as fact) have been quite unconvincing, to say the least. Even the attempt made by analysts to add a little bit of sophistication to what is essentially an argument made by the likes of Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Duminda Silva, fails miserably. To be sure, this argument has had no great traction especially since the Uva elections.
Perhaps the regime knows that reviving the LTTE-spectre is not easy, especially when confronted by a political formation made up of SLFP stalwarts, the JHU and the JVP. But more importantly, the Sirisena-camp has been successful in attacking this particular strategy by assuring (to the Sinhala voters) that there will be no room for separation or any possibility of taking the top political leadership for prosecution at an international tribunal.
More critically, they have somewhat effectively constructed a critique of the regime which makes the ‘revival of the LTTE’ kind of argument amusing. Ironically, it was Champika Ranawaka who claimed during the launch that the harm done by the Rajapaksa-regime to the economy is worse than the harm done by Prabhakaran’s LTTE to the Sri Lankan economy; and that the regime cannot be allowed to show ‘Tigers’ abroad and harm the innocent people (pitarata koti pennala lankaawe muwan maranna denna behe)!
It is such a challenge that the Sirisena-camp is now posing to this regime. Usually the calm and measured figure during public appearances, one now detects a flustered President. The inaugural rally at Anuradhapura indicated this when he tried to enact how politicians phone each other to manoeuvre crossovers. At Dambulla, he had to end his speech in an abrupt fashion. His ‘file’ talk has had a massive negative impact. Even the crossovers to the government have not had a serious positive boost for the campaign or his image.
And it just could be President Rajapaksa’s tit-for-tat policy regarding crossovers which gives us a glimpse of how challenged his campaign is, today. On the one hand, ‘revenge’ is written all over such a policy. But more importantly, and perhaps in a long time, the politician Mahinda Rajapaksa has become uncertain and reactive.
Even though the game is not yet over, that’s what a real political challenge can do to a seasoned politician.
(Kalana Senaratne is a researcher and political analyst holding a doctorate in international law from the University of Hong Kong and contributes regularly to the Sri Lankan media.)