Monday last saw 35 presidential candidates queueing up for the race on November 16. Six others who deposited money had withdrawn. One among them was the eldest in the Rajapaksa family, former Speaker in Parliament, Chamal Rajapaksa. His deposit made on Friday proved the Rajapaksa family would not allow anyone else in the SLPP to step in, even if Gotabaya in some way was denied nomination with the awaited ruling by the Court of Appeal. The SLPP run by Basil Rajapaksa is primarily the political platform of the Rajapaksa family. All others have to stand behind the seated Rajapaksas and serve the Rajapaksa family.
On the flip side is the UNF candidate Sajith Premadasa. His entry was one that successfully challenged the supreme leadership authority of Wickremesinghe after many attempts in the past decade. Interestingly, his father became the UNP presidential candidate in 1988 by challenging Wickremesinghe’s uncle, the then President and UNP leader J.R Jayawardene. This time, Sajith rode on his father’s legacy in snatching the candidacy. Cementing the Premadasa legacy, Wickremesinghe made a populist move by having Madam Hema Premadasa on stage when announcing Sajith as the UNF candidate. Wickremesinghe managed to retain the leadership of the party and was promised he would remain the PM till the next parliamentary elections.
This presidential election has three mainframe candidates; two are standing on legacies of Premadasa and that of Rajapaksa; the other is Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the JVP contesting as the candidate of a broad alliance. If one wishes to count former Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake of the NPM as the fourth, he seems a fair distance away.
Most importantly, they are not candidates who have proved their suitability for presidency even within their own political parties. No political party has a democratic process in selecting a candidate as in the US. In the US, selection begins in primaries with those who declare their intent to run for presidency. In primaries, they lobby for candidacy on their policy statements that become public discussions. He or she is decided as the candidate of the party in these primaries held in every Federal State. We are completely different, with party hierarchies deciding with the Colombo-based wheeler-dealer businessmen who funds them or within a single family.
"No political party has a democratic process in selecting a candidate as in the US"
Voters are thereafter told to choose one out of the two front-runners from those they had decided. The choice is based not much on what they promise for the future. In fact, there is no “choice” as such, as they are all politically of the same feather and funded by the same sources. Whatever lingo they use, they remain Sinhala Buddhist candidates, blessed by the Sangha and Gotabaya Rajapaksa being exceptional, seen with crude-speaking Sinhala Buddhist extremists. Voters know quite well, their fancy promises are only meant to be broken, post elections. In general, and in the majority, voters don’t look for programmes to cast their vote. Not even the more articulate urban middle-class; professionals, academics, technocrats and the like. It is a “clannish” petty feudal mentality that divides voters into two camps, leaving out a “hesitant” lot.
"The vote should be for what the candidates would accept from demands put to them"
This hesitant lot is not a negligible ‘small’ number. They are from the middle-class and include trade unions. They speak about retaining ‘social space’ beyond elections. Retaining social space to campaign on issues that are important than promises doled out now. This holds true with Tamil and Muslim voters, more in the North and Vanni. They talk of social space in terms of peace, dignity and safety to their communities. They may decide on post-election ‘social space’ that would not be threatened as in ‘Rathupaswala.’
Although not raised on election platforms, social space is as important as education, health, public transport, housing and rural economic development that demand serious answers. It is important for trade unions, that have loads of issues to campaign for in this export manufacturing economy on much patronised FDIs. In rural society, for farmers and fishermen, social space is important after November 16 for democratic and collective engagement on their issues. Important also to check the political regime that would be voted to power with the new President elect in office. Ensuring social space in post-election Sri Lanka is therefore an indispensable factor, this presidential election.
"Although not raised on election platforms, social space is as important as education, healthcare and rural economic development"
Voters therefore have a different role to play from what they have always been playing; electing a ‘new’ face to replace the tested and proven ‘failure.’ This election at a juncture where the economy is in dire crisis, public administration is corrupt and inefficient, the judiciary, law enforcement agencies and the legal profession are accused of racial bias, inefficiency and corruption, where education, health, public transport, housing and rural economy, is in total disarray and crumbling, voters have to look beyond candidates and their fancy promises. Voters instead have to lay down conditions to vote. In short, the vote should be for what the candidates would accept from demands put to them. This election has to be about using the vote collectively on demands collectively presented to candidates and remain as a collective social force for bargaining after elections.
A trade union alliance has initiated a similar campaign. They have written to mainstream candidates asking them their positions on five demands that directly affect workers, who they claim are eight million voters at this election. They want a public undertaking from candidates on their demands they would also canvass among workers. Such collective interventions do change the landscape of electoral politics, if seriously carried through and if media are made to take due notice of the demands. This could be replicated in society with other demands that would lay the base for a social movement in demanding undertakings from candidates, on the following:
- Although there are no legal provisions for now that compels candidates to publicly declare their election campaign fund and its sources, there is a moral binding for candidates to do so, if they keep promising a clean and a corruption free country. Therefore, demand they immediately declare their total campaign fund including sources of funding and make it into law within six weeks from swearing in.
- Law on assets and liabilities is vague regarding candidates and is not mandatory at the time of handing over nominations, thus providing the Elections Commission also to avoid responsibility in ensuring they are handed over at least at the time of swearing in or within three months of the election for defeated candidates as the law stands now. Therefore, demand they immediately declare to the public theirs and their family assets and liabilities and also demand they amend the law before the next parliamentary elections to make it mandatory for all public officers in high posts and for candidates to hand over such audited declarations along with nominations and make them public documents.
- All elected MPs are paid allowances for parliamentary and committee sittings, and are provided free stationery, salaries for personal staff, a Rs.100,000 rental for an office, fuel allowance, monthly telephone bill of Rs.50,000, a duty free permit for vehicles every five years and heavily subsidised meals in Parliament, apart from the pensionable monthly salary of Rs.54,285. There is no logic in paying a rent for an office as that is his or her political responsibility to have an office or not. The salary becomes irrelevant if every sitting in Parliament and in committees is paid for. Therefore, demand all payments for these “sittings” and the office rent be removed immediately as there is a pensionable salary that was argued as necessary to allow elected MPs to become full-time representatives and freeze it at the present salary level.
- Elected MPs cross over in Parliament for their personal gains and advantage denying the voters their choice of representation in Parliament, vote for laws and acts that are detrimental to democratic and fundamental rights, gets into corrupt deals and also behave indecently insulting the voters. People should have the right to remove such MPs to elect another to represent them at any time they think they should. Therefore, demand the Constitution be amended to allow voters the “Right of Recall” of their elected MP in the district, before the next parliamentary elections are declared.
- While climate change is a serious issue globally, it is equally a serious problem here with frequent landslides, earthslips, flooding, land erosion and silting of rivers, mainly due to continuous deforestation that was 1.4 percent at an average during the last five years. Tree planting campaigns in schools, in home gardens and along streets cannot answer deforestation. Sri Lanka had a primary forest cover of 36.4 percent of its land area 25 years ago, while it is now said to be 27 percent, but could be far less. Therefore, it is extremely important to demand that these presidential candidates present a programme two weeks before the election for reforestation and management that will have confirmed people’s participation to increase and improve primary forest cover to 32 percent within next five years, and thereafter to present in Parliament within six weeks of swearing in.
These would not be complete answers for the major crisis we are being dragged into. Yet, they would help create a serious reform process and initiate a conscious, social force outside Parliament in keeping a tab and pressuring the next elected government to be responsible to society. That is, if these are taken seriously in a collective manner by concerned voters.