Presidential Election: Making a prudent choice | Sunday Observer

Presidential Election: Making a prudent choice

10 November, 2019
The district map of Sri Lanka
The district map of Sri Lanka

The election circus has come to town once more. This time, an election that should not have happened in the first place has been thrusted upon the people. In February this year, speaking at a meeting jointly organised by two Leftist parties in Jaffna, I said we should stop the Presidential Election of 2019 which was against the mandate given by the majority of the people in 2015 (this was one of the reforms over which there was an island-wide consensus in 2015).

I said stop, not boycott. Boycott is not an option for me as the country is continuing to pay the price of the LTTE’s call to the Tamils in the North and East to boycott the 2005 Presidential Election. I was a first-time voter in 2005 and had come to my hometown in Jaffna from the University of Peradeniya, where I was a first-year undergraduate, to cast my vote for Ranil Wickremesinghe as a way of showing my support to the peace talks that he had started with the LTTE. Like thousands of Northern Tamils, I did not cast my vote out of fear of the LTTE. What happened after the 2005 Presidential Election is now history.

Executive presidency

When the regime change happened in 2015, both Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged to the people that there would be no elections for the post of Executive President in the future. As many of the promises by the good governance regime, the promise to abolish the executive presidency too was not honoured by those who held power for the past five years. Sadly, the campaign of neither of the main contestants in this year’s Presidential Elections frames abolition as a key theme. It is indeed frustrating that the executive presidency has trapped us in a system that repeatedly compels us to choose the winnable lesser evil as a way of dealing with authoritarian, chauvinistic populism that raises its head once every five years. Some of us are unable to throw our weight behind candidates representing an inclusive and just social vision and causes that we have supported for many years, since fragmenting the opposition to authoritarian, nationalist populism will have adverse long-term consequences for democracy, social justice and pluralism. This is a lesson I learnt from the 2005 boycott in the North which was similar to voting for a third candidate.

With only a week to go before the presidential election, one has to seriously give thought to the challenge the already-weakened democratic space may face post-elections if Gotabaya Rajapaksa gets elected. His candidacy represents the desire of the Rajapaksa family to concentrate political power in their hands and take forward their dynastic ambitions. The forces that back the SLPP’s candidate, except the voiceless, tokenistic Left represented by figures like Tissa Vitharana and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, are against democratic reforms, social justice and cultural diversity. The power bloc constitutive of retired military leaders, technocrats who are insensitive to the problems of the people on the peripheries, the rich, self-seeking entrepreneurs and Buddhist nationalists may well shatter the fragile foundations on which Sri Lanka’s democracy rests today.

His main opponent Sajith Premadasa has little to offer in terms of alternatives. Premadasa’s commitment to social justice and social equality sounded wishy-washy when he infamously said that he supported a capitalism with a human face. He has not made any firm commitment to a political solution to the national question that recognises at least a few key aspirations of the minority populations.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who appears to be the third frontrunner, has come up with a set of ideas for the future of the country that could be broadly described as inclusive. Even though his economic program and position on the national question cannot be termed radical, he certainly has a better agenda than the two main contestants. Siritunga Jaysuriya, the candidate of the United Socialist Party, has come up with a more radically socialist and pluralist vision for the country. He is perhaps the only candidate who supports the Tamils’ right to self-determination with secession as an option and has fully accepted the 13 demands put forward by five Tamil parties collectively towards the candidates running for the post of Executive President recently. However, the looming prospect of an authoritarian or proto-fascist take-over via an election where the winner takes all makes it difficult for one to justify his or her support to a candidate whose existing support base is too narrow, even if he is an ideologically friendly candidate or a close ally. Personally, it is a decision I had to make with a lot of difficulty and pain in the hope of ensuring the survival of at least what is left of democracy in the country.

As the contest is mainly between Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a question that I am interested in is in what ways these two candidates differ and the implications of recognising the differences to the future of democracy and resistant politics. Based on what Gotabaya Rajapaksa did as Defence Secretary during the war and his involvement in top-down urban beautification projects which disregarded the needs of the urban poor, and the nationalistic, authoritarian rhetoric coming from his supporters, it is not too difficult to predict that his presidency will pose a huge threat to democracy, inclusiveness and resistance movements. The manner in which he gave leadership to end the war still sends waves of fear among the Tamils. His association with anti-Muslim actors may place the Muslims in a more precarious position than they are now. The threatening atmosphere in which journalists had to work and the erosion of the independence of judiciary and other public institutions during the previous Rajapaksa regime cannot easily be forgotten. These are genuine fears and memories that minorities, those who are on the margins of our societies, reformists and those who speak the truth to power have about Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his supporters.

The Sajith Premadasa candidacy appears less damaging not because of the track record of the candidate himself or the larger vision he promises, though one could say with some certainty that there is less contrivance in the agenda he has set for the country especially the welfare-oriented economic policies he has put forward and the cultural and ethnic inclusiveness he appears to subscribe to. Secondly, Sajith Premadasa seems to be a safer option owing to the half-hearted, critical support extended to him by reformist leaders in the South, leaders of the minority communities who have taken a firm stand against authoritarianism, civil society activists who give importance to inclusiveness and political reforms in their work and a section of the Leftwing activists and commentators who have taken seriously the threat democracy faces in the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The support Sajith Premadasa receives from these groups is not a full-throated support; it acts as a curb against the emergence of a cult around him and should remind him of the need to take on board the diverse concerns coming from different segments of our polity. These nuances between the two front-runners and the actors and forces that back them make it impossible for one to brand both candidates as neoliberal and Sinhala nationalist of the same hue. Painting both candidates with the same brush is an act of political and ideological mis-recognition that may have dangerous consequences to the marginalised segments of this island’s people and the country at large.

Democratic space

On the choice we are going to make on November 16, depends the independence of our institutions, the freedoms of our communities, the future of our struggles for reforms, the safety and security of the ethnic and cultural minorities, the democratic space available for the poor, the working classes and the downtrodden to chart their politics of resistance. Like in 2015, we have to weigh in our options in a responsible manner before deciding our vote. However, unlike 2015, we will make our choice this time with much diminished hope. That awareness should prepare us to face the future, whoever the winner is, more valiantly than in 2015.

I join Jayadeva Uyangoda and Manilal Dissanayake in their exhortation that we should not allow the failure of the good governance regime to drive us into the arms of authoritarianism. To prevent the erosion of our faith in democracy and social resistance, we must separate the disillusionment caused by previous elections that had promised reforms and changes, but did not deliver much, from the hope generated by the democratic actions of the people on the peripheries that we witnessed during times of crisis and the manner in which the oppressed sections of our polity utilised the opportunities they created via the prudent choices they made during elections in the past. I recall today the continuous protests by the mothers of the disappeared in the North, the struggles to reclaim land from the military and the Archaeological and Wildlife Departments and big corporations that threaten the wellbeing of our environment, the protests against SAITM (the student protestors were beaten up by the police, but they eventually put an end to the privatising venture), the initiatives to commemorate the war, the campaigns against the constitutional coup of October 2018, the successful mobilisations against the exploitative practices of microfinance companies in the North which resulted in tangible solutions and changes, the various trade union actions and the vibrant political debates that we have been part of for the past five years.

The victory of Maithripala Sirisena in the Presidential Election of 2015 broadened the space for resistance and radical democracy on the ground. It was indeed a remarkable change as it was enabled by the participation of a wide spectrum of our political and civil societies and polity. This electoral victory led to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which made executive presidency a less authoritarian institution. Some lands under the custody of the military in the North were released to their owners. The Right to Information Act was created. An atmosphere conducive to democratic protests re-emerged. The political culture that emerged following the victory of Maithripala Sirisena was not perfect, but it was certainly better than the climate of repression that prevailed during the dark years of the Rajapaksa regime.

There is no doubt that electoral democracy is an important method by which we decide our political futures. However, democracy as a radical expression of people’s desires and aspirations lies in the struggles waged on the ground and the changes they bring about rather than in the number of votes a candidate receives. Even though electoral outcomes play a pivotal role in shaping the nature of the politics that emerges on the ground, in deeply divided societies like ours, electoral democracy is in certain ways a number game and an expression of majoritarianism too. Sometimes pro-democratic forces have to strategise their votes during elections in order outmaneuver right-wing populism arithmetically. Therefore, it is impolitic to reduce our understanding of democracy to the symbol against which we cast our votes once every five years and interpret that vote in a very narrow sense as the expression of one’s larger ideological or political preferences.

State power

What is important is that we recognise the tension between these two mutually-informing forms of democracy – electoral democracy that we participate in every five years and the everyday radical democracy emanating from people-centered social movements – as productive and emancipatory in the long-run. In today’s historical conjuncture, when right-wing forces in many parts of the world have captured state power via elections by polarising communities along ethnic, racial, religious and cultural lines, it has become difficult for us to view electoral democracy as a direct, linear route to progressive and inclusive changes. As far as the Presidential Election of 2019 is concerned, I will decide my vote in the hope that electoral democracy has the potential to open up more routes, however imperfect, complicated, jagged, zig-zagged they may be, for change, reforms and revolutions. As regards electoral democracy, I notice a ray of hope and experience a certain frustration. But it is the hope, I am sure, will wheel me to the election booth on Saturday and help me make the right choice for the radical democracy to come. My frustrations and agonies have been reserved for the morning after.

Mahendran Thiruvarangan is attached to the Department of Linguistics and English at the University of Jaffna