By Laskiri Fernando
If there is any overall lesson from the Rajapaksa collapse, that is ‘not to abuse power or position.’ Although this lesson is loud and clear for anyone in politics, it is difficult to believe that they would readily follow, unless strict rules are in place. That is unfortunately the present nature of politics and power. What is reassuring is the promise, in the 100 Days Diary, to introduce a ‘Code of Conduct for All People’s Representatives.’ The date given for its introduction is 22 January. Even with some delay, if this is introduced, it would be immensely useful for good governance in the country.
There are some rules already in our statute books which are breached than followed. For example, the declaration of assets and liabilities is a must not only for political representatives but also for certain categories of public servants and others (newspaper editors) since 1975. But this has hardly been the practice. Even when the assets are declared, there is no proper mechanism to verify them. Most of the declarations are supposed to be bogus.
The proposed code of conduct is looser than statutes. Therefore, when the ‘Code of Conduct’ is introduced, there should be a proper mechanism to monitor and implement the provisions.
After the elections, Rajapaksa regime soon collapsed like a sandcastle. Although there was an attempt (midnight coup) to hold on to power, that didn’t fortunately materialize. It revealed its artificial nature. It was so powerful, yet fragile. Only a small wave of democracy demolished it. That wave was hard to come by because of some barriers both of structural and ideological nature ingrained particularly in the South. In this respect, this time, the minority communities did play a positive role, helping in overcoming the barriers. That should be frankly acknowledged and acted upon.
Where did we have the almighty Hero this time? In the South. Almighty Hero was already gone in the North in Nandikadal. That was five years ago.
One of my former colleagues, Prof. M. O. A. De Soyza (University of Peradeniya) has vividly revealed the constructed image of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the following manner, writing to the Sunday Divaina recently (18 January 20105). That is the best description I have seen so far.
“Until around 2010, people considered him to be a devoted political leader who looked after their welfare. He was especially revered for defeating LTTE terrorism. However, thereafter, he was transformed into a different persona or a God King. It was the media and those stooges who surrounded him that constructed the transformation. Many songs were sung, calling him a Great King (Maha Rajanani). Security forces protected him, caging him in a surreal world. Many artists joined the fray. Even some found his ancestral connections to Lord Buddha! He was praised as ‘this root’ or ‘that root leader’ (moola nayake). All these nonsense seeped into his mind. He was elated. He was converted into a different personality.
Astrologers, newspaper editors and some Buddhist monks who were watching this transformation (vipariyasaya) started to say that he should rule the country for 50 more years. They opined that only Rajapaksas should rule.”
Soyza further argued that Rajapaksa’s bid for the Third Term (2015) was to keep the Presidency until Namal Rajapaksa becomes qualified at the age of 35 in 2021. That was well known. It is no surprise that Namal defended the ‘dynastic rule’ of Rajapaksas giving an interview to the NDTV on 17th January.
It was this dynastic project that became demolished on the 8th of January, so peacefully and constructively. It should not be allowed to come back. However, in preventing a resurrection of the Rajapaksa ghost, no one should take the law into one’s own hands or indulge in dirty tactics that the Rajapaksas used to indulge in dealing with their opponents.
In this respect, it is disturbing to note yesterday’s reported police raid on Rajapaksas’ Carlton Residence in Tangalle in search of a Lamborghini sports car. Lamborghini is not the major issue in Rajapaksa atrocities. Even a car was not found. The police or the Magistrate should have used more discretion before acting upon unsubstantiated information. These kind of actions could easily be called political harassment which could create unnecessary sympathy for the ousted regime.
Although, Rajapaksa was defeated convincingly, there are people who still argue that he won the ‘majority of the majority’ in the South. The argument is based on partial reading of the election results. There were undoubtedly constructed barriers, some structural and others ideological, to prevent the sandcastle being swept away by the democratic waves. Let me give two examples.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa ostensibly won 10 electoral districts in the South, these were not merely on the strength of people’s mandate. For a long time, the SLFP organizers were manipulating the electoral registers, to my information and knowledge, through their appointed Grama Niladari’s and other functionaries. Although Maithripala Sirisena was the General Secretary of the party, Basil Rajapaksa was the National Organizer. Namal Rajapaksa has been intervening in the process in the recent period with his Nil Balakaya. I have dealt with this matter with detailed figures previously in “Possible Distortions in the Presidential Elections” (Colombo Telegraph, 15 January 2015).
First there are questions about the electoral lists. It is difficult to believe that all 73 percent registered voters were genuine when over 26 percent of the population are under 14 years of age. This is without counting the ages of 15, 16 and 17. There are serious suspicions about ‘ghost voters.’ It is possible that names of migrant workers were included in the registers. It is also possible that the underage were registered through the Nil Balakaya. The critics have talked lot about the ‘Deep State.’ It is difficult to imagine that the ‘deep state’ was just sleeping during the Election Day.
Rajapaksa won higher majorities in districts where voter turnouts were around 83 percent. That is too farfetched to my opinion. Many people who were soft on Rajapaksas previously now admit the prevalence of corruption, misuse of power and political manipulation of the regime. But these would not have happened in abstract. Were they not happening during the election? It is difficult to believe that the regime didn’t have any plans for influencing the voter outcome through direct intervention on the Election Day or voting. Because the retention of power was the most important for them. Having realized that their popularity was waning at the provincial council elections they must have intensified their efforts during the presidential elections. The local organizers, particularly at the divisional levels (old electorates), were most interested in these manipulations because they have to show positive results to the party hierarchy for their own benefit.
It has been my count that at least 5 percent of votes were manipulated on the Election Day where the SLFP and the Nil Balakayas had their strongholds. If not for these manipulations, the districts of Anuradhapura, Kalutara, Kegalle and Kurunegala could have been won over by Maithripala Sirisena in addition to the 12 districts that he won at the elections. Therefore, the so-called winning of the ‘majority of the majority’ is tainted by possible election manipulations and malpractices.
I am saying this not only to discount the argument about the ‘majority of the majority’ which is particularly aimed at sowing ethnic distrust, fear and antagonism between communities. Most importantly, the existence of distorted voter registration lists or possible ‘ghost voters’ have a considerable impact in tainting the democratic process through a distorted election process.
More than the ‘ghost voters’ and possible distorted voter lists, Rajapaksa regime’s grip on the Southern voters had been based on chauvinist ideology propagated by the regime, the media and several of organizations (BBS in particular) through their networks and activities. Even after the collapse of the regime, and immediately thereafter, there were efforts to spread rumors and create dissent in the country perhaps with the hope that the regime could come back on the basis of military backing. The resurrection of separatism was the intended excuse to be given. Some people were even arrested in this connection.
Two of the main rumors were that ‘the LTTE flag has been hosted in Jaffna’ and ‘stones were thrown at army barracks and/or army personnel in the Northern Province.’
During the campaign, it was propagated that a vote for Sirisena is a vote for separatism. To substantiate this claim, there was a fabricated MOU presented by the former UNP General Secretary, Tissa Attanayake, who previously defected to the Rajapaksa regime. Now he has fled to Singapore. It was irrespective of this vicious campaign that large numbers of people voted for the Swan, the election symbol of Sirisena. The opposition was branded as a tool of an ‘international conspiracy.’ This international conspiracy theory was linked up to the ‘international inquiry on war crimes’ and extremist propaganda by certain sections of the Tamil Diaspora. Mahinda Rajapaksa emotionally vouched that he is ready to go to the ‘Gas Chamber.’ The propaganda was so cheap.
Without going into further details, there is no question that there are deep seated ‘fears and antagonisms’ among all communities, apart from real issues, that opportunist political leaders try to utilize particularly at election times. On the Tamil side, there were efforts to ask the voters to boycott the elections saying that no good would come out of any Sinhalese leader and ‘national issues are not Tamil issues.’ The TNA successfully managed to counter these arguments, and the Tamil voters overwhelmingly participated in the national elections.
The election was a victory for the moderates of all communities, the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims. Let me conclude keeping this article within a readable length for the general and the busy reader.
The victory for moderation is not a reason for complacency or to emulate the old habits of the defeated regime. Any victory could be temporary unless permanent measures are taken. No government should last for more than it is necessary. However, there is a mission for the new government (I would not call it a regime) to pursue and fulfill. No change is pure. The old habits, attitudes and practices might surface unless conscious efforts are taken to overcome them. Old habits die hard! The most important task might be to prevent the Rajapaksa regime coming back in the immediate future and that means at the next parliamentary elections.
Two matters highlighted in this article pertain to the electorate/elections in the South. Although it might be unlikely that the ‘ghost voters’ would play a major role in the next election under the new government, in principle it is necessary to scrutinize or clean the electoral lists for the sake of good democracy and good governance. This might be one task for an Independent Election Commission appointed hopefully soon.
Most important and priority might be to dispel the fears, suspicions and chauvinist feelings among the electorates both in the South and the North. This is a task both for the government and the civil society. This also means moving towards reconciliation keeping in mind that there can be backlashes particularly in the South. There should be an ‘ideological’ effort to dispel fears. Mildly put, the effort should be educational not only for the people, but also for the Media, the police, administrative officers and the military. School teachers could play a major role, if those educators are properly educated! Given the restrictions on time, space and finances for ‘grand seminars’ of the old type, the best means would be to utilize the radio, TV, social media and simply written material (pamphlets and leaflets) for an effective campaign of education for ethnic, religious and social reconciliation in the country. In addition to ethnic type conflicts, it is clear that there are so many other conflicts in society and politics that need to be addressed, reconciled and harmonized. One breeds the other.