Along with the change of government that took place after the November 16 presidential election there is a sense of strong government and an uncertainty about what the parameters of free space will be. So far the new government’s approach has been to continue to give space to political and civil society actors as it existed prior to the change of government. A test case was whether the government would permit the commemoration of LTTE Heroes Day on November 26. Defence Secretary, Retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne explained the government’s position by saying “This is a democratic country, a country where people have freedom to do anything that does not affect the national security. Ours is not an oppressive government”. He also said that the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not allow hate speech against any community or racist comments to spread.
Sri Lanka has a new government that has come to power with heightened popular expectation of reform that would take it in the direction of rapid development and a modern state. This is a throwback to the expectations that accompanied the election of the previous government in 2015. At the base of popular expectations was that the new government would root out corruption that they had come to believe had grown to horrendous proportions. There is a similar expectation on this occasion too, which has grown with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s declaration in both the Sinhala and English languages, when he took his oaths that he will not permit corruption which has become the bane of politics and the economy, sucking the wealth out of the people. Whether or not people voted for him, they all anticipate change that is positive.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa scored an impressive victory at the hotly contested presidential election winning 52.5 percent of the vote when the general expectation was that a second preference count would be necessary as no candidate could get more than 50 percent of the vote. President Rajapaksa’s victory has debunked the theory that victory at a presidential election necessarily requires the support of the ethnic and religious minorities. It has at the same time shown the existence of an acute polarization, and wound, in the body politic that needs healing.
The election campaign of Sajith Premadasa received a boost with the endorsement he received from the Tamil National Alliance. There was a possibility of the TNA opting to remain publicly neutral and giving the Tamil people the advice that they could either vote for any candidate or abstain, as advocated by some Tamil politicians. There is anger within the Tamil community about the lack of progress in finding missing persons, returning civilian land and in moving towards a political solution to the ethnic conflict. There has also been anger within sections of the Tamil polity that the two main presidential candidates have not been willing to directly respond to the 13 point demand put forward by a collection of five Tamil political parties, including the TNA. But a look at their manifestos will reveal a response that has proved to be decisive.
This has been among the most promising elections if the number of election promises that have been made are counted. The presidential candidates seem to be determined to outdo the other when it comes to the promises they make in their election manifestos. If one promises free fertiliser for paddy production another will promise it free for all agricultural production; if one offers a salary hike to the working class, the other promises more. Even tax breaks to companies are not exempt with a race to the bottom to reduce them to the corporate sector. At the same time direct welfare payments to those with a lower income are being promised with the money, which is sky high, to come from somewhere.
With the election campaigns for the presidential election in full swing, the candidates are making a wide range of promises to an electorate that has not become cynical enough not to hope again that these might be kept. The promises are mostly with regard to the economic benefits that people can reasonably expect from a government that has their interests at heart, and include economic development, employment opportunities and subsidies. According to the World Bank, which recently promoted Sri Lanka to the status of an upper middle income country, extreme poverty is rare and concentrated in some geographical pockets; however, a relatively large share of the population subsists on slightly more than the poverty line.
The victory of the SLPP at the long-postponed pradeshiya sabha election in Elpitiya did not come as a surprise. This had been an area that has consistently supported the SLFP from which the SLPP has taken the larger part. Virtually all local authorities in the Southern Province went to the SLPP at the last local government elections held in February 2018. Therefore it was to be expected that Elpitiya would go the same way. However, the psychological boost to the SLPP of winning this election so near to the all-important presidential election scheduled for November 16 has been high especially given the margin of victory. Visiting the southern hinterland a day after the election victory had been announced we could see SLPP cadres carrying out their house-to-house campaigns. A local civil society activist said that the UNP’s campaigners had still to pay a visit to his area, whereas the SLPP cadres had done three such visits so far.
It was past 11 pm when the conference at a community hall in Kattankudy ended. The last three speakers were restricted to two minutes each, much to their discomfiture, as some of them had traveled as far as from Colombo and Matara to be present. One of them had even prepared a forty minute presentation which had to be whittled down to enable the conference to end before the witching hour of midnight. According to the local organisers the conference was the first ever inter-religious one to be held in the Muslim town of Kattankudy in the east of the country.
Just as in the presidential election of 2015 which led to the unexpected defeat of incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa, this presidential election of 2019 is witnessing the rise of civil society into the position of key influencer. The role of civil society becomes more influential when political change emerges as a possibility. At the 2015 presidential election a coalition of civil society organisations and public spirited individuals led by the Venerable Maduluwave Sobitha Thero took on the key role of taking the message of good governance to the grassroots community level. They highlighted the issues of corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations to the people. The incumbent government was unable to make a satisfactory response and lost the election.
The presidential election fixed by the Election Commission for November 16 has the potential to bring about far reaching change to the country both in terms of political parties and the leadership at their helms. It is therefore a double transition that the Sri Lanka faces at the current juncture. Change is generally resisted. Ironically, the last minute attempt to abolish the executive presidential system, which is a radical change, can also be seen as a manifestation of resistance to change. In a meeting with civil society last week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe cautioned that unless accompanied by electoral reform that permits the establishment of decisive majorities in parliament, the abolishing of the executive presidency by itself could lead to unstable government.