Sri Lankan Presidential Election: Choose your poison, ladies and gentlemen

June 14, 2018 Asia , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , POLITICS

Reuters photo



Malinda Seneviratne



There’s a term that has consistently defined electoral politics in Sri Lanka: default option. We’ve heard it before. We vote people and parties out. Naturally other people and parties get voted in. It’s a pay-back option for a people whose franchise is mostly about reflecting for a few moments before a ballot box before deciding to pick from a group of people or parties patently unsuited to hold office or rule the country.


Punishment is salve, obviously. It’s also the easier option, the difficult one being sweating for years to build a movement that can subvert a system that favors those with wealth, thugs and networks that are not necessarily wholesome.


Therefore, come election time, the focus is whether incumbents should stay or go. Those who argue for the former talk about alternatives being worse. Those who decide on the latter, if pointed out that alternatives are no better, have a ready response: ‘true, but right now, we need to get rid of this government; that’s the necessary first step!’


We saw all this in January 2015. The track record of the alternative and those of his principal backers were brushed aside as irrelevant to ‘the matter at hand,’ i.e. ‘getting rid of a corrupt, undemocratic and abusive regime.’


Wait. Who were the movers and shakers of ‘The Alternative’?  Let’s revisit.


First, Maithripala Sirisena. Former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and the person who flanked Sirisena when he addressed a media conference to announce candidacy said that he was the only clean member of the then government.  I don’t think people who supported Sirisena at that point were really interested in the character certificate that Chandrika gave. It’s not that her word counted much, anyway. Also, the cleanliness of the candidate didn’t really matter.


Ranil Wickremesinghe would make the relevant point three years later when addressing newly elected members to local government bodies. He observed how those who began their political careers owning just a push bicycle ended up with Benz cars. ‘What was Maithripala’s vehicle when he first entered politics and what kind of car and how many did he own by the time he declared candidacy?’ was not a question that seemed to have troubled Ranil back then.  ‘How did his brothers prosper so much after 1994?’ is another question that wasn’t asked.


Chandrika. Well, another ardent supporter of the Yahapalana drive, Victor Ivan, wrote an entire book about her ‘cleanliness’. As for the commitment to yahapalana ethics, just months into her first time Chandrika brushed aside workers’ protests saying ‘we didn’t promise freedom of the wild ass’ (never mind that she guaranteed the continuation of such freedoms accorded to the business class by her predecessors. The ‘Satana’ editor was murdered under her watch. The Wayamba election was marked by violence and the public stripping of a woman.


Ranil. He signed a Ceasefire Agreement with a terrorist outfit without consulting Parliament or informing the President. He was a senior member of the UNP cabinet during the most violent period in post-Independence history, the 1988-89 bheeshanaya.  Illegal detention, proxy arrests, abduction, torture and people being burnt alive, remember? His leader at the time famously said ‘let the robber barons come!’  Not all the robbers had to come, some were already here and some cut their thieving teeth in the UNP governments led by J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa. Those who complain of media freedom being curtailed, the white van culture, abuse of state resources, graft and so on, are either ignorant of that time or choose to be silent for reasons of self-interest. That was the worst period, period.


Rajitha Senaratne was the other person who attended that first media conference; a political opportunist if ever there was one with a gab that’s only bested by S.B. Dissanayake’s for drivel.  Senaratne was accused by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (we’ll come to them soon) of making enough bucks to buy ships. He is by training a dentist. We don’t know which vehicles mark his wealth-trajectory.


The JVP didn’t exactly say ‘vote for Maithripala,’ but not only did they desist from fielding a candidate but spent those campaign-months ranting and raving against Mahinda Rajapaksa. The JVP has had its moments. They should be applauded for bringing the 17th Amendment for example. They’ve abandoned the idea of armed struggle after being vanquished in 1989, although their thuggery has not died in the political spaces they control, notably the universities. They were the junior partner of the terror that was unleashed on the entire citizenry during the bheeshanaya. They assassinated political opponents, government servants, academics, members of the security forces and the police, threatened and killed families of those who opposed them, destroyed public property, burnt factories and were engaged in extortion.


Among the lesser backers were the NGOs, especially those that focus on advocacy.  Their history does not make for applause.


We need not go into all the ‘big names’ of that political moment, but we must mention that the USA funded that campaign. Need we say more, considering the politics of ‘bringing democracy’ to the world?


Did any of this matter? No. What mattered was ‘getting rid of the Rajapaksas’.  It was a ‘by any means necessary’ affair; the end justifying the means, if you will.  ‘Change’ was the slogan and that word was frilled with the yahapalana goodies. No one remembered what Mangala Samaraweera (another staunch backer who according to the wide-eyed is a master strategist, never mind that he ‘masterminded’ defeat after defeat for the UNP including at the recent local government elections) once said about mandates.  He essentially said that mandates are only relevant until results are announced.


Today, the yahapalana dream has turned out to be a nightmare. The naive are upset. The knowing knew all along that this was not about good governance but about their people being in power. The project has failed. The best proof is the fact that no one wants to take responsibility for drafting the policy document of the yahapalana drive, namely the ‘100-days program’.  Victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is always, always, a foundling, they say. The 100-days program being fatherless today clearly indicates that ‘defeat’ has been acknowledged (in less than 100 words).


The yahapalanists have quickly shifted to the game of relative merits. Their arguments are full of terms and words such as ‘still!’ ‘but’ ‘anyway,’ and ‘at least’.  Some even talk of ‘known devils’ which is actually an honest proposition by those who knew that ‘change’ was not doing to see ‘devilry’ being flushed down the tube.


In fact ‘known devil’ is the key argument of the incumbent(s). The only difference is that the identity of the ‘known devil’ changes from time to time. Back then it was Mahinda, now it is the yahapalana twins, Ranil and Maithripala.


The incumbents, naturally, stress the ‘danger’ of returning to ‘dark days’ as though none of them were ever party to the bleeding of light.  That’s their problem. The deeper issue is that we are once again facing a default option.


Today there are very few who will sing the praises of Ranil and Maithri. Only those who are politically sophomoric or are plagued by the blindness of loyalty or direct beneficiaries of this corrupt, violent and incompetent regime will applaud. And even this, in cautious tones and with lots of caveats of the ‘still-but-anyway-at-least’ kind.


The general sway is towards ‘out!’ The questions that are not being asked are exactly the questioned that were brushed aside when Mahinda’s ouster was plotted. In other words we are at a junction called ‘Default Option’.


And so we have a virulent attack on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a man who has not announced presidential aspirations but who is seen as ‘the alternative’ by many. His past, including the track records of his associates, then and now, probably will not matter. The smear campaign that has been launched is only giving him the kind of visibility that people spent millions to obtain. He’s getting it free.


That, however, is a problem for his opponents. The issue is the poverty of our political culture that seems to so ready to press the default-option button.


The histories of the major political parties and other groups that have clung on to them for reasons of political expedience (rather than ideological agreement) are known. They have robbed, deceived, cheated and killed.


The more serious issue is that few are talking about two people who have announced that they will run for President, Nagananda Kodituwakku and Rohan Pallewatta.


Neither are affiliated to either of the major parties or the coalitions they lead. Neither have benefitted from political friendships. They are strong in their own way.  Pallewatta is a self-made man. He is a successful businessman. He is down to earth, has a sense of humor, has a keen intellect and is clearly not burdened by track-record.


Kodituwakku has led a lone battle on behalf of the entire citizenry in the courts. He’s pointed out systemic flaws, he’s exposed crooks, he’s been brave and forthright to the point that he has earned the ire of many in the judicial system. He stands for integrity. He stands for a democratic constitution. He fights corruption. He has the credentials.


Now if people were really serious about Yahapalanaya and a different way of doing things, they would take both these candidates seriously. They would back them with more enthusiasm than they backed Maithripala in 2015 or (as the case may be) as they back a possible Gotabhaya Rajapaksa presidential bid.


Love for a candidate (regardless of track-record) or hatred for a candidate (for flaws they refuse to see in those they love) dominate thinking when it comes to showing preference. It’s a matter of choosing one poison over another.  Some are shocked when they break out with a rash. Others scratch in private. Some, eventually, will switch one poison with another.


That’s where we are at, ladies and gentlemen; we choose the poison that will make us ill or even end up killing us.


Perhaps it is high time we did something else; like have a conversation with either Rohan Pallewatta or Nagananda Kodituwakku or both or think of other non-poisonous options.





Malinda Seneviratne

I am a journalist, political commentator and a chess enthusiast. I was educated at the University of Peradeniya, Harvard University, University of Southern California and Cornell University and live in and work from Kottawa, Sri Lanka.

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