Why have a public debate? | Sunday Observer

Why have a public debate?

As the date for the presidential election approaches, there appears to be a great debate about a great debate: National Democratic Front candidate and Minister Sajith Premadasa has challenged his principal rival at the poll, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for a public debate. Unfortunately, Rajapaksa is not accepting the challenge.

Election are all about democracy. In turn, democracy is all about disseminating different viewpoints, discussing them, debating their pros and cons and deciding which option is best for a majority of the people. That is why debates are important and are an integral part of any democracy.

Debates can take many forms in the lead up to elections. The current discourse that we are witnessing - in campaign rallies, in the mainstream print and electronic media and in social media - are all part of that debate. Voters, the silent majority of whom would rarely voice their opinions in public, would imbibe all of that and ultimately come to a decision about who they would vote for, come November 16.

Why, then, a public debate? Public debates have long been the highlight of election campaigns in mature democracies, most notably in the United States where several such debates are held before the election and public sentiment sometimes shifts according to the outcome of the debate.

Some of these debates have in fact been identified as decisive as when President Ronald Reagan, then aged seventy-three, faced his challenger, fifty-six-year-old Walter Mondale and was asked whether he was too old to be President. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan quipped, won the debate convincingly - and then the election.

Sri Lanka though is not the United States of America. Do we need to follow everything that is done in the West? Possibly not. Sri Lanka however is a nation with rich democratic traditions. Our citizens are extremely politically conscious. Before proportional representation came into being as our system of elections, our voters consistently voted out governments every five years.

Despite having seven previous presidential elections in this country, we have not witnessed a debate between presidential candidates. The closest they come to meeting each other during an election campaign is when they nervously greet each other at the Elections Commission office, while handing over nominations!

Why should we seek a debate between the two main presidential candidates now? There are several reasons. One candidate, Sajith Premadasa, has been in the public eye for decades, in fact, ever since he was a boy because he was the son of then Prime Minister and later President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Sajith Premadasa’s public persona is well known, having been a parliamentarian for nearly twenty years and a minister for several years. His style, his demeanour, his manner of speech - rather similar to that of his father - and his approach to issues are familiar to the public.

Standing against him, we have Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ex-soldier who left the army - and the country - during the Eelam war, then returned as Defence Secretary when his brother was elected President. He has been credited with being a war winning Defence Secretary, a role in which he played the conduit between the military and the political establishment, because he had links with both.

During his campaign, Rajapaksa has been repeatedly accused of being unable to articulate issues on his own. He uses a teleprompter for his speeches, turns to brother Mahinda when asked a difficult question and makes short, prepared speeches that are better suited to the platoons than political platforms.

Rajapaksa’s only media briefing was a disaster. He repeatedly glanced at brother Mahinda when asked a challenging question and then fluffed his lines when asked about terrorists who surrendered to the Army, saying that the Army was under the command of the Army Commander, the imputation being that he will take the credit when the Army is covered in glory but will not take the heat when it is faced with a difficult issue.

Because of all this - and also because of a track record of questionable human rights claims relating mostly to journalists - the public wants to know who the real Gotabaya is. They want to get a feel of the man behind the mask, the human being beneath the carefully choreographed candidate who walks on to the stage amidst songs of adulation, delivers a brief speech from a prepared script and then leaves.

Surely, that is not too much to ask, if Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants the public to vote for him to become the next elected President of this country? And what better way to do so than a direct debate between Premadasa and Rajapaksa? That way, they can pose searching questions to each other and test each other’s mettle, and we, the voters, can decide who is best placed to lead our nation.

If Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the high achiever that he is purported to be, he should relish the challenge to go before the electorate and prove his case. That he is not willing to do so, tells a story- a story that he probably doesn’t want us to hear.