What lies ahead | Sunday Observer

What lies ahead

17 November, 2019

After weeks of hectic – and often contentious – campaigning, Sri Lanka’s eighth presidential election concluded yesterday. The nation eagerly awaits its outcome this morning.

The election may have generated a substantial amount of political discourse and not all of it was of the well-informed kind. There were also many mudslinging campaigns and, in keeping with the times, social media played its own unique role. Still, this is democracy, Sri Lankan style.

The campaigns run by the two major parties were a study in contrast. One party opted to be inclusive and woo all communities and run the risk of being branded as ‘traitors’ of the majority community. They were also handicapped by the burden of incumbency over the past four and a half years, although they were at times actively undermined by a not so cooperative President.

Their rivals were quite brazen in playing the communal card, claiming to play the role of protectors of the majority community. This was done as a deliberate political strategy: to win over the Southern voter because that is where the majority of votes are cooperative – even if it meant losing votes in the North and East.

The campaign had its share of controversies. The ruling party was constantly accused of neglecting its duty in not protecting the nation against the Easter Sunday bomb attacks. Several commissions and committees have probed the incident, but we are none the wiser about the whole truth.

Similarly, there was controversy about the citizenship of candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Again, the matter has been canvassed ad nauseum both in courts and in the court of public opinion, but the facts related to the issue remain hotly disputed and legal proceedings are likely to continue.

It is also noteworthy that candidate Rajapaksa has many other court proceedings pending. The fate of these proceedings depends on the outcome of the election. That will be another legal conundrum that our judicial system will have to deal with when the dust settles on the eighth presidential election.

Despite the large number of candidates – thirty-five in all – only two candidates, other than those from the two main parties, generated substantial interest. One represented the left of centre end of the political spectrum and the other attracted voters who were disenchanted with the established political ‘system’.

While these two candidates played their roles to the best of their capabilities, the support they garnered was confirmation yet again that, like it or loathe it, Sri Lanka is a country with essentially a two-party political system, with little wriggle room for a third major force.

If that is indeed so, this election may also herald the political demise of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), founded by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1951. The SLFP is still the party which has ruled the country for the most number of years – albeit in coalition governments – and its role in shaping the nation’s future cannot be summarily dismissed. It is a sad day for democracy, if it were to perish.

The SLFP’s fate will be decided, depending on the outcome of yesterday’s election. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga has come out of retirement to lead attempts to save the SLFP and the next few months will tell whether it survives as a major political force or yields to its breakaway faction, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which, for all its appeal, is a family-based party.

It is noteworthy that none of the main contenders at this election proposed to abolish the Executive Presidency unlike in 2015 when that was the rallying cry of then candidate Maithripala Sirisena who went on to confound predictions and win the contest over the much-fancied Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In contrast, at this election, both major party candidates promised ‘constitutional reform’ but did not spell out any commitments about the Presidency which is therefore here to stay, at least for another five years. We can take solace in the fact that this time the nation has been spared of complaining about broken promises to abolish the Executive Presidency!

For all the hyperbole and hullabaloo that marked the election, a redeeming feature of the election was that it was free of major incidents, even compared to 2015. Coming soon after the violence of the Easter Sunday bombings, this was a blessing and may well be a sign that, at long last, some seventy-one years after gaining independence, the country is evolving into a mature democracy.

The bottom-line is that, now, the people have spoken. It is time to listen to their verdict and respect their choice. It is time to look to the future and to assess what lies ahead. It is also time to learn lessons from the past four and a half years and reflect on what could have been done better.

The winners will also do well to reflect on these years when the best of intentions didn’t quite go according to plan because the proposed national agenda was replaced by party political considerations and personal whims and fancies. That led to a Presidency that was, at best, ineffective, and, at worst, dysfunctional.

Hopefully, Sri Lanka’s seventh Executive President will be wise to this and will spare his countrymen the agony of a repetition of these events. That is the least this nation deserves from its newly elected leader.