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Sri Lanka’s ‘Peoples Power’ Faces Big Challenges

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

COLOMBO (IDN) – Be it with “pinch-hitting” and “sling bowling” in cricket, eradicating a ruthless terrorist group, winning Asian games gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races running barefoot or electing the world’s first woman prime minister, Sri Lankans always excel in using unorthodox means to achieve their objectives.

On January 8, they added another – using a candidate with no party affiliations or tested election machinery to overthrow an “invincible” autocratic President through a largely peaceful election.

The world is desperately looking for a template to overthrow corrupt politicians and political structures as seen by the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in the Middle East which has sadly transformed into an Arab Winter and Thailand’s ‘Shutdown Bangkok’ protests, which led to the overthrow of a democratically elected government to be replaced by a military regime that is becoming increasingly autocratic.

Thus, Sri Lanka’s example of overthrowing an all-powerful President through the ballot box and latter’s gracious exit from his official residence provides an encouraging new template for “peoples power” revolutions. Yet it will have to face many challenges in the coming weeks.

In November last year, when President Mahinda Rajapakse called a presidential election for January 8 two years before schedule because his trusted astrologer had told him that his stars were better placed now than in two years time to win an election, no one expected him to lose.

There was no credible opposition candidate who could master enough of the Sinhala Buddhist vote to win and Maitripala Sirisena (who beat him to the presidency on January 8) was then his Health Minister and the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) general secretary.

Soon after calling the elections, President Rajapakse’s coalition ally, the Buddhist nationalist Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU), defected to the opposition, and soon after Sirisena made the surprise announcement that he was standing as the opposition’s “common candidate” against the president. Yet, he did not leave the SLFP, but President Rajapakse as the party president sacked him as the general secretary.

Throughout the campaign, the Rajapakse camp painted Sirisena and his opposition alliance called the National Democratic Front (NDF) as a western-funded conspiracy for regime change that will result in the same chaos and anarchy as in Libya, Iraq and Syria. In turn, the Sirisena camp carried a vociferous campaign against President Rajapakse accusing him of heading a corrupt regime packed with his relatives, drug and ethanol dealers and casino operators.

The campaign slogan of Sirisena was “Maithree Yaha Palanayak” (Compassionate Good Governance), a astute blending of Buddhist principles with western secular cliché. The two former Cabinet colleagues of Rajapakse, Sirisena and JHU leader Champika Ranawaka, blasted the regime, particularly the Rajapakse brothers for widespread corruption, even citing Cabinet discussions and papers.

The mainstream media, which had been intimidated into silence in the past many years by the government, got a new lease of life and they reported on the election campaigning without any fear or favour giving the opposition candidate ample space.

Rajapakse did not try to use intimidation to silence the media, but used the government-owned national media networks to its full potential to counter the allegations and make counter allegation of western-funded cronies trying to provide a platform for re-colonisation of the country. They ignored calls by the Election Commissioner to stop using the government media for election propaganda.

Rampant corruption

Rajapakse started the one-month long official election campaign in December as the front-runner, but by the New Year the trend was beginning to shift. The corruption allegations made by the president’s own former Cabinet colleagues were beginning to hit a nerve in the country.

On January 2, when IDN spoke to a group of formerly staunch Rajapakse supporters in the crucial Gampaha electorate near Colombo, the Sinhalese voters said that they were meanwhile inclined to vote Sirisena.

“When we drive on the road, we have to be careful that we don’t knock into a vehicle driven by Rajapakse cronies. If we do, we are likely to be assaulted both by the driver and the police when they arrive,” said a retired senior police officer, who added, “during my time (in the force) police sometimes acted with ruthlessness but not to that extent”.

“You cannot get your child into the government school today even if you live next door to it without paying a bribe to the local government MP or his crony. This used to be a basic right of a citizen,” said a government health services officer.

A retired banking executive who is a devout Buddhist complained that the government has let loose a bunch of extremist Buddhist monks known as the Budu Bala Sena (BBS) that has allowed people inside and outside Sri Lanka to denigrate Buddhism. “We now know who is behind it. It is Gotabaya (president’s brother who is Defense Secretary), there is no way I will vote for the Rajapakses. I do not want Buddhism to be denigrated anymore.”

As these comments indicate, it is this huge groundswell – a peoples’ power movement of sort – against corruption that propelled Sirisena to the presidency. Though the western media and some of the ethnic minority politicians argue that it was the large turn out of Tamil and Muslim voters who voted for Sirisena that toppled Rajapakse, a closer scrutiny of the votes will show that Rajapakse did loose a large segment of the Sinhalese Buddhist votes, even in provinces he won.

A detailed analysis made by a government statistician (who does not want to be named) shown to IDN indicates that though Rajapakse won in the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese provinces in the south and the north-central, his percentage of votes have dropped drastically from the landslide he achieved in 2010 in the aftermath of the military victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

Interestingly he had slightly increased his percentage of votes in the Tamil dominated Jaffna and Wanni, even though he lost the provinces overall. This could be due to post-war infrastructure development in the north.

Since Sirisena won with about a 3 percent margin and the minority vote was about 4.5 percent, the minorities would appear to have helped him to tip the scales. But, the statistician argues that taking into account that Rajapakse won with a landslide 62 percent vote in 2010, his vote drop constitutes about 14 percent, which means that about 10 percent of the Sinhalese mainly Buddhist voters deserted him this time.

Analysts in Colombo, including the new Health Minister Ranjitha Senaratne (another defector from the Rajapakse regime) quoted these statistics in a TV interview to argue that the Sinhalese Buddhists in large numbers have deserted Rajapakse. Many argue that the crucial factor is the defection of Rajapakse’s close ally JHU.

JHU played a leading role in bringing Rajapakse to power in 2005 and again in 2010 by helping to mobilise the Sinhala Buddhist votes, especially among the urban populations. Another factor was the BBS, which has alienated much of the educated and urban Buddhists. Though JHU has not disagreed with the Buddhist grievances articulated by the BBS, they have resented its tactics of expressing it – especially monks in robes behaving like thugs.

Many in Sri Lanka felt that they were getting away with it, while the police and the army were ruthlessly suppressing demonstrations by student groups, NGOs and unions. Many believed that President’s brother Gotabaya Rajapakse was behind it.

‘Wonder of Asia’

Former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, W.A Wijewardena, writing in the Financial Times referring to former President Rajapakse’s much touted ‘Wonder of Asia’ slogan with reference to the positive economic indicators and infrastructure development in the country, argues that Sri Lanka has in fact demonstrated to the world that it is indeed the ‘Wonder of Asia’.

“Sri Lanka voted out a powerful executive President and elected a candidate who had to go through an unfair contest right from the beginning until the announcement of the final results” he noted. “That was the ‘Wonder of Asia’ Sri Lanka has demonstrated to the world.” He pointed out that Twitter and Facebook played a leading role in this process to take the opposition candidate’s message to the masses. He argues that with the widespread availability of mobile phones across the country this social media was in the Sinhalese language and it reached both urban and rural masses.

Adding to this “wonder” is the widely circulated allegation (so far denied by military sources and the Rajapakse inner circle) that Rajapakse did try to declare a state of emergency and stop the counting process around 1am on January 9. But his Attorney General, Army Commander and the Head of the Police have refused to conduct a sort of a coup that is similar to the military refusal to handover power in Burma in 1990 when Aung San Suu Kyi was on the brink of being elected as the country’s leader.

Still in infancy

The “peoples power” in Sri Lanka is still in its infancy and faces huge challenges. The mood of the electorate is to rid the political system of corruption and cronism and President Sirisena has started on the correct note by even quoting from the Buddhist  ‘Bible’ Dhammapada on the essence of good governance in his first address to the new Cabinet. He has said that Sri Lanka does not need a King but politicians who serve the people.

“This is the first time since Independence in 1948, when a new Cabinet of Ministers was given such a message by a Prime Minister or an Executive President,” noted former media advisor to President Rajapakse and veteran journalist Lucien Rajakarunanayake. “His message was quite clear – if there is corruption, fraud and irregularities in office – there would be firm disciplinary action despite the rank or office held by a person.”

There are also rumblings from Tamil civil society groups in the country and in the West that the new regime has to address what they call the “Tamil question”. However, if such pressures come from Western governments or from India it could be divisive in the current climate and destablise the government, especially calls to have Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother Gotabaya to stand war crimes charges in The Hague. The Sinhalese will close ranks to protect their war heroes and it could tip the scales in favour of the Rajapakses in general elections expected later this year.

President Sirisena, as well as the JHU, gave an assurance even before the presidential elections that they do not support such a war crimes investigation. In fact, Sirisena was the acting Defence Minister in the Rajapakse government during the final week of the war in 2009 when these war crimes are alleged to have occurred, because both President Rajapakse and army chief Sarath Fonseka were overseas.

The new government’s thinking on the issue is reflected in a comment the new Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake made to ‘Sunday Leader’ this week. “We will establish good governance, independence of media and independent commissions, etc. Thus the question of Geneva does not arise,” he argued, referring to the war crimes inquiry of the Geneva based UN Human Rights Commission that is widely unpopular in Sri Lanka.

“(Sri Lanka’s) ability to ensure a free, fair and wholly credible election, where the people clearly expressed their views on the two main candidates, has brought credit to our record as the Asian country with the oldest record of universal franchise. This would help silence many critics, especially abroad, that we lack the ability as a society to resolve our own problems in a truly democratic manner”, argues Rajakarunanayake.

If the West still believes in democracy, anti-corruption and good governance, political observers hope they will listen to his advise and not try to exploit the opening, and destabilise the country like they have done in Libya and Iraq.

*Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 15, 2015]

The writer’s previous IDN articles:

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2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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