July 2024

An election like no other

Neville de Silva charts the uncertain course of a much-needed poll that a corrupt administration may prevent from taking place

While the dust is slowly settling in India after its recent tightly fought election, in neighbouring Sri Lanka it is being stirred with venomous intent as the country’s presidential election, due in October, draws ever closer.

But even constitutionally mandated democratic elections, or where the country’s Supreme Courthas determined such elections should be held, are not certain certainties. Sri Lanka, under an executive presidential system since 1978, has proved so, upending democratic traditions.

So when Ranil Wickremesinghe, the island nation’s stop-gap president catapulted to power to complete the unfinished term of his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned in the face of a mass uprising, told Sri Lanka’s First National Student Parliament that ‘Sri Lanka is the only country in Asia that has completely protected democracy’, it most likely left a new generation of students bewildered, wonderingwhether political chicanery is at the heart of governance in the country that was Asia’s first democracy.

Their knowledge of Sri Lankan politics might not extend as far back as half a century to appreciate that the country’s parliamentary democratic system, inherited from colonial Britain, has been emasculated and turned inside out within three decades of Sri Lanka’s independence.

If some of them did, they would have returned home convinced that politics today is as corrupt, lawless, deceptiveand dysfunctional – or even worse – and fashioned to serve a degenerating socio-political elitedetermined to cling to power to preserve their capitalist and now ‘neoliberal’ class,even in their last days.

Sri Lankan president Ranil Wickremesinghe
STOP-GAP PRESDENT: Ranil Wickremesinghe

They would remember, and today’s generation will learn, that when one of the country’s two major political parties, the United National Party (UNP), won a resounding five-sixths parliamentary majority in 1977, party leader Junius Richard (JR) Jayewardene did what he had long aspired to do – transformed Sri Lanka into an executive presidency headed by him, and drafted a new constitution tailor-made for him.

In his famous words, all he could not do under it was to turn a man into a woman and vice-versa.He did more damage to this nation in a short time in the guise of democratic pretence than some other Asian and African power-grabbersdid to crush their once-free nations.

Besides threatening the judiciary, depriving his main political opponents of their civic rights, locking up political challengers he feared, letting loose party thugs against minority communities and sabotaging their local elections, President Jayewardene did what no other leader has done.

Fearing defeat at the next parliamentary election in 1983, despite the huge majority he had in the legislature, President JR Jayewardene called a national referendum to postpone that election by another six-year term,which he did by‘fixing’ the referendum, as many people still remember.

Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democratic systemhas been turned inside out within three decadesindependence

There is one thing that politically savvy Sri Lankans, and those who lived under President Jayewardene’s torrid years of anti-democratic and pro-capitalist rule,fear today as they rephrase Karl Marx’s words that history repeats itself,first as tragedy and then as farce.

Those acquainted with Sri Lankan history then and now will see the immediate connection and note their rising concerns that temporary president Ranil Wickremesinghe could also resort to legal juggling or extra-constitutional means to stay in power, though legally his temporary term must end by mid-November.

President Jayewardene, then leader of the UNP, who engineered the postponement of a parliamentary election, is the uncle of Sri Lanka’s current part time president, a minister then in his uncle’s cabinet and now the leader of the decrepit UNP, which failed to win a single seat, including Wickremesinghe’s own, at the 2020 parliamentary election.

Would part-time president Wickremesinghe employ a similar ruse to extend his stay, dependent as he is on one-time political enemy, the Rajapaksa-family led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which elevated him to the presidency and has a majority in parliament?

That is what is worrying a public that, two years ago,launched mass protests against the Rajapaksafamily-led government ousting Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the presidency and later the cabinet itself.

Fearing defeat in 1983, President JR Jayewardene called a national referendum to postpone that election by another six-year term

To this unprecedented protest movement called the ‘Aragalaya’, which drew millions from across Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious society of different generations and social classes, for several months, the concern is increasingly worrying. Particularly so are his attempts to cow down the judiciary, which has been in Wickremesinghe’s sights since he turned presidential night watchman.

His latest launch against the judiciary in parliament late last month and an attempt to extend the term of the retiring Attorney-General – for the first time since independence in 1948 – a few days earlier, whichwas thwarted by the Constitutional Councilthat twice rejected the presidential recommendation, has left the 75-year Wickremesinghe standing in the Last Chance Saloon.

But that will not stop him firing the last bullets in his belt, even to go down like the Sundance Kid.

Before his last run-in with the judiciary, the secretary general of the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, which failed to win a single seat in parliament, floated what to many observers appeared to be a trial balloon.

mass protests two years ago against the Rajapaksa-led government
The 2022 mass protests against the government led to the ousting of Gotabaya Rajapaksa

The Rajapaksas had chosen Wickremesinghe to pick up the reins of rescuing the country from the economic chaos that followed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ill-conceived policies. It culminated in Sri Lanka beingunable to pay its international debts and declaring itself bankrupt in April 2022.

Wickremesinghe entered into negotiations with the IMF for a rescue bailout package and gradually managed to return the country to some social and economic stability.

The UNP secretary general called for Wickremesinghe to be given an extra two years at least to fulfil some of his Messiah-like promises, made following discussions with the IMF, thatoften lacked transparency and therefore a people’s mandate.

That was shot down by several constitutional experts, leaving the Wickremesinghe master strategists worried that public opinion polls – for whatever they are worth – had him trailing way behind two other opposition contenders in the presidential stakes, to plan alternatives to enhance his electoral credibility.

So when Wickremesinghe and his negotiating team announced that manna was about to drop from heaven, with Sri Lanka’s bilateral creditors agreeing to a debt restructuring deal that would ease the country’s existing problems with regard to repayments, interest rates and an extended time frame to pay back loans, it seemed to many a carefully timed arrangement with the IMF’s assistance to foster his election prospects.

As I write this, I could hear President Wickremesinghe’s address to the Nation broadcast live from Colombo on the night of June 26.

With fire crackers sporadically bursting outside, perhaps around party headquarters and elsewhere, orchestrated by high-end business cronies at home and outside, fattening themselves on IMF-driven economic policies that are beginning to see Sri Lanka’s stateassets being dispensed with. It looked as though independent and sovereign Sri Lanka is on hock at a car boot sale.

President Wickremesinghe hailed the signing of debt restructuring agreements, saying they would allow Sri Lanka to delay repaying its accumulating debts for another decade, and allow it to borrow more.

What he did not say was that today’s younger generation would have to pay for the additional loans.

It might win applause from government supporters and those ignorant of the consequences, particularly since the terms and conditions of the agreements have not been disclosed by theinterim Wickremesinghe administration that wished to project the signing as a major victory.

But willWickremesinghe’s Houdini-like act, conjured with the help of the IMF and Sri Lanka’s pro-western nations, trashed by international economists even before the bag of tricks has been opened for the grand illusion, suffice to win him the election?

Or will he need to turn to other political tricks to help him side-step an election like his uncle didover 30 years ago?

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London