Sri Lanka: Presidential election - Will there be a change or more of the same?

Among the three main candidates Gotabaya Rajapaksa is being promoted by his family, friends and party loyalists, mainly Sinhala nationalists who believe that it is he who is responsible for the "war victory".

by Leela Isaac

The power now rests with the people to change or not to change. They will decide whether to continue within the same corrupt political culture promoted not only by the present set of politicians but also by the previous Rajapaksha regime, or bring in a new set of leaders who are not only educated but also efficient and above all honest and sincere about the promises they make. It is only such a leadership that can redeem this country from the mess it has been pushed into; fast moving towards a failed state. The new parliament should have such capable leaders who can truly be our legislators.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa with his wife and son
What we have today is a corrupt set of leaders and a parliament full of uneducated, ignorant, inefficient, immoral, greedy, power hungry men and women, 225 of them (with a few exceptions) who are fattening themselves on the poor taxpayer’s money. Their antics, misdeeds and corruption have been so clearly exposed by the media that it is not necessary to list them. This is only a presidential election but the new president would have the power to initiate a change in the system, depending on the team that supports him.

Among the three main candidates Gotabaya Rajapaksa is being promoted by his family, friends and party loyalists, mainly Sinhala nationalists who believe that it is he who is responsible for the "war victory". (Although he himself has recently admitted that it was not he but General Sarath Fonseka who defeated the LTTE.) It is also announced that his brother, ex-president Mahinda Rajapksa, is their prime ministerial candidate. Under the 19th amendment, many of the president’s powers have been curtailed and the executive prime minister’s powers have been increased. But it may not lead to a tussle between the two brothers as it did between Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, with Gotabaya as president and Mahinda as the all powerful executive prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe (a friend and protector of the Rajapaksas’) as the opposition leader, and almost the same set of corrupt ministers and MPs, is anything going to change? Wouldn’t it be the same regime that was rejected by more than six million people in 2015? Wouldn’t we have more of the same thing that we had between 2005 and 2015, including white vans, enforced disappearances, plus massive corruption with some development?

The UNP and the New Democratic Front candidate Sajith Premadasa has not had any corruption charges levelled against him, nor has he got anyone murdered or disappeared. There has also been greater freedom during the last four and a half years and the media has not been harassed unlike in the previous 10 years. But there has been massive corruption under this Yahapalanaya regime and Sajith is a part of this government. Can he now come forward as a "clean" candidate and erase all the sins of his party? It is his party leadership that used Arjuna Mahendran to rob the central bank and Sajith as the deputy leader of the party and cabinet minister remained a mere silent observer. Once he becomes president, will he try to sweep the Bond Scams under the carpet in order to protect the leadership of his party. Even today the UNP politicians some of whom are accused of being involved in the Bond Scam are enthusiastically cheering him and organizing his election campaign. He has to tell the voters how he proposes to get rid of corruption and corrupt politicians. If not, his promises to clean up the corrupt system and usher in a new era may be considered mere empty rhetoric. He should also talk more about his national policies and plans to develop the country rather than promising more and more handouts like Samurdhi, Janasaviya, school uniforms etc. People should be helped to generate their own income, instead of remaining ‘beggars’ at the feet of their politicians.

The National People’s Movement (NPM) has put forward Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, the JVP leader as their presidential candidate. The JVP as a party has been able to do a lot of work being part of the opposition, especially in exposing corruption within the government. Although people flock to listen to them at their political meetings they fail to support them at elections. Anura Kumara has no corruption charges against him. He also cannot be held responsible for the "bloodbath" that the original leaders of his party indulged in. He does seem to have definite plans and policies that he promises to implement. Another factor in his favour is that he has a team of advisors from professional organisations to guide him. And yet there is a vague suspicion among voters that the JVP may end up supporting the UNP. However, at least during the next general elections one hopes that many of their members will enter parliament to form a strong opposition and Anura Kumara becomes the leader of the opposition.

Apart from these main candidates, there are another 32 independent candidates. Among these except for a few genuine ones like Dr. Rohan Pallewatta, Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, Dr. Ajantha Perera and former army commander Mahesh Senanayake, the rest seem to be mere dummies running for personal reasons. These few men and women who are not only educated and efficient but also sincere and committed. Having reached the top most level in their own respective fields, they do not have to run after money, power and perks. But as citizens who love this country, perhaps they do not want to stand aside and watch the country being destroyed by a corrupt set of politicians. At the moment there is no reason to doubt their sincerity and commitment to serve the country. Therefore the floating voters both young and old looking for a change may decide to vote for one of them.

These independent candidates are also supported and advised by groups of professionals and intellectuals, university teachers and some well-known lawyers. Some of them seem to have worked very hard for more than three years to formulate their national policies and plans which they now place before the people. These include ways and means of increasing our national economic growth (which at the moment stands at 2.6%), constitutional and educational reforms, a solution to the ethnic problem through devolution of power, ways to maintain the independence of the judiciary and make the country secure in all spheres of life. They also promise an effective, efficient and transparent public service instead of the "bloated" and inefficient public service that we have today.

Most of their plans, if implemented could regain our "lost paradise". For instance constitutional amendments could be made to bring in professionals and intellectuals into the cabinet from outside the parliament. A second chamber could be introduced and the number of parasitical "Professional Politicians" in the legislature reduced. Our economic growth has to be increased through production. And for this more than getting foreign investment, it is necessary to educate and empower our own farmers, industrial and plantation workers. The government has to help them to make their own money rather than offer them handouts. As the saying goes "Give the fisherman a fishing rod; not fish". This could be done through our universities by creating a link between them and the workers. Through this, our farmers and workers could learn to use modern methods and technology effectively and increase production, thus increasing our exports and reducing our imports. At the moment even sliced dried mangoes and pineapples are being imported while tons of homegrown fruits are dumped into garbage bins because our producers lack storage facilities. It would be a great pity if these men and women with such visions are denied political power.

Ours is a democracy and it is only the people who can vote them to power. It is said that "the cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate". Is our electorate educated? No, because our politicians over the years have failed to educate the electorate or create political awareness among them, in their own self-interest. The plantation workers are the best example. For generations they have been kept in a state of semi-slavery, obediently voting for the candidate chosen by their leader. So will the masses give up their party loyalties and vote for an independent candidate at the presidential election? Very unlikely. But at least at the general election in March 2020 they should vote for these candidates to get them into parliament. If we do not bring about a change now and continue the same political system with the same old "Professional Politicians" clinging onto power, future generations may curse us for our failure.

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