12 January 2015

The way we got to this (result)

Maithripala Sirisena has been elected as the sixth Executive President of Sri Lanka.  A few months ago few would have envisaged this result.  Indeed, a few months ago no one even considered Maithripala as a possible challenger to the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa.  The not-thought-of happened.  Some may say that this was less a vote FOR Maithripala than a vote AGAINST Mahinda.  Some would argue that Maithripala was not Maithripala but a proxy for a collective, a gathering of dissent and dissenting.  At the end of the day, however, Maithripala Sirisena is the First Citizen.  He holds the most powerful political office in the country.  Congratulations are called for.  Best wishes too.

It is easy to list reasons for victory (or defeat, in the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa).  It is harder to assign value to the various factors.  At this point, definitive claims would be presumptuous.  A few important factors could be discussed though.

First the compositions of the two main camps.  On one side there was Maithripala with a significant section of the SLFP, Ranil Wickremesinghe with a UNP that might have shown more enthusiasm had the party put forward a candidate but showed more interest than they did in 2010 (even with Sajith Premadasa pouting), the JVP ‘supporting without saying it’, the SLMC and TNA tagging themselves to a possible winner and the JHU providing in quality what they could not in quantity.  On the other side there was Mahinda Rajapaksa.  Isolated.  Burdened by ills he could ill afford, the ghosts of things not done and indeed things done (of the despicable kind), fatigued and giving reasons to bolster regime-fatigue. 

While track record had pluses to balance the negatives, Mahinda had a handicap that proved to be fatal.  He was surrounded by (or he surrounded himself with) a bunch of hangers-on who had hung around for so long and had fattened themselves to slothfulness.  They seemed to have a simple formula: lokka cannot lose – all we have to do is ‘something’ so that we can say, after he wins, ‘we did it for you’.   It is one thing to be slothful when victory is assured, and quite another to fudge when the going gets tough.  The quite-another happened.  And so it was ‘Mahinda and his Handicaps vs The Rest’ and that was always going to be tough. 

What of the issues?  The talk was ‘good governance’.  Its Sinhala equivalent, ‘යහ පාලනය’ (yaha paalanaya) was for the Sinhala electorate at least as foreign as Patricia Butenis, Robert O Blake, Navi Pillay or David Cameron.  Abolishing the executive presidency or, as Maithripala re-qualified it to ‘abolishing the executive presidential system’ following his understanding with the JHU was certainly not a widely held ‘concern’.  Perceptions of misrule, arrogance, extravagance, conspicuously lavish lifestyles of progeny and absolute contempt for the rule of law may have been far more ‘real’ to the electorate. 

It was not that the voters did not love Mahinda.  In many elections they voted for his party even while cursing most of these things.  One reason was that there was no one in the opposition they could trust to do better.  Maithripala was different and so, even as they felt sorry for Mahinda, they voted him out. 

Mahinda didn’t help his cause by moving so far away from the personality that endeared him to wide sections of the electorate, that he became unrecognizable.  There was hardly any humility in word, tone and expression. There was anger, frustration, desperation and arrogance written all over him.  Had he given the voter some reason to think that he was at the core the same accessible, one-of-us kind of President it might not have come to this. 

There was also a non-issue which, in absence, is of remarkable political significance.  This is the first presidential election since 1982 where ‘minority issues’ were not taken up.  There was no talk of devolution. No talk of the 13th, 13-Plus or 13-Minus.  The TNA didn’t make demands.  Neither did the SLMC.  While the SLMC had everything to gain by backing a winner, the TNA had little hope of reward (of the kind it has always wanted).  This is why the TNA’s intervention is significant.  For the first time, a Tamil communalist party put aside identity-related issues for what has to be read as larger interests of the overall citizenry. 

As interesting is the absence and silence of the usually vociferous good-governance peddlers who quite pompously call themselves ‘civil society’.  This time around, it was the ‘bad boys’, i.e. those they call extremists, hawks, racists, chauvinists etc, etc, who not only talked the talk but walked it.  In the end, it would seem, it’s those who walk the earth and talk earth-talk at the right time standing with the right people who deliver; certainly not the paid mouthpieces of that shady bunch called ‘the international community’. 

Speaking of the international community, what of their constant battle cry for the past five years: regime-change?

The electorate has answered them: ‘Regime change, yes; but at our own pace, the way we want it and with whom we want it.  These international thugs would think nothing of destabilizing the country to the point where anarchy reigns just to get a point across and of course to get a toehold onto the country.  Perhaps they’ll now learn that there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat and that there are less bloody and more wholesome methods than what they prefer.  Let them also remember that it is likely that the only part of this result they can be happy about is the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa is out of office.  Other things are on hold.