Condottieri is the plural for condottiere, which is Italian in origin, meaning the leader or captain of a mercenary army. They are hirelings bought for money or other rewards by a resourceful party. How and whys of a war or struggle is not their concern, and they will fight for their paymaster. They may even switch side if the opponents promise better rewards. They are however, merciless killers.
It is tempting to employ this terminology to describe some of the thirty-five candidates who have submitted nominations to contest in the Presidential Election in November. Before that, why such a large number? Has democracy gone berserk in Sri Lanka?
The country is already noted for its omnibus cabinets. Now the race for presidency reflects the same love for quantity. If this trend is allowed to continue unchecked, apart from the enormous cost to the treasury, the Election Commissioner may have to print not a ballot paper but a ballot booklet in future, and provide a desk and chair inside voting booths for voters to sit and turn the pages to pick their choice.
Frankly speaking, there are only two or possibly three candidates representing the UNP, SLPP and NPM (National People’s Power), who are the most serious contenders to the job. Yet, none of them can hope to get the 51% needed to cross the line. Therefore, in this election second preferences will be the crucial decider. The other 32 candidates are also aware of these facts.
Why then are these 32 contesting? They all know that none of them can win even with second or third preferences. So the question arises, did they jump into the fray on their own volition or at the request of some other party? Not all of them of course.
There may be a few who entered just to test their own popularity among voters so that they could work out the odds to consider running at the next election in five years’ time. To them, therefore, this is a trial run.
There may be a few others in the fray just to damage the winning chances of one or more of the leading contenders. To them, it does not matter who wins except the ones whom they hate.
One or two may also have entered just for the sake of prestige. “I also ran,” he or she can one day tell the grandchildren. One can understand and even justify the motives of these three groups.
What worries is the role of a fourth group, the ones that may have been deliberately pushed into the arena by one or the other of the two leading contenders. The intention is to pull as many votes as possible away from the opponent and towards the hired candidate, but with an undertaking that preferential vote will go to the hirer.
These are the condottieri who are obviously promised with tempting rewards, like for example, a governorship or ministerial position or even an ambassadorial post, if the hirer wins the contest. This seems to be the only explanation why candidates from the two minority communities in particular have entered the race.
In the prevailing communal politics of Sri Lanka, not even God can push a Tamil or a Muslim, let alone a Sinhalese Christian, into the office of presidency. It will be occupied by a Sinhala Buddhist. Period. Why then are the Tamil and Muslim candidates running for this office?
In the previous Presidential Election it was the en bloc voting of minorities that defeated MR and brought in MS. In this election also both GR and SP think that a repetition of that minority behaviour will decide the winner. This is why at least the GR camp, which is less popular within minorities, would prefer if those votes could split and scatter in several directions, provided that the second preference goes towards its candidate. Hence, the need to find some popular personalities and budding heroes within the two communities who could be bought and asked to do the dirty work. If the minority candidates who are in the arena had fallen prey to this subterfuge, then they have betrayed their own community and jeopardised its future for the sake of personal profit and position. If the ultimate winner emerges with this corrupt record, how can he eradicate corruption from his governance?
To the minorities, including Sinhalese Christians, the greatest danger facing today is the rise of an aggressive Buddhist supremacist movement. The leaders of this movement claim that the Buddhists “own” the country, and that all non-Buddhists are only temporary residents. Like the Islamists in the Middle East, these supremacists have politicised Buddhism and their brand of Buddhism has nothing to do with the preaching of the Compassionate Buddha.
Political Buddhism is an existential threat to minorities in this country. A series of violent incidents unleashed by the supremacists have gone unpunished by the current Government and un-condemned by the Opposition.
For example, the latest incident in Mullaitivu Neeraviyadi Pillayar Kovil, which took place in callous disregard to an order of prevention from the Judiciary, illustrates the growing power of this unruly mob. Neither GR nor SP has so far condemned this incident in particular and made their position clear about Buddhist supremacy. On the contrary, their silence speaks volumes. Only AKD from NPM has distanced himself from this group.
Given this situation, minorities need a representative voice from within the majority Buddhists to speak on their behalf and demand justice to their grievances. There is no use fighting on their own, as Tamils did for more than half a century and always lost. Tamils and Muslims have weakened their position further through disunity and political opportunism.
The National People Movement, represented by JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake, appears to be that voice from the majority side. His hands need to be strengthened. Muslims and Tamils should at least cast their second preferences to AKD. He may not win this time, but NPM will emerge as a strong alternative at the next General Elections. Minorities should look beyond the Presidential Election when they cast the ballots. In the 1950s and 1960s, when leftists took a stand both inside and outside Parliament to support the interests of minorities so that they would be treated equally as the majority in terms of rights and obligations, the bulk of the Tamils and Muslims rejected those parties. Tamils rejected them, because they were Sinhalese, and Muslims, because they were deemed Godless atheists. It was a historic blunder that is hurting these communities even now.
This time, impostors from the two communities, publicly professing to champion the cause of their people, but secretly in bed with one of the two leading contenders, are enticed with lucrative rewards to become mercenaries. This is why they are in the presidential arena.
It is the task of civil right groups and the intelligentsia within these communities to canvass openly, explain to voters the dangers posed by the condottieri, unmask their face and save the people from charlatans and fraudsters. Enough is enough. The country and its people deserve an epochal change towards cleaner governance.
(The writer is attached to the School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia.)