Thursday, 8 January 2015 00:00
“It’s the lesser evil”.
It’s New Year’s Eve and I am sitting next to a paralegal who, aghast at my complaint that I may have to spoil my ballot on purpose in the election, is trying to change my mind.
“I don’t care if you vote for Mahinda,” she says. “But vote for someone. And wouldn’t Sirisena be the lesser evil?”
I shake my head. “I am not convinced that he is,” I tell her honestly. “And that’s the problem.”
She knows what I mean – there is a look of acknowledgment on her face. “I know,” she responds. “But I felt I had to – I drank the Kool-Aid.”
The festive season in Colombo this year at first, seemed very normal and ordinary. There were the usual number of weddings, festive events, and company Christmas parties and end-of-year functions. But bubbling under the surface of daily life is the concern over the election as the candidates spruik their policies, their ideals, their slanging of each other. The presidential election campaign made its presence well-known and felt in Colombo from the start of November when elections were first called.
Preaching to the choir
Rewind back to a week before New Year’s Eve. I am at a forum for members of the business community in Colombo. I look around a room packed full of people who are all rather excited to be there – it turns out to be the forum where the UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his party’s common candidate Maithripala Sirisena will address the business community about their economic policies. My first thought in looking around is, “Where are all the women?”
The place is filled with what I realise are a few hundred older men. There are scatterings of people in their thirties and here and there some women and I wonder if this is reflective of a bias or a choice on the part of women to not participate and to not attend but I am cut short in my thoughts by the entrance of Ranil, Maithripala and Rosy Senanayake.
I am struck by a sense of déjà vu. The week before in some mad and not quite logistically sound move, President Mahinda Rajapaksa organised a forum to be held across four different venues concurrently in the heart of the city and dashed from each venue to the next to make his official presence known to whoever was in attendance there, while various speakers and panellists including the Secretary to the Minister for Defence and Urban Development Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal expounded on the development of the nation since the war and what was to be expected in the future.
The similarity is the heavily-underscored perception I have of each candidate preaching to their own converted. The people in the room in each case already have made up their minds – they have already drunk the Kool-Aid.
I settle in to see what Ranil has to say, a man who has been in the Leader of the Opposition role in politics for so long, it’s almost hard to imagine him as anything else. And here I am disappointed yet again – while Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speeches were full of rhetoric that I found hard to believe, Ranil’s speech was peppered with jokes and digs at the opposition and of promises that I wanted to believe but also wanted hard data and details for.
When quizzed for these in the Q&A session after both he and Maithripala spoke, neither could elucidate further; Ranil, now experienced after decades, expertly failing to answer the question by covering it up with a quip that easily distracted the audience. People commented that it was the liveliest that they had seen him be in years.
Added to that is the problem of the 100 day program – Maithripala’s manifesto that promises to abolish the Executive Presidency and to kick-start a large number of reforms within the time limit of 100 days. As I glance through the prettily designed list, I don’t see how 100 days is sufficient to make all this happen or how consensus can and will be obtained after the elections when Maithripala’s side consists of members of various different parties who all have very different agendas.
And with all the crossovers occurring that became the highlight of December’s political news in some weird game of Red Rover played out nationally, people question the authenticity of Maithripala Sirisena as a candidate, the first crossover in this round with the shock announcement that he was the common candidate.
“How do we know that he isn’t a plant? You know – to ensure that the Opposition don’t get to form a cohesive strategy to campaign with?” asked one friend of mine. How indeed, though another friend, an ardent fan, swore up, down and sideways that nothing has been discovered about him that paints him in a less than a favourable light.
Comparing swans and bo leaves
It’s this that I put to the paralegal – we may believe Mahinda to be corrupt and yes he is developing the country though we question his figures and statistics and how the development is being carried out and we do not feel safe so to vote him in would feel like we were continuing to consent to what feels less like a democracy and more like a dictatorship.
But if the alternative is Ranil and Maithripala, who is an unknown quantity, with no real details on how they will do things, a list of wonderful reforms that seem impossible to achieve within a 100 day timeframe, the inherent trouble of a side of supporters that span the spectrum of political ideologies and Ranil’s vision that seems to think we as a nation need to become a tiger economy about 20 years after the phenomenon and that privatisation is a good thing, it looks like we will be voting for a sense of safety, possible political instability on some level and taking Sri Lanka’s economy down a different path.
Like the symbols for either party, it’s comparing swans and bo leaves. It’s incomparable and it makes it harder to make a choice, even to determine who the lesser evil is.
As I tell the paralegal: “My vote may not count for much as part of the tiny percentage that is the urban elite in this country, but if I do vote, I don’t want to vote for someone who will muck things up as well, but in a different way.”
As one anonymous critic in their most recent column put it: “Kolombians have been fooled into thinking they have a choice when there isn’t one.”
Racism and violence
But it’s also not the economy that is necessarily worrying everyone. On the surface, Colombo feels restful and comfortable but six months beforehand, there was terror as supporters of the Bodu Balu Sena, an extremist Buddhist party, kick-started riots targeting Muslim homes and businesses in the south that resulted in casualties, damage and a sense of disbelief because to stir racial or religious tensions up after the war was finally over after 25 years seemed to be the stupidest thing anyone could want to happen.
Despite promises to investigate and deliver justice, after seven months, nothing has still been done with claims that there was no evidence that could be used and this has meant that many minority communities have turned away from supporting the incumbent President. This, coupled with the attacks on Maithripala and his supporters that have already occurred in the run-up to the election, have many wondering if they should venture out at all on the day.
“I am scared to send my son to school,” says one Muslim woman. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. And he [Mahinda] didn’t stand by us when the BBS attacked us – I am worried something will happen on the day.”
In response to his concerns about electoral violence, the Sri Lankan Government has slammed Ban Ki-Moon for interfering in internal affairs and responded to other queries, assuring the public that a democratic process will be followed.
Election day this year has been set for 8 January, coincidentally the sixth death anniversary of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the then-Editor of The Sunday Leader, who was brutally murdered on the way to work in 2009. Lasantha was an outspoken critic of the Government and had just castigated the Government for the shootout attack on Sirasa broadcasting studios just two days earlier.
There has been no investigation and no justice carried out and his own daughter questions how the date could be considered auspicious for an incumbent leader who didn’t attempt to investigate and who some think was directly responsible.
But Lasantha was not the only one. Three days prior to election day, Viharamahadevi Park was lit up with candelight on 5 January as members of the media paid tribute to him and other local and foreign journalists who have died or disappeared over the last two to three decades, most cases with no investigations, no justice, no answers.
Division within biz community
But some do have some answers. Over the last few days of campaigning, a group of several bankers call a meeting and tell the media that they are against privatisation and that to vote for Maithripala would derail the economy. They are State bankers from the Bank of Ceylon, Seylan Bank and the People’s Bank.
It seems as if there is now a division within the business community – State bankers and engineers are for Mahinda, the private sector and private banks are for Maithripala for the most part, unless they directly benefit from the massive amounts of construction and development that has been taking place in the country over the past few years. But there is a problem with that assumption too.
The loans for the development come from the ADB, the World Bank, JICA and the EXIM Bank of China for the most part and come with conditions attached such as using certain contractors and this cuts certain local businesses out of the development game, which in the case of the Southern Expressway from Kottawa to Galle cost Rs. 113 billion, according to the Ministry of Highways, Ports and Shipping’s Secretary R. W.R. Premasiri.
At a forum organised by the Sri Lanka Professional Engineers Association on the last possible day of campaigning, Premasiri explains his numbers and reasons though not in full and an engineer in the audience laments the fact that there are engineers based locally who do not get the contracts and do not get to be part of the development of the nation.
And there are questions about that figure – though Premasiri has provided reasons for why the cost ballooned from the estimated total costs of Rs. 45 billion, he has not provided exact accounting of how much of the money was spent on each additional item of expenditure. Where does Rs. 60 billion go and does it actually go into compensation for land, into CCTV systems and get absorbed by rising costs of materials? And if so, how much in each case? These are the questions that cause others to debate if the President’s regime is corrupt.
And do people understand the numbers that they are given? In the last week of campaigning as the Central Bank introduced its strategy for the coming year, I find myself explaining to someone that if the debt is expressed constantly as a percentage of the GDP, then even though the percentage seems to drop the following year, it doesn’t mean that repayments have been made to decrease the actual amount of debt – it could just easily mean that the GDP has increased by enough to make the percentage of debt in relation to it look as if it has decreased when nothing has been done about it. It then occurs to me that no one else in the audience of business people seems to question this.
“They know the actual numbers so they already know,” is what I was told. But not everyone who has a vote knows what the country’s GDP and national debt are in actual figures or is likely to understand how easily figures can be misrepresented and misunderstood.
The question still remains. Does one choose based on policy? Or on a short-term strategy to change the balance of power, as others have put it to me: “We are voting just to get some change occurring – this is our chance to get rid of the Rajapaksas.”
The devil you know
In the last days of the campaign, the President went up to Jaffna to recreate his Momentum Forum effort there and to open a railway station. There was no Q&A session at the Forum and people were reportedly disappointed at the lack of a chance for dialogue.
The President then asked the people to vote for him as “the devil that you know”. It’s a large departure from the start of his campaign when he and his followers spruiked the end of the war and the rapid development of the nation and the promise of continued peace, stability and growth.
As Hilmy Cader put it, one side wants people to vote for brand loyalty and the other for brand switching. And while many believe that the President still holds the majority vote from the rest of the country, I do hear talk of people switching their vote to Maithripala because they believe that Mahinda has not delivered on the promises made to them.
With less than a day to go, it’s still unclear who would be the better option. It doesn’t feel like a proper choice, it doesn’t feel like there is a lesser evil option – it still feels like either way you could be easily damned. How likely is it that Maithripala will abolish the Executive Presidency if he gets into power?
Others insist that perhaps former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe will keep him in line and ensure this, but this would require a degree of influence within this weird collection and coalition of parties that we don’t have any real knowledge of.
“If you spoil your ballot, then you are still making a choice – to let others choose for you,” the paralegal reminded me. And she has a point – I could vote for the smaller parties, the other candidates, the ones no one ever expects to get in, but would that not have a similar effect to spoiling my ballot? They don’t have the numbers, popularity wise, to swing the vote effectively.
I know I won’t be marking certain boxes. But I don’t know what boxes I will be marking either and I probably won’t know right until I step up to that stand with my paper in hand. And apart from those drinking the various flavours of Kool-Aid, I am pretty sure that will be the case for most of those voting today.