Big decisions in the New Year

Thursday, 1 January 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The New Year has dawned, bringing many new things with it. But new is not always good. New means change and that can be challenging – scary even. What it means most of all is big decisions. Barely a week into the new year, Sri Lankans have to head to the polls in what is shaping up to be the biggest decision they will have to make since the war ended in 2009. They have to decide between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his main rival, common candidate Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapaksa, despite enjoying many plaudits for ending the war, has nonetheless raised serious concerns over a host of issues including corruption, nepotism, undermining the judicial system and delivering long-term economic growth. Despite pledging to combat corruption on stage and in his latest manifesto and even going so far as to pledge a new Constitution, if stakeholders back it, there is little credibility behind the promises made by President Rajapaksa. Detractors would say the same could be said of Sirisena. Successive statements have promised peace that is felt equally by all communities but nearly five years on since the end of the conflict, this is yet to materialise. The Tamil community still feels they are marginalised and meaningful devolution of power is yet to be implemented. Reconciliation measures including fulfilling the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), investigation into human rights abuses and ensuring civil rights move at snail pace. Perhaps the most worrying is the intensifying religious intolerance in the country that was allowed to escalate to unprecedented levels, disturbing many moderates this year. The horrendous event in Aluthgama was the latest in a deeply-disconcerting chain of events that have been allowed to be tacitly unrolled by parties that have links to the Government. Minorities, however, do have a strong part to play in the upcoming elections. If the Sinhala Buddhist vote is split down the middle between Rajapaksa and Sirisena, they could become the kingmakers. The latter has unified, at least on the surface, a motley crew and pledged to strengthen democratic institutions that have been largely undermined by the present Government. His policies are likely to see fewer benchmark development projects such as what Rajapaksa has put up with Chinese loans, but it could pave the way for a more sustainable future with less debt and options for more equitable growth. Sirisena will also not have the political capital to back down on key promises such as abolishing the executive presidency; his coalition will simply fall apart if promises are not met. Perhaps it is time for Sri Lanka to move to sound policies rather than swaggering personalities, not an unwise move in the post-war era. Yet, some analysts feel abolishing the executive presidency is the wrong move and trimming power is sufficient. There are also concerns over Wickremesinghe’s role as a prime minister and the eventual fate of Sirisena, who for the most part is respected as a competent politician, once the 100 days are up. But change comes with risks and Sri Lankan voters will have to develop a deeper political insight to competently reflect on the pros and cons of both candidates. They need to stop being swayed by handouts and begin to think long-term, perhaps even longer than the next six or seven years. The week ahead will give time for reflection and hopefully a decision that will be proven right by the future.