If there is one demand on which a cross-section of society, irrespective of ideology or ethnic and religious persuasion can be rallied, it is the demand for the abolition of the Executive Presidency (EP). The Sinhalese, the minorities, persons of all faiths, a majority in the SLFP, the UNP, the JVP, the Frontline, the ‘Backline,’ indeed everybody who is fed up with the EP and thinks the 18th Amendment and the rotten EP-regime is blight upon the country, can unite for this single, well targeted objective.
The one-issue framework is a necessary condition for bread-based unity. A single-issue candidate is a person whose platform consists of the sole task of abolishing the EP and setting in motion the processes for amending the Constitution or writing a new one as necessary to supplement this change. On the morrow of victory it may be necessary to dissolve parliament and elect a new one if the then existing one refuses to align with the mandate to abolish the EP, or it may be better to institute a constituent assembly, etc., – these are later matters and bridges to be crossed when reached. The crucial point at this stage is that a single-issue candidate declares: “I will abolish the EP, ensure that a parliamentary system is set up, and then I’m off, I have no further political ambitions.”
A name that has been suggested as a single-issue candidate is that of Ven. Maduluwewa Sobitha Thera and he is a good choice if he presents himself as a single-issue challenger. However, I have been informed that the good Thera is not interested in the presidency because of his religious role. Since the single-issue president will hold office, for only a very short period, say one year, and since he/she will be tasked with just one duty, abolishing the EP and putting in place a parliamentary system, I don’t see any objection to any person who has courage undertaking the task. Defeating the incumbent is a precondition for getting started on the task – hence a candidate who can break Rajapaksa’s Sinhala-Buddhist petty-bourgeois base is the most suitable. Abolishing the EP can truthfully be called a matter of national salvation which surely is not beneath the dignity of a monk!
Several other names have been bandied around; Chandrika, Sarath Silva, Justice Warawewa and of course Ranil himself, but the first two have ruined their reputations and won’t stand a chance at the polls, and frankly speaking, even if they swear till they are blue in the face that they are single-issue devotees with no further ambitions, nobody will trust any of them. People say that Sobitha Thera is the exception and that if he gives such a promise he will keep his word.
Why the national question?
It can be reasonably said that the attitude of a single-issue candidate to the national question, economic policy, foreign relations or anything else is irrelevant. Once the EP is abolished, the person will go home and play no further role in running the country; so what does his policy stance on any of these issues matter? This is true and this is the strength of a single-issue candidate and underlines the prospect of drawing upon a wide support base. Nevertheless there are two reasons why public perceptions of the candidate’s stance on the national question will be important.
Capturing the Ceylon Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil vote will provide a hefty boost to the chances of victory. Certain candidates can challenge and break Mahinda’s grip on the Sinhala petty-bourgeois vote and fracture his rural base, but to deliver a coup de grace the candidate needs to capitalise on the 30% non-Sinhala Buddhist (SB) vote in the country. If the candidate is seen as a narrow SB-nationalist, the minorities may rightly choose to stay away and let dog eat dog; it is churlish to throw away such a large sure-bet vote bank. It is true that some Tamils voted for Fonseka despite allegations of war-crimes while a large number also abstained; does the next challenger wish to take the same risk?
The second reason why the candidate’s stance on the national question matters is that though he may present himself as a single-issue candidate, his outlook and ideology on other issues will have an influence on the new Constitution and/or constitutional amendments. And the national question (NQ) is a constitutional matter unlike socio-economic or foreign policy. The single-issue challengers views on the NQ though unrelated to the EP will still form an unwritten mandate for constitutional amendment; so they do matter. Therefore it does count a great deal whether the candidate is a progressive or a reactionary on devolution, providing constitutional guarantees for minority rights, language, religion, and like issues.
What is known is not so good
The general perception is that most Sinhalese politicians are SB-nationalists if not chauvinists. Some (Sobitha, Sarath Silva) were movers in the campaign to release Fonseka; I too supported this campaign but for different reasons. My concern was democratic rights, opposition to trumped up charges and resentment at convicting people in kangaroo courts to slake the vengeance of the Rajapaksas. Many like me, who demanded the release of Fonseka, did so because we wished to take a stand against the trampling underfoot of democratic rights. The rhetoric was different among others who wanted, a hero who had fought the evil enemy and saved the country from Tamil terrorists honoured, not incarcerated! Well that’s OK for people of a certain ideological persuasion, but it’s just a hair’s breadth away from SB-chauvinism.
The other thing that seems not so good is this. What have some of these potential candidates done since the end of the war to mix with, understand and alleviate the harsh reality of Tamil life in the occupied regions? I wonder whether any have visited IDP camps and dismal resettlement colonies, and apprised themselves of the ground reality. Never mind electioneering, isn’t this what one would expect from any righteous person? Better if a prospective president mixes and associates with Tamils and Muslims a lot more.