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Seeking the minority Tamil votes in northern Jaffna town in the last week of campaigning, Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa asked the war-affected population to trust the known devil to the unknown angel that he hinted that the common Opposition candidate and one-time aide, Maithripala Sirisena was. Yet, if the Tamils along with the Muslim minorities voted overwhelmingly for Sirisena, the rest of the nation’s 15-million voters, comprising mainly the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, did so much less, though, to make the unknown angel, the nation’s president, writes N Sathiya Moorthy

It was anti-incumbency and the new-generation’s need for change which has become fashionable and real in South Asia as a whole that did President Rajapaksa in. The social media generation accounting for ten percent of the nation’s voters made the change possible as in neighbouring India. Yet, there can be no denying the overwhelming contribution of the minorities to the victory of Sirisena, who was overly dependent on his United National Party (UNP) and Democratic Party (DP) allies, apart from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC), which made a calculated yet belated cross-over from the government side, one after the other.

If that upped the morale of the dispirited Opposition from past defeats at the hands of the Rajapaksa leadership over the past decade, the decisive declaration of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for the Tamils to ignore the boycott call from within and instead vote out Rajapaksa made the crucial difference, as the final tally showed. With this, the Tamils might have redeemed themselves, particularly in the eyes of the present-day opposition, whose UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe lost out to then Prime Minister Rajapaksa following an LTTE boycott call.

War-Time and Peace-Time

All of this only goes on to prove that today, the people and the nation want change from war-time presidency by discovering a peace-time president, who was not on the horizon until spotted. Or, so it would seem. However, those in the know were aware almost since the summer of 2013 that then ministerial and party aide of President Rajapaksa would be his tormentor whenever presidential polls were held.

Even as the minority vote against President Rajapaksa was overwhelming in their traditional support-bases, in the majority Sinhala areas, where he had a higher vote-share, the margins were low. Where Sirisena had a higher vote-share, the margins were high. It is thus a combination of factors like anti-incumbency and a combination of parties, particularly the late-comers in those representing the minority communities that made the difference.

Needless to point out, President Sirisena’s poll victory counted mainly on the traditional anti-establishment, anti-incumbency urban middle class votes, and also the committed UNP vote-bank. That both overlapped up to a point, and after a point to, did not make matters any better for President Rajapaksa. In the post-war era of social media and new-generation voters, anti-incumbency as a poll factor seems to have spread out of urban Colombo, to cover middle class voters in semi-urban and even rural centres, or it would seem.

Smooth Transition

Credit should go to President Rajapaksa for conceding the election long before official results for a third of the 75 percent valid votes had been counted. The midnight message from across the country was not really encouraging for him. By making his decision official and exiting Temple Tress at dawn on the counting day, he snuffed out all pre-poll speculation to the contrary. That the decision was preceded by a talk with UNP’s Wickremesinghe did not go unnoticed, however.

It is sad that in a country as democratic as Sri Lanka with universal adult franchise from as far back as 1931, speculation of a possible military coup was allowed to float around without anyone wanting to check it or deny it, pre-poll. If anything, the results would indicate that even from among the armed forces and their families, President Sirisena had his own share of Sinhala votes.

Three-Way Street, But...

President Sirisena has his job cut out. Rather, he has set himself jobs before the polls that he will want to finish in the first 100 days. At the top of it all is the abolition of the executive presidency. There is also the mention of the revival/restoration of the Seventeenth Amendment independent panels for high-profile selections in public service.

These are not going to be straight forward jobs as was made out to be, pre-poll. Each stakeholder in the incoming ruling coalition, including prospective outside under-writers like the TNA and the JVP, may have their own views on the issues concerned. As a candidate, President-elect Sirisena had talked about restoring the two-term upper-limit but with four years each for the presidency, down from the current six years.

In a way, the coalition discourse on the abolition of executive presidency and re-distribution of powers between the president and the cabinet headed by the prime minister or, in the office of the prime minister, faces the inevitable danger of being personality-driven. It was the same when late UNP President JR Jayewardene introduced the executive presidency scheme, that too after the SLFP Opposition had been electorally mauled in parliamentary polls and party leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike was stripped of her franchise.

Sirisena is now credited with having said that he, as president, would like to retain the defence portfolio with him as has been mandated under the Constitution, at present. The UNP is all for the abolition of the executive presidency, but the Centre-Right JHU and the Centre-Left JVP would prefer an executive president with fewer powers, both assured and assumed, than at present. To both, executive presidency is tantamount to the continuance of the unitary state, which is an anathema to the TNA, which differentiates it from a united Sri Lanka.

Throughout the campaign period, political parties and leaders now forming the incoming ruling combine have been careful not to trod on one another’s toes in terms of contesting their claims and promises, but some of them may come in for careful scrutiny by the rest in the days and weeks to come. How they negotiate those differences between now and the parliamentary polls, and how they conduct themselves in the absence of a common and insurmountable adversary in the war-victorious President Rajapaksa, would also endear them all or a few among them to the voters in any parliamentary polls from now on.

Amendments required to abolish/amend the executive presidency require two-thirds majority in Parliament, which the combined opposition does not have. As if to encourage further defections from the outgoing ruling combine, President Sirisena, in particular, was careful to reiterate that he was still the SLFP General Secretary. 

Vote for Change

It is an over-simplification of the poll results to claim that it was a vote against the Rajapaksa autocracy and the like. True, there was a vociferous urban middle class that saw autocratic ways in everything that Rajapaksa and his predecessors had done. They need to remember there is the other near-half of the voters who have still voted for him again. It was a vote for change, a vote in recognition and reminder of the fact that the war was behind the nation, and they needed peace, and a president who personified peace and peace alone.

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N Sathiya Moorthy

N Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. He may be reached at sathiyam54@gmail.com. This is an amended version of the article that appeared in The Sunday Leader, Colombo on January 11, 2015 and can be accessed at http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2015/01/11/unknown-angel-is-president/

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