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The President must be clear

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa cannot look away
on the MCC Compact, the SOFA and Circular 5/2001 on ‘Other State Lands’
Promises. Promises. Promises. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors during elections. Therefore, almost all manifestos and slogans can be summarized as follows: ‘We promise to do this, that or the other if you vote for us.’  There’s not much to pick in the ‘this, that and the other’ though.

So let’s take a look at the parties. There’s the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and it’s the clear frontrunner. It’s not victory that’s troubling them but the margin. The party’s presidential candidate conferred a resounding defeat on the hopeful from the United National Party (UNP), Sajith Premadasa not too long ago and there are more positives than negatives since then.

The UNP split thereafter with Premadasa now leading a coalition called Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB or United People’s Force). The two factions, ironically, both claim to be united (but separately so). That split has to work in favor of the SLPP simply because they will bag the bonus seats from the majority of districts. The efforts to combat the Covid19 pandemic are unlikely to be forgotten by the electorate. Indeed, these efforts are all the more praiseworthy considering that it was done without a functioning Parliament and in spite of a cabinet whose legitimacy derives only from Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory and certainly not on voter-confidence or competence. The SLPP, as the President’s party, naturally scores, but it will be interesting to see how the electorate behaves in terms of preferences. Same old, same old, or fresh faces known to be aligned more with Gotabaya Rajapaksa than his brother, is the question that will be answered on August 5, 2020.

The UNP and SJB are essentially in a sub-plot fight to secure the No 2 spot. It’s not a battle for control of the Parliament but of Sirikotha, the UNP’s headquarters, essentially. The SJB seems to have the edge not on account of any special attributes of the coalition or its leadership but frustration over Ranil Wickremesinghe’s inability to deliver to the loyalists a decisive and clear electoral victory in almost three decades.

Sajith Premadasa is the leader of the SJB. The man is humble. That’s an admirable and rare quality in a politician these days and as such an important attribute for someone who aspires to lead the nation one day. The problem is that he trips over his verbosity so often that perhaps he should consider spending a little bit more time thinking before he tweets. Humility that follows pomposity is not exactly something to be cheered. It could be argued that a leader who is marked ‘arrogant’ because he or she does not say ‘I’m sorry’ for erring in one out of ten statements, for example, is to be preferred to one who has to apologize at every turn.  

Premadasa promised much in November 2019. He’s promising more now. It’s a win-win situation for a party/leader doomed to end second best, at best — delivery is simply a non-issue. Whether it works is a different matter. Gotabaya Rajapaksa marketed himself as a doer. The first challenge he faced was one of unprecedented order and enormous proportion. Covid19. Whichever way you look at it, more credibility accrued to the ‘doer’ label.

That said, politics is not a rare season. Elections come and go. Fortunes rise and fall. Dark days must be suffered and the astute politician knows that conduct during hard times goes a long way in obtaining ‘better days’ politically. Sajith does have an able second-in-command in Patali Champika Ranawaka. They are both speakers who can hold a crowd, the one with a bit of wit and a few jokes and the other with lucid, concise and sharp argument. If the SJB is doomed to be in the Opposition and bests the UNP at the election, then Ranawaka might be the better choice for the post of Opposition Leader not least of all because he has a far better track record of engagement in Parliament. That’s for later, obviously.  

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is located in an even smaller subplot. The JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake got just 3% of the vote last November. Anything more could give some modest bragging rights. Indeed the JVP could benefit from anti-SLPP voters disgusted with both the UNP and SJB for bickering and are convinced that the JVP, even with much smaller numbers, would do a better job in the Opposition. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), more preoccupied with ideology than the party it broke away from, the JVP, will struggle to get a nose into the final parliamentary frame, but a decent performance will certainly give the JVP a headache.  

All this is about the power equation. How about policy? Neither the Government nor the SLPP has made any conclusive statement on the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact. There is also the Status of Forces Agreement’ with the USA. The East Container Terminal has also been a site of agitation. There is controversy over moves to strike off Circular 5/2001 pertaining to ‘Other State Forests’ in the name of development and land settlement, a move that would be absolutely at odds with Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘carbon neutral’ election campaign less than a year ago.

Since the SLPP is in power right now, clear statements need to be made on all these issues. If such is not forthcoming then the voter would be forced to read thumb-twiddling as a sign of impending action that is dead against the national interest.

‘We will handle it,’ is a promise. A weak one. ‘Handle’ can cut both ways. If the SLPP does not articulate its positions on each of the above issues as well as others that are of equal importance to the nation, it is a signal that should be read as ‘don’t trust us.’ Splendid figures regarding combating Covid19 is not a license for ‘do as we please.’ So let’s have some promises on these issues. Then it’s a mandate and a responsibility. The SLPP can capitalize on a confused and  disorganized opposition but that would be cheap politics. The SLPP is not exactly known for ‘expensive politics’ if you will, but President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must ask himself a few pertinent questions: a) will the SLPP being non-committal scar me? and b) if so, will such scarring impede me in delivering on what I promised last year?’  

Politicians will promise. Parties will promise. Promises and promising are cheap. They are words, however, and a disenchanted people who feel cheated and who are organized will throw them back effectively. Gotabaya Rajapaksa could get hurt if his party keeps things vague.
This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [July 9, 2020]

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