Presidential election campaign; some false options
By Kethesh Loganathan
The Presidential Election campaign appears to have peaked even before the filing of
nominations by the candidates, which is scheduled for this week.
Barring a switch at the last moment, the issues that are being placed before the
electorate by the key contenders Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and Leader of
the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe have been projected in the media and knowingly
or unwittingly fueled by the candidates themselves as a contest between three sets of
options. They are:
(i) Appeasement or War;
(ii) Unitary or Federal;
(iii) Closed or Open Economy.
It is this writer’s contention that these are false options aimed at confusing and
confounding the electorate and that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Let me elaborate by going through these three options.
Appeasement or War?
Colombo-based Peace organizations as well as the UNP have been castigating the
demand for a redesign of the peace process, review of the CFA and Norway’s role and
sanctions on the LTTE as a recipe for war, since it is argued that the LTTE would find
these positions untenable and provocative and therefore would opt for the only option
it knows – namely, war. On the other hand, the Mahinda Rajapakse campaign, led by
the JVP and supported by the JHU, (at least for the time being and for different
reasons), has been focusing on the threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial
integrity brought about by the policy of appeasement pursued by the UNP whilst in
The campaign is focusing on the danger of the appeasement policy being advanced
further if Ranil Wickremesinghe is elected, and the creation of conditions for secession
by the LTTE with its ISGA proposals as the precursor. In other words the options
placed before the Sri Lankan People (read: Sinhala) may be summed as follows: If war
is to be averted one must continue with the offer of incentives to the LTTE or what
could be broadly termed the appeasement approach.
On the other hand, if the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka is to be
safeguarded then what one needs is a belligerent defence policy as well as the
marginalization of the LTTE.
In reality, what is ignored is that there is a range of options between appeasement and
war, which is precisely what the candidates need to focus on instead of dabbling in
false dichotomies. In fact neither appeasement nor war is tenable or desirable. The
policy of appeasement has clearly failed to transform the LTTE, as manifest in the
wake up call issued by the EU by imposing a travel ban and other restrictions on the
LTTE, while reserving the option of listing the LTTE as a proscribed terrorist
organization for its continuing terror killings and child conscription. That the State may
be either directly or through proxies engaged in extra-legal and extra-judicial killings is
no excuse to tolerate the culture of impunity that is masquerading in the guise of
appeasement and incentives to the LTTE. Of course, that is no reason as to why the
State should itself benefit from impunity if allegations of extra-judicial and proxy killings
leveled against it by the LTTE are true.
Be that as it may, it is abundantly clear that war is not an option that the State or the
LTTE would want to exercise at the given juncture. While international pressure and
logistical and manpower constraints would make the LTTE think twice before going for
a protracted war, it is equally clear that the State would think thrice before going to
war. This is despite the clarion call by the JHU and armchair militarists that LTTE
should if necessary be militarily annihilated. All indications are that the Sri Lankan
State and the military machinery is neither psychologically nor materially equipped to
wage a protracted war against the LTTE which perhaps may be what promoted
Somawansa Amerasinghe to declare that if the security forces cannot defend the
country then it should be dissolved! In any event, what we may end up with is a
continuation of psy-ops and proxy or low intensity hostilities by both parties. But then,
this is precisely what has been going on from the time that the ceasefire agreement
(CFA) was signed and is nothing new. It must be clearly understood that a peace
process cannot be advanced through an endless process of appeasement of the
LTTE without reciprocity or by holding the peace process hostage to the constant
threat of war.
What is realistic however is to explore the range of options that lie between
appeasement and war. This could be broadly termed as critical engagement of the
LTTE on issues relating to human rights, humanitarian and interim solutions, while
broad-basing and democratizing the peace process by bringing in other legitimate
stakeholders like the Muslim polity and the Tamil democratic alternatives. Meanwhile, a
concerted attempt should be made to evolve a package of constitutional and political
reforms aimed at a permanent negotiated settlement to the unresolved National
Question. Without such a package it will be nigh impossible to engage not only the
LTTE, but also the Tamil democratic alternatives and the Muslim polity on negotiations
on a durable and a just political and constitutional settlement to the Ethnic Question.
This brings us to the next set of options paraded in the on-going election campaign,
namely, the Unitary or Federal dichotomy.
Unitary or Federal?
Again, it must be clearly understood that there is no single blueprint or system that
epitomizes these concepts. There are unitary models which have incorporated
substantial autonomy and devolution of power to the periphery and there are federal
models where the State continues to jealously safeguard its centrality within the
federal political system. This is something that any student of political science knows
and is astonishing that the debate is presented as a straight cleavage between the
two concepts. What is paramount is the formulation of a constitutional and political
system that suits the Sri Lankan situation and addresses the primary contradiction at
present, namely the National Question. Any solution must not only address the causes
of the conflict, but ensure the acceptability and sustainability of the remedy. What is
basically required therefore is a model or a system that ensures regional autonomy
with substantial powers on matters that relate to identity, security and socio-economic
advancement of the region and the people who inhabit it, in a manner that any future
changes, for better or for worse, should be carried out only with the consent of that
people and region. In this sense, it is clear that the existing unitary constitution is
woefully inadequate, to put it mildly.
Human rights and democracy further should constitute the twin props on which these
models are located. But, to argue that the debate in Sri Lanka is only between the
existing unitary constitution and an abstract and undefined federal model is to engage
in a false debate and a false set of options.
In this regard the Oslo Communiqué where the two parties committed themselves to
explore a federal structure is exactly what it says and nothing more. It must be
understood that the Roadmap to Peace or to a reformed and a restructured State
need not be a single route. There are bound to be detours or alternative paths, but all
heading in one direction. That ought to be the focus of the policymakers and the
peace constituency – as well as the Presidential candidates, rather than engaging in a
disingenuous play on words and concepts to confuse and confound the electorate.
But, whatever may be the political and constitutional model, it will be reduced to
naught if it does not lie on a solid economic foundation. Hence, we turn to the next set
of false options being bandied about in the election campaign – namely, an open or a
Open or Closed Economy?
It needs no gainsaying that there is no economy in the contemporary “globalised”
world that is entirely open or closed. The advanced capitalist countries, which espouse
neo-liberal economic policies based on liberalization and privatization could not have
reached their present heights without going through a process of protectionism and
State intervention - a process which in fact continues even in those developed
The same would apply to the newly industrialized countries, including the “Asian
Tigers”. Likewise, import-substitution and export-orientation are not mutually exclusive,
while privatization and liberalization aimed at reducing the role of an over-burdened
State does not mean the total withdrawal of the State on matters relating to social
welfare, human and infrastructural development.
What is needed in Sri Lanka is a path of development that ensures equity with growth.
While growth rates are important, a “fetish” ness may set-in where a high percentage
growth rate is seen as the panacea for all maladies, disregarding the quality of the
growth centres and the backward and forward linkages needed for sustainable and
equitable development. Likewise the negation of growth and sole emphasis on equity
will lead to a situation where there will be no cake from which one could cut a piece!
This is how the wealth of nations soon get transformed into the poverty of nations.
This then is the real challenge and not a sterile, hackneyed and irrelevant debate as
to whether the candidates stand for an open or a closed economy.
In conclusion, it is this writer’s fervent hope that the remaining period of the
Presidential Election campaign is utilised to address these real issues rather that get
bogged down in the quagmire of false options. Ultimately, the candidates must realize
that it is the middle path that would capture the imagination of the electorate and not
the clash of extremes.
(The writer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Centre for Policy Alternatives
and Head of its Peace & Conflict Analysis Unit)
[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]