If there was a legal hurdle before him, he had a flying leap over it. Mahinda Rajapaksa now shows he is ready to face whatever hurdles he has to face in politics in the coming weeks and months.
With the birthday anniversary that brought him victory in the poll for the Executive Presidency in November 2005 fast approaching, he is moving swiftly in a strategy of leaping far ahead of rivals, who are still planning their own tactics of opposition. His meetings are with many thousands each day, and the declarations of support keep growing with each meeting. What is emerging is an election, the like of which, in its planning and strategy by the one who holds the reins, has not been seen in this country before.
Meanwhile, there remains glaring uncertainty, in the call for a Common Candidate to match him at the coming polls. The uncertainty on the candidate is compounded by that over both policy and promise. Meetings of many types among political strategists and politicians with great expectations, closed door meetings and those that give statements to the media, and public meetings that give an uncertain message to people gather in momentum, yet with a lack of clarity in purpose.
Just as the poser in Hamlet - "To be or not to be" - the question that hangs in the air is that of the Executive Presidency. The political strategists who seem to be geared to oppose Mahinda Rajapaksa are faced with a tough question. What is it that will rally the people? Is it the pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency or the pledge to keep it and change the conditions under such a presidency? There is much thinking, both good and bad, on both sides of this divide. But the larger question is how is anyone to believe either of those pledges.
All those in the political circus calling for the abolition of the Executive Presidency, not those applying political science to current events or declaring their ideological positions on it, are those who have benefited in one way or the other from the Executive Presidency. Among the loudest voices that call for its abolition come from those who brought the system, with all its ingrained faults, and ruled the land for more than a decade, bringing a series of amendments to it to further strengthen their position. Others who now cry against it are those who took oaths and observed it; gave clear pledges to have it abolished no sooner the oath was administered - or in a few months after that. The months did come and go, but the Constitution with the Executive Presidency remained.
Let's admit that Mahinda Rajapaksa also pledged to do away with the Executive Presidency. But, in addition to the insufficient majority he had in Parliament to change it at the time, he also realized some important aspects of its value in defeating the terror of the LTTE, which was also a pledge he gave to the same electorate that elected him in November 2005. There are many well versed in political science that see the call for the abolition of the Executive Presidency as not serving the needs of the people. They see the need for changes, who does not? But not to be wholly rid of what did hold this country together during really troubled times, and could in many ways help in the future too.
The other issue is the need to match the person of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Hardly any of his opponents, even the loudest of them, would doubt his popularity, and his personality; that of a politician who has been at it from his early twenties. He has been in every aspect of political life in the country. He has won and lost elections. He has been on the back benches, made good impacts on the front bench as a Cabinet minister. He has led the Opposition, has been Prime Minister...and then Executive President.
That is certainly no easy record to match in politics and governance. But here is also the experience in agitation and mass action. In organizing and participating in protests for the people; fighting for Human Rights, when those who now call for it today were violating every aspect of it. He did take the issue to the United Nations, and did play a major role in forming and working with the Mothers' Front to fight the green terror of that time.
He walked with the people for political rights and held hands in chains of unity against the forces of oppression. And, he did use the Executive Presidency to best effect against a Ceasefire with the forces of separatist terror...and saw the end of well nigh three decades of this brutality that had struck the nation. That is no easy persona to match - whatever combinations that may gather in the yet failed search for that Common Candidate.
Sri Lanka has a good history of electoral democracy. Our people know their leaders and the parties they lead.
They have elected governments and defeated them too. The trends have been clear both in candidacy and campaigning. But now we see a lack of this in what seems to be rising confusion in the search for the Common Candidate; there seems to be more of Common Chaos. A good election deserves much more good thinking and clear policies than what we see in the desperate hunt for the rival in the coming race.
Pressure from New Delhi
If President Mahinda Rajapaksa had success in the apex legal hurdle in the politics of Sri Lanka, there is another hurdle of law that is emerging from New Delhi. He did initiate a phone call and speak with Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this week, where common issues of concern were discussed. One was that of the five Indians sentenced to death by a Court in Colombo on drug related charges. The concerns were shared by both leaders and suggestions made of possible action, while preserving the good relations between the two countries.
Since then there is more pressure from New Delhi with some authorities there looking at the possibility of an unconditional pardon for the Indian convicts. Journalists, the media, politicians and diplomats too, appear to be pushing harder for this, which can please the politics of Tamil Nadu, much more than the larger interests of India. There is something that those who are making these moves must clearly bear in mind. This is a legal issue, and the practices in such cases are not very different in Sri Lanka and India. It is not the legal tradition to give a presidential pardon when a matter is before the courts. There is also another important issue. The accused were not charged with poaching in Sri Lankan waters. It is not a fishing matter. President Rajapaksa has been always ready to arrange for the rapid release of those arrested and charged on fishing matters, very often done as an act of goodwill towards our closest neighbour. This is a matter of drugs, and such matters are taken with much more seriousness than issues of illegal fishing, even across national maritime boundaries. The death penalty for drug offence is carried out in Singapore and Malaysia.
There is a strong public feeling here about the need for firm action on curbing all dealings in drugs. This is not a matter that could be ignored by these movers in India. Those who are trying to bring pressure on Sri Lanka for an unconditional pardon, as some reliable sources mention, do not seem to realize that there are Sri Lankans too convicted in this case, which does add to the gravity of the issue. What legal sources and more serious diplomats, both in India and Sri Lanka think, is that this is a matter that could be best resolved through commuting of sentences of the convicts, with the Indian convicts serving their prison terms in their own country. This seems a realistic approach to what could be a really vexed question, if there is too much pressure from across the Palk Strait.
I also learn that the new pressure from New Delhi could be due to the absence of Prime Minister Modi from the country. There seems to be a bigger play being worked out now by those close to Tamil Nadu, with the Indian Prime Minister away on a long tour to Myanmar, Australia and Fiji. It is the view of observers in India that this is a matter that should be best left to be resolved through discussion between the two national leaders, with due respect to the legal practices and traditions of Sri Lanka and India, and due recognition of the gravity of the charges presented to court; especially that this cannot be dealt as the matter of poaching by Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters, which also needs a truly lasting solution.