Single Issue, Common Candidate And The Thorny Question Of Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidency


By Manny Thain


Your ongoing debate on tactics for a future presidential election is being read with interest far beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. All those – and there are many – who oppose Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime are grappling with this question.

As some readers may be aware, campaigns such as Tamil Solidarity promote a strategy of linking up oppressed people from all backgrounds, and we are closely linked to the trade union and workers’ movement in Britain. As the joint national secretary of this campaign in the UK I can report that we pay very close attention to all developments in the movement of opposition to the current regime in Sri Lanka.

Naturally, the discussions in Sri Lanka are echoed in Britain, and it has been interesting to read Kumar David’s strategy for the future presidential elections: Single Issue, Common Candidate, Road Map (SI-CC-RM). (TU Senan, 5 July) (Dr Laksiri Fernando, 5 July) (Kumar David, 13 July)

Given the nightmare facing the vast majority of the population in Sri Lanka – land grab and settlements in Tamil areas, attacks on Tamil Muslims, clampdown on the press, cutbacks and privatisation plans in the public sector, etc, etc – the need to find a way out is urgent. The desire for unity among all those in opposition to the current regime is strong.

It is not, of course, a simple matter. Clearly, Kumar David believes he has found the answer. His strategy raises a number of fundamental issues, including the thorny questions of how to unite disparate groups around a single issue, and who the common candidate could possibly be. Before raising some points for consideration on those, however, it might be worth looking at the ultimate aim.

The road map

According to Kumar David, the road map binds the president elect to a step-by-step procedure. S/he would be elected to dissolve parliament, presuming parliament does not agree to change the constitution and abolish the executive president. Then there would be a general election. What would happen then is anybody’s guess – there is just no way of knowing.

The road map has a route clearly marked out with milestones: a constitutional amendment after X days of the election victory; XY days to dissolve parliament; XYZ days for a new election. Using this magic formula, six months after the election, Sri Lanka will emerge from the dark days of authoritarian rule and crony capitalism, into the bright light of democracy.

There is an old saying that no battle plan survives the first skirmish. The inconvenient truth in this case is that the road map makes no allowance for unexpected eventualities – and we are all only too well aware that in politics, above all, the one thing we should always expect is the unexpected.

Kumar David acknowledges (13 July) that one of the possible candidates, Chandrika, has been guilty of ‘procrastination and cheating’, ‘twice’. Twice bitten thrice shy!

The candidate shortlist

So, who should be the candidate? This is the thorniest thorn on this very thorny tree. Kumar David’s position is intriguing. He floats the idea of different people, while backing no one in particular. That can be perfectly understandable in the early stages of delicate negotiations.

Initially, however, he strongly suggested that Sobitha Thero was a real contender. Unfortunately, Kumar David writes (13 July), ‘The gross misbehaviour of the BBS has given rise to an unexpected hiccup.’ He went on to say: ‘But after the BBS monster raised its head I have detected some reserve among Muslims, Catholics and Tamils towards a monk…’

Leaving aside that those must be the understatements of the century, it also has to be asked: who was surprised by this development? The unleashing of Sinhala chauvinism and communal violence by Rajapaksa was predicted at the time of the presidential elections in 2005. Tamil Solidarity has been drawing attention to the threat of Bodu Bala Sena over the course of the last year and more. It was inevitable, and clearly marks an extremely dangerous development.

Moving on, Kumar David writes: ‘In any case naming a candidate is a future matter and anyone who can win the election and do the promised job is good enough. His/her policies in general are irrelevant for someone who will be gone in six months. Sobitha appeared to be one of the persons who should be considered alongside Chandrika, Ranil and Karu – there are no other credible SI-CC-RM options.’

So, while backing no one in particular, Kumar David has drawn up a very short list – of four. It looks like a rogues’ gallery from the point of view of working people, the poor and oppressed struggling to survive and struggling against state repression. Once again, we must warn: twice bitten, thrice shy!

This goes to the heart of the issue. Kumar David stresses that the common candidate is only possible on the basis of the single issue. That is because the individuals and organisations he wants to get on board are based on different, and often mutually exclusive, interests. There is, however, one thing that unites them all: they all stand for the political establishment, for those at the top, and defend the exploitation of the vast majority of people living in Sri Lanka.

Cut out the middlemen

History is littered with examples where the working class, poor and oppressed – the majority of the electorate – are told they have to vote for this or that person at the top because it is the only way to get rid of an even worse person at the top. But why should they always be given the rotten option of supporting figures from a corrupt, discredited establishment?

A succession of governments in Sri Lanka – SLFP and UNP, and the parties they have roped in – have consistently let down and betrayed the vast majority so often, and so brutally. Where can the SI-CC-RM strategy take them? It can only bind the workers, poor and oppressed to the politics of the rotten establishment politicians.

If the needs and demands of the majority are to be raised and pushed to the fore in this campaign, support for a common candidate would require a mass mobilisation. Or, to put it another way: if there is no mass mobilisation in this election plan, the majority will become mere cheerleaders for the elite politicians.

Far better, therefore, to cut out the middlemen and middle-women, and build a movement from below, which takes up the needs of all the workers and oppressed in Sri Lanka. An independent, non-sectarian movement, campaigning for decent jobs, homes, public services, national and minority rights.

There is no easy route or short cuts. Any road map promising one will lead us into a dead end, or upside down in a ditch.

Finally, I would like to thank Kumar David for prompting this discussion – and to the Colombo Telegraph for airing it. It certainly has sparked lively debate. Kumar may consider me to be one of the ‘new folks, sans background’ who has joined the discussion – for the first time, today. Nonetheless, I hope he recognises that this ongoing discussion is of vital importance to all of us involved in campaigns connected with Sri Lanka – not only on the island itself.

*Manny Thain – Tamil Solidarity (UK) joint national secretary