Let us know Who are Contesting and What are their Policies?

Politicians do have the freedom to form political parties but not on a flimsy basis. Politicians who form these parties do have a duty to follow certain principles and duties.

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A man rides a foot cycle on the village road in Galgamuwa, Sri Lanka, on August 5, 2023. (Photo by Thilina Kaluthotage/NurPhoto)

The rights of the voters or citizens are not limited to going to a polling station on the election day and voting for this or that candidate or party. Elections and voting are a process through which the citizens are participating in the governing process. This must be active but extremely peaceful in a democratic system. Voting or actively participating in the process of elections is not only a right but also a human duty and responsibility. At present I live in Australia where voting is compulsory. Those who fail to come to the voting without a valid reason are punished by a fine or other ways for breaking that responsibility.

The United Nations ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)’ declares the following in Article 21.

“1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

2. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

Among the above principles, “the will of the people” is the most important basis of democratic governance. The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) elaborates these rights particularly in Article 25, among other articles. Whatever the other weaknesses, which must be changed, this is also the basis of our Constitution which politicians must follow. Article 3 of the Constitution has very clearly put forward the sovereignty of the people as follows.

“In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights, and the franchise.”

As we all know, and have concerns, the country’s present system is a semi-presidential system. As the bottom line, the President should be elected in a ‘free-and-fair’ election. This was fairly implemented in the 2019 elections as the last instance. The will of the people does not however limit to the elections. She or he, so elected, should follow the ‘will of the people’ in respect of legislation, governance, international relations, and economic policies. If there are differences, those should be explained and discussed in a transparent manner with the people. Newspapers, television, trade unions, political parties, and social media can play a major role in this process. However, this didn’t happen under Gotabaya Rajapaksha or even before.

Gotabaya Rajapaksha went against the ‘will of the people’ in various means and that was the primary reason for the widespread Aragalaya in the country in early 2022. Rajapakshas seem to act on the basis of the ‘will of the family’ and will of the ‘hard core friends and supporters’ after elections. This is well known now. Aragalaya managed to oust Gotabaya whatever the weaknesses of that struggle in democratic or other means. Gotabaya should have been impeached if we had a proper democratic Parliament.  

Although Ranil Wickremasinghe has so far done fairly a good job in economic sense and international relations, he should realize that he was not at all elected by the people. This is a deviation from the basic democratic principle: ‘the will of the people.’ People in the country know this and would not tolerate any attempt on his part to continue after October 2024. Now one month is already over in the election year, and only eight months remain before the presidential election is legally due. So far, Sri Lanka has a bad image of not holding elections for Provincial Councils and Local Governments.

Under these circumstances, Ranil Wickramasinghe as the incumbent President has a paramount obligation to announce that the Presidential elections would be held at the right time, following the Constitution.

The Election Commission also has a primary duty to announce the election date without delay and make necessary preparations to conduct a ‘free and fair’ election. The Commission and the Department of Elections so far appear to follow the rules. They have obtained 10 billion rupees to conduct presidential elections from the last budget and they have the experience in conducting voting and counting at 14,000 polling stations. However, they have approved 86 political parties, so far, which I consider a divisive weak point in our democratic system. Sri Lanka is one of the controversial countries, after India, to have many recognized political parties without necessary democratic principles.  

Politicians do have the freedom to form political parties but not on a flimsy basis. Politicians who form these parties do have a duty to follow certain principles and duties. They should have a valid membership and properly formulated policies. They should produce proper policy manifestos before getting registered. Otherwise, ordinary citizens would be confused because of these enormous number of political parties. The Election Commissioner gave a recent media interview to Siyatha TV on 23January. This was in Sinhala, and it is understandable. But the text should have been at least translated into Tamil and English. Otherwise, our electoral system, including the Commission appears Sinhala only!

All political parties, if they intend to put forward a candidate to contest the presidential elections should have a primary duty to produce a policy manifesto. These should be produced at least four months before the elections. These manifestos should include their vision for the country and what they would be following as practical policies. There should be a roadmap for the five years of their term. If they think beyond, those should be expressed, but a five-year plan should be the primary task of a manifesto. There are several questions that they should answer to my view in the election manifestos. The readers could indicate any other important matters to be included in the manifestos. My questions are as follows not necessarily in the same order.

1. When will the Parliamentary elections be held?

2. What are the steps that would be taken to bring a New Constitution to the country? Would it be a revised presidential system, or a parliamentary system where the President would be a nominal head?

3. What type of an economic policy that he/she would be following? Is it going to be a State centered economy, a neo-liberal free market economy, or a mixed economy?  

4. What measures that she/he would be following in alleviating the present inflation and cost of living?

5. What are the measures to be taken to improve the local enterprises, industries, and the agricultural sector?  

6. What kind of policy would be followed in terms of exports and imports, foreign exchange improvements, and external and internal debt and loans?

7. What kind of a foreign policy that she/he would be following particularly in respect of India, China, and the West?

8. What are the policies in respect of Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim ethnic/religious relations in the country? What kind of a language policy that he/she would follow?

9. Is he or she would be willing to promote English education in schools and universities as a link language and an international language?

10. What kind of policies and measures that he/she would promote to bring down the gap between the rich and the poor, and alleviate poverty in the country?

11. What kind of measures that would be put forward to safeguard the rights of women, youth, and all minorities?

12. What are the measures that he/she would be taking in eliminating corruption, crime, and violence in the country?

The proposed political manifestos should not be too long. May be around ten to fifteen pages. They should be written and put forward in simple Sinhala, Tamil, and English for the people to easily understand. The Election Commission should give further guidelines as necessary. The media, civil society organizations (NGOs), youth, intellectuals, and academics have a major role to play in this process, independently as much as possible. 1 February is the accepted National Voters Day in Sri Lanka. The celebration of this day should be taken as an opportunity to pave the way for a democratic, peaceful, free, and fair and meaningful presidential election this year.    

Laksiri Fernando

Laksiri Fernando, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, is a specialist on human rights having completed his PhD on the subject at the University of Sydney. His major books include, Human Rights, Politics and States in Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka; A Political Science Approach to Human Rights; Academic Freedom 1990; Police Civil Relations for Good Governance; Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict in the Global Context among others. Having served as Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS Colombo), he is a promoter of post graduate studies.

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