Politics & Economy

Is a “Single-Issue” approach feasible?

To say it in a few words for the sake of those who may not have noticed it, there has been some interest in the idea of a “single-issue” (SI) challenge to incumbent president Mahinda Rajapakse. What SI means is a challenge, supported by a broad spectrum of society, by a candidate whose manifesto is a clear-cut commitment to abolish the Executive Presidency (EP), steer the subsequent and necessary constitutional changes to put a new system in place (say a parliamentary system), and after that; “Bye-bye, I’m off. Forget it, screw-you, I’m not going to hang around and run the country for the next five or six years”.

I think this can all be done within a year; some people I have discussed with say it can be done in a few months if the SI manifesto sketches the framework of the proposed new constitutional system. Once the people grant a mandate it’s a task for the legal draughtsman. OK, maybe am I oversimplifying a bit? We engineers tend to see the central issue and we are not as cleaver as lawyers, social scientists and historians; but ordinary folk understand us better than the “on the one hand, but on the other hand” googly bowlers. So are you with me on the SI concept? Everything else, including details of design and choice of candidate, are on the table and open for discussion.

Why the SI approach?

Why am I pushing SI so hard? There are two reasons; the executive presidency (EP) is not just a bad system by and of itself, it is the root and cause of the tragedy underlying the degeneration of Lankan society. I shouldn’t expend digital bytes expounding what everyone knows. Law and order, interference with the judiciary, Attorney General, Bribery Commission, SEC and every government department and corporation, cover up of murders and drug peddlers, white van abductions and killings; yes the impunity with which all this is done has its roots in the Executive Presidency. So SI is not merely a campaign to abolish the EP and put a parliamentary system in place, no it’s also about striking a blow against this whole mountain of iniquities. Am I pressing my case hard? Sure, every prophet bellowed and thundered!

The second reason is that a minimalist programme will win the widest base. If you add or subtract devolution, you will correspondingly lose blinkered Sinhalese or angry Tamils. If you want a socialist or capitalist economic programme, you will correspondingly lose the business lobby or my left comrades. You want an anti-China or anti-Western foreign policy slant, you will lose the rathu sahodarayo or the English educated elite, respectively. So forget it; if you want the widest possible mobilisation to be rid of EP and Mahinda, focus on a SI approach. Do the other things at the ensuing parliamentary elections.

Laksiri Fernando argues as follows in ‘Need for Peaceful Regime Change’ in the Island of 6 September: “But a single issue might not be the best approach. There are so many issues that a regime change should entail. There are valid arguments that a regime change per se is not enough”. He goes on to say that even a system change (a new constitutional system) may not be enough because there are so many issues in our rotting socio-political ethos that have to be corrected.

Of course abolishing the EP is not a magic bullet which will transform all of society in a trice and wipe out corruption, power abuse and bad governance all in one fell sweep and forever. But today we must fight the battle most crucial for today, and then on the morrow grapple with the challenges that will unavoidably surface on the morrow. If instead of focusing on the most urgent and doable tasks of the moment, we address the broadest of programmatic challenges, we will only achieve the narrowest of mobilisations. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” said the Biblical scribe who must have been a bit of a political theorist. I strategise that a single-issue focus, bearing in mind and not forgetting the tasks of the morrow, is the way to go; Laksiri seems to favour a broad programmatic approach from day one. This will blunt the cutting edge.

Identifying candidates is not a priority

Identifying a candidate is not an immediate priority; get all communities and all organisations on board first. Nevertheless I have found that people simply buttonhole you, they insist on talking about “who”, so I cannot avoid some preliminary remarks. In my view Sajith and Karu are non starters; even before they are out of the starting blocks Mahinda would have crossed the finish line. Chandrika and Sarath Silva have degraded their reputations, so forget about them. General SF has had his day and is past his use-by date even if legal impediments can be overcome; if he runs Mahinda will win by a larger margin than last time. That leaves only Ranil of the known horses and donkeys; he will give a fair fight and lose by a non-landslide margin; but face it, Ranil cannot break Mahinda’s rural and urban petty-bourgeois vote bank.

Then there are my comrades on the sectarian left who have wet-dreams about Bahu, Siritunga, Keerthi or some such Trot. Look, this time its serious, I only have time to talk to adults and I refuse to even discuss with these promoters. The big boys have come out to play, time for small boys to go away and play with their marbles.

It is in this context that the name of Maduluwewa Sobitha Thero has surfaced and I can see a movement building up to promote his candidature. I am prepared to support him provided he will declare a single-issue platform. My reasons; if he promises to abolish EP and get out, he can be trusted to keep his word unlike all the others named above; so I am told by those who know him well. Secondly, he can mobilise a broad coalition around the single-issue manifesto, and thirdly, he can defeat Mahinda.  

Is there a downside with his candidature? Some of my left friends say that he had a Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist track record in the late 1980s; I am trying to learn more. If he is not prepared to endorse devolution of power to the minorities in his manifesto, it will indeed be problematic. Though it can be said that the attitude of a single-issue candidate to the national question, economic policy, foreign relations or anything else, is irrelevant, this is not the end of the story.

Once the EP is abolished the person will go home and play no further role in running the country; so what does his policy stance on any of these issues matter, one could ask? This is true and this is the strength of a single-issue candidate and underlines the prospect of drawing upon a wide support base, nevertheless public perceptions of the candidate’s stance on the national question will matter. The reason is that though a single-issue candidate, his outlook on the NQ will influence the subsequent constitutional amendments. The NQ is a constitutional matter unlike socio-economic or foreign policy and the victor’s views on the NQ, though unrelated to abolishing the EP, will sform an unwritten mandate.

Can Mahinda be panicked to expend himself?

People have raised with me the interesting possibility that Mahinda, if panicked by a tide of single-issue mobilisation, may be compelled to dump the EP before the elections. Great, that’s fine by me! We can thereafter think about the parliamentary manifesto; remember my response to Laksiri about the tasks of the morrow. If we can panic Mahinda and get EP abolished right now let’s pump up the panic and dump down the EP. The government already has the necessary two-thirds majority and can carry the needed constitutional amendments with ease. It must be done NOW not in term-three! Both Chandrika and Mahinda are proven liars on this matter and only a raving idiot will ever trust either of them again.

And no 'jilmarts' about reformed presidencies or executive prime ministers – be prepared to shoot down every sibling cunning and Rajapakse trick. If however after abolishing the EP, Mahinda wishes to lead the UPFA in a parliamentary campaign to become PM, sure mate, go ahead; you, Ranil, Somawansa, the whole blithering lot have every right to try!

Prof. Kumar David, an engineering academic and a marxist scholar, is the Former Dean of Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He is a regular columnist for  Colombo based newspapers 'The Island' and 'Lakbima News'.

© JDS