Some people, while acknowledging the shortcomings of the present administration are still doubtful about voting for the common opposition candidate. They wonder if there will be real change, the new man may not make the constitutional changes promised, so we end up with the same situation as before. They also worry that the infrastructure projects may stop. How can we assess the candidates?
A study of the manifestos is not very helpful, the two don't seem very different, even the President has now promised to reform the constitution. In any case they are a list of promises, what we need to know is if they will be implemented.
The election campaign may offer us a clue, since it is recent and ongoing. We have witnessed a wave of violence, the abuse of state resources and violations of election law. The list is longer than in 2010. (See lists of incidents compiled here and here). To no great surprise, the majority of victims of the abuse have been the opposition. Despite repeated provocation the cleaner campaign by the opposition is welcome and sends a positive signal.
With regard to improved governance since the opposition candidate has not occupied positions of real power or influence we don't have much of a track record to go on. This is similar to the situation in 2005 when the President was first elected, he was a largely untested quantity.
However the opposition is a coalition which includes the constituents of the UNF Government of 2002-2004 which took significant steps to improve governance. The 17th Amendment which gave a measure of independence to the judiciary, police, the public administration and the elections commissioner was passed under their watch. They also passed the fiscal responsibility act which improved transparency.
Therefore there is a positive record to go on, which the candidate has pledged to support. Indeed the common pledge to reforms is the main factor that unites the disparate members of the coalition drawn from across the political spectrum. Having done it once before we may take it that the UNF will support these reforms.
What of the other members? Amongst the opposition are those who have in various ways felt the direct abuse of
power (Sarath Fonseka and Hirunika Premachandra to name two) and
therefore have real incentive to see reform. What if Sirisena simply buys over/ignores his partners and tries to hang on to power? To an extent it boils down to personal dynamics.
The real beneficiary he reneges will be Sirisena, everyone else in the coalition will be the loser. If there were just a couple of players a backroom deal to renege or abandon the promise of reform in return for a slice of the spoils is a possibility. With a larger group it will always prove to be more difficult, especially when it involves strong personalities and players with a deep personal interest in it. Overall I reckon there is a good probability that the reforms will be pushed through.
The reforms of 2002-4 were passed through the usual parliamentary process, not smuggled through as an urgent bill, which was the case with the 18th amendment and the expropriation act. Along with the impeachment of the Chief Justice and the expansion of the PTA these are the most significant political acts by this regime. Parliamentary checks have been subverted by cross-overs (47% of MP's are now with the executive) and other means. Overall we have seen a significant centralisation of power under the current administration. Given this record the new found interest in reform by the President sounds like election propaganda, like the reduction in prices of electricity and fuel. What is more worrying is the trend- towards ever greater centralisation of power and subversion of proper process.
In terms of the infrastructure projects there have been concerns raised about costs and people wonder if the new Government will stop these projects, especially since some contradictory statements have emerged. It is worth noting that the Southern Expressway was actually started in 2003 under the UNF government. It was finished in 2011 and the President took all the credit. I don't think there is a serious issue with necessary infrastructure with the opposition but the financing will be different. The Southern Expressway was funded by the ADB and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and cost far less per km than the Katunayake Expressway.
The debate on governance and the rule of law is esoteric but the consequences are very real, very fundamental. It was only six months ago that we had an outbreak of racial violence, the culmination of many smaller incidents. Preceding this was violence in Rathupaswella, Katunayake and Chilaw which form a troubling pattern, symptomatic of the breakdown of the rule of law. Why do they keep recurring? Is it because people can get away with it? A
call to the right person and the police will not investigate, the
courts will not convict ? Are certain people untouchable?
In isolation they may be ignored, but taken together they form a dangerous, disturbing trend that calls for arrest. Things tend to get swept under the carpet and after a while we forget about them. Because we have not been directly affected we can allow ourselves to be lulled into a state of dangerous complacency.
So what do voters have to assess the candidates? The record of the incumbent is clear. Clearer still is the need for reform. Will the contender stick to his promises?
In my own assessment I think there is a fair probability that he will.
For an excellent critique on the decline of the judiciary see Nihal Jayawickrema's piece here.