By Asonganyi Tazoacha*
Sri Lanka is a South Asian country with a population of about 21 million settled in a land area of 65610 square kilometers. It is similar to Cameroon with a population of some 20 million spread out on a land area of 474926 square kilometers. The voting age is 18 while it is 20 in Cameroon. At 8 January 2015 presidential election, total registered voters were 15.044.490; for the 2011 presidential election in Cameroon, total registered voters were 7.521.651. Sri Lanka used a single ballot while Cameroon had a ballot for every candidate; there were 12,314 polling stations in the 22 administrative districts in Sri Lanka and some 23000 in 10 regions in Cameroon. Nineteen nominations were received by the Elections Department all of which were accepted; 53 nominations were received in Cameroon and 23 were accepted.
The constitution of Sri Lanka provided for a presidential term of six years renewable once; the Cameroon constitution provided for a presidential term of seven years renewable once. The incumbent Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in for a second term in November 2010, while the incumbent president in Cameroon was sworn in for a second term in November 2004.
In the euphoria of the Rajapaksa government's crushing of the rebel Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE), Rajapaksa announced early presidential elections in May 2009 which held in January 2010; he won comfortably and secured his second term. Interestingly, the Sri Lanka Supreme Court ruled that his second term would only start in November 2010. In September 2010, Parliament which was controlled by Rajapaksa's UPFA went ahead before the November swearing in to amend the constitution to remove the term-limit clause. Thus, by the time Rajapaksa was sworn in for his second term, the stage was set for his third term. This was virtually the same scenario in Cameroon. In 2008, four years into the second term of Paul Biya, there were mass protests against his announced intention to amend the constitution to remove the term-limit clause. In spite of the protests, Parliament which was controlled by Paul Biya’s CPDM went ahead to amend the constitution to remove the term-limit clause. So he too was set to run for a third term come the end of the second term in 2011.
The opposition leader in Sri Lanka was Ramil Wickremesinghe. Between 2001 and 2004, he was Prime Minister of Sri Lanka because his coalition had a majority in parliament. At the legislative elections in 2004, his UNP-led coalition (United National Front) won 37.8% of the popular vote and 82 out of 225 seats in Parliament, emerging as the second largest group in parliament. In the presidential election of 17 November 2004, Wickremesinghe came second with 48.4% of the votes; it was widely believed that if not for the boycott of the polls in the North and parts of the East, allegedly due to LTTE intimidation, Wickramsinghe would have won. So, when on 20 November 2014 Sri Lanka president Rajapaksa issued a proclamation calling for an early presidential election, his strategies were based on the assumption that UNP leader Wickremesinghe would be his principal challenger. He was wrong because he was unaware that the coalition also had a game plan!
First, the coalition knew that the opposition bloc voters were willing to support whoever was recommended to them. Second, the coalition also knew that many powerful regime persons were against the way Rajapaksa was running the country. Third, the opposition coalition had been in place for some years, strategizing together and bearing the brunt of the dictatorship of Rajapaksa together. This is why the coalition was fishing for a person with the ability to win over the ruling party supporters who were dissatisfied with the Rajapaksa presidency while ensuring that their coalition bloc remained intact.
The coalition saw Maithripala Sirisena as the best man to get the disgruntled bloc in the government behind the coalition, so they went for him. He was seen as somebody not only reputed for honesty, hard work and probity in a regime known for its highhandedness, graft and nepotism, but also capable of keeping the coalition together. There were secret contacts and deals between the coalition and Sirisena. Sirisena resigned abruptly from government following the convening of the electoral corps and announced on 21 November 2014, that he would challenge incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2015 presidential election as the common opposition candidate. This last minute announcement of Maithripala Sirisena as the Common candidate threw Rajapaksa off balance.
Sirisena immediately received the support of former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and several UPFA MPs that had resigned with him. There were several other resignations from the government to support his candidature. He promised to reform the executive presidency, and repeal the amendment that removed the term-limit clause within 100 days; and to appoint UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister. Under the patronage the venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha thero, a Sinhalese Buddhist monk, he publicly signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with 36 opposition parties/civic groups reiterating his promise to abolish the executive presidency, hold parliamentary elections, form an all-party national government and carry out various political reforms. And so in spite of massive protests against a third term for the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the candidate of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to seek a third term, while the United National Party (UNP)-led opposition coalition fielded Maithripala Sirisena to challenge him. Te peole of Sri Lanka epressed their will on 8 Januar 2015 and Sirisena was declared the winner after receiving 51.3% of all votes cast compared to Rajapaksa's 47.6%. Rajapaksa conceded defeat.Of course, like in the past, the Sri Lankan elections were characterized by violence, misuse of state resources, misuse of the public service and many other violations of election laws, all to favour the incumbent, but this could not stand against the people’s will to change. As Ranil Wickremasinghe, the opposition leader that made all of it happen put it:
“…People with different political ideologies and policies have come together for a unique cause. To do politics, there should be democracy. ...Despite party differences…we have all realized that the most crucial problem facing the country today is the Rajapaksa family, its corruption and autocratic style of governance…Our message will be loud and clear for all politicians. It will prove that no matter how you abuse power and try to thrive on corruption and brutality, when the people rise against corruption and injustice, you have no hope of staying in power. That is a message that should be read by all politicians in this country, even those who are next elected…”
Wickremasinghe also added that “The country cannot be at the mercy of politicians. There have to be systems and regulations to ensure that even those with seemingly unlimited power will be prosecuted. The problem with our country is that people in power seem to be able to get away with anything. We cannot make thieves and crooks honest. But we can bring in laws and regulations that will ensure anyone who breaks the law or steals from the public will pay a penalty before the law…”
He continued…“Our ideologies may be different. We may have different political goals. But even people with all these differences can also agree on certain, very essential things. Despite our differences, every party in this alliance and every party endorsing Mr. Maithripala Sirisena can agree on certain basic things. We all want to live in a democratic country. We want an independent judiciary. We want our police and our public service to be free of political influence. We want our media to be free. We want an independent election commission. We want rule of law to be established. We want this culture of impunity to end. What stops us all from coming together on such an agenda? Absolutely nothing. The common enemy of all democratic forces is the corrupt and autocratic Rajapaksa regime…we are standing together for the common good even if it means each of us has to compromise something...”
Ranil Wickremasinghe could have been saying all this to ask his peers to endorse him as the common candidate. But he did not just want to be a runner-up in perpetuity; he wanted to end a regime that made the practice of democracy impossible in his country. And so he sacrificed his personal ambition so that his peers would also sacrifice theirs, to allow them to look for an appropriate joker for their game plan. Their success is a message for opposition parties and leaders in Africa, and especially in Cameroon where opposition coalitions have failed so often, to follow their example in order to defeat the forces that have taken their countries hostage for so long.
*Asonganyi Tazoacha is a university don and former Secretary-General of the Social Democratic Front,Cameroon's leading opposition party.