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One Certain Winner. One Certain Loser

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by Vijaya Chandrasoma

The most important presidential election in the history of the United States is currently in progress. Neither President Trump nor Vice President Biden has been to able make a legitimate claim to the White House as yet. As of Friday morning, the score sheet stands: Biden 253 electoral college votes; Trump 213. The magic number to win the presidency is 270 electoral college votes. The final result certified by the state election authorities will likely not be available till next week, but predictions based on voting trends already have Biden anointed as the 46th President of the United States.

Vice President Biden enjoys a record lead of over 4 million votes in the popular vote, with the highest number of votes ever cast in American history. In every other democracy in the world, unburdened as they are with an antiquated electoral college system, Biden would have been declared the decisive winner by now.

Votes in four states are being tabulated, and are too close to call. Biden is leading in two states (Nevada and Arizona), and Trump in two (Pennsylvania and Georgia). Biden holds probably decisive leads in Arizona and Nevada, and has been chipping at the Trump leads in Pennsylvania and Georgia all Thursday night; it is most likely that he will win all four, which will give him 306 electoral college votes, the exact number won by Trump in 2016.

In a democracy, the main goal of the government should be to make voting as easy as possible, so that the voices of all voters could be clearly heard. Not so in the “Trump democracy”, or, perhaps more accurately, the “Putin kleptocracy” that America has become during the past four years. The Republicans, especially in states under their control, have been working assiduously on voter suppression by Gerrymandering and other means; and vilifying voting rules, like mail-in voting, which they feel go against them. Mail-in and absentee voting are usually taken advantage of by the vulnerable, the underprivileged and the poor, who are more likely to vote Democratic, especially during a raging pandemic.

President Trump, in his inimitable and disingenuous style, made an illegitimate claim, announcing on Wednesday night that he had won the election. His actual words: “To me, this is a very sad moment, and we will win this. And as far as I am concerned, I already have.” Trump insisted that counting should stop immediately in the states he was currently leading, Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina; while, amazingly, demanding that counting be continued in the states that he was trailing, Nevada and Arizona. Typical Trump logic, imposing voting restrictions which will ensure a win for him. There are videos of armed Trump supporters protesting at election centers in Pennsylvania where Trump is leading, chanting, “Stop the counting”; and Trumpers at election centers in Arizona, where Trump is lagging, shouting, “Count that vote”!

If Trump remains consistent in his demands to “stop the counting” immediately, Biden will win Nevada and Arizona, where he is leading, which will put him at 270 electoral college votes, enough for him to be declared the 46th President of the United States.

Speaking to a few hundred of his supporters inside the East Room at the White House, where they had gathered to follow the results, Trump described post-election counting as “a major fraud in our nation”, and threatened to take his case to the Supreme Court. He reiterated these baseless election fraud claims without the slightest evidence during a White House briefing on Thursday night, accusing his “political foes” of voter suppression, election fraud, and trying to steal the election from him. The Commander-in Chief made the most egregious and misleading statements, saying, “This is a case where they are trying to steal an election, they are trying to rig an election, and we cannot let that happen”. It was not clear who the “they” were: Democrats? State election officials and volunteers? And the “we”? The Trump administration? The sycophant Attorney General William Barr? Putin? The KKK?

Almost as vitally important as the run for the presidency are two other races being conducted concurrently during this election, for control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. As results stand, Democrats will retain control of the House, though with a reduced majority. Nancy Pelosi will continue to be the Speaker. Democratic hopes of flipping the Senate were not realized. They have picked up just one Senate seat so far, the Republicans will retain control of the Senate, with Mitch McConnell in charge. So the D.C. political power structure will be similar to that faced by President Obama in 2008, with a Senate majority ruthlessly determined to pursue a Republican agenda in the face of a Democratic presidency. Trump makes no claims of election fraud in the Senate and House races, as the votes have been largely favoring Republicans.

Although the results have not been officially certified, there is no doubt that Vice President Biden has already won at least the 270 votes necessary to win the White House. However, many of the final states to be called, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, were within a margin which will trigger a recount, while Trump has demanded recounts in Wisconsin and Michigan, which Biden has won by majorities outside the recount margin. Trump has also initiated a slew of lawsuits, most of them so frivolous and so small that they will make no difference to the ultimate outcome. He has threatened that he will use the powers of the Supreme Court to overthrow the election if Biden wins the presidency. The Trump “militia” is at the ready to wreak Trump’s vengeance at his command. So the dust of this election may not settle for a few weeks more. After it does, the election results will be confirmed, the violence caused by the Trump militia will be overcome, Trump will be dragged screaming from the White House and Vice President Biden will be installed as the President of the United States at his inauguration on January 21, 2021. Whether Trump will be taken from the White House direct to prison is not immediately clear. And we would have seen the last of Trump’s crime family and cronies; Ivanka and Kushner, Donald Jnr. and Eric, Giuliani, Stephen Miller, to name a few.

If, by some twist of fate, Trump defies all predictions and legitimately wins re-election, this column will vanish in a dense cloud of ignominy. And the writer may have to plead for the security of the Witness Protection Program!

McConnell’s Senate and a compliant Supreme Court will prevent Biden from making any significant measures, in expanding Obamacare, in quelling the pandemic and in restoring economic progress. The one hope is that Republican lawmakers in the House and the Senate, freed from the threat of Trump’s tweeting fury, may summon the necessary courage to work with President Biden and their Democratic colleagues, for the good of the country. A hope for bipartisan politics, admittedly a slender one.

The biggest winner of this election is the American electorate, which broke all voting records with their participation, even during a raging pandemic. The apathy in the past of the American people to be involved in the electoral process was evident. Voter participation in presidential and other elections rarely reached 60%, an abysmal number for a nation which pretends to serve as an example to developing countries which have chosen to embrace the democratic system.

 

The US is currently on track to the highest voter turnout in history, with 160 million votes, or over 70% of the electorate. This represents an increase of nearly 20% compared to the 136 million votes cast in 2016. Also, all praise to the officials and volunteers in the election process throughout the nation, who have worked tirelessly to ensure a free and fair election. Increased participation in the most important process in a democracy, especially among the younger generations, indicates that the greatest democracy in the world is not quite dead, in spite of all Donald Trump’s efforts to murder it over the past four years.

Strangely, the biggest loser in this election is also the American people. It is inconceivable that over 60 million Americans, or nearly half the electorate, voted for the re-election of a racist, ignorant and incompetent president. They had also enabled him to run the greatest democracy in the world to the ground for four years, to the cusp of transforming the most powerful nation in the world to a tin-pot dictatorship, beholden to Russia.

I remember watching that satirist/comedian par excellence, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, the night President Obama was elected the first black president of the USA in 2008. He signed off by saying: “At last, we are who we say we are.” Alas, he was mistaken. The Trump cult of today resembles more closely what “we are” today.

The election of an African American in 2008 to the presidency brought to the surface the resentment of a large percentage of white Americans, fearful of losing the white privilege they had enjoyed for centuries. Resentment which increased with eight years of a flawless presidency which rescued the American economy from the dregs of a recession Obama inherited from Bush in 2008; a black man, the epitome of compassion, honor and integrity, who presided brilliantly over a booming economy of 72 months’ continuous growth and dwindling unemployment, without a whiff of personal, financial or political scandal. This pathological resentment and insecurity resulted in the election of Donald Trump, the complete antithesis of President Obama in every way.

This election showed what a large slice of white American people really are, when they enabled Trump to take a once wonderful democracy to the brink of disaster by his despicable racism and vulgarity, colossal ignorance and homicidal incompetence. Trump has proved inconclusively the assessment of President Lyndon Johnson, who said, in 1964, “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored black man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him someone to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you”.

That “lowest white man” emerged in 2015. He kept mocking and degrading the best black man, feeding the inferiority complex of millions of insecure white Americans. And they let this vile man “empty their pockets”. Hell, they emptied their pockets for him!

Whoever wins or steals this election, America has gone back to the bad old days of racial prejudice and white supremacy of the pre-1950s. Perhaps many of them always lived in that alternate racist reality; maybe the progress made in social and economic justice since 1964 has merely been a mirage.

It’s going to be a long, hard climb back to Make America Great Again. Getting rid of Trump was an important start to this arduous journey.



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Solidarity and Aragalaya: A few thoughts from an educationist’s perspective

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by Harshana Rambukwella

Very little in Sri Lanka at the moment inspires hope. We are facing an existential crisis that was inconceivable just six months ago. Sri Lanka is also, ironically, just a year away from marking the 75th year of its independence. As we reflect on these seven decades of postcolonial nation building, and as we confront a future of extreme precarity, our scorecard as a country is not a proud one. Much blood has been spilt in the name of postcolonial nation building and the ethno-nationalist conflict that shaped almost three decades of that history and two youth rebellions against the state speak to a history of division and enmity. While our current predicament cannot be entirely attributed to this conflictual history alone, it surely played more than a small role in shaping our present misery. It is within this context that I want to offer this brief set of reflections on what I feel is an unprecedented form of solidarity that has emerged in Sri Lanka as the aragalaya took shape. While I do not want to romanticize this solidarity because it is a highly contingent phenomenon and is shaped by the extreme nature of the current political and economic conditions, it offers us as a society, but more specifically as educators, something to reflect on as we try to imagine our role in a society that faces a painful process of rebuilding and recovery (though my hope is that such rebuilding and recovery does not mean the repetition of the tired old neo-liberal script we have followed for decades).

Before I explore what I mean by solidarity within the aragalaya, let me briefly reflect on solidarity as a concept. Solidarity is a term sometimes deployed in geopolitics. Particularly in this time of global turmoil where not just Sri Lanka, but many other countries are experiencing serious economic challenges, we see nations expressing solidarity with or towards other nations. However, such solidarity is almost always shaped by instrumental motives. This is what we might call a form of ‘vertical’ solidarity where more powerful and wealthy nations extend a ‘helping hand’ to their more unfortunate counterparts. Therefore, when India says ‘neighbourhood first’ and expresses solidarity with Sri Lanka in this time of trouble one can easily discern this as a hierarchical gesture shaped by instrumental motives. It is in reality, India’s strategic geopolitical interests that largely dominate this narrative of solidarity though one cannot disregard the critical importance of the assistance extended by India and other such ‘powerful’ nations in this time of national distress.

Another form in which solidarity manifests is through what some scholars have termed ‘enchanted’ solidarities. This is literally and metaphorically a distant form of solidarity where intellectuals, activists and others extend solidarity towards a struggle they perceive as deserving their support but without truly understanding the context in which they are intervening. This has often happened with ‘first world’ academics and intellectuals expressing solidarity towards ‘third world’ struggles which they felt were ideologically aligned with their beliefs. One example is how many liberal and leftist intellectuals supported the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, believing it to be an anti-imperial liberation movement, only to become disillusioned with the movement as they began to see the full horror of the repression and violence unleashed by the Khmer regime. I think if we reflect on Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history, we can also find many such moments where enchanted solidarities were expressed towards various movements from people in the ‘metropolitan’ center with little understanding of the nuances of the politics on the ground.

Premised against both vertical and enchanted solidarities, scholars have also proposed what is called ‘disenchanted solidarity’. By this they mean a situation where diverse groups, sometimes with very different political and ideological agendas, come together to fight for a common cause. They are often critically conscious of their differences but face a common precarity that pushes them together to struggle and align in ways that were not possible before. Often such moments are also underwritten by anger, though the sources of anger or the objects towards which the anger is directed could be different. I would like to read the aragalaya through this lens of disenchanted solidarity. Particularly at the height of the Galle Face ‘Gota go gama’ protests – before the brutish May 9th attack symbolically ‘killed’ something of the ‘innocence’ of the struggle – there was a sense in which the different groups represented in that space were expressing solidarity towards a singular goal – getting rid of the Rajapakasas and a political system they saw as deeply corrupt – there was anger and a gathering of disenchanted solidarities. For many middle-class people, the aragalaya was a way in which to express their frustration at the lack of the basic necessities of life – be it gas, electricity and fuel – and how a corrupt political class had robbed them of their future. For those with longer histories of political activism such as the IUSF (the Inter University Students Federation) or youth activists from the Frontline Socialist Party or the JVPs youth wing or the many trade unions that supported the aragalaya, this moment in some ways represented the culmination, and perhaps even a vindication, of their longstanding struggles against a political, social and economic order that they consider fundamentally unfair and exploitative. Of course, within this larger narrative, there were and continue to be pragmatic political calculations, particularly from groups affiliated with political parties. At the same time, we also witnessed ethnic and religious minorities, often historically marginalized in Sri Lanka’s social and political mainstream finding a rare space to express their anger at the ways in which they have been discriminated against. However, the argalaya gave them a rare space to do so by channeling their anger as a form of solidarity towards the common goal of getting rid of the Rajapaksa dynasty and the corrupt political system as a whole.

But at the same time, we also saw the tenuous nature of these disenchanted solidarities in the aftermath of the 9th May attack on ‘Gota go gama’. Initially we saw another spectacular display of organic and spontaneous solidarity when health workers and office workers abandoned their workstations and rushed to ‘Gota go gama’ when news of the attack broke. But by the evening of that day the story had turned more insidious with a wave of attacks against the properties of politicians and others thought to have been involved in the attack against the peaceful aragayala participants. While we may understand and even empathize with this backlash, its violent nature and what appeared to be other instrumental motives driving it, such as the looting and revenge attacks, made it difficult to associate it with the moral principles that had animated the aragalaya thus far.

Thereafter, at the current moment I am writing, the aragalaya also appears to have lost some of its vital energy as the political configuration has shifted and the tragi-comedy of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik with its underhand deals and political mechanizations seems to have regained the upper hand.

However, what does this mean? Does it mean post May 9th the aragalaya has lost its meaning and purpose or can we push our analysis a little deeper. At this point I would like to introduce one final way in which scholars have discussed solidarity which I feel is appropriate to understand the aragalaya and the spirit that underwrote it and continues to underwrite it. This is what some scholars have called ‘deep solidarity’ – a situation where in today’s neo-liberal context where the vast majority of the population come to a realization of their common social and economic predicament and realize their common enemy is the symbolic ‘one percent’ or an insidious nexus between crony capital and political power that disempowers them. This is of course an idealistic conception but one which I feel holds true at least partially to this moment in Sri Lanka. People from widely varying social and economic strata, from different religious persuasions and people with wildly different ideological and political beliefs have been suddenly pushed together. They are all standing in the never-ending petrol and diesel queues, they are desperately hunting for the next cylinder of gas and increasingly many of them are going hungry. The privileges and the divisions that once defined them, no longer seem to be so ‘real’ and the one stark reality confronting them is a form of existential annihilation. I believe within the aragalaya we can glimpse traces of this deep solidarity and as an educationist I think it is our vital task to think of creative ways in which we might sustain this solidarity, grow it and nurture it, so that we can at least ‘imagine’ a better future. These are idealistic sentiments, but at least for me, such hope, is a political and pedagogical necessity of the current moment.

Harshana Rambukwella is attached to the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies

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No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment

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by jehan perera

The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.

There was much anticipation that the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would bring in the billions that are desperately needed by the country if it is to obtain the fuel, food and medicines to keep the people healthy and the economy moving. But things have not worked out in this manner. The pickings have been slim and sparse. The IMF has given the reasons after the ten day visit by its staff to Sri Lanka. They have specifically referred to “reducing corruption vulnerabilities” in their concluding statement at the end of their visit. The international community in the form of multilateral donors and Western governments have prioritized political stability and a corruption-free administration prior to providing Sri Lanka with the financial assistance it requires.

The pressing need in the country is for the government to show there is political stability and zero tolerance for corruption in dealing with the prevailing crisis. It is not enough for government leaders to give verbal assurances on these matters. There needs to be political arrangements that convince the international community, and the people of Sri Lanka, that the government is committed to this cause. Several foreign governments have said that they will consider larger scale assistance to Sri Lanka, once the IMF agreement is operational. So far the government has not been successful in convincing the international community that its own accountability systems are reliable. This is the main reason why the country is only obtaining millions in aid and not billions.

INDEPENDENT COMMISSIONS

The draft 22nd Amendment that is now before the parliament (which will become the 21st Amendment should it be passed) would be a good place for the government to show its commitment. The cabinet has approved the draft which has three main sections, impacting upon the establishment of the constitutional council, the powers of the president and dual citizenship. However, the cabinet-approved draft is a far cry from what is proposed by the opposition political parties and civil society groups. It is watered down to the point of being ineffective. Indeed, it appears to be designed to fail as it is unlikely to gain the support of different political parties and factions within those parties whose support is necessary if the 2/3 majority is to be obtained.

In the first place, the draft constitutional amendment does not reduce the president’s power in any significant manner. The amendment is drafted in a way that the reduction of presidential powers will only occur with the next president. The president now in office, who has publicly admitted failure on his part, continues to be empowered to appoint and sack the prime minister and cabinet ministers at his arbitrary discretion. He is also empowered to appoint and dismiss the secretaries to ministries, who are the highest-ranking public service officials. In short, the executive arms of the government are obliged to do the president’s bidding or risk their jobs. This indicates the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party has only a single seat in parliament, has no independent strength, but is there at the will and pleasure of the president.

In the second instance, the draft amendment was expected to set up a system of checks and balances for accountability and anti-corruption purposes. The pioneering effort in this regard was the 17th Amendment of 2001 that made provisions for a constitutional council and independent commissions. According to it, the members of all state bodies tasked with accountability and anti-corruption functions, such as the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission, the Public Service Commission and the appointees to the higher judiciary were to be appointed through the constitutional council. The 17th Amendment made provision for seven of the ten members of the constitutional council to be from civil society.

DEATH BLOW

Unfortunately, in a manner designed to deal a death blow to the concept of checks and balances, the draft amendment sets up a constitutional council with the proportions in reverse to that of the 17th Amendment. It reveals a mindset in the political leadership that fears de-politicisation of decision making. Seven of the ten members will be appointed by the political parties and the president in a way in which the majority of members will be government appointees. Only three will be from civil society. This ensures a majority representation in the Council for government politicians, and the ensures government dominance over the political members. The composition of the constitutional council proposed in the Bill undermines the independence of the institutions to which appointments are made through the Council who will be unable to stem the wildly growing tide of corruption in the country.

It is no wonder that the furious people in the endless queues for petrol and diesel should believe that there is corruption at play in the continuing shortage of basic commodities. The government promised that ships would come in laden with fuel a week ago. Then, inexplicably, the information was disseminated that no ships were on the horizon. In any other country, except in a country like no other, the concerned leaders would have resigned. Due to the lack of fuel, perishable farm produce rots in rural farmhouses and markets in urban centres are empty and prices are rocketing up. In the meantime, the media has exposed rackets where the privileged, politically powerful and super rich, are given special access to fuel. It is patently clear that the government has failed to deliver on the results that were expected. The situation is getting worse in terms of corrupt practices.

To the credit of the Sri Lankan people, they are being patient. The bonds of social solidarity still prevail. But the anger at the self-seeking and incompetent political leaders is reaching the boiling point, as it did on 09 May. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government. The president’s pledge, made in the aftermath of the cataclysmic and unexpected violence that took place that day, was to reduce his presidential powers, transfer those powers to parliament and to appoint an all-party and interim government of no more than 15 ministers. These pledges remain unfulfilled and need to be implemented to be followed by elections as soon as the situation stabilises.

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Kehelgamuwa’s football skills and President Premadasa’s political sagacity

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By Hema Arachi

T.B. Kehelgamuwa, the cricketer who needs no plaudits from anyone, is well known. He represented then Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka as a fearsome fast bowler during the pre-Test era. His contemporaries still talk about Kehel with great respect. Once S Skanda Kumar, the well-known cricketer, cricket commentator and former High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia, proudly told me about his playing cricket with Kehelgamuwa. Bandu Samarasinghe, a Sri Lanka film star, on a TV programme vividly demonstrated how he faced Kehelgamuwa in a Sara Trophy game. That was the top-level tournament in the country.

This note is to share my watching Kehelgamuwa playing soccer when he was not so young. Then, though his grey hair was visible, he ran fast and played hard like a teenager. This was during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. Returning from The Netherlands, after my postgraduate studies, I lived in Pelawatta, near the Sri Lanka Parliament and my workplace – International Irrigation Management Institute headquarters. I used to enjoy walking on Parliament grounds. That day was unique because the game between the President’s soccer team, comprising parliamentarians, and the Sri Lanka Police team, was played there.

President Premadasa was well known for his political sagacity, especially in manipulating any situation in his favour. For instance, the day Anura Bandaranayake became the Opposition Leader, Premadasa, praised Anura stating, “Anura is the best Opposition Leader we have.” He further requested that Anura join the ruling party and become a minister and also marry a girl from a prominent ruling party family. But within weeks, he was critical of Anura. One day an Opposition member asked him, “You said Anura was our best Opposition leader a few weeks ago but now criticise.” His reply was this: “Yes, I said so because Anura is the best Opposition leader for us, the ruling party, not for the Opposition. For the Opposition, the best leader is Sarath Muththetuwegama!”

A few weeks before the scheduled encounter between the Parliamentarians and the Police football team, there was a game between the Parliamentarians and the Colombo Municipality team. Premadasa captained the Parliamentarians and kicked the winning goal. I remember a cartoon in a newspaper where the Municipality team goalkeeper withdrew so that Premadasa could score the goal at his will.

During the game against the Police, Premadasa did not play but visibly played the role of the coach of the Parliamentarian team. Unlike the Municipality players, the Police played the game seriously. Kehelgamuwa represented the Police team that scored five goals by halftime, and the Parliamentarian team was nil. At halftime, Premadasa replaced the Parliamentarian goalkeeper with Jayawickerama Perera. Yet, the Police team recorded a sound victory.

I thought Premadasa was upset due to this defeat for his team. But no. Premadasa claimed victory: “I am happy that my team won the game by beating the Parliamentarians today! Being the Executive President, I do not belong to the Parliament. However, as the Commander-in-Chief, the Police come under my purview, so my team won today!”

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