19 April, 2024


2024 Election Year; The Perennial Challenge Of Cleaning The Stables For Sri Lanka!

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman Harees

‘Politics was too serious a matter to be left to politicians’ – Charles de Gaulle

Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court only last month issued a symbolic ruling that the powerful Rajapaksa brothers and their top administrators were guilty of triggering the island’s worst financial crisis by mishandling the economy. According to Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), the court found that the actions of the respondents directly contributed to the economic crisis. The ruling stated, “This situation brought in a total breakdown of economic and social life of the entire society. Such breakdown ultimately led to the collapse of the public order and the complete undermining of the rule of law.”

Even before this historic ruling faded off from public memory, it is unfortunate that the same economic political butchers taking the stage at the de facto ruling party SLPP’s annual convention themed ‘Ayubowan Sri Lanka’ –  at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium on Friday, Choosing to deliver the same old rhetoric junk promising to make Sri Lanka back into a ‘El Dorado’ to the drumbeats of a following sans basic intellect, the Party show was nothing short of an insult to public intelligence and a sad future in store for Sri Lanka. It was due to this set of corrupt political elite and economic butchers who have already crippled its economy, leaving the country on the edge of bankruptcy and despair, that the people of Sri Lanka are still in the eye of the storm.

Last year, people in their millions took to the streets  calling for a change in governance, as the economic crisis hit home. Leaders from all religious faiths have often been at the forefront of the protests, resembling a sense of unity among the people. Question looms large whether people will take this resolve to the voting booths in 2024 to bring about a decisive change in governance and a clean political culture in this country. There are concerns about the drain on people and brain power as many skilled workers left due to economic hardships. Although political leadership changed, with some temporary economic reliefs seen, challenges around governance, human rights, reforms, and resolving debt issues still persist.

President RW already told parliament that the presidential election and the parliamentary election will both be held in 2024. Sri Lanka has to face the challenge of balancing polls and crisis recovery in 2024. It is predicted that the coming elections would be more divisive than ever before with no clear winner in either of the two main elections. Many Presidential candidates are expected to be in the ring. The current political scenario could change dramatically with the country likely to witness crossovers and formation of new alliances. Few surveys done however reveal that AKD is surging forward. Ultimately, the outcome will depend on the mood of the voters on election day and who they think would be best suited to run the country.

The problem with the SLPP and the SJB/UNP is that the political machinery of both the parties are not fit for purpose and also have corrupt track records and can no longer serve the interests of the people. When one party is not in power, they bash the other party in power for the very same thing they did when they were in power. These political parties are hypocrites of the highest order. This practice of voting for the other party when the ruling party becomes unpopular should be discontinued. This calls for a third alternative.

Most third parties don’t make it, and the reasons our current system is bad for Sri Lanka are not mutually exclusive. They’re closely linked. Two party system political system limits our options, promote stagnation, is polarising, encourages corruption and unfairly disadvantage minority viewpoints. Current two party political system only benefits handful of politicians and their stooges , if we truly want a government that reflects and represents the people, then elections need to become open and based upon platforms and policies that benefits the people and improve the country. That means taking money out of politics, educating voters about candidates and policies, removing obstacles that shut down viable challengers and improving voter access.

Main challenges to be faced by voters, apart from tackling economic/social injustice will be chronic corruption, racism and grim human rights record of the Government of Sri Lanka – GoSL (including impunity for politicians and the monks attached to the highest echelons of the government). Rampant corruption has been a major factor undermining the rule of law in Sri Lanka. Family, friends and allies of the Rajapaksas for example have reportedly profited by receiving lofty, well-paying, state-funded positions that require little work. During Rajapaksa family rule, they oversaw departments and agencies that collectively control nearly 70% of the island’s budget. And then the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Political Victimisation, created by Rajapaksa’s Government, absolved the family and their allies of criminal charges. Central Bank bond scam happened during MS/RW rule.

In this context, the recent Anti-Corruption Act was a long awaited legislative development, given the lacunae in Sri Lanka’s existing anti-corruption framework. Certain provisions of the Act appear to be implicitly inconsistent with fundamental human rights obligations, limiting its power to address executive misconduct. As such, the effectiveness of the Act – which depends on its appropriate implementation and enforcement – remains uncertain. Campaign finance is an important issue in political competition. In their struggle to win, parties and individual candidates often try to outspend each other, and under financial pressure, both candidates and party leaders accept payoffs or illegal donations offered by wealthy donors in exchange for promises of future favours. In fact, punishing politicians for corrupt activities at the ballot box is indeed more difficult than often assumed. However, overall, studies suggest that in situations where candidates can anticipate lower electoral penalties for corrupt activities, corruption might become more widespread as a result.

Human rights in Sri Lanka have only deteriorated in recent years amidst the economic crisis that unfolded in 2022. The public, although dissatisfied with the state of affairs, is barred from protest by restrictive measures taken by the government which curtail civil liberties. Sri Lanka suffers from a continuing accountability deficit – be it for war crime atrocities, more recent human rights violations, corruption, or abuse of power – which must be addressed for the country to move forward, according to a recent UN Human Rights Office report. GoSL was stubbornly pushing for a controversial Online Safety Bill (OSB) which raised concerns among media outlets, rights groups, social media activists, and those who use the internet for a livelihood and the Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB), too was another ruse to restrict freedom of speech, which was first announced in March. Both were widely condemned in Sri Lanka and internationally

Sri Lanka is also yet to heal the wounds of its three-decade-long war and multiple communal riots that have resulted in the loss of innocent lives. The ethnocentric policies efficiently took hold within a decade of its independence. Sinhalese Buddhists rose to completely dominate state-associated institutions. This has benefitted many powerful sectors – government servants, security, Buddhist clergy and corrupt entrepreneurs – that completely reversing course is an almost impossible challenge. To grow and keep power, nationalists need enemies, real or manufactured. The civil war, also energised Buddhist nationalists. Post war, these forces have targeted Muslims. After Easter attacks, even Christians were made the target too.

However, the last year’s struggle showed that the crisis seemed to be uniting communities, heralding a sense of hope for the future. The younger generations especially those of the majority community became to realise that playing the ethnic card is not going to easily allow politicians to obtain votes like how it used to in the past. They felt duped by politicians who saw minority communities as enemies. The protests thus made us feel that finally Sri Lankans were realising that it was not ethnicities, but corrupt leaders and the corrupt system which is a threat. This is one of the positive developments which augurs well as the country is coming close to an election year, which shows the ability of the electorate to stand together above ethnic divisions to create a clean political culture and good governance.

The unchecked political powers will not do any good to any society. The existing political structure in Sri Lanka paves the way for corruption & a number of burning social issues. It is time people act to change this status quo. But this is the core of the entire Political culture of Sri Lanka. The much needed changes could only be done if one is able to comprehend the existing dynamics & find ways to counter or find ways to work around them. A tumour could be surgically removed but a malignant cancer takes more than a surgery. The politicians should be compelled not only to create a solid legal framework to fight the corruption that has run rampant both in politics and in the state structures that provide basic services to ordinary people, but also create effective implementation mechanisms too.

There is a need for civil organisations as well as political parties especially those in the opposition such as SJB and NPP to educate the masses on their role to vote responsibly. This need was clearly felt when one looks at the ‘moronic’ hundreds who flocked to Sugathadasa stadium to listen to the same economic butchers in the likes of MR &Co on how they will salvage bankrupt Sri Lanka. It is also important for these parties to place before the citizens their respective alternative political programmes by which they propose to get Sri Lanka out of the unholy mess the country presently is in, on all fronts.  There is an additional challenge for the NPP despite its cleaner political track records, to address and counter at the present time the narrative espoused by some critics and foes alike regarding its ‘violent’ history. The electorate should not be led up the garden path one more time with manifesto promises that the governing powers fail to fulfill. The people’s responsibility do not stop at the voting booth, but is a continuing one holding the rulers to account even challenging them in courts and punishing impunity.

There is no point in constructing highways or high rise buildings while the society erodes. Ethical politics is more important than building highways and high-rises. Democracy is meant to enable the citizens of the country to elect clean, committed representatives of their choice and have the country to be led to better times. Supreme power is meant to be vested in the people and those elected to power are merely agents of the people. In reality however, they have become the servants and the political class act like royals. Whatever all this may bring, most discourses of the kind centre only around the existing set of politicians, mostly those in advanced years. There is no new blood visible close to the power centres in parties and the government for the nation to hope for a new political culture, about which, again, there is only a desire, not a roadmap. And in the given circumstances and with the given persona, even a fresh election cannot usher in a new political culture, one way or the other, unless the people act decisively.

However, regardless of the obstacles, Sri Lanka has both the potential and an opportunity to build on the positive public activism seen in recent times, and create a new vision for the country. An informed and determined electorate can address structural inequalities and violence while demanding social and economic justice, political accountability, and a new culture of governance. No one believes that the task will be either easy, or will the results be immediate. However, given the changes brought about since last year by the people, provides hope that sustained, innovative, and inclusive citizen mobilization has a chance to transform Sri Lanka. Ultimately, the relationship between the elector and the elected, the ruler and the ruled, in a democracy is founded on a social contract.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    As long as the so-called leaders follow the masses instead of following their conscience about what is right and what is wrong without religious or racial flavor, Sri Lanka will never thrive.

  • 3

    Dear Author,
    You identified Chronic Corruption, Racism, and human rights record as the great challenge but you purposely ignored religious fundamentalism which is the fundamental cause that lead to other factors identified by you.

    • 1

      “you purposely ignored religious fundamentalism”
      There is Hindutva whose fangs operate in this island
      There is Christian fundamentalism, less serious here than in the west.
      Then there is Muslim fundamentalism again a highly localized foreign funded phenomenon. It is less of a threat than local Hindutva and SB chauvinism (which is not fundamentalist but racist like what else you know).
      SB ideology had no serious fundamentalist streak except for Soma Hamaduru’s brief period of campaign. He died over a decade ago.

  • 1

    “There is no point in constructing highways or high rise buildings while the society erodes.”
    It is also about how we measure success. Success today is mainly measured by economic success in terms of growth. GDP and per capita GDP being the two primary measures. Not much emphasis is given to societal errosion.
    “Ethical politics is more important than building highways and high-rises.”
    Then there’s also realpolitik that is blind to any ethics, morals or values- a form of hypocrisy.
    “Democracy is meant to enable the citizens of the country to elect clean, committed representatives of their choice and have the country to be led to better times.”.
    That also depends on the collective intellect and the political literacy of the electorate. Two factors that are hard to change. If the current crisis is not able to change them for the better, nothing may ever will, leaving Sri Lanka’s fate in a rather gloomy state.
    I don’t believe economic success is that hard to achieve given enough time, but to create a truly flourishing society that is content with its accomplishments, in every posible way is the real challenge.

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