By Uditha Devapriya –
Gore Vidal loved to say that George W. Bush (Junior) was selected, not elected. He loved to say that only one party existed in the United States of America, the Property Party, with two wings: Republican and Democrat. He also loved to say or rather imply that only madmen and idiots who have nothing to offer loved their country. Staunch opponent of both nationalism and globalisation that he was, he would have naturally seen in the latter an extension of the former with respect to his own home country. Gore Vidal was an eloquent speaker, writer, activist, and artist. He loved to say things like that. People vilified him for them, but not every person hated him. That is why what he had to say about democracy interests me so much.
Here’s a classic Vidal-ism: “Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice like Painkiller X and Painkiller Y. But they’re both just aspirin.” It’s that aspirin we’re fed year in and year out, wherever we are, and we the people have to swallow it because it gives us the illusion of being in control of a process we aren’t really in control of. Two days from today, the people will go to swallow that aspirin, to choose between two painkillers and Property Party wings, here. As such it’s pertinent to note where we are, what we should be doing, and what those offering if not selling hope in the form of advertorials and advertisements proclaiming lofty ideals and brazenly brighter futures are really offering. And for once, I want to look beyond the rhetoric.
The UNP and the SLFP (or the UPFA, if we are to include constituent parties) are, naturally again, badmouthing the former regime. But there’s a difference this time around: the two of them seem to be parting ways. Of these two wings, it would seem that the UNP has the clear advantage (not that I’m taking sides here, of course), and not for no reason: since 2015, the United National Party has more than any other party, in the mainstream or by the sidelines, campaigned to up its image. Barring the Bond Scandal, barring those gaffes which MP after MP concedes ground to time after time, it has at least shown that it’s capable of compelling a forgive-and-forget stamp of approval from the people. That’s probably why, when the leader of that party criticises Mahinda Rajapaksa, he retains a welter of conviction which we don’t get with the bedfellows his colleagues have to put up with in parliament.
Now there are two schools of thought with respect to this phenomenon. The first suggests that the UNP and the SLFP (UPFA) would be better off together. The second suggests that this would not be an ideal state of affairs for them or for the people. But in the political there are such things as splits and rifts, amalgamations and reconciliations. We don’t really know what will transpire after the verdict on Sunday, and even if we do, we’ve more or less caved into the inevitability of it all. For the fact of the matter is that when it comes to candidates, when it comes to the numbers and popularity, the Podu Jana Peramuna, under that much vilified former president, courts a bigger chance than the UPFA. Whether this is enough to present much of a threat against the UNP is anybody’s guess: after all even with Mahinda Rajapaksa at its helm, the SLFP was unable to defeat or equal the UNP efforts in August 2015.
I am a little confused, however, at the fact that these two schools of thought exist at all in the first place. Who’s to say that a UPFA-less UNP government would be better off than a UNP-less UPFA government, or who’s to say that these two should stick by the mandate given to them and continue until 2020 or 2021 together? The point to understand is that we aren’t in a mood to give politicians a blank check. The UNP and the UPFA are contending on the premise that it is handing us politicians whom we can trust with our land, our children, and everything and everyone else besides we cherish, while the SLPP, or “Mahinda’s Construct” as I like to call it, is doing a great job at convincing the people to vote for it regardless of the records of its candidates. Those who are rooting for the SLPP don’t care about the integrity of their candidates, while those rooting for the UNP and the UPFA do care about it.
Given this, how would the SLPP fare positively? Two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is the fact that the UNP-UPFA duo hasn’t exactly led the country to the kind of prosperity the people expected. But that’s a given: if the numbers are true, and if Ranil Wickremesinghe’s allegations regarding the debt burden that Rajapaksa created can be verified, it’s impossible to let go of that burden and usher in prosperity unless and until drastic steps, eschewing populism for long term interests, are taken and implemented.
The current government has so far not shown that it is seriously committed to those drastic steps, and the UPFA in particular has virtually cut off any attempt made by the UNP to think of a more objective, anti-populist base on which economic policies can be decided. Which brings me to the second reason: the UPFA has, in what appears to me to be a repetition of the drama that unfolded after the 1956 election, through its own leadership ranks denied the achievement of the goals that it has sought to achieve: in a pithy phrase, a country free of chauvinism and political rifts.
It’s difficult to affirm a State that opens up bars for longer hours only for it to shut them down on the very next day. It’s difficult to affirm a State that speaks loftily about reconciliation when it backtracks on that rhetoric the very next day with anti-Western diatribes. It’s difficult to affirm a constituent party’s decision to implement otherwise unpopular but ostensibly good economic measures when members of the other constituent party shoot those measures down and lambast their own bedfellows. It’s a veritable two-headed Hydra that the people have had to (unfortunately) put up with, and being the shrewd, calculating, veteran organisers they are, the Rajapaksas are targeting a particular dissatisfied voter demographic by stating that the sort of candidates you ought to be supporting are those who prefer to act rather than speak, i.e. those who “perform” whether or not they possess clean records.
The SLPP thinks it’s getting the voter out of those two wings that Vidal alluded to. But what the people must realise, at the end of the day, is that the SLPP is housed by those who are part and parcel of the same Property Party it is fighting against. Perhaps the best and biggest tribute we can give to the voter, during this election, is that when it comes to selecting, and deselecting, parties and movements regardless of popular rhetoric, he is probably miles ahead of the politicians who want him. Here. Now.