13 December, 2019

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Alternatives To Mainstream Political Parties At Elections: Where To Next?

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Under the parliamentary democracy, the State has to be a vehicle by which elected representatives, including the President in Sri Lanka’s case, utilise for the common good of people, especially the disadvantaged. However, looking at the situation since independence, the state has become a vehicle that works for the good of the privileged more so than the common people. The ruling class –though divided between various recognised political parties and vie for power at elections – is linked to each other by various factors including family ties, marriage, school friendships, loyalties based on locality, caste, political/party history of the family, and more. As a result, and failed economic policies that has brought the country into a serious debt trap with the potential to generate international dependency again, more and more people are looking for a third or fourth alternative that can capture power at the forthcoming elections and deliver good governance and socio-economic benefits for the majority. Among these alternatives –though still at embryonic stage- are the Nagananda (anti-corruption campaigner) camp aided by Vinivida Foundation and the civil society movement led by Dr. VInya Ariyaratne. Whether they will be able to generate grass roots appeal and how are a yet to be seen.

The UNP led coalition is preparing for the forthcoming elections in a background where there are many unfulfilled promises made at the last elections including the promise to bring those who embezzled state resources for private gain during the previous regime. The SLFP and its leadership has lost much credibility in the eyes of the voting public for the same reason. The fortunes of JVP are not believed to be great for various reasons including the fact that it is not a party designed to deliver material benefits to the voters as other parties are. TNA seems to be in a similar predicament in the North and East. It is subject to elitism critique that is levelled against major Sinhala parties. In this context, the emergence of Pohottuwa – family based party – during the last 4 or so years as an alternative has to be looked at in comparison to other non-political  alternatives mentioned above. If the SLFP does not come to an agreement with the SLPP about the future collaboration in electoral and governance matters, the prospects for Sinhala majority parties can be interesting due to the possibility of three way contests.

Reforming the state, how it operates and the constitution via established political parties that governed the country since independence is not going to be an easy task. We have witnessed the sorry situation in recent years during the UNF government. Vested interests seem to pull the strings in all directions to stifle any parliamentary process set in place for constitutional reform. The country is burdened with an archaic legal system that serves the interests of lawyers, the rich and powerful, more so than the common people who come before it seeking justice. No politician has provided solutions to long and undue delays in court cases involving even simple matters. In such a situation, the average man (and woman) is looking for an alternative force to compete against established parties who have failed them over the decades for a real change. They are looking for–not only of parties that will govern the country after next set of elections business as usual.  They want a government that can move the country forward by way of sustainable development including regional development, less corruption and patronage, less heavy handedness in civil affairs, less bureaucratic delays in decision making, less delays in court processes, less indebtedness to foreign countries and entities. Moreover, an alternative that will safeguard the sovereignty of country and its people in the face of competing interests from regional and global powers.

Our history is replete with examples of prominent and not so prominent people and families who sacrificed their pride, identity, nation and religion to embrace alien customs, habits and ways of life during the colonial period taking the side of the colonisers. Collaborating with the colonisers such individuals and families advanced their material and symbolic stock while assisting the colonisers to rule the areas under their control. Sinhala and Tamil leaders who were faithful to their own religion, culture, identity and people organised themselves and launched many struggles to safeguard the country and its people, their cultures and identities against those who embraced foreign ways and benefited from the colonial governments. When reading history today, such distinctions are not made clear cut. In political rhetoric also, the story is the same. In Sri Lanka, history –including colonial history- has been written from the perspective of the elites rather than the common people. This is a fact pointed out by one of the prominent historians such as S. Arasarathnam as early as 1970s. 

Today, among the Sinhala and to some extent Tamil politicians, one can observe the above-mentioned distinction between Euro (and American) centric, trouser and jacket wearing politicians and those wearing the national dress.   Voters are well placed to distinguish weather the former is better than the latter or vice versa in the forthcoming elections. However, it is clear by now that the dress alone is not a good way of reading one’s loyalty to the nation and its people. Voters have to look at the substance more than the appearance –even though from colonial times our people are accustomed to do the opposite. In this sense, they are advised to look at alternative political and social formations described above and give them a chance for democracy if not for anything else.

Mr. Nagananda Kodithuwakku recently visited Australia together with former auditor general Gamini Wijesinghe. They both made convincing arguments supported by facts about the state of affairs in the country (videos are available in U tube). Though they seem to understand the challenge in organising a counter movement and a new constitution to take the country out of its current predicament, and seem to profess about a plan to move forward before the next Presidential elections, many wonder about the mechanism that they plan to take their message to the village and the masses. Furthermore, unlike other mainstream politicians, they seem to be less concerned about political symbolism couched in religion. Politicians speak to masses by using symbolism and rhetoric.  If a movement is based simply on facts and figures –which can be boring at times – how can they cut through to the large masses? Though symbolism and rhetoric delivered in the vernacular indoctrinate the masses, they seem to work in the Sri Lankan context resulting in the transfer of power from the masses to the political class at elections.  Leaders of civil society movements mentioned earlier are well advised to visit temples more than seminar rooms if they are to acquire more traction and disseminate their message to the masses.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    1

    Yes a third party candidate is on an uphill task because the masses are taken in by rhetoric and histrionics.
    Nagananda’s campaign is good for the educated and discerning, but the (m)asses that comprise the majority even voted last time for a youthful useless actress over and above many deserving like Karu, who is better than the average politikkas without O level.

    • 0
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      Good to see you following developments closely, Bandu. Also good to note that Siri’s own evaluation of Nagananda is positive.
      .
      The problem with the Naga campaign is precisely the fact that it relies too much on people having the time to listen to Youtube discussions. There was one from Australia that was particularly good; a young woman who questioned him intelligently from a studio. However, only those who are already committed will be following all this. And even I cannot at this point get at it, to provide a link.
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      When even an intelligent person like Nagananda is addressing only fervent supporters, it is possible for us to have little groups who feed one another encouragement, until we believe that the universe shares our views. Certainly, Nagananda will garner many votes, and forcing a count of Preferential votes will be an achievement.
      .
      Predicting a tsunami of support is fine, but let us be rational enough to recognise that that the “masses” have to be educated into the realisation that voting FIRST for Naganada, and then following the advice given here about using the THREE votes still left will not be wasting a vote.
      .
      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/give-your-second-preference-to-the-dnf-unper-to-halt-gota-tick-both-preference-1-2/
      .
      Marxist Professor Kumar David may have been objective there in discounting Nagananda’s chances. He has written honestly, and he has been humbly at the JVP rally. Great! I will, as honestly, definitely add to what is there suggested a FIRST Preference for Nagananda. Let us do what we can, and give publicity to the system of voting.
      .
      https://www.newsradio.lk/local/voters-urged-to-mark-2nd-3rd-preferences/

      So, there are some groups that must not try too hard to make specific appeals on behalf of a particular candidate. That usually gets resented.

      We have to be rational enough to understand our own limitations. Que sera sera!

  • 0
    0

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  • 0
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    heard there is a very strong female candidate as fourth power waitting in line .

  • 0
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    Siri Gamage,
    Sorry to be too blunt but I must say that this is nothing but a repetition of usual “Kopi Kade'” talks. It is true that poor economic policies of the past has a great deal to with current miseries, it is a very immature conclusion that sociology of politics was the reason. The biggest reason was surrendering to left wing ideologies and thereby discouraging foreign investment via mass nationalizations. The situation changed only after 1978, but JVP insurgencies & LITTE civil war along with political power going back again to the hands of an inefficient group of SLFP for twenty long years has created the current misery.

    I understand the appeal for a third-party alternative but human nature is such that it is only a matter of time for any new party to fall back on the same old. Traditional two party system with openness for new breeds of leaders could do the same perhaps even better. In this sense, I think that what is plaguing SL is the system of political dynasty (Senanayake, Bandaranayake, Rajapkse, Wickramasinghe+ Wijewardhana) that existed since the independence, preventing talents taking over. If SL political system can adopt US or British system of selecting leaders, there won’t be any need for third party talks.

  • 0
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    JRJ created a monster that we were told will be destroyed in 2015. The beast was hurt but not killed.
    The problem is in the system
    No individual, however well meaning, can handle it single handed.
    *
    If only the constitution had stipulated that a president needs at least 50% of the votes cast and 40% (or some such number) of the electoral register, even after adding 2nd preferences, there would have been a chance to prevent any of the scoundrels from getting elected.
    *
    Even then, denying victory at first count and keeping the 1st preference votes for the winner below 40% would be a strong signal of public resentment that political leaders may ignore, but will inspire forces of mass resistance.
    *
    It is time that the people thought outside the (ballot) box.

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