By Mohamed Harees –
It becomes a landslide victory, when a change in people’s views on political matters results in one party receiving an overwhelming majority of the votes or seats in the Parliament, virtually decimating the opponents, with part of the reason also being a bandwagon effect. In such a scenario, as more people come to believe in something, others also “hop on the bandwagon” regardless of the underlying evidence. This is exactly what happened in Sri Lanka few days ago.
The party led by the Rajapaksas romped home to an impressive two thirds majority win, which should help strengthen their grip on power and handing them a supermajority even to change the Constitution. The splintered opposition was decimated. The party strategists probably embarked upon a much captivating and winning bandwagon – ‘Sinhala Buddhist nationalism’ to gain political mileage, thanks to the support of some rogue sections of both the Media and the Maha Sangha who played a key role in creating the much needed hate environment. Anti- Muslim hate built up in Post Easter Sri Lanka acted as a catalyst. It was thus a fact that this populist wave paid dividends at this election too, as it did at the Presidential election, along the same lines of how Trump in US and Modi in neighbouring India realized their dreams for a unprecedented mandate canvassing on a majoritarian platform, at the expense of inclusivity.
The ruling party will use this massive mandate which ensured a two-thirds majority in parliament to restore full executive powers to the presidency, which they say are necessary to implement their agenda to make Sri Lanka both economically and militarily secure. Sri Lanka had been in fact ruled by powerful executive presidents since 1978. But 19th Amendment strengthened Parliament and the prime minister and put independent commissions in charge of judiciary appointments, police, public services and the conduct of elections. The landslide victory has thus raised fears in many quarters, of weakening government institutions such as independent commissions for elections, police and public service and create a democratic autocracy- a misnomer to say the least.
In the post-election context, implementing key constitutional changes, reviving Sri Lanka’s economy and managing the country’s relations with major powers will be important policy priorities for Sri Lanka. Although Sri Lanka’s key international partners may not agree with some of the Rajapaksa government’s policies, major powers will continue to engage with the Sri Lankan government in the context of geo-political realities. For Sri Lanka, however, balancing its engagement with the major powers will remain its primary foreign and security challenge.
Domestically, one of the most important challenges for Post-Election Sri Lanka will be to ensure citizen rights are duly secured irrespective of racial or religious divides, and bring the communities together, after one of the most divisive election campaigns in the recent past. Sectarian politics especially based on anti-Muslim hatred and demonization was used liberally in the run-up to the elections, making them the new bogeymen and villains. The hostility towards Muslims has been however simmering for several years in Sri Lanka, stoked primarily by Buddhist nationalist groups, who propagated the idea that Sinhala Buddhists are under threat from overpopulating Muslims who plan to control the economy, overthrow them and then wipe them out. Tamil community too, has also been at the butt end of rising Sinhala nationalism particularly in the Post war context, who were demanding transitional justice after the war which came to a brutal end in 2009. They have also lost much of their political might with their leaders entangled within a political quagmire. Equally, in a general sense, the political opposition too has also been in search of much needed political space to freely engage in political activism without being branded traitors to the so-called ‘Sinhala Buddhist cause’. Both Sajith’s and Anura D’s parties fell victims to this bullet.
There is an old political art well practised in Sri Lanka wherein politicians create artificial problems and then solve it to earn gratitude for a life time. The need to curtail rising minority power and save the Sinhala race and Buddhism from extinction was one such lop sided fear – a problem created by them. This general election would thus be remembered for polarisation of votes on the basis of race and religion while the real issues like poverty, unemployment, public debt and other economic & social problems receded in the background. Majority of political leaders openly canvassed on the basis of race and religion. If this trend continues, we are heading for a serious social and political crisis. Post-election! Signs are afoot that unfortunately, in the society, communal divisions are continuously deepening. It has been proven beyond a doubt that the country has slowly been sliding towards dangerous racist and religious extremist trends, which could even destroy the social fabric of the nation in the long run. It is therefore important that this ‘Hate Tsunami’ be stopped in its track by initially understanding the rationale behind the election results in its proper perspective.
Amidst the spirit of rising triumphalism, the realities of the massive win through a democracy and electoral process, should be properly construed. Of course, people of Sri Lanka have spoken loud and clear and the result is the reflection of their preferences. Of course, it appears that the majority of the Sinhala Buddhist people may in large part have been led to vote, based on irrational fears fed by cunning political schemers hell bent on creating divisions within the society. However, their verdict should not be insulted, misconstrued or misinterpreted, as calling it as one to create a theocratic or a majoritarian or Sinhala supremacist state where other communities should adopt a slavish or subordinate position. It is a not an overwhelming mandate to do so. No sane party will ask for or any same people will predominantly vote for a party which openly promotes that only one race should reign supreme and the minorities should be denied their rights under the Constitution. To be fair, even the ruling party did not openly ask for such a mandate. However, it is no secret that a well-organised dog whistle campaign was afoot to promote this divisive agenda.
In fact, in their subconscious mind, the people wanted a strong government (in the absence of a credible opposition) with their predominant concerns also being the lack of national security, clean political culture, political integrity, as well as opportunism and short termism. In fact, those at highest levels of power who are responsible for national tragedies like Easter Attacks and chronic corruption are roaming free and impunity is in crisis proportions. With their bitter experiences with a shaky Yahapalana government, people did what they did during the last seven decades usually in any election: vote for the other party offering another package, however dubious they may be.
No one denies the political might of the majority in terms of numbers. But, true progress will only be achievable if the multi-ethnic culture character of this blessed nation is duly recognised and all people are engaged in national development. People belonging to different religious, racial, cultural and lingual identities have been living together harmoniously. Lasting harmony between heterogeneous communities can only come through a realization that differences that divide us along ethnic and religious lines have no foundation. If in the name of race or religion, people are discriminated or made to feel inferior on grounds of a concept of supremacy, that is essentially a slur and blot on the society governed by the rule of law. Communal harmony is the hallmark of democracy in a country governed by the rule of law.
A society where some members of the community are treated as to a lower order lacks negates the spirit of the Constitution and international norms which provides liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship and therefore, racial and religious harmony. Each and every citizen must enjoy the same status and dignity. Sri Lanka has one common citizenship and every citizen should feel or made to feel that he/she is Sri Lankan first irrespective of other basis. Sri Lanka is known for communal harmony which has to be maintained.
However, our unity, integrity and solidarity is now at stake. In the present time, communalism and racism are the most serious threats to our sovereign, socialist and democratic polity. It is unfortunate that political leaders create the communal disharmony for vote bank politics. As far as political parties are concerned, they have used religious sentiments to achieve short term political objective. Political parties have successfully exploited religion, region and caste to divert attention from real issues. This trend is not a good sign for our democracy. In fact, it is an insult to the spirit of tolerance of our ancestors which has been one of their great traditions. It hampers the growth of the nation at every step. Evil forces trying to destroy this should be crushed at any cost. Political capital out of racism will only be short-lived. It is also our duty spread the message of importance of communal harmony.
It is the duty of the government to maintain the peace and harmony in the society and take initiatives to promote communal harmony amongst citizens of the country. The President and PM should not fall prey to racist machinations within. Government policies are important to bring strong bond between people and realize the value of other religions which are essential to have brother-hood relation with other religion people. However laudable the national development plans are, they are beyond reach without national reconciliation and without all shades of people feeling inclusive. If the nation wishes to make sound progress in the socio-economic, political and scientific spheres, communal harmony therefore has to be ensured as a permanent feature of life.
It is also necessary that our law enforcement agencies must too work in fair and just manner. Ultimately sufferers of violence are the people of our country, so we have to understand the consequences and must work for promoting the communal harmony in the society. The strict action under the law should be taken against those who are involved in promoting hate and communal violence in a fair and impartial manner.
The people of this country should not condone any action of those political parties which are involved in dirty politics of communalism. Therefore, not only the government and its agencies, but the civil society groups must also continuously watch and raise their voice against groups and individuals who use hate speech and violence in the name of their race and religion. Public activism should play a decisive role in holding the government to account to ensure the human rights of the country’s populace are duly respected.
Apart from that, it is also necessary that the people of different religions should realize that they have to live together and mingle with each other because mixed neighbourhoods are fast disappearing. In different societies from the safety point of view people prefer to live in ghettos. It is necessary that at the village, municipal and city level social harmony, committees have to be constituted to promote communal harmony among the members of society, which should consist of religious leaders, community leaders and intellectuals such as doctors, teachers as well as social activists and prominent representatives from the civil society, etc. There is also a need to teach mutual tolerance and harmony to our communities and kids so that every citizen of the country governed by the rule of law can live in peace and harmony.
The myth of considering diversity as a hurdle in the path of development, should be dispelled. Rather the people must be educated to proudly accept the fact, walk hand in hand with each other and take the country to heights never fathomed before. After all, it is the diversity which makes the country’s heritage as rich as it gives them their identity. The racial or religious differences don’t make us weak. They’re the source of our strength. No doubt, unity is something to be desired, to be striven for, but it cannot be willed by mere declarations. Only a nation-wide determination to celebrate diversity and public activism can make it happen. They say, ‘Not in numbers but in unity that our great strength lies’. This reality should be understood beyond euphoria and triumphalism.