By Mohamed Harees –
‘Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first’ – Ronald Reagan
What happened in Colombo this ‘Black Friday’ within the Presidential Secretariat, was a disaster for democracy and clean politics in Sri Lanka, when Maithri (MS) exposing his true form, carried out a constitutional coup under the cloak of secrecy and darkness in flagrant violation of the mandate he received four years ago, and appointed MR as his PM, via extra parliamentary procedures outside the Constitution, after sacking the incumbent RW, his political buddy for almost four years. Even RW (who only received a briefly worded letter from MS), the cabinet as well as the country were caught unawares of this sudden development. Obviously, RW has contested this decision and claimed that the appointment was illegal and unconstitutional and therefore will continue as the PM. Resultantly, at least for the time being, this Island nation will go down in world history as one with two competing Prime Ministers, thus becoming a laughing stock in the eyes of the world. (perhaps, one for the ‘Toyyas’ and one for the ‘Bayyas’, as their followers were usually called in the social media). This development will also be a disaster for democracy, as it appears to be not reflecting the will and mandate of the people who voted out war-time PM of this nation- MR and voted in MS, with a view to change the then-existing status quo. Besides, the parliament also stands prorogued undermining the parliamentary democracy as well. A sad reflection of the dark side of modern politics- ugly political culture, cut-throatism, wheeler dealing opportunism and self-centredness! And these untoward developments will have far reaching implications for the people of this country.
It was in December 2014 that I wrote an article to the Colombo Telegraph titled ‘Can Maithri Be An ‘Attlee’ In The Making?’, and queried whether ‘the historic defeat of Churchill (war time PM of Britain) and the election of Atlee which happened 70 years ago, strike a chord with the people of Sri Lanka, resonate in their minds and serve as a lesson and a warning, before they go to the polling station on January 8th, 2015?’. Post War Britain voted for a decisive change at the right time and for a new government for peacetimes, and analysts said in retrospect that Churchill would have been a disaster as Prime Minister in immediate post war Britain as events proved after. On the contrast, Sri Lankans have already had the taste of a term of the Rajapaksa Regime after the end of the War to gauge, before they were asked in January 2015, to consider voting out, the so- called War Hero to rule post War Sri Lanka!
Well! It certainly did strike a chord as for yet another time, Sri Lanka believed in the process of democracy and voted for a ‘decisive change’ by voting in the underdog MS who stood tall then by promising good governance, clean politics, and reconciliation as well as to bring the corrupt sharks of the MR government to book by pinpointing many misdeeds of the Rajapaksa dynasty. It was yet another historic opportunity for Sri Lanka to reconcile its’ people, clean up the stables and move forward and the signs were there too apparent then that MS together with RW meant business when they placed their promises before the court of the People. However, sadly, this opportunity proved to be an empty shell with most evils of the MR government continuing regardless under the so-called Yahapalana government too, in different flavours; corruption and racial hatred being foremost among them. Barely an year or two down the line, MS cut a sorry figure, becoming a backseat driver in his capacity as the Head of government and the country; a far cry from becoming an ‘Atlee’ and began parting ways with RW, much to the frustration of the people who voted for them. With people feeling that there was no government in charge, three years later, Pohottuwa bloomed as never expected in LG Elections to the dismay of the nation. Still lessons not being learnt, both main parties in the government-coalition carried on regardless with their divisive talk and appeared to be on the sure road to defeat in the next elections.
Whatever the faults of the Yahapalana government, there is no justification for MS to pull the rug from under the feet of RW and deprive him of his full mandated term of office. With MS losing all hope in his greed to come back to power, he opted to join hands with the same MR whom he saw in 2015 as a villain, thief, and one who would have sent him to an early grave had MR come back to power. Thus,in late October 2018, King Maithri turned King Kekille and played a reverse stroke bringing in MR back again this time as his PM, in a well-orchestrated coup throwing the 2015 mandate he received to the winds, and replaced RW, whose party helped him in 2015 to come to power. An ungrateful character indeed! He changed his tune from ‘MR is all- vice’ to ‘MR is all-nice’, typical of tongue-in-the-cheek talk of politicians these days. An irony of fate indeed, a constitutional coup and another mockery of democracy- which saw the 2nd coming of the same ruler whom the nation voted to send home in 2015; yet another episode of the sad story of Sri Lanka, ever since the British handed over the reins to the locals to rule themselves in 1948. In politics, as Napoleon once said, stupidity is not a handicap; and even dishonesty. One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician’s objective; election and power are. Wheeler dealings, corruption, lies, backstabbing and dishonesty have made the politicians, the most hated lot in the country, making people to hate entering politics.
At Independence, many saw an opportunity to unite and work towards progress. The power hungry political leaders gave this away and rode on the communalist bandwagon to grab power. Then people saw another one when MR gave leadership in 2009 to win the Tiger led war; this too became another day dream. The latest one was the political revolution launched spearheaded by late Ven. Sobitha Thero to defeat the Rajapakse regime, wherein corruption was rampant and racist forces ruled the streets. The people’s dream to live in a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka again began to gradually fizzle out with public resentment building up against the worsening corruption which sky rocketed to unimaginable heights during this Yahapalana government. Businesses often complain that there is much business development in the country and only insiders win official contracts. Sri Lanka has been falling many places continuously too in the World Bank’s ranking of the ease of doing business.
Despite relatively more space for free expression, biased Media reporting has become the norm of the day, spreading white lies, with business empires bastardizing this important industry, which prompted the people to turn to social media to learn about developments and to air their views. Tamils too are still marginalized, a decade after the end of the War despite the constitutional guarantees and LLRC recommendations while Muslims who were then victims of Aluthgama tragedy then was treated to more violence in Gintota, Ampara and Digana. There went down into the water, the aspirations of the Sri Lankan people to get Good Governance, free of a political culture of racism, violence and corruption and where ordinary people will get economic justice and are able to enjoy the fruits of progress equitably. In the craze to solve the nation’s ills, the system of changing pillows for the headache (same wine in different bottles) or like getting a ‘Hotu Gaeni’(wife with a runny nose) by giving away ‘Kaehi Gaeni’ (wife with a cough) has only thrown out much worse options. Therefore, Sri Lanka is crying out for fresh thinking and a third force to bail it out from this two-party system of ‘rogues’ and dirty political culture, for we know that both UNP and SLFP governments have been equally culpable in suppressing people’s rights and resorting to repressive measures to feather and protect their own political nests. “Give politicians power and it certainly will be abused eventually — if not by today’s politicians, then by their successors.” — Harry Browne.
However, unless the political culture changes, it will be the same old drama with a different set of actors. Politics in Sri Lanka has become so corrupt and low that people has lost faith in any of the politicos. A story goes that at an Economics seminar, a lecturer says that ‘In SL, the literacy rate (the ability to read and write) is 94%. A member of the audience asked a question: ‘What about the other 6%?. Lecturer answers: That 6% are in the Parliament! Of course, in the Presidential seat too! Again very true indeed, judging by the awful conduct and even the statistics quoted some time ago in Parliament regarding their literacy! Sometime back, I was watching an interesting episode in a Kids’ Fancy Dress Competition. One Kid dressed up as a politician was canvassing for votes. He started off by saying: I am from a good family although I am a Politician. At the end of his hilarious outbursts, he appealed to his audience to cast their votes to Mala-Paha– his Symbol being Mala– flower and his Number being Paha-Five. All those present burst out in laughter as ‘Mala-Paha’ also meant ‘Sh..t’. This summed up the quality of the people we send through our vote, to the hallowed place where the destiny of the Nation is discussed and decided upon.
The fish rots from the top, they say. In Sri Lanka too, the rot has begun from the top rungs. At the top, unethical and corrupt actions of Heads of State as well as those in the Parliament and other bodies have been unbecoming of public representatives who are being voted into office to keep public interest in mind. At this alarming rate of declining morals in public life we witness today, from top to bottom, does anyone want their children to become politicians and work for a corrupt government, unless those children are those of the corrupt politicians themselves , who knows the taste and gains of such misdeeds, caring less for the ethical side of life.
In a statement issued by the International Crisis Group before the Sri Lankan Presidential elections in 2015, the challenges faced by the voters were clearly spelt out , a quote from which will be appropriate to mention here .
‘…Democracy is a process leading to a change in political culture in which people accept the verdict of the people whether or not it favours their interests or ambitions. At the formal level, democracy is about the establishment of constitutional rule, the operation of a multi-party political system and the organisation of regular, free and fair elections. It a more profound level however, democracy is about a process leading to a profound socio-political transformation that allows freely elected rulers and the majority of the civil population to impose their supremacy over previously ruling oligarchies of the military or civilian ethno-regional cabals. Democracy implies the development of a political culture in which a significant membership of society becomes composed of citizens who become the key agents of political rule. The most immediate challenge confronting the process of democratic consolidation is that of ensuring that democratisation is accompanied by the institutionalisation of constitutional rule. Constitutions, it is generally acknowledged, do not in themselves make democracy. Many African constitutions are excellent documents; they have most of the right provisions about the rule of law, human, civil and political rights, elective institutions, governmental accountability, and separation of powers etc. the problem however is that these provisions are not followed. The political systems are characterised by excessive arbitrariness and abuse of power, the lack of basic freedoms and denial of popular sovereignty.’
‘Accepting outcomes of elections is important because in its essence, an electoral system is an alternative to violence as a means of achieving governance. However, when an electoral process is perceived as unfair, unresponsive or corrupt, its political legitimacy is compromised and stakeholders are motivated to go outside the established norm to achieve their political objectives. Electoral conflict and violence then become tactics in political competition. The caveat therefore is that electoral outcomes are accepted in democracies because they reflect the choices made by citizens; when they do not, the Pandora’s Box is opened…
Thus, this appalling situation therefore calls for active public participation and civic activism. The adoption of laws that do not protect the legitimate interests of society gradually occurs when citizens are passive, ignorant of their reality, and only limit their participation to voting, for democracy is more than casting a ballot. The society must establish ties, take action and become an agent of change. Institutions degenerate and countries decline when their economic and political backwardness and disparities hinder the welfare and prosperity of their people, when institutions become burdens, and authoritarianism stifles innovation and limits the freedom of individuals. As this Black Friday episode of making a mockery of democracy and public mandate remind us, politicians will not change course unless they are forced to do so by an informed and participatory society. What happened in Zimbabwe, when army intervened to snatch power from the dictator Mugabe to return the country to democracy, will be an apt lesson for Sri Lanka to remember, when elderly politicians do not want give up power when they are voted out, in contrast to how it happens in the West.