By Rasika Jayakody –
A prominent Cabinet Minister, in a recent interview with a state TV station, made the statement that civil society organizations would play a vital role in the government’s national election campaigns in 2020.
This prescient prediction came, ironically, just a few days before the Economist Intelligence Unit, in its latest country report, forecast that the party backed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would win the next Presidential and Parliamentary elections. It also predicted a close aide or a relative of the former President would assume presidency after President Sirisena’s imminent exit next year.
It doesn’t require the wisdom of Economist Intelligence Unit to realize that the government, three and a half years into its term, is batting on a rugged wicket. The UNP-SLFP’s combined dismal performance at the LG polls earlier this year predicted doom and stressed the need for radical improvements in the government’s affairs. There have been little signs though, these past few months, to suggest the government has understood this ominous signal. Where things stand now – approximately 15 months from the next national election – the possibility of ‘radical improvement’ remains as bleak as ever.
In light of the recent thrashing at LG polls, the UNP-led government’s strategy to win the forthcoming national elections seems arcane. But, the Cabinet minister’s statement illuminates that the government is banking heavily on the ‘civil society organizations’ to drive its campaign – a task they undertook, to some degree, in 2015.
In the context of electoral politics in Sri Lanka, the term ‘civil society organizations’ is often identified with a certain set of faces and a certain group of Colombo-based organizations. There is a clear distinction between this group and Colombo’s NGOs and research outfits in terms of modus operandi.
The popular face of this ‘civil society movement’, in the run-up to the last Presidential election, was that of Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera, the convener of the Movement for a Just Society which almost single-handedly united all opposition parties around the common candidate’s campaign. Alongside Sobhitha Thera’s movement, organizations such as Purawesi Balaya, Aluth Parapura and Pivithuru Hetak also actively campaigned on the ground to orchestrate the victory of the Common Candidate.
After Sobhitha Thera’s death in 2015, just months after the election of the ‘unity government’, the mantle was passed on to a new crop of activists who were relatively new to the domain, unlike their mentor who was a long-standing crusader for democracy and freedom in Sri Lanka, even under the most trying circumstances in the late 80s.
Those who replaced Sobitha Thera led their organizations right into the cesspool of power politics – which Sobitha Thera avoided with contempt throughout his active years. Some of them even went on to form front organizations for political leaders (often under the banner of anti-corruption) while the majority sided with various ‘centres of power’ within the ruling coalition for short-term, personal gains. Aluth Parapura, an organization formed by young artistes, gradually lost momentum after the presidential polls and a handful of its members aligned themselves with the JVP.
In short, their conscious decision to move away from Sobhitha Thera’s path has damaged their credibility and shrunk public support.
When leaders of the government deliberately derailed the promised reform agenda, the civil society organizations that previously vowed to function as a pressure group signalled little resistance and failed to carry out a sustained campaign against the derailment. Their occasional sqauwks on isolated issues were mainly tied with the interests of certain of the top echelons of the government, who often used these ‘civil society leaders’ as mouthpieces. Their overall contribution to the ‘Yahapalanaya’ cause was reduced to giving media statements or ‘voice cuts’ on contentious issues, often favouring the positions of their political masters.
In the process, they have betrayed Sobhitha Thera’s hopes for a better society, paralyzed their own organizations and let down the public. Those who gathered around them before the last Presidential election – especially the educated, urban middle class – have abandoned these organizations as they see little meaningful civil society intervention in shaping the government agenda.
This is the context in which one has to understand the futility of government leaders’ dependency on ‘civil society organizations’ to drive their election campaigns in another 15 months. With waning public support and little to no credibility, these civil society organizations and their leaders have very little to offer at the next election.
This illusion will, in fact, prevent the government from conducting a thorough, a necessary self-assessment to understand what needs to be corrected before the next election. It also indicates how flippant they are about setting things right, even at this late stage.
A government whose popularity is on a sharp decline, should lean more on truth-tellers than servile, self-serving cronies who will only lead the ‘yahapalanists’ into political oblivion.
*Rasika Jayakody is the former Editor of the Daily News and Asian Mirror and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org