By Vishwamithra –
“Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man, and our politicians take advantage of this prejudice by pretending to be even more stupid than nature made them.” ~Bertrand Russell
Thirty five thousand (35,000) candidates are vying for their places in three hundred and forty one (341) local bodies in the forthcoming local government elections scheduled for February 10. It’s a mind-boggling number when taken in isolation. But in the context of the new socio-political culture that has embraced the nation and especially with a select gallery of politicians during the last twenty years, 102 candidates per every local body does not seem to be a staggering number.
The Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution that gave birth to one remarkable dynamic with its own inherent vigor is the frequent recurrence of elections at non-Presidential/Parliamentary levels. For all politicians and their cronies and specifically for those who occupy the Opposition benches, these elections do matter. Their very survival in politics is directly or indirectly related to the results of such local elections. For government benches, they are more of a source of irritation than a so-called game changer. Very few game-changing by-elections or local body-elections had been held in the past. What immediately comes to mind is the by-election for Kalawewa electorate held prior to the General Elections of 1977. Another noteworthy one was the Provincial Council elections held for Uva Province just before the last Presidential Elections in 2015.
Kalawewa by-election in 1974: Kalawewa by-election, apart from its eventual results in which the Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) gained a parliamentary seat they lost in the 1970 General Elections, brought forth another aspect of politics- strategic thinking and action- which is totally absent in today’s political amphitheater. J R Jayewardene was the Leader of the Opposition and the UNP at the time. In his untiring efforts to get a ‘win’ as against a ‘loss’ for his p[arty, J R in his ultimate strategic thinking and wisdom concocted an inscrutable strategy, not only to confuse his opponents in the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government, but more so to find out as to who is for and against his planning inside the UNP: Just before he undertook an overseas visit, J R floated the idea that if Anura Bandaranaike was the SLFP-led coalition, he would not field a candidate and allow Anura B to walk into Parliament uncontested. His contention was that the coalition government was overtaken by ultra-left segment of the country (Ilangaratne, N M, Colvin, Kueneman and the likes) it was necessary to countervail that imbalance by infusing a right-winger such as Anura Bandaranaike who was close to Mrs. B into the government ranks. This unconventional tactic created the desired effect among the then government groups. The left-wing parties led by N M and Kueneman would not entertain the idea of Anura Bandaranaike, a known right-winger coming into parliament. To cap it off, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s deafening silence on the matter did not help them either.
This strategy of J R also had the other desired effect of exposing the ‘anti-J R’ clique within the UNP into open. Niyathapala and Suriyapperuma led a losing battle. At the end, Anura B did not get nomination yet the stark differences within the coalition were exposed and the UNP won the by-election which was a harbinger of the future demise of the coalition. On the other hand, the non-conforming members of the UNP too, through their own moronic action, committed political suicide. J R with one stone killed many a bird. Such shrewd political craft is not evident today. Sadly, on either side of aisle, such clever and innovative strategizing has become a relic in today’s politics.
Uva PC Elections in 2014: A close second to such a strategy was when Ranil Wickremesinghe, a devout disciple of JRJ, persuaded the then Member of Parliament, Harin Fernando to resign his seat and contest the Uva Provincial Council elections in 2014, just prior to the 2015-Presidential Elections. Although Harin Fernando was not successful at the 2014-Uva PC elections, the results showed that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s coalition was reaching its last lap. What eventually gave reason for Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Bandaranaike on the political side and Maduluwawe Sobhitha on the religious cum civil organizations side the opportunity to persuade Maithripala Sirisena to leave the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA)-led government and contest as an Opposition-led candidate against Mahinda and gain a monumental victory at the 2015-Presiential Elections.
In the context of these limited examples of local elections having an effect on the succeeding major elections, Presidential and Parliamentary, the forthcoming local elections scheduled for February 10, 2018, would have a trifling effect on the 2020 Presidential Elections. Remember, the Presidential Elections scheduled for 2020 would be for a President who will be stripped of executive powers to very considerable level. And another two full years of to go, that election would give voters sufficient space to remember or forget the results, depending on the outcome.
Nevertheless, the effect of the Mahinda factor, which has manifested itself in the form of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is much awaited. Its declared leader is Professor G L Peiris who was hardly a factor in his own Ministry of External affairs when he held the Cabinet portfolio in the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. Yet the genesis of the SLPP is traced to the debunked ‘mastermind’ of elections, Basil Rajapaksa. Basil Rajapaksa today is a much maligned character. Allegations about corruption, the sheer arrogance of power and callous disregard for basic civility to his subordinates have marginalized this once powerful politico to the dustbin of politics and the money that he’s alleged to be throwing around to muster support among the true SLFPers has become subject of many a rumor in powerful circles in Colombo. The ‘bunker mentality’ that he and his cronies are displaying today has grown exponentially in that, those who try to emerge from the debris of the 2015-defeat have themselves cocooned in a closely-knit political comfort zone. In light of these countless charges of corruption and nepotism, the efforts made by the Rajapaksa clan to align the public thinking along a nationalist paradigm seemed thoroughly phony and dishonest. Subordination of his educational stature by a learned man like Professor G L Peiris is only one such example.
Against such a confusing backdrop, some political pundits are making an attempt to portray the current ‘election-environment’ as a one that would be consequential in shifting the fundamental thinking of the masses towards a sea change in public perception. Their wishful thinking is bordering on being overly optimistic at best and delusional at worst. Basil Rajapaksa’s prediction that he would win more than 90% of the local elections is wedged in that boneheaded thought.
Aside from these fraudulent political theories, history has shown us that government parties do not alter their normal course of behavior as a matter of response to by-election or local election results. Their palpable stance is that they were elected to power on a given agenda and that any obstruction to that agenda is simply that, an obstruction. This government, made up of the UNP and Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP, too would not alter that political truism. When in power, the psyche of political parties is totally different from that when they are out of power. I just returned from a tour of the districts of Colombo and Kegalle. Avissawella is bordering on Kegalle district on south-east side of Colombo district. As it stands today, Dehiowita and Deraniyagala in Kegalle district are as sure as Avissawella in Colombo to return the UNP as the winning party. All three Pradesheeya Sabhas are not yet decided on who should be second and third. There seems to be great uncertainty about that. However, conventional wisdom dictates that it would be quite hard to beat a well-established party like the SLFP whose leader is the President who was elected by the votes of the UNP and an overwhelming majority of the Tamil and Muslim minorities. The SLFP might still be having its rural party structures intact. In which case, it will be an extraordinary task for any political entity, whether led by Mahinda Rajapaksa or his siblings, to relegate the SLFP to a subordinate position from a totally new party like SLPP.
At the same time, unlike the USA where separation of powers is well defined and established among the Presidency, House of Representatives and the Senate, people tend to vote for the same party that is in power. As far as the average voter goes, proximity to power and money changes everything. Politicians invariably succeed in brainwashing the gullible. When such brainwashing is clothed in the changing shades of decaying cultural values, when the average voter too is identified with those values, the elector and elected become one. It is indeed a frightening reality. This is when and where democracy becomes a mockery of human failings. The bright and intelligent begin questioning it. The wise accept it as the best among bad alternatives.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org