By Siri Gamage –
The general dissatisfaction with politicians from the established parties and groups in Sri Lanka is well known. One only has to read the daily newspapers and internet outlets dealing with current affairs to understand this. Regular protests by disaffected groups including university students, trade unions etc. also highlight the same phenomenon. Criticisms of the existing governance style and political culture are not in short supply. They come from academics, activists, journalists, some religious figures and civil society organisations. Closer to the national elections, some solitary figures come up to contest Presidential or parliamentary elections thinking that their logic alone will bring them the victory. However, Sri Lankan voters have not yet found an alternative path to defeat corrupt politicians who don’t represent their interests in the parliament or the government. In this context, what is happening in Australia facing an election year can give some clues to the way unpopular politicians can be defeated.
After Malcolm Turnbull was replaced by the Liberal Party last year, he resigned his parliamentary seat. A by election was held in his electorate and Karen Phelps who was the former President of the Australian Medical Association and a good communicator won the seat as an independent. Several grassroots organisations and groups supported her campaign. Similar examples abound the Australian landscape. Given the unpopularity of former PM Tony Abbot for being an ultra-conservative liberal who does not care about what is happening in the climate change field, a former Olympian now a barrister has come forward to contest his electorate as an independent. A whole series of grassroots groups and individuals are expected to support her campaign. It is more likely that Tony Abbot can lose his seat at the next parliamentary elections due this year. When former PM John Howard decided to contest his seat of Bennelong against all odds, a popular female TV personality decided to stand as an independent candidate and won the seat. Howard lost not only the seat but the government also. Such high-profile candidates in their own right mount formidable campaigns to unseat equally high profile elected representatives. What this shows is that there is dissatisfaction among voters about the role major parties and their candidates perform on one hand but also an opportunity for an organised group of voters to defeat them and elect their candidate of choice. However, the hallmark of such successes is that one has to choose a candidate who has already established national or local reputation through their career, activism, skills and public roles. Putting forward an unknown candidate to an electorate at the last minute is not the strategy adopted by these disaffected voters.
Another factor that these examples show is that they do research about the electoral base of a sitting MP before choosing a contender. If the base is Liberal, one has to select a candidate who can appeal to Liberal voters. If it is Labour or National the story is the same. In the case, of both Turnbull’s former seat and Tony Abbot’s seat, candidates who put up their hands to contest are those who have an appeal to Liberal voters. This is being realistic and pragmatic rather than ideological.
In Sri Lanka, there is a tendency to leave politics to politicians. General public, including educated and skilled professionals, seem to think the same way. Some prefer to align with one or other party for personal benefits. Thus, the field is dominated by self-styled, strongmen politicians affiliated with major parties at national and provincial levels. As a result, it is possible that there are more politicians in the country today than farmers or traders. Politics should not be left to those individuals and families who say one thing and do another once elected to office. It should be everybody’s business. Politics is the art and game of securing power to determine national predicament and our future. Once elected the politicians get access to national assets that belong to all of us. Once elected, we the voters lose power to monitor and control elected representatives. They become a different tribe whose members work according to a different logic. I am not tarnishing every elected politician with the same brush. There may be some who are truly motivated by the national interest but unable to do much due to the established internal party structures and their leadership circles.
True that the country has been taken on a ride by elected politicians who look after their own interests more so than the national interest since the independence. An almost feudalistic style governance mechanism is continuing in the name of democracy. Executive President role is justified by saying that a strong leader is necessary to counter potential LTTE style terrorism and secure economic development. Yet the basis of such arguments is not credible. They seem to be politically motivated arguments rather than those based on facts. Nepotism continues in every shape and form. The MPS and Ministers of all sorts appoint their own spouses, children etc. to important roles in their offices once they are elected. Chairpersons and Board members of important government agencies are appointed by relevant ministers from their own families, friends or party affiliates. Foreign debt is increasing and nothing is done by governments without obtaining further loans that indebt not only the current generation but also future generations also. Political tamasha continues while the blame game keeps us entertained through the media. We know all this. But what action are we prepared to take? What collective action are we prepared to take? How? I have been suggesting for some time that the disaffected individuals and groups with the current system of governance and elected representatives need to devise national and Provincial strategies by coming together and forming a formidable organisation.
Like in Australia, individuals and groups with roots in the Provinces need to come together and devise a strategy to field credible candidates to unseat unpopular MPs from the established parties. Such a strategy should involve identifying potential candidates on behalf of such a collective of concerned citizens, inviting them to stand at elections, provide necessary support and resources in the campaigns, devise an effective communications strategy, strategy to counter bullying and thuggery, etc. They do not need to field candidates to all electorates at the start. Select a more vulnerable group of electorates from each province to start with. One can’t expect grand results in the first go. Even if such a collective of concerned citizens could get 10-20 MPs of their choice elected at the next parliamentary elections, it could be a handsome victory.
Look for like-minded individuals and groups across the country representing various segments, e.g. youths, professionals, religious sector, trade unions, academics, teachers, farmers, fishers. Establish initial links with the idea of forming a Collective of Concerned Citizens with the aim of fielding high profile candidates in selected electorates at the next election. Form a national Council of such citizens to steer the process with sub committees as necessary. Establish Provincial Councils of concerned citizens for the same purpose. Look for the possibility of forming a new political party if this is a means to mount a formidable campaign.
The example from Australia can yield results in a hung parliament where both major political parties or coalitions win equal number of seats and give the independents a role in governance. This strategy alone may not be not suitable for Sri Lanka’s context. But the idea is. It is time to move beyond just criticism in multiple forms, social media etc. Time for action is looming in the horizon. Failure to do so can cost the present and future generations a golden opportunity to change the political culture so embedded in the national psyche and subverting the national interest over personal interest.
Eliminating the fear of politicians is also a first step. I know many well-intentioned individuals do not want to enter this field for fear of reprisals from established politicians and those who surround them. Established politicians usually nurture a set of bureaucrats, security personnel, technocrats, lawyers etc. to promote their agenda at all costs. Some even are supposed to have close links with underworld figures. Thus, some politicians become monsters in the minds of the general public instead of those who listen and act on electors’ behalf. This is a significance hindrance to civic action in national or a micro scale. While parties like the JVP have strategies to deal with intimidation and bullying, hidden violence etc. from those who have much to lose from political contenders, a new outfit may take some time to prepare for national elections while attending to all these aspects. But someone has to start somewhere rather than making isolated comments before the cameras or writing to newspapers. Big things start small. I am aware of various groups and individuals in the country who are concerned about the state of play under so-called Yahapalanaya and the previous regimes. They need to heed this call to action now. It is your democratic right.