27 January, 2020

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Electing MPs Who Represent You & Me

By Siri Gamage

Dr. 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.

Further Readings

Full time Olympian Launches a bid to Topple Tony Abbot

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Latest comments

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    There is a very good article by Tamara Kunanayakam which explains a certain Political theory and she says those countries must have the Sri Lanka’s kind of politics. In otherwods, the way Sri lanka does politics is the right way for that kind of Neoliberal states.

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      I saw that article JD. But in Sri Lanka which party is opposed to neoliberal economic and social policies? One camp pretends to do so but when in power do the same as the UNP. Only the funding source is somewhat different.

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        THere is almost no evena thin layer between the styles of the politics of both giant parties. But the name of the party differs from the other. If Rajaakshe led groups would sell out for example – Sangrilla hotelland property to China. PM Wickramasinghe got that converted into a lease. But MEDIA mafia runs by Rajapakshes groups, make every effort to paint the pictures, as nothing wrong to have sold out LAnd properties .
        :
        Rajakashes do thousand times more transactions based on neo leberl eco and socio policies but lanken RAJAPKASHE obsequeous media hide it from the pleople.Whole lot of lanken business men work with Raajaakshe COMMISSION based tactics based on ” i wash your back, if you would washmine”:
        If we have bold Authorities, these men to be caught is possible within 24 hours.
        Palaces being made on huge huge sums of STATE FUNDS, but when caught, investigations are made delayed, HOW COME ? It is black and white, when checking the names of the OWNERs are on the documents, why to delay the cases ONE year to another ?:
        THE MAIN TOPIC THAT SHOULD BE SUBJECTED TO PUBLIC DISCUSSION IS THE HONESTY OF LANKEN LAW AND ORDER RELATED AUTHORITIES INCL: JUDGES AND LAWYERS ACROSS THE COUNTRY: JUST BECAUSE RANJAN OR FEW OTHER BRAVE SOULS WOULD PICK THEM OUT; NOTHING MUCH CAN BE CHANGED DRASTICALLY. ENTIRE LANKEN LEGAL STRUCTURE IS CAUGHT BY THAKKADIYAS: THE FATHER THAKKADIAYA IS RAJAPAKSHE. As if do it with reptiles being found on the garden, we need to CRUSH these forces on the spot as nothign can help them rise again. until then, we have to SUFFER a lot. WE AS SINHALAYAS; MAJORITY OF THIS COUNTRY should be REALLY REALLY ASHAMED.

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          Very true.

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    Who is you and me ?

    Three wheel driver , bribe taking custom officer, superstitious house wife , a man with an IQ of 65 ,security guards happy to stand in front of an empty office, peon whose job is to just carry the bosses lunch box, police officer providing security to corrupt politico, thousands who go for political meetings to listen to all the nonsense?

    A 23 million nation which has only managed to create an economy of about 50 billion US dollars( there are many individuals in the world richer than this).

    lotus eaters with only little talent

    This is where everything breaks down

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      Kolla, Those who do such subservient roles need to wake up. But leadership and training for a change has to come from an organised collective(training is the key word here). Some can’t think beyond the box or the existing set up inherited from the colonialists and subverted by polis for their own benefit. A national re-awakening is necessary from the bottom to the top. Desahana valid pamanak mega Marianna baha(this can’t be done by lectures alone)

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    “Electing MPs Who Represent You & Me”

    MPs once elected represent their family and friends

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    . Siri Gamage: A very timely and a constructive analysis along with a proposal , “What to Do”. I see it in progress with the formation of “National Intellectuals Organization” (NIC). They have GROUPED into several “Sub Committee Levels” to formulate “POLICY” and “ACTION PLANS” on subjects like Economy, Education, Health, Agriculture & Industry, Transport etc. A consultative campaign has been undertaken at District Levels and it is expected a comprehensive POLICY/WORK PLAN would be announced by mid February of this year. FINE, one would say. “BUT” ( I hate this word to be used at all); yet it is necessary to mention one very essential FEATURE that is MISSING in this whole project. For the last 70 years, this country has seen ENOUGH of “PLANS”. What have we achieved and why have we failed? The one and the ONLY reason for that failure was due to the ABSENCE of DEDICATED LEADERSHIP and an “ARMY” of SUPPORTIVE TEAM MATES to work on the policies and work plans backed by an equally competent “MONITORING MECHANISM”. This 2019 is announced to be an ELECTION YEAR. So far this NIC has failed to INTRODUCE a SINGLE of such you mentioned “High Profiled Candidate or Candidates” to contest at election at electoral levels. That is HUGE FAILURE. However, it is better late than never. Yet, as a result, a CHANGE is much desired than expected. In the meantime, the same old rot is continuing.

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      Hi Douglas,

      Thanks for drawing my attention to this organisation. It looks like an organisation(I may be wrong here?) that organises events to discuss ideas relevant to policy and attempt to influence policy in the existing set up. In other words, it doesn’t seem to be designed to play a direct political role.It seems to be affiliated to the JVP also. Such organisations are important but they can play a limited role only. To bring about the change I am talking about an organisation at electoral, district and provincial levels is needed with informed activists who can make an impact on the ground.
      A clear action plan is necessary along with leadership. Preparing policy documents is not going to make this sort of change though they can be helpful for internal party deliberations. Mind you the word ‘intellectuals’ has a specific meaning in Sri Lankan context. i.e. those who support a given political party. In particular, academics. Activists need to visit homes of voters in person and convince them the change is needed and seek support for the candidate of choice. In Australia, activists aligned with independent candidates do this. Organisations such as GetUp also collect funds and reply armies of activists for this purpose.

      Established politicians from political parties are highly skilled in dressing up(andavanna) voters at election times. They use various tactics in speeches and rallies to misguide the voters away from real issues and real solutions. The new organisation I am talking about has to devise a strategy to combat this also. In the past, when I addressed rallies in the early 80s, politicians on stage against JR’s referendum told me to give a speech to warm the bodies of those in the audience(anga uni vena kathavak Karanna). Our voters are gullible. Hence the need for door to door campaigns by informed activists.

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    siri gamage, by comparing australia with sri lanka you are comparing apples with grapes

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      Is there anything of importance in my article though? I agree that I am comparing two different contexts but both are countries in the commonwealth.

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    Dr Siri Gamage says it all in first paragraph.
    He wonders: Are we “Electing MPs Who Represent You & Me”?
    The answer is “No”. But the MPs in words and deeds prove that they represent themselves.
    We (as Siri puts it) “Sri Lankan voters have not yet found an alternative path to defeat corrupt politicians…..”.
    There is a silver-lining (as Siri puts it) “Criticisms of the existing governance style and political culture are not in short supply”.
    This freedom may not last long.
    .
    The leaks from PCoI on SriLankans Airlines show how abjectly incompetent and corrupt our leaders are. This will not change our voting pattern which is based entirely on language/religion-divide.
    The newly formed SLPP has shown the hypnotic and addictive power of this ‘divide’.
    The next election will show whether this ‘divide’ is past the use-by date or not.
    .
    Siri mentions Australian elections/voters. Australia can only rest on the laurels of the ‘old commonwealth”. The stench of Aus-politics is discernible now.
    Siri says “Given the unpopularity of former PM Tony Abbot for being an ultra-conservative liberal who does not care about…..”.
    “…liberal…” My foot!
    At the CHOGM2013 in Colombo, Canada boycotted, India sent a downsized team, the then British PM David Cameron took us to the cleaners.
    Tony Abbot stood solidly behind the then GoSL and even added (something to the effect) “A little bit of torture is acceptable”.

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      Hi Pillai,

      In Australia, there is a vibrant civil society organisations in various communities -not necessarily involved in national or state politics. But when the people in electorates realise that established party reps don’t represent their interests, sometimes they take matters into their own hands and organise resistance in a peaceful way. This comes via independent candidates. Sometimes smaller parties or groups such as the Greens, Nick X party, Pauline Hanson’s One nation(an ultra Conservative party) also pick up the votes of those who are dissatisfied. In Sri Lanka, such third alternatives are in short supply. JVP has a problem in penetrating to the grassroots level. It has become a middle class and city based party. EDUCATION of the voters by visiting them door to door has to begin now. Not wait until the election is declared.

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        We need town hall meetings after meeting at the local level conducted by any registered party/candidates ever want to be elected and this be supervised by a government regulatory body to see if the meetings were held accordingly to a set standards too. What subject can be discussed and what not? the local participants to be encouraged to ask question to the party as required and the party to explain who they and what they are how they will deliver manifesto/local needs if elected. Respect all parties and all the voters where hate speeches undermining the opponents/parties/supporters should be banned at all times.
        The message party politics is to Nation Build by the qualified/fit for the office as suppose to a misfit/someone woke up in a morning and say ‘let me make a living out of politics’ and in the process divide the community and do everything politics not to do in our Nation. Our history is full of people who stood unto bullies even if that meant death/bullying/thuggery and we need to continue this martyrdom for sometime before we can change our country.

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    CHOGM was not given to Sri lanka. Sri lanka was supposed only to fund what ecver the Commonwealth does. CHOGM was used by Austrlia to milk the system. They had Sports meet and every way they earn both from improving sports and selling it. Mahinda Rajapakse or the Sri lankan govt must have laerned from the DOG EATs DOG type of Western world for money

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    Siri Gamage: Constitutional amendments since 1978 are FRAUDs. Probably JRJ made RonalsREagin happy. All the constitutional amendments from 1 – 19 are FRAUDS to make the parliamentarians Thrive for ever. In that sense your writing, at least the title is CRAP. I can not understand why you write these things without understanding the subject.

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    Please consider the following a) Candidates Background, b) Educational Qualification Minimum GCE Ad Level, c) Any Criminal records, d) Standing in society e) Use of languages, All parties must ensure they don’t nominate any one found guilty of creating most disgraceful scenes in Parliament recently, They have let us down as a country in the eyes of the International community

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    Dr. Siri Gamage: Thanks. This “NIO” is affiliated to JVP (Looks like). However, it is trying to have consultations at “District Levels” to obtain “Opinions and views” relating to a “Policy & Plan” Framework. However, as you pointed out, there is no “action plan” to educate the voter at local levels, through well “informed” and “rounded” activists communicating with the public, excepting “Stage Shows” of “Public Speeches”. Also it has failed to evoke awareness of the “Cultural Aspects” still “Living” in “hiding” among the village level voter population. Here I mean the “respect” and “trust” that voter base rely heavily and listen to a certain class, (Probu) who are of that “Sanga,Veda,Guru,Kamkaru”. Now the situation is different, in that, “New Rich”(mostly made fortune through political affiliations) has become the “Controlling” factor, which of course, the voter is compelled to “tolerate” and “bear with”. So, in short, “NIO” must get a well informed, trained, dedicated member of that same “foregone” class who could evoke “trust” and “confidence” among the voters at village levels.and, as you correctly pointed out, must undertake constant contacts to uplift that lost value systems. Well, it is huge task no doubt, because the whole of “Value Systems” that were once embedded in the society have vanished and made to vanish by the corrupted political “Leaders” and their cohorts to gain power for personal gain and wealth.

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      Thanks Douglas. Your points are very useful to consider.

      One has to understand the rural society(for that matter urban also) along with the changes that have occurred. There has been a patron client relations network in both sectors. Those who benefit from such system, do not change their voter behaviour. But there are many changes that have occurred also. e.g. women going to middle east, students entering universities and employment, business links. Among all these, there is a large segment that have not benefitted from the existing patron client relations(including political party affiliations). The new organisation should identify these people and access. This requires through research-not only consultations. Identify potential leaders from this disadvantaged segment, and talk to them. Organise sub committees or branches of the main organisation with these kind of people who don’t rely on patron-client system. Enter into continuing conversations with them

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