By Ameer Ali –
In democracies, whether in the West or East, elections to change governments have lost their credibility and substance in the Neoliberal Economic Order (NEO). In this order global capital represented by its corporate oligarchy reigns supreme. That oligarchy determines economic policies and sets the agenda for political parties and their leaders to implement. Constitutions may change, size and structure of parliaments may vary and frequency of elections may differ from country to country. But the neoliberal economic structure in this order must remain constant. It is one size that fits all.
The political parties are therefore agents of this global oligarchy with some leverage to introduce cosmetic changes with nationalist veneer to make the agenda appear indigenous. In essence, what makes the difference between competing political parties is the way they repackage and sell the items in the agenda to the voting public. Thus, the choice presented to voters at elections is one of form and not substance, like choosing between Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola. Same wine is sold in differently coloured bottles. This is why electors in general are increasingly losing interest in voting unless they are compelled to do so as in Australia. A shining example of this disinterestedness is the United States. Other Western democracies are not far behind.
Given this global background Sri Lanka is about to face at least two if not three elections before the end of this year. The election virus is spreading fast starting from President Sirisena himself. Every one of his moves including his late awakening to go after the bond scam rogues and his resolve to fight against the drug menace, is taken with an eye on the forthcoming presidential election. Whether he stands a chance to be a nominee, let alone winning the contest, of any of the major political parties is still a sixty-four thousand dollar question.
In the case of the General Election however, the chief contenders are the UNP and SLPP. President Sirisena’s SLFP rump, a possible third, may split and join either of the other two, depending on who promises what to SLFP members. The same goes to other minor parties except perhaps JVP, which, given its revolutionary past and prolonging reluctance to come out with a manifesto, is destined to remain in the opposition at least for the time being. There is no doubt that this party has the potential to become the third force in the future.
The real issue is, whether elections benefit the electors and the elected. The choice facing Sri Lankan electors in both elections, presidential as well as parliamentary, is to vote for names and labels rather than policies and programs. To consider only the General Elections for the moment, what are the economic policies and programs that are going to improve the living conditions of ordinary citizens offered by the two main parties? There was a time when UNP and SLFP presented a distinctly different set of policies and programs in respect of economic and developmental issues that confronted the nation. While both parties supported a mixed economic model, UNP then, as it is now, was more market oriented with open invitation to foreign capital than the SLFP. The latter even formed a coalition with the left parties to make that difference even more distinct. That was a time when even internationally, this difference was reflected starkly in the economic policies of not only between the two superpowers during the Cold War but also between major parties in other countries. The situation has radically changed after the end of Cold War and collapse of economic dirigisme. Economic neoliberalism is the solitary economic paradigm that has gone global and Sri Lanka’s two main parties had no choice but to embrace it totally.
Given this economic congruence between the two contending parties, how differently and quickly are they going to solve at least the following problems facing the country currently? A persistent and worsening trade deficit that depreciates the rupee, which alone is contributing to increase the burden of an already unbearable national debt; rising cost of living leading to increase in the incidence of poverty and household and personal debt; falling standards of public health and education; uncontrolled corruption; a growing market for narcotics and callous neglect of the natural environment.
Which one of the two parties has so far come out with a workable policy package to tackle these issues? None, to be precise. Why? Because, they both know very well that these issues are mostly systemic in origin and that the two parties are absolutely powerless to change the system. The country has been dragged so deep into the open economy quagmire since 1977, and what any government can do is to introduce some palliatives to ease the pain temporarily through the annual budgets, as Minister Mangala Samaraweera has done recently. In such a situation what faith can an ordinary voter place on general elections to improve his or her living conditions? As far as common people are concerned their economic fortunes or misfortunes will continue with little change, whether it is the UNP or a UNP-led coalition, or, SLFP or SLFP headed coalition that governs over them. If there to be some improvement in peoples’ living conditions that will largely be in spite and not because of government policies.
However, the scenarios changes dramatically if one shifts the focus on the elected. To the politicians in the field, victory at elections open unlimited opportunities to accumulate wealth and fortunes. To become a parliamentarian in Sri Lanka is the quickest way to amass wealth under the cover of law. How else can one explain the wealth of Sri Lankan parliamentarians, some of whom do not even possess the basic educational credential to qualify for employment in the open market? To the vast majority of them elections provide an opportunity to invest on their future.
Thus, without any meaningful economic policies to fight for or solutions to offer, and with unquenchable thirst for political power, how are these politicians going to convince voters to elect them? In some countries including Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour where illiteracy and poverty prevail votes can be bought with money and liquor. Sri Lanka has passed that stage and voters are politically educated. Yet, the system offers them only a limited choice. In the meantime, there will always be ethnic and religious issues to whip up the emotions of electors. Controversies over constitutional amendments, devolution of power, religion and caste, and federalism and so on are never resolved but kept in reserve to bring them back to the stage on the eve of elections. This had been the running saga of Sri Lankan elections, and the forthcoming one will surely be fought on these issues. In the prevailing NEO such issues do not impinge on the working of the order itself and therefore are tolerated.
Unfortunately, whoever wins the context, the poor voter will be the ultimate loser. How many times he or she is going to be fooled by this phantom democracy? If my memory is not failing, this is the third time I am suggesting that Sri Lanka requires a technocratic cabinet with an iron fist at the helm. Periodical elections to choose policy-bankrupt political parties and their leaders are not going to deliver that outcome. Elections may come and elections may go, the state of the poor elector remains the same while the elected make fortunes.