Colombo Telegraph

First The Party, Then The Country

By Ruvan Weerasinghe

Dr. Ruvan Weerasinghe

First a card carrying member of the SLFP, then a Sri Lankan – that’s what President Maithripala Sirisena proved to be in the end. That can also be so for many politicians in the UNP, JVP, JHU or any of the plethora of parties and alliances contesting elections in Sri Lanka. We need to advocate voting for principles over parties in the forthcoming elections.

When President Maithripala Sirisena agreed to give nominations to the very person he took a courageous stand to oppose in the interest of the people of Sri Lanka, he didn’t just let them down. He dealt yet another blow to the Sri Lankan identity.

Sri Lanka has had more than its fair share of thought leaders who espoused diverse forms of identity as valid, or even more potent, than our common Sri Lankan identity. Ranging from the old caste system that still has its proponents even among some educated individuals, to the ‘brown sahib’ that gave us respectability (and jobs) among our colonial masters, we have dabbled in other forms, especially our ethnicity (as espoused by the LTTE and to some extent the JHU) and our religion (by the likes of the more extreme elements of the SLMC and the BBS).

President Maithripala Sirisena, has added yet another identity as a reasonable and valid one to replace our Sri Lankanness. While his unexpected and fearless act of defecting from a party he was so much a part of gave us hope of a statesman emerging in Sri Lanka, his capitulation to be more worried about being accused of splitting the party than letting down the people who voted for him, would probably class him with all politicians before him – not acting truly in the interest of being Sri Lankan first, and card-carrying members of a political party second (or indeed at least third, behind our philosophical worldview). So, he has unintentionally forwarded party as a more important identity for us than our nationality.

The UPFA manifesto

Can there be one? To say that a coherent manifesto is impossible for the UPFA, would be an understatement. When the President of the party still speaks of furthering the steps taken towards good governance (a word that brings distaste to the mouth, Yahapalanaya), and the majority of its top leadership scoffs at it, or more accurately hopes to put do away with it (by possibly stoning the law enforcement agencies of the state), there could be no coherent manifesto for the UPFA – nor even the SLFP.

To be sure, the rank and file of the UPFA who have benefited from the 10 years of Rajapaska rule, would be far happier if they were given another chance to emulate their leaders who now appear to have ‘made hay while the sun shone’. They had missed that opportunity – or didn’t realize the levels it could be taken to. It is crystal clear now that in any internal party vote between strengthening good governance and renegading on the progressive steps taken in the last 6 months, the latter would easily triumph. This is all the more clear as we see, not just the big crooks within the party being nominated, but even those few who were to be not given nominations by the leadership of the UPFA, now being given prominent districts to contest from. The corrupt of the corrupt.

If we are to believe that both in the SLFP and UPFA constitutions, it is the General Secretary who controls the nominations (as implied by the President of both), we need to fairly and squarely lay the blame on both the top officials of these two parties for it. However, that is not the full story. When the former president was the President of the party, none of this (the constitutional provisions) mattered. There was no doubt in our minds who controlled the nomination process. And the General Secretaries of the two parties didn’t utter any words to the contrary – simply obeyed their master. In a situation where the very leaders of a party exemplify the meaning of being spineless so clearly, what can we expect of their members?

More worryingly, what does that do to the real leaders waiting in the sidelines? Those who would fearlessly proclaim that what is important is our national identity as Sri Lankans, and not our party, our ethnicity, religion or our cast? They would be blocked out from nominations from the party and the alliance for some time to come.

The young voice

Working in a vocation that revolves around the youth of the country, it is clear to me that there are many among them who think differently. Those who are sickened by the charade played by our pontificating politicians. It gives me hope for a better Sri Lanka. Where the Sri Lankan identity will finally be more important than any of the sub-identities that have been brandied about so freely by so called leaders of our nation.

This is a generation that at one and the same time are ‘tolerant’ and yet loathe ‘pretense’. They are able to call the bluff. They may not be as expressive as the generations before them so that you don’t see them in marches and protests the way we are usually used to. But when they are called upon to vote at an election, they will certainly make their ‘voice heard’.

And they are sickened to the core about the circus being played out before our eyes. How our polity dances to the tunes of the political parties that just love election time. It’d be hard for them, except the few card-carrying types among them, to vote for a party that tries to keep up pretenses as to what it stands for.

This should be a clear warning to the President and the SLFP/UPFA, that they are going down a slippery slope, when they rely on their old slogans of war victory (‘we won the war’) and fear mongering (‘the UN will take all our leaders to the tribunal’).

Why support the UPFA?

There are still a few reasons for people to support the UPFA. Primary among them is the band of robbers and their supporters who benefited financially over the past decade. To be sure, this is a small, though raucous and vociferous, bunch. We shouldn’t fear their rhetoric – as we saw, they shiver before state agencies such as the FCID and the courts (when these are empowered to play the role they are meant to).

Then there are the few intellectuals who have ‘bought into’ one of two stories (myths?): (a) Sri Lanka, as many countries in the region have showed (to be sure, with the exception of India), needs a strong leader – even a dictator; or (b) Sri Lanka has only been united in history under populist ‘Sinhala Buddhist‘ rule. Some business leaders join this group in the interest of ‘stability’. These types are referred to the excellent piece by Priyan Dias on the ‘Choice between stability and virtue’. Indeed, it is this very community, the intellectuals and the business community, who should welcome the kind of ‘instability’ that led many countries in the world to new heights in scientific discovery and economic gain.

So, is there a way forward for the UPFA or SLFP? Yes, but its going to take time and guts. The kind of courage that even the fearless Maithripala Sirisena demonstrated in January (just 6 months ago) didn’t have, in the end. The party needs to be reconstituted around a new leadership with a more appealing and forward-looking agenda, than that of harping on its past success. It is indeed when parties (or for that matter countries, and individuals) recall the ‘good old days’ that we need to recognize the signals of decline (and lack of relevance).

In short, the party cannot be ‘patched up’ – it needs to be flushed of its old garbage, and completely rejuvenated into a new and potent force. That takes time. Possibly a decade.

How to vote at this election?

This is the question on most people’s lips. Especially after the 3rd of July night ‘sell out’. Common responses range from ‘giving up’ to ‘spoiling vote’. After all, if the only person we really trusted could let us down so badly, they argue, who can we trust for the future? This is another legacy that Maithripala Sirisena would have to carry.

What seems clear is that no principled voter can vote for a party that has no principles itself! A party at conflict with itself. Unfortunately, that has today become the very definition of the SLFP and therefore, the UPFA.

What hope is there outside of it? Can the UNP be trusted? Or the JVP? Or indeed the JHU, TNA or SLMC?

It is clear that, unlike ever before, Sri Lankans may be prompted to vote for parties and people that they’ve never before voted for. Sinhalese have often expressed confidence in the TNA having good leaders! Tamils have said the JVP seems to be the only party talking sense! This is not altogether a bad thing. It may even be a positive development. People forced to vote on principles rather than on dogmatic party political lines that they traditionally have been used to.

Of course, campaigning could change all that. Established parties know that what matters finally is not principles, but promises. Especially promises of prosperity. This is true not just in Sri Lanka, but in all countries where poverty is a significant issue. On the other hand, people are also used to being let down on the promises.

The ideal solution would be for all progressive parties to form an alliance. The good forces within the UNP, the JVP , the TNA, the SLMC and the JHU can indeed from a strong alliance around the delivery of authentic good governance. The lasting kind. The kind that will enable the populace to be truly free, business to thrive and education to take us to greater heights as a country.

Is this hoping for utopia? The next best thing is for these parties to contest separately with a common goal to defeat the regressive UPFA. Sri Lanka cannot afford to go back on the baby steps towards democracy that we have taken in 2015. Ideally, no single party should have a two-thirds majority in parliament. None of them can be trusted with such power. Coalition politics is always better. It ensures that extremist views are tempered. That sanity would prevail.

To be sure, the only potent force able to send a clear message of ‘no’ to the UPFA (and more specifically to the band of robbers who have taken control of it) is the UNP. Though fraught with its own goofs in handling the Central Bank issue and tendency to autocratic leadership within, the new checks and balances introduced in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution can ensure that rule will be by consensus than autocracy. As such, pragmatically speaking, though never a card-carrying party member, it seems clear that only a vote for a coalition around the UNP could ensure that we as a nation can avoid going back to the dark days of the pre-2015 era.

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