By Rohan Samarajiva –
Irrespective of political loyalty or ideological position, few would justify the increasing levels of violence in the run up to the election and the flagrant disregard for the law exhibited by the supporters of the incumbent President. Many are the public condemnations.
Actions that belie our words
Yet, previous election results show that candidates who engage in violence and disregard election law are rarely punished by the electorate. Those with the most cutouts win; leading to even greater excess in the next iteration.
I participated in a TV discussion where my fellow panelist, a senior lawyer, said all the right things against violence. But at one point he recounted with satisfaction how the Sama Samaja Party had met violence with violence in the old days. We are against the violence unleashed by our adversaries; but celebrate when our side does. In the abstract, Deputy Minister Muthuhettigama is condemned for springing his supporters from police custody. But any political candidate will tell you that a politician who cannot get his people out of remand is considered a wimp and will not last long.
How can this ambivalence be explained? It is by choosing a different starting point for analysis.
Conventional discourse on democratic process presupposes a “rational” individual who weighs the various promises made and the track record and credibility of those making them and decides who to vote for. This is not valid in our conditions.
We are not rational and we do not act as individuals. We act like peasants living under the Kandyan Kings. We think of governments as distributors of largess to our group, the rest of society be damned. We expect our political representatives to be rewarded with Ministerial or other positions by those above them. We care little about legislation. We like people who command money and resources. We may not be in favor of the executive presidency; but we want our representative in the legislature to exercise executive power in some way.
We expect our representatives to behave like local potentates, rewarding the loyal and advancing the fortunes of their families and loyalists. We are offended if they do not come to our funerals and other events, and make some financial contribution in addition. We give nary a thought to how these expectations impinge on the responsibilities of a legislator and to where the money comes from.
The daily drum beat of cross-overs by politicians at all levels of government is best understood with reference to Kandyan history. Back then, battles were decided by the shifting allegiances of regional leaders such as Kangara Arachchi. They would be allied with the Portuguese at one point, shift en bloc to the King’s side at another point and shift again as the conditions and the incentives changed. When 13 MPs crossed the aisle in 2001, power shifted. Not much different from how King Vimala Dharma Suriya I (1591-1604) outmaneuvered the Portuguese.
There are no discernible differences in the policy positions of most of our politicians. Many are professional “representatives” allied with different blocs at different times. Regional leaders in Kandyan times delivered soldiers to the King and dancers and drummers to the temples in return for the right to enjoy the spoils of rulership in their areas. In same way, our regional rulers are also allowed certain privileges in return for the supply of campaign workers and votes. It is understood that laws will be implemented flexibly on them and that they will be allowed a share of construction contracts and so on.
This explains our ambivalence toward violence and the rule of law. Beneath the thin veneer of modernism, we remain Kandyan peasants, yearning for strong leaders who will “look after” our group. This is why our political behavior is out of sync with public pronouncements about good governance.
I believe that the country will be a better place, economically and socially, under the rule of law rather than under the rule of men, as is the case now. But the facts on the ground have compelled me to accept that the majority seem to prefer the latter.
Is there a way out?
We keep electing those who violate the letter and spirit of the law. We tolerate the actions of those in power that reduce the democratic space even further. The only way these creations of ours can be dislodged is by throwing those who are even more adept at these kinds of behaviors against them. By our behavior, we discourage the ethical from entering politics and drive out those who are not “strong enough” to win at any cost.
Contrary to many, I see improvements in our behavior at the micro level. Sri Lankan drivers are on the whole more disciplined now than they were a decade ago. And they are definitely better behaved than their counterparts in two countries I spend a lot of time in: Bangladesh and India.
Our improvements have come from incremental change: Better lane markings and signage on the roads, rather than draconian enforcement campaigns. Dramatic change such as making the executive fully accountable to Parliament could even make things worse, allowing regional satraps to hold the chief executive hostage every day of the year, rather than only at election time.
I believe that the cumulative effect of small changes may lead to gradual suppression of our feudal proclivities. Sarvodaya Leader Dr A.T. Ariyaratne’s call that both candidates commit to eschew violence and ensure the safety of the losers after the announcement of the results is an example of kinds of actions that can be taken. The test is whether these words are heeded when ballots are cast on the 8th of January.