Colombo Telegraph

Maturing A Fledgling Democracy

By Ruvan Weerasinghe

Dr. Ruvan Weerasinghe

If there’s a single overarching lesson the Local Government Polls of February 2018 has taught us it is this: united we stand, divided we fall. Before the month passed us by, this has been underlined in the tragic acts of mob violence against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. What is significant though, is that even a previous regime that arguably bred this kind of communalism has been forced to distance itself from this particular phenomenon, and even condemn it. News of restoration efforts of destroyed properties by all ethnicities in a given community coming together, are further strong signals sent out to the marauding mobs and their political backers, that there’s a better way.

So, what does it mean to stand together united in the Sri Lankan political scene? It means nothing short of abandoning party politics altogether for the sake of the country. This was indeed the mandate that the people of this country gave the incumbent government, which obviously was lost on the current President primarily, and the Prime Minister. What has been most disturbing is the post-election tug-of-war to do exactly the opposite: to try to somehow form a government of one’s own party, even if it means ‘sleeping with the enemy’. We have indeed reached the absolute bottom of our ‘party political’ pit.

Is there hope for Sri Lanka, given this abysmal failure by our rotten political inheritance? I wrote before that the only long-term solution able to insure us against even tyrannical rule is to build a strong civil society: one that would truly act as the conscience of the nation. However, the recent social media clampdown shows how such efforts could be frustrated by governments (however justified it may have been in this case at the onslaught of the violence we experienced).

Here, I want to underline what many others have recently said in different ways: we need a brave and courageous shift away from party politics to statesmanship. Unfortunately, it seems that only the smaller parties have shown any tendency towards this: the JVP and the TNA. Both the SLFP and the UNP need to awaken to the new reality that, what they are up against is not each other, but something far more ominous: a return to a completely different kind of Sri Lanka under a largely intolerant regime based on ethnic chauvinism and a leadership which feeds off the ignorance of its citizenry.

Will the real leaders stand up please?

Can Sri Lanka, rise up from the political pit it has fallen into within 18 months and unite to defeat this menace? That is the proverbial $64m question. The President and the Prime Minister largely will determine the answer to this question. It roughly translates to: can the President forget about salvaging a largely broken party whose majority chose to follow the ‘previous ways’ (possibly owing to the kickback politics it espouses) and concentrate on working towards the best outcome for the country in the next 2 years? Can he rise up once again, as he did, taking a huge risk back in 2014, this time to bring only the progressive sections of the SLFP with him? This incidentally also means shedding some of his Ministers. In short, can he become a real Statesman and forget about his party political ambitions? Doing this, he would give up his ambition of contesting the next Presidential election. If he can rise up to this challenge however, he is sure to gain the credibility of not just the Sri Lankan populace, but the global community. Paradoxically, he in fact, could even be asked to reconsider and contest for that very election as the unanimous common candidate! As it is said, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed; but if it dies (to itself and self-ambition), it produces many seeds”.

Similarly, the Prime Minister too has some lessons to learn: to move away from rewarding loyalty (a very archaic cultural construct) to recognizing competence, within his own party, so that a new political culture based on demonstrated evidence of significant achievement (even in other domains) would be cultivated. Bold decisions are required on his part to get rid of the corrupt ‘old guard’ and usher in a new enthusiastic and able generation of politicians who place an intrinsic (not extrinsic) value on local and national governance. This calls for a paradigm shift in the way politics is done in Sri Lanka.

Above all, these two leaders would need to learn true humility: something seen as ‘weak’ in our cultural context. They’d need to learn how to listen: to their constituents, their members (however ‘junior’ they are) and most importantly to members and constituents of the other progressive political parties within and outside a national coalition. These smaller, but significant parties too need to metamorphose from their primarily ‘opposition’ mindset to a ‘governing’ mindset (something which the JVP and the TNA have done intermittently in the past) for the long haul in the interest of the country.

Don’t throw the baby with the bathwater

We have had our first real experience of consensual governance in the 3 years that have elapsed since January 2015. What this means is that we are still babes in the art of coalition government. The results of the local government polls shook this new form of government to such an extent that parties to the coalition were ready to throw in the towel on it far too readily and prematurely. Surely, nothing worth having could be achieved in such a short time period. A coalition should be willing to be in it for the long haul. This calls for courage and the will to rise up above party politics. It is not too late to retract the destructive paths followed by the main constituent parties in the aftermath of the LG polls, and instead to take stock and settle down to a more rational path to further strengthen the coalition, rather than to abandon it. Some of the parties outside the current coalition have already shown some signs of willingness to join it, if for the sole purpose of keeping something more dangerous for the country at bay.

To be sure, a national coalition government is tough. Much tougher than single party rule. However, as set out at the outset of this article, I hope it is absolutely clear that, this is the only way forward. And this doesn’t have to be a ‘last resort’. It can indeed be the preferred way to govern this multi-ethnic, multi-religious country we call ours. In fact, it arguably should be the only way to govern it going forward.

The present parliament has the onerous task of taking on the challenge of making this massive transformation to consensual governance happen – and in just about 18 months, to prove to citizens that they can do it. That they can rise above party politics and become true statesmen in our (however others want to characterize it) maturing democracy. It is in their hands to make history happen in our time, rather than to let it pass to another ‘generation’, while our country bleeds itself to a failed state.

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