By Don Alwin Kularatne –
We need to examine the nature of Sri Lanka’s election system with a focus on ‘the party nomination procedures’, who get the nominations at electoral and district levels, and whether the electors are disempowered by electing representatives from major parties to the parliament? The average electors have many concerns about the way their elected representatives (MPs) function once elected to office but these concerns are not often publicly expressed except by the very brave for fear of repercussions.
As we know, the two main political parties, their affiliates and smaller parties field candidates at general elections. Obtaining the nomination (or the ticket) to organise an electorate or to secure a place in the list of candidates for a given district is a major victory for a candidate who is seriously considering contesting elections. In the country’s political culture since independence, it is very rarely that ‘an independent candidate’ can win a given election. Thus the intending candidates like to establish their credentials to be suitable for receiving the nomination from a major party such as the UNP or the SLFP.
Given the nature of party organisation, leadership, history, and personality politics in the country, when selecting candidates for a given district and/or electorate within a district, a range of factors come into play. Foremost among them is loyalty to the party by the potential candidate, whether he or she has a family history of campaigning for the party, capacity to organise party activities and branches, popularity already achieved, experience in politics and even in government. Individual qualities, skills, character, values, educational knowledge and qualifications are considered as secondary. The system of granting party nominations does not favor outsiders, particularly the youths however much they could show leadership qualities and potential. It also does not favor those from minority castes, lower socio economic backgrounds or women unless they are already affiliated with so called ‘political families and clans’.
Though in Sri Lanka education, migration and business have provided immense opportunities for people, especially the young, for social mobility – politics and representation in the parliament have remained a closed shop largely reserved for political families or the political class. A clear example is the Hambantota district where there are four electorates, i.e. Mulkirigala, Beliatta, Tissamaharama, and Tangalle. The closed nature of sharing political fortunes and lack of opportunity provided to any outsiders is all the more apparent when it comes to SLFP procedure for nominating candidates. As known widely, Rajapaksa family dominates many of these electorates and the district during the selection of candidates for general elections. The questions we have to ask is whether the existing procedure of nomination used by the SLFP is fair and how many other deserving potential candidates are sidelined due to the biased system of appointing candidates from one political family by one of the major parties in the country? Even though there is merit in giving Rajapaksas one electoral organiser role due to their long standing service to the party, is there any justification in giving such roles in three out of four electorates thus allowing them to hegemonies the SLFP political space? Obvious answer is No. But the SLFP keeps appointing as many as three Rajapakses for electoral organiser roles in the district while knowing how unfair this is from the perspective of those whose voices are subverted by the family hegemony/dominance.
From the inception Mulkirigala seat organiser role has been offered by the SLFP to a Rajapaksa. So was in Tangalle and Beliatta electorates. In the past, Tissamaharama used to be represented by Lakshman Rajapaksa. Mulkirigala was represented by George Rajapaksa. Since his death Lakshman took over for a while after a by-election and Nirupama became the M.P. later even though she was living in Colombo. Such family domination in an entire district where a majority of the population is poor and/or average working class is not good for democratic and corruption free governance. We all are witnessing the consequences of such family domination-not only at the district level but the national level.
Can anyone suggest that such a system reflected in this example – there are other similar examples from other districts – can be called representative or democratic suitable for the 21st century? Operating such ‘a closed system’ of appointing electoral organisers is not socially just this day and age for a range of reasons. Firstly, it denies the opportunity for someone from non-Rajapaksa clan to organise electorates, contest and represent the people however much they are eligible and capable. Secondly, this practice used by a major political party encourages nepotism and invincibility of one clan not only within the district but nation-wide to the extent of behaving above the country’s laws. Thirdly, by encouraging such clan power through inbreeding, the party encourages subversion of the masses and their interests, in particular those from lower socio economic classes, minority castes, younger generation, or female gender. (Being professional politicians, present day Rajapaksas have amazed sufficient wealth – unlike their parental generation – to be able to contest any number of elections, anytime in the future). Fifthly, they are known to use soft and hard power for discouraging and sometimes eliminating any potential contenders for electoral organiser roles in the area from their own party. Stories abound in the district about the way they do politics. If the system favors one clan over the rest, and they discourage potential competitors by using their family and professional power and that of their associates from lower strata of society with mob power, it cannot be desirable for an open democracy where there should be true representation of mass interests in what the elected representatives do after the elections.
The system operating in this way within the SLFP resembles ‘tribal politics’ one can witness in countries like India. Provincial leaders and their images are made by parties even before elections. Once in power, they are provided with immense material and symbolic power to the extent that they tend to take the rest of the electorate for granted. Though party organisations exist at district and electoral levels, they are almost defunct until an election comes close. There is no accountability mechanism for electoral organisers or those who succeed in elections at the district or sub district levels once the elections are over. People lose their ability to keep their elected representative under check until the next election. Thus getting a nomination from the party is like winning a lottery in U.S. Dollars. The existing political culture not only afford many perks to the elected MPs but allow them to appoint family members and friends to important roles in the electoral office, offices in Colombo including ministerial offices, departments and other statutory bodies.
Doors get further closed for the average voter citizen to access their elected representative who comes from a different class, caste, gender, social status and possibly speaking an alien language. During elections these politicians dress in poor man’s shirt and Sarong or a Sari to imply they are one of us. There are thousands and thousands of people who believe such politicians especially if these politicians talk the talk that include a dose of patriotism.
To its credit, the UNP has given opportunities for people from different walks of life to contest elections in the Hambantota district and elsewhere. Examples include Atapattus in Beliatta and Tangalle, Raluwe Ralahamy and Ananda Kularatne in Mulkirigala. When Kularatne was appointed as the electoral organiser for Mulkirigalla for the 1977 general election from the UNP by J.R, it was seen by the public in the area as a revolutionary act due to the breaking away from tradition. His family has been long standing supporters of the party with considerable means. One could also cite the example of Sajith Premadasa in his role as the organiser for Tissamaharama, though he also comes from a loyal political family considered wealthy. But they both did not belong to a privileged class in the traditional sense.
Though the JVP has been making some inroads over the years, from the perspective of average masses, choosing between two devils, i.e. SLFP vs. UNP has become the name of the game when it comes to general elections-. Given the nature of patronage politics prevailing in the country, the prospects for JVP to make further inroads are limited. While some segments of the district population get close to politicians and actively campaign during elections with the aim of securing benefits such as employment, contracts for various construction projects and other benefits, most voters simply cast their vote expecting good governance, good economic policies, and rule of law etc. Lowest strata expect welfare measures such as housing, Samurdhi payments. Farmers expect subsidised agricultural inputs. Many in between do not expect much in return. They are the people who vote for symbolic value of the candidate, party, leader etc. Some politicians capitalize on their innocence.
The currently existing system of providing party nominations to members of ‘political families and clans’ has to change. The process needs to change in such a way that party members in a given electorate can choose the best candidate from a talented pool before each general election. In Western democracies, there is a system of pre-selecting candidates before each general election. We can learn much from this kind of practices. The sitting member should not influence who gets party membership and who doesn’t. The party head office on the advice of relevant local party branch should decide on it.
Unless this system of offering nominations to members of established political families and clans at electoral and district levels is drastically changed allowing new blood to come in, no amount of electoral reform as envisaged by the present government will result in a true democratic system that allows better representation of mass interests. Even at the provincial council level the disease of political family and clan influence has polluted democratic norms that should be there. Blaming the political culture is just empty rhetoric so long as the leaders of main parties continue to keep the rotten system of offering party nominations to a select group of people in the name of loyalty. Nepotism starts at the level of giving party nominations and extend to all other spheres including the parliament and government when such a selected group of elected representatives from the political families and clans are given the responsibility of governing for all of us.
It is astonishing to note that the country’s social scientists have not made any in depth research about this rotten system within political parties that produce mini fiefdoms. They are good in writing theory often copied from Western social sciences but fail to study the pitfalls of our own electoral system and rotten process by using critical knowledge they are supposed to acquire from higher studies. The media also blame ‘individuals’ rather than this ‘system’ when things go wrong. Our social scientists have a duty to do in depth research and find out what causes nepotism, corruption, subversion of mass interests, and disempowerment of various segments of the population due to the existing party nomination system?
Realistically though, it is unlikely that the political culture that favors political families and clans in the manner explained here will change in the foreseeable future also. Therefore those civil society organisations that campaign for human rights, social justice, Yahapalanaya, etc. should seriously think about forming a new political party and prepare for the next general elections from a platform where the country’s cherished values are protected and a more open system of selecting candidates instituted at the grassroots level. Hambantota district needs such a new political party and opportunity for disempowered population to enter the political and governance arenas by circumventing ‘the family hegemony’ constructed around Rajapaksas and be able to liberate from the subversion of mass interests.