By Ruvan Weerasinghe –
This is the question in the minds of all open minded citizens as we face a presidential election of crucial significance. We are the so-called ‘floating vote’ – and in my case at least, a proud member of it. To begin with, it’d be fair to say that all citizens who take their franchise seriously, have had enough information (and sadly even more disinformation) required to make up their minds about the candidates and what they stand for. As such, this is not really an attempt to change your minds in this ‘last minute’. In fact, I urge all thinking people to refrain from making any last minute decisions, however much the politicians and their supporters try to bring in that last ‘clinching argument’ why you should change your mind and vote for them or their candidate instead. Be particularly suspicious of any sensational new information that would surface during the next 3 days (even though campaigning officially ends Wednesday night).
Are there any universals that we can all agree on that any civilized nation should hold on to and value? Political scientists would answer in the negative, since each such ‘factor’ could be classified into a particular ‘box’ and so assigned to a particular political ideology, party or candidate. Reality is quite different. Very few citizens (or even politicians for that matter) have that kind of technical knowledge and simply want to hold on to some reasonable expectations they could expect from a candidate from any political persuasion. In order to keep this piece short, I simply list rather than detail some of the most salient of these in my mind.
Usher meritocracy: as has been pointed out by many, one of the root causes for Singapore’s success (as well as that of many other countries we may have experienced ourselves), the commitment to give responsibility to the best person, based not on qualifications, but past record of achievement, is fundamental in running a country (as it is, in running any organization). In Sri Lanka, this is an almost alien notion where family and friends expect that any leader worth his/her salt should reward family (nepotism) and friends (cronyism). They ask ‘what is the point, if not?’. Any candidate who in the past has adhered to this way of thinking we should forthright reject, if we’re truly interested in our country moving forward. Another indicator of the possibility of making Sri Lanka a meritocracy is to observe the kind of people around a presidential candidate, and their commitment (or lack thereof) to this thinking.
Ensure equity in prosperity: it is important that the candidate we elect to this important role has to be able to bring back prosperity to this resourceful and resilient nation. It is even more crucial that such a leader should be one who’s committed to sharing the benefits of such prosperity equitably. This has bearings for instance on things like an equitable tax structure, rather than a convenient one which applies indirect taxes which finance our national budget. In other words, Sri Lanka’s super rich must be committed to take the bulk of the tax load just so that more of our citizens are able to rise above the poverty line. A candidate that has demonstrated a belief in a ‘trickle down’ economy which has pushed our GDP to middle-income levels while keeping a large proportion of our citizens below the poverty line, should not be voted as our president. This can also be seen by a candidate’s current wealth and lifestyle, though it can often be hidden from public view.
Belief in the people: any candidate worthy of representing the citizens of a country should by definition have a strong belief in their ability to deliver. At least one of the candidates in the current race has demonstrated this admirably reaching world class performance in the high tech industry. Such a person would understand why it is absolutely necessary to bring all people together as one, focusing on our similarities (compared to citizens of other countries) than our differences. As anyone working in complex systems, optimization or machine learning would know, maximum diversity of a ‘population’ is what allows a problem to be solved optimally and quickly. Our national cricket team was a prime example: when its talent pool was expanded from simply Colombo schools in the 1960s and 70s to the entire country in the 1990s, the dramatic effects of propelling it to world class status was realized. Any candidate treating the masses as having little role in the economy and solely focusing on big business to have a ‘trickle down’ benefit to them, is not someone suitable for president.
Decrease debt burden: the main cancer growing in our country could arguably be said to be our ever increasing debt. This has to be shared by our entire citizenry, even the very poorest, even though often the political and rich classes enjoy more of the benefits of projects carried out using such debt. This is clearly unfair. Any candidate who is not committed to reducing the long term debt of our future generations should not be voted in as our next president. While it is not easy to know the views of each candidate on this matter, some indication can be detected by observing the overall policies of the party they represent.
Anti-corruption in stance: while developing countries, especially those in which poverty is a major issue, in general have more corruption than developed ones, an overall stance against corruption at the highest levels is absolutely essential. As, again the Singapore example shows, dealing with a few ultra high profile corruption cases ruthlessly, irrespective of their political standing or connections, is one way to combat systemic corruption downstream. Any candidate who has thrived on expediency rather than fair play needs to be rejected in favour of one who at least has no such record. Again, apart from the candidate themselves, if those around them are those who have thrived in the past under such conditions, that should send red alerts against the suitability of voting for such a candidate.
Heart for the vulnerable: the saying that a civilization is judged by how it treats its weakest members, attributed to Gandhi among other great thought leaders, is a virtue uncommon in modern Sri Lanka. It is particularly symptomatic of a nation which is trying to move up the economic ladder alone, at the expense of its ‘humanness’ ladder – one that focuses solely on increasing GDP and not HDI/GNH. A heart for the vulnerable is hard to manufacture for an election campaign or cultivate in the few weeks prior to it. As such, the past record of a candidate’s behaviour can be a good indicator as to the likelihood of that candidate’s ability to help Sri Lanka prosper socially as much as economically.
Truthful: arguably one of the hardest characteristics for a politician to possess is a commitment to the truth – it is almost orthogonal to being involved in politics. This is why some of the first time candidates at this election provide the best hope for possessing this quality. A related quality is the ability to admit past mistakes rather than absolving oneself from blame. The outgoing president has proved to be the epitome of ‘passing the buck’ especially in the last year or so. Abdul Kalam’s story of his boss asking him to take credit for success and pushing him back to take the blame himself for failure, is a classic example for our presidential hopefuls. In the context of our political culture, the declaration of assets, not just to the Speaker, but to the public, would be a good sign of a candidate’s fitness to be our president. Another would be a commitment to punish and never justify lies and cover-ups. A candidates’ past behavior could give us strong hints as to their commitment to the truth since lies often need to be covered up with more lies.
Commit to rule of law: probably one outcome of believing in the people of the land is the application of the law equally to the strong and the weak – whether economically, socially or politically. A candidate committed to this would be one who does not tolerate any interference in the affairs of government, which is itself fully capable of running well, if allowed to. Allowing state employees, the police, the armed forces and most importantly the judiciary to function to the best of their ability without any impediment is a quality and commitment that we need to demand from any future leader of this country. Political patronage should become a bad word for such a candidate, even as canvasing for any state appointment was said to be a disqualification in the days gone by. A candidate bearing this ‘stipe’ will find it hard to erase it in the short term, and will surely grow it back after elections, whether elected or defeated.
I have tried to highlight some of the hallmarks of an ‘alternate political culture’ that Sri Lankans yearn for, or are unaware (or too cynical to expect) as possible. Surely a country that has gone through so much strife and turmoil since independence, deserves a more just and equitable form of governance – not one solely focused on economic prosperity for the political class.
May you be introspective during the next few days leading up to the presidential election, shut out the cacophony of frantic political campaigning, and cast your vote without consideration for your past allegiance (or that of your family) – for the candidate who can usher in the above universal values to our nation.