By Mohamed Harees –
“All the gang of those who rule us
Hope our quarrels never stop
Helping them to split and fool us
So they can remain on top” ~ Bertolt Brecht – ‘Solidarity song’
A flower bud is a swelling or the formation of a premature flower bloom. A bud will eventually produce a flower. Sri Lanka too saw the flower bud (Pohottuwa) nurtured by MR blooming into a ‘larger than life sized flower’ at the grass-root levels in the recently concluded LG Elections. This type of political drama with a latter entrant party based on the strength of ‘one man’ giving a hiding in style to two major dominant players in the arena is a political first in Sri Lanka, belying the forecasts of many local political and even international observers too. Whether this emerging ‘political flowering situation’ will emit a sweet fragrance like a Rose (as the majority thought) or a terrible pungent odour like a corpse flower (as others opined) for the country will be left to be seen in the foreseeable future.
The bottom line is this is democracy in the working. Of course, representative democracy remains a better form of governance than mob rule, with its’ track record much stronger than the sort of authoritarian populist movements. But the downsides among many are that there is a tendency towards short-termism, and that the tyranny of the majority becomes a constant threat to minority groups. Further it can also result in unwieldy coalitions, or endless squabbling and political deadlock like we have been witnessing in Post-Independence Sri Lanka whereas other political systems can find it easier to proceed in a unified direction. Further, democracy panders too much to the needs of the individual and encourages people to vote selfishly, thinking purely in their own interests, rather than for what is best for the country as a whole. The democratic process also encourages politicians to make promises that they know they can’t keep, in order to be elected. This creates public cynicism and disillusionment in the long run. More interestingly a fully functioning democracy relies upon an educated and informed public.
Yes! democratic systems today are miles away from the ideals it claims to offer, with national interests and public interest not anywhere in sight in the radar of winning political parties when deciding on how to govern. Patriotism, nationalism and public interest will only be fads and slogans and tools in their armoury to gain their own selfish ends. It will be down to the personal and parochial interests when forming alliances. We can now see UNP looking at various coalition options to stay in power while the SLFP And UPFA members are waiting to switch alliances caring nought for the conditions of the original mandate received by them. We have seen these types of political circuses even during earlier elections. How even so-called parties with communal interests like JHU and Muslim parties (claiming to work for their communities. My foot!) jump from one side to the other and the yarns they relate justifying their actions are amusing to say the least!
In the ultimate analysis of the LG elections, it will be easy, like what this so-called Yahapalana government is now doing, to bring in ‘sour- grapes’ arguments that the strength of the mandate given in 2015 is still intact and that MR vote base has declined in real terms. However whatever differences we may have with the ‘Big-man’, we must accept the fact that he has single-handedly changed the future destiny of this government led by a SLFP President and a UNP PM for years to come, in many ways diluting the relevance of the 2015 mandate and its’ credibility to perform as a government representing people’s will. Making amends to regain people’ confidence and credibility before 2020 will therefore a long shot for this beleaguered outfit with President and PM on loggerheads on many policy issues despite signs of optimistic cohabitation seen at the initial phase. The mandate does not lie in numbers or percentages, but whether they have set out or at least shown political determination seriously to do what they promised at the hustings. Thus, this government should perform an honest post mortem about not only regarding their shameful defeat at the LG elections, but also about what has been going on during the last 3 years.
Sadly, the political will was lacking with President sheepishly blaming PM/ ministers for not allowing him to do his duty (forgetting the fact that he was in fact the Executive President of this country). In that way, MR was a strong leader who could demand action from his ministers and officials whether those decisions were in the best interests of the country or not. Precise the reason that many political analysts in TV Panel discussions say that this government was the worst performing government in the Post-Independence era in terms of political will and also in terms of running the day to day affairs of this country. The recent petrol strike was an ideal example. The latter aspect includes the sheer inability of this government to keep the people informed of the actual situation prevailing, allowing the social media gossip and loose talk to take over the national discourse. Besides, their marketing/ PR strategy has been a disaster. While even the good aspects this government did such as more freedom of expression, RTI, improving the international image of Sri Lanka, and even reducing the prices pf some essential goods, were not properly marketed to the grass-root levels, even the actual impact of the massive ill-doings and frauds of the previous government and the heavy loan bills burdened upon Citizen Silva were not properly and effectively highlighted. To add salt to the injury, the inept and inefficient advisors like Shiral Lankatileke and top civil officials were seen calling the shots, which aspect has been a bane for implementing many decisions taken (it was sheer shame that the government continued to blame that the officials were still MR’s men in spirit without doing anything soon to rectify them despite being having the power to do so!)
Further it was just 3 years ago that this collation government came to power with clear promise of cleaning the stables and bringing the bigwigs accused of massive scale corruption of the former regime including the ‘Big-man’ and his family to book. Despite however many tamashas at the start with the reconstitution of the Bribery commission and many other gimmicks, the whole exercise just got petered out. It was a joke that the many of those who were arrested and jailed were kept in comfort in hospitals and later released for ‘lack of evidence’. Then again the Hora Police game took another comical turn even before the government could start off as it should, when the Bond Scam and corruption drama set in their own ranks and the rest is history. Corruption was thus rife during this regime too perhaps in different ways while the high expenditure spent on a top heavy political and executive (Bigger cabinet with ridiculous portfolios) was eating into the public purse, denying much needed resources to meet essential areas like health and welfare. Even the CAT Scan machine for the Cancer Hospital had to be purchased out of public donations when the government was importing ultra-luxury vehicles for their Ministers.
In this context, due to the prevalence of the social media platform to disseminate information, people are being treated to continuing drama and humour of the inefficiency and apathy of this government with President Sirisena and PM RW cutting sorry figures in the public perception like ‘a tiger without tooth’. To be fair, it was MR’s and Co.s voice which sank into the minds and conscience of the people at the grass-root levels with their hypocritical talk of ‘saving the country’ from traitors selling national assets, Sinhala Nationalism and sheer inefficiency, fishing in troubled waters. The Pohottuwa elections posters displaying huge pictures of MR thus in fact played on the inner psyche and mental files of the grass-root level voters , projecting MR as the only saviour in the Post War period as well like his pivotal leadership assertive role during the War.
Another topical issue in the minds of the political observers in Post War era is the emergence of racist politics and majoritarian attitudes with hate towards the minorities. Precisely why proper justice was not meted out to those affected among the Tamils after the War, and Muslims being at the butt end of a well-orchestrated hate campaign against them. This government came into power, promising decisive action against the conspirators of hate attacks and to promote national reconciliation. Of course there was a decline in such outwardly hate attacks but the promise to prosecute the offenders of earlier attacks were not fulfilled while the major hate mongers were left to spread undercurrent hate among peaceful Sinhalese people without a proper national reconciliation programme being put in place.
A danger signal which was seen after this election was that many racist and hate groups are disseminating and creating a perception that the Sinhala Nationalist lobby has won because of the ‘Pohottuwa’ victory while sporadic attacks against few Muslim business, were also heard compelling the MCSL to write to G L Peiris to discipline his party cadres. In fact, Muslims too have voted in good numbers for SLPP in many areas; interestingly enough in Beruwela too where there was anti-Muslim communal violence in 2014 . In fact, more interestingly the Wikipedia page of SLPP also says that one of their ideologies is Sinhala Nationalism, which will certainly cause concern and worry among the minorities. Be it as it may, it is therefore the Government which should take control of this situation and also MR too should intervene to ensure that such warped thinking does not once again filter down to his grass root level cadres which will otherwise culminate in serious conflicts like another repeat of 1983 or Aluthgama, with renewed racist hate mobs led by some rogue members of the Maha Sangha dancing in the rain in the aftermath of the Pohottuwa landslide victory. Hope that MR too has learnt his lessons from what happened in 2015.
A major lesson Sri Lanka need to learn in the aftermath of this elections is the imperative need for public activism to enlighten and educate the voters at the grass-root levels to involve themselves in and consider the mega and macro aspects of governance and to be more assertive to hold their public representatives to account while also standing up to claim what is due to them as citizens. We saw the JVP mostly in the South and NFGG with more clout in the East continuously preaching the merits of good governance and need to elect people with good track records .But all those sermons fell virtually on deaf ears as people of this country are more driven by day to day issues and suffer from short term memory losses. This process can only be undertaken by the intellectuals and religious leaders who need to devise a comprehensive program to educate the people at the grass-root levels in engage in productive political discourses and non-violent forms of opposition to government measures which are detrimental to public interests. Otherwise, what Bertolt Brecht, German Dramatist said as quoted at the beginning of this article about politicians at the top doing what is must to keep them at the top, will continue to happen. Bertolt Brecht also said that ‘You should struggle not to change rulers but to change the(thinking of) the people. Stupid people will never oppose corrupt rulers’. How pertinent this quote is for voters in Sri Lanka. Besides, bitter lessons Americans are learning after electing a demagogue like Trump should also provide an apt lesson for us all to prove that democracy always do not produce best leaders or end results.