By Ruvan Weerasinghe –
Every few years, the politicians around us have been successful in getting us all excited to participate in a circus they put up on our behalf. And this February’s lowly Local Government polls is no exception – in fact it maybe even more of a success! They’d have us believe that the rest of our lives absolutely depended on it. In case this sounds frivolous and appearing to be discouraging voters, let me be clear and say at the outset that as citizens of this country, it is our duty to cast our vote at this and all future elections – else we in effect are abrogating our responsibility and permitting others to make decisions for us. However, this post is about NOT pinning all our hopes on the outcome of elections.
Signs of the circus
Many have been quick to point out that this election is different: it allocates a 25% quota for women. True, that is a remarkable achievement. More importantly it has the potential to be a game changer, since it would be the largest group of un-likeminded people in Sri Lankan politics, and far more potent than one or two honest male politicians in our broken system.
However, it has to also be taken together with the fact that to ‘accommodate’ this 25%, we have increased the total number of our representatives by almost 100% (from ~4500 in the whole country to ~8500)! And so, in effect, we’ve smuggled in a whopping 50% more of the same, largely rotten core of male representation, to appease the career politicians involved in drafting this ingenious new scheme.
Add to this the fact that many parties had a tough time finding female candidates, resulting in wives, sisters and other kith and kin of the same rogue male politicians being nominated by them. Anecdotal accounts from a ward in the Kotte area (along the Nugegoda railway line) shows that all the major parties’ nominees are drug peddlers well known in the area! Stories from some of the other wards and electorates indicate that this may not be an isolated case. A few of these have already appeared in the news.
The line up
Of course there are some honorable contestants in the lineup. The JVP’s candidates appear to be by far the most impressive: educated individuals capable of speaking up for issues on principle rather than expedience. Unfortunately, only a few of them are likely to be elected, and even then, would have the unenviable challenge of sparring with a bunch of opportunists who are unused to the application of logic, ethics or pure common sense in issues of governance (if they know that concept in the first place). As history has shown by the sad examples of those such as G. L. Peiris, the only ones who’d survive among these educated candidates even if elected, are the ones who in the end submit to the ways of the ‘career politicians’. More dangerously, they could then start espousing the agendas of whatever political party they eventually represent, with clever arguments and pseudo intellectualism as seen in these forums in those of the likes of Dayan Jayatilleka.
Clearly, the winner at the other end – that of fielding the worst kind of individuals for the LG polls is the ‘pohottuwa’ group, which is led by none other than the aforementioned, once excellent academic. In the best of cases, their candidates match up to the worst of those fielded by the two traditional parties in Sri Lankan politics, the SLFP/UPFA and the UNP.
The SLFP/UPFA consists of another caliber of opportunists. Those who have one foot with the incumbent leader and another with the former leader! Judging by the highly mixed signals that their current leader is sending out to the population (amounting to the greatest display of opportunism), they’d probably create history by allowing a ‘breakaway’ from a major party in Sri Lanka to defeat the parent party in a number of wards and electorates.
However, the saddest tale for Sri Lankan politics is that of the UNP. After waiting for years in the opposition, and fielding some very strong, able and rational candidates at the last election, it has let them and their voters down badly in the 3 years they’ve ruled the country. In their defense, they were hampered by having to work together with a bunch of the ‘corrupt old guard’ who the new leader of the SLFP had to bring back to important ministries even though being thoroughly rejected by the people at that election.
So what do we do?
Firstly, let’s call a spade a spade. These, and even the general and presidential elections are a ‘circus’ put on for the people once every few years. Unfortunately, we the people, get all excited and align ourselves to one or the other of the ‘clowns’ on show! We really don’t have to do this. Yes, there is an alternative.
Sri Lanka is slowly but surely maturing as a democracy (though that may seem to go against all I’ve stated above!). But that is not by the number and frequency of the elections we have (which should make us the most democratic country in the world) nor the sheer number of candidates we elect to represent us (a colossal waste of public funds). No, the maturing of our democracy is happening completely outside the realms of elected politicians.
Never in our history, has government decision making been influenced so much by normal citizens (not politicians) than in the past 3 years. This is not a wish, but a fact, and facts are stubborn. It is the civil society that has brought about this change, thanks largely to electronic media, citizens journalism and social apps. Even 4 years ago, this level of influence was absolutely unthinkable! However, our civil society still needs to be nurtured to become a strong force able to withstand governments which could use authoritarian powers to suppress it. Given another 5 years, we could potentially have a civil society voice that could ensure democracy in this country irrespective of which political party comes to power! That should be our goal – to become a true modern democracy in the region, where citizens’ true aspirations are highlighted without the need for paying obeisance to politicians. This of course is a highly dangerous situation for career politicians, who (fortunately) I’m quite sure, don’t have time these days to watch this space.
So, who should we be voting for? The writing is on the wall: those with the intent to bring back the past level of ‘control’ back to politicians are calling the shots. They have the highest motivation to regain power and will gladly provide transport to their supporters (and other hapless voters) to get to the polling stations. They are likely to win majorities in those areas where the lowest level needs of the Maslow hierarchy dominate. These are where the concepts of freedom and integrity take a back seat, but nationalism and mono-culturist rhetoric about a glorious past hold sway.
With all its flaws, the coalition government we currently have, has been the most responsive to citizens’ opinions and grievances. Since our political culture is beyond redemption, the best situation for our people is indeed to have a coalition government! Our caliber of politicians cannot be trusted with being ‘benevolent dictators’. It is indeed frustrating that things are slow when a coalition government is in power, but that’s exactly why it is not harmful. There’s a strong motivation for a coalition government to listen to all its partners. The current distancing of the President from the Prime Minister in this regard doesn’t bode well for our land. One hopes that this is but another act of opportunism to garner more votes, and that post LG elections, these two parties will continue to work together for the betterment of this country, albeit with a bitter lesson taught to them at the LG polls.
A coalition government also has to listen to the people of the country – not just to the people in their party. More importantly a coalition government is the best for nurturing our fledgling civil society at least for the next 3 – 5 years, in order that we may future-proof this country from possible future authoritarian regimes.
Finally then, do go to the polls and use your vote intelligently. Vote for any party that would ensure that your civic voice is heard for the years to come.