By Ray Fernando –
The Southern & Western provincial council elections, scheduled to take place at the end of next month, has certainly not gone unnoticed as many budding politicos and their parties have taken both to the streets and through all forms of media like a storm.
Provincial council (PC) elections, and the PC in general, have received damning press over the recent years with local councillors being accused of wide scale corruption, nepotism, threats, intimidation, rape, drug running and even the murder of local citizens as well as foreign holiday-makers. These heinous crimes allegedly committed either by the local councillors themselves or their crony supporters have left a scar in the minds of our whole population. A general feeling of dejection and hopelessness with the political system is rife throughout the masses. However this dejection could be a very good omen when it comes to selecting future political candidates.
There is no doubt that money has become a huge barrier to enter politics with only the very rich or well-connected being able to muster adequate funds to ensure a political victory. The present budgetary requirements for PC politics are anything from Rs.8 million to over Rs.100 million. The record spend on a PC election was at the Wayamba polls last year when one ‘winning’ candidate spent a whopping 130+ million rupees! Even the lower estimation of 8 million is an unimaginable amount to spend for an ordinary individual who may be the brightest political spark but earns a modest 15-25,000 rupees per month.
A new kind of Provincial Politics
The upcoming Southern and Western PC polls are bound to be different for three reasons in particular which I believe greatly shaped the candidate selection process for these next elections.
Firstly, these are the first Southern & Western Provincial elections since Sri Lanka phased out its overly dominant war psyche. The last SPC & WPC elections were held in late 2009, when war hysteria was at its peak. Sri Lankans today are far more concerned about the state of the economy, accessing education, preserving universal health care, protecting the environment and finding a suitable job than they were during the peak of the war. In order to appease these demands, neither the opposition nor the government can rely on scare-mongering or divisive politics to win a majority of votes as these public demands are universal and cut across race, caste or religion. The few ultra-nationalist groups who opt for hate-mongering majoritarian politics may often reach headline news due to their sinister and absurd behaviour, and certainly disrupt the communal harmony in many neighbourhoods, but on the whole they are seen as a complete laughing stock with a political base made up of insignificant numbers.
The second reason is to a changing local political dynamic is the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election and the new wave of statesmanship brought in by the retired Supreme Court Judge and current Chief Minister of the Northern Province, Justice C.V Wigneswaran. Justice Wigneswaran’s entry into politics was controversial for all the right reasons and only ruffled the feathers of a few fascist forces. Firstly, it was the first time the NPC was ever holding a local election in its history. Secondly, it was Justice Wigneswaran’s entrance into the political foray having being a giant within the judicial system for many decades. Justice Wigneswaran’s wealth of knowledge, oratorical skill, humility, political savviness and tireless work ethic brought a much needed change in perception of our political leaders from the provinces.
The third reason for the changing political landscape is dejection of the political system, especially at the local level. The provincial councils have gained notoriety due to the corrupt practices and criminal activity of a few members. The on-going cases of murder, drug dealing, assault and so on have painted a blanket picture of the average local politician being a lowly, immoral individual with zero political acumen. This dejection with the old personalities within the councils is a key reason why both the opposition and the government chose to rethink their campaign strategies as well as the type of candidates they chose to put forward. The options were two fold: One avenue was to continue enhancing the endemic populist political model currently used at the national levels by selecting popular celebrities to win over the hearts of the masses despite being complete political novices. The second option was to put forward the children and close relatives of previous and current political figures who seem well intentioned, are deemed ready for politics and who would be able to muster mass support based on their family’s political background as well as their own capabilities.
There are few candidates of this calibre who come to mind. Malsha Kumaranatunga, a WPC candidate from the UPFA, Tharaka Nanayakkara, SPC candidate from the UNP; to a lesser known extent, Isuru Dodangoda, another candidate contesting the SPC elections from the UPFA however he is yet to publicly loy out a clear cut political strategy. Hirunika Premachandra (UPFA) has been under the spotlight ever since her father’s brutal murder and, despite possessing some sort of political agenda, she has managed to tarnish her image through her media outbursts and proclamations; the most recent being that she was the adopted daughter of the current President! This leaves just two candidates out of the list worth analysing.
Malsha Kumaranatunga, daughter of Minister Jeevan Kumaranatunga, is a graduate in Law and has cultivated a deep interest in politics from quite a young age. Unlike her PC predecessors in recent times, she has shown that she has a clear ideology based around empowering women and seeking equality for women in both the workplace and at home, raising opportunities for the youth, improving and enhancing their access to facilities such as IT, sports and recreation, as well as accepting responsibility for the welfare of the elderly as a youthful member of society. So far Malsha has displayed strength and confidence throughout her election campaign, which is highly commendable for a young woman like her who is entering a largely male dominated, ageist political environment. Her strategy to use intellect, discussion and debate as opposed to merely looks and beauty separates her from the majority of the other young female contenders who have been selected, many of them being actresses. Malsha’s strong stance on women’s affairs and championing gender equality makes her a future as a politician bright and one to watch out for with interest.
Tharaka Nanayakkara, son of retired minister and politician Hemakumara Nanayakkara, is the other known candidate with similarly remarkable traits. A double degree holder, MBA-student and attorney-at-law by profession; Tharaka’s confidence, oratorical craft and mastery of both the Sinhala and English languages makes him one of the most articulate politicians to enter the political foray. He also speaks Tamil confidently as a second language, making him one of the few trilingual politicians in the political arena, an essential ingredient for the future shapers of Sri Lanka’s politics. His choice in affiliating himself with the UNP boils down to two reasons: his belief in neo-liberalism as a necessity for national development as well as his disillusionment with the incumbent regime following the removal of the previous Chief Justice. He views this political interference within an independent state institution, the judiciary none the less, as a clear signal of a nation spiralling out of democratic control which; from a lawyer’s perspective, must feel like the ultimate betrayal. Tharaka stands on a platform based on honesty, integrity and hard work, devoting himself to the UNP for the long-run without the desire to seek quick short term gains.
The political traits displayed by these two candidates, while fundamental, are rare to find in the average Sri Lankan politician, be it novice or veteran. Both budding politicians stand on strong, value-based politics, backed-up by well thought out political ideologies. A strong family background based on values and respect, having access to a good education and avoiding the abuse of their political clout to get away with crime or to seek out special treatment are similarities between both candidates. We would be right to hope these candidates, who have lived their lives with the ability to access state facilities but avoided doing so, will not begin to abuse their power once they find themselves in political office.
I believe the emergence of these new candidates, the offspring of the old guard, could provide us with a positive political outcome unlike the previous offspring of politicians. We now live in a post-conflict, modernising, social media savvy Sri Lanka. 18% of the population now have access to the internet and are learning to seek out knowledge, compare politics in different nations, communicate with each other, share opinion and heavily scrutinise the workings of our political leaders. These young PC candidates represent the youth-led majority who represent Sri Lanka in cyberspace. Their political careers will be documented on social media platforms and in cyberspace from their very inception. Their credibility and integrity will be under scrutiny by the population from day one. This is a good thing for democratic politics and I am confident each of these political candidates possess the necessary skills and integrity to deliver what their voters require by using their education, skills and perseverance without resorting to threatening, deceptive or corrupt practices to merely grasp on to political power. Candidates of this nature have the education and right mind set to avoid dirty politics, and much like individuals like Harsha De Silva or G.L Peiris, they are more than capable of making their own money independently. The Yin to their Yang will be their vote base and the people meeting in person and online to discuss, debate and critique their actions and hold them accountable should they begin to move away from the political and personal stances they are putting forward to us today. The future of local government politics is certainly not void of potential and the masses will be eagerly watching.