By Jehan Perera –
The Sri Lankan reaction to the outcome of the US election reflected the ethnic divide at its extremes. Even prior to the election Tamil nationalist politicians had dashed coconuts at temples to bring victory to Hillary Clinton. They believed that she would ensure that the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka would remain on the US government’s list of priorities due to the interest she had shown in these matters in the past. After the election Sinhalese nationalists expressed their satisfaction at the victory of a kindred spirit who shared the same antipathy towards outsiders to the extent of physically building a wall to keep them out and put his country first. Those who were somewhere in the middle between these competing nationalisms and who looked upon the United States as the country were the values of universal human rights are upheld, renewed and regenerated were dismayed, although this is only likely to be a temporary setback to a nation that is nurtured on the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
However, Brexit in the United Kingdom and now Donald Trump in the United States bring messages that are disturbing ones for Sri Lanka as it tries to find its way to a political solution that can be mutually acceptable to the people of the country and the united nation it is trying to create. There is a need to find such a solution to the problem of competing nationalisms that has blighted the country’s progress from the time of its Independence from colonial rule nearly seven decades ago. But now the international experience from two countries that have served as role models of democracy, good governance and universal human rights is that large swathes of society may not hold to values that are universal in their application but instead look to themselves first. If the majority of people feel that they are not getting their due, and those they deem to be outsiders are getting undue benefits, they will oppose it when they get the opportunity.
In the case of Brexit and now the US many assertions have been made and explanations given why the people voted against what their political leaders proposed. They range from disenchantment with economic progress, to giving undue benefits to those who do not deserve them to loss of moral stature. At the US elections, Hillary Clinton took on progressive stances that appear to have alienated a large proportion of the electorate. She stood for abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights and migrants’ rights, which seems to have alienated wide swathes of the US population. President-elect Trump was able to get the vote of people who viewed these rights as anathema to their sense of morality. But ironically it was not the majority of votes that he won. He did not get the majority of votes, but still won because of a quirk in the American system of democracy.
The Electoral College system adopted in the United States was originally meant to protect democracy from the tyranny of the majority. Today the system privileges voters in less urbanized areas who are largely white and less educated. The subversion of majority voting and the parochial result it has brought about may induce the intelligentsia in the United States to find new and more appropriate solutions to guarding against the tyranny of the majority. Perhaps the most important factor in the Trump victory was his use of racism and nationalism to garner the popular vote. He took on stridently anti Muslim and anti Mexican positions. It was said that one of his most crowd pleasing punch lines, which never failed to win rounds of applause, was to say he would build a wall.
The clear polarization of the vote, with Trump getting the majority of votes of white people is an indication that his appeal to racism and nationalism was successful. He played to the inchoate feeling within white Americans that they are the true Americans and ought to have their special position in the country recognized and accepted. Their proportion in the population has been dropping as is said to be around 60 percent today which is a source of resentment to them. President elect Trump was able to appeal to sentiments such as reviving the customary Christmas time greeting of “Happy Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.” Ethnic nationalism is today a growing force in the world, and even developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom are not spared it.
Another reason for Trump’s triumph was the desire for change. The Democratic Party from which Hillary Clinton campaigned had been in power for two successive terms. There is always a desire on the part of people for change. Governments can seldom solve problems in society especially those that concern the distribution of limited resources to people who have needs that require more resources. In Sri Lanka, this was the key reason why President Mahinda Rajapaksa succumbed in his attempt to secure a third term of office as President. Although the former president had a powerful mass appeal to the Sinhalese majority on account of his nationalism, the desire for change was a countervailing force. There was resentment within society of his nepotism and the corruption of his government, which benefited a few, and which would have got further entrenched had he won a third term.
At the last presidential elections in Sri Lanka, the political campaigns for change and for nationalism did not go together. Former president Rajapaksa’s appeal to nationalism was not supplemented by a similar appeal for change, as he had been president for two terms and prior to that prime minister for a term. Still for all, the former president’s nationalist campaign was strong enough to secure for him the majority of the Sinhalese electorate. But this was countered by the desire for change, as he had nothing new to offer– except for more of the same, which was nationalism. The campaign of the opposition parties was focused on the changes they promised to bring, in which anti-corruption and good governance took the central place. The danger today, however, is that the governing is in danger of losing its agenda for change in the eyes of the people. There is a sense of drift with the government appearing ineffective in dealing with either corruption or good governance.
The lesson that the government can from Brexit and now from the Trump victory is that the people’s vote cannot be taken for granted. One of the great strengths of the present government is that it is an alliance comprising the two largest political parties, which can ensure it a 2/3 majority in Parliament. However, there is no guarantee that even with this supermajority in parliament, that the government can take the majority of people with it. The government seems to be aware of this. It has been postponing local government elections for the past year. It has been giving various technical reasons for the postponement, especially the need to finalise the delimitation of electorates. A similar challenge to the government will arise with regard to the proposed constitutional changes which can require a referendum in addition to securing a 2/3 majority in parliament.
At the 85th birthday felicitation to renowned civil society leader Dr A T Ariyaratne, which was attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, the Sarvodaya leader said that any government needed a threefold power to accomplish its goals. These were moral power, people’s power and state power. The government needs to strengthen its moral power and people’s power to ensure its success. It needs to ensure that justice is done, and seen to be done, in relation to the major corruption cases that have captured public attention. These include the corruptions of the past government as well as more recent acts of corruption, such as the Central Bank bond scam. Second the government needs to ensure the support of the people. There is a need for the government to be more transparent with the people, and to consult with them, and explain to them its plans for the future, if it is to take the people along with its reform process.