By Mohamed Harees –
“Since a politician never believes what he says, he is quite surprised
to be taken at his word.” Charles De Gaulle
After hanging on to power for close to 40 years, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was forced to exit in the most shameful manner. It could, however, be that the most humiliated individual in that whole fiasco is his 52-year-old wife who was gearing up to take over from her 93-year-old husband. Mugabe represented the old generation of African leaders who wrestled power from the colonialists. They then held on to that power through whichever means and insisted on being retired by death. After all, Adolf Hitler who blatantly misinterpreted the overwhelming public preference as his omnipotence, is not a mere piece of horror fiction. The likes of Mugabe obviously did not learn from the Mandela model. Old although he was, Mandela was not attached to power and ruled for only one term before retiring.
The ascension of Mugabe to be the leader of his nation signalled the end of a white colonial era and the beginning of a hopeful future. With words of reconciliation, Mugabe sought to reassure both blacks and whites that he will usher in a new chapter for Zimbabwe. He became a freedom fighter/hero and won; the only problem is the curtain did close. Many people who supported Mugabe did so out of fear, impotence and self-interest. He, along with his wife and close advisors persecuted his opponents and took the country along a steep down-slide of dictatorship. But the people in their hearts generally believed that this awful situation cannot go on much longer and almost four decades later, they are celebrating on the streets, when he was virtually ousted and thrown out like a pariah with military assistance.
Can this shameful exit of Mugabe portend a vital lesson to Sri Lankans too, who are equally if not more fed-up with the power hungry political class which has taken Sri Lanka too down a cliff ever since its’ Independence? Our political leaders have consistently failed to make Sri Lanka the inclusive, peaceful and prosperous country that it was meant to be. At its time of independence, the island nation was a model of peaceful transition to self-governance and a symbol of hope to many. However, short-sightedness, prejudice and our inability to respect those different to us have left a fractured society, scarred by a generation of civil war.
In May 2009, MR promised an inclusive and a prosperous Post-war Sri Lanka and he miserably failed leading to a ‘Mugabe style’ similar exit in January 2015. Then the name board Mahinda Chinthanaya became Yahapalanaya and three years later, Sri Lanka is seen to regress in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Their promises accordingly included abolition of the Executive Presidency; investigation of all serious allegations of corruption, especially misuse of public resources, irrespective of whatever political party the perpetrators belonged to, and take appropriate action to punish them; reduction of the size of the Cabinet; eschewing nepotism, family bandyism and cronyism; domestic inquiry into war crimes; MS also pledged that he would serve only his first term as Executive President and not run again, giving the impression that he will refrain from party politics and further, to punish the racist offenders and promote national reconciliation. Virtually all election promises are unfulfilled, with unprecedented levels of corruption in all quarters, reconciliation process shattered while racism mice at play while the law enforcement cat is fast asleep and the Tamils and Muslims feeling as disillusioned as the majority Sinhalese in terms of their aspirations. Only good aspect has been relatively better conditions to experience the freedom of expression and RTI.
The Yahapalanaya has betrayed the trust of the people Both the major parties in alliance are involved in dirty politics and are fighting each other. The so called ‘Unity Government’ is all but united and the same old corrupt faces have re-emerged under new names through the dubious route –national list. The parliament has become a circus ring. Investigations into major crimes started off with pomp and glory at the start, including financial crimes, and prosecutions in courts are not as expedient as expected, perhaps due to both governing parties having skeletons in their cupboards. Racists in various forms and hues have risen from the ashes leading to minorities being driven toward renewed fears and concerns. So much grief they caused to Ven. Sobitha Thera who inspired the nation to vote for the change and it was widely believed, it drove him to an untimely death. The Egg Hopper episode thus became another comedy in the line of many political comedies in our journey since Independence.
Every politician knows that the key to winning elections is to make great promises. Campaigners promise to cure the ills of society including taxes, war, government corruption, and pollution. The size of the elected office seems almost correlated with the size of the promise. Even at the state or local level, however, politicians in close races may attempt to extract a few additional votes by promising to improve a specific problem that an interest group cares about the most.
It is however a matter of regret that the law has been silent about holding these cunning parties and their candidates accountable for promises they make to spice up the election campaigns, despite political accountability being an essential characteristic of democracy. It is downright betrayal of trust to state one set of policy during the campaign and ignore them later ,which violates the principle of political accountability and undermines fundamental principles of democratic government. Yet, in many democracies, Sri Lanka inclusive ,politicians at election time make promises the bait to gain power ,which they know they cannot keep. Yet the irony is that people in Sri Lanka have short memories and vote these parties to power despite their dubious track records in keeping their promises. Politicians always have the last laugh! There’s no need here to detail the many broken campaign promises that have accumulated throughout history; but a refresher will help
We saw in 1970, the leaders of the Alliance led by Srimavo promised two measures of rice and said they would even go to the moon and get the rice. But once in office, they did not have enough funds in the treasury to implement their promise. At 1977 elections, UNP promised eight kilograms of grain per week. The promise was not fulfilled either. The UNP was voted again in 1989 election, against all odds, by then promising to pay a monthly allowance of Rs2,500 to every poor family. But what came about was a very much different poverty alleviation programme. Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 came to power promising to abolish the executive presidency within six months. But what happened as that instead of abolishing it, she ran for a second term and made an aborted attempt to extend her second term by one more year. In 2005 too, many such unbelievable mouth watering promises were made. Then, we had Mahinda Chnthanaya and now those sky high Yahapalana promises in 2015. It was unbelievable that many shady characters too were either elected by a dumb electorate or sneaked through the national list.
Some promises and pledges are of a contractual sort. Election promises and pledges are not, and errant politicians are therefore beyond the reach of the legal system to be sued for breach of contract with regard to the promises made and not fulfilled; at least not yet in SL. But the legal route is not always the best remedy as those politicians will always find another way to reach for our votes. Perhaps it may help but not discipline the politicians. Politicians are those who will promise us there is light at the end of the tunnel but when we are about to reach will extend the tunnel.
In many ways, voters are the eternal optimists who can’t learn from experience. We want to believe that our politicians will improve our lives. But when post-election reality hits, we forget how unrealistic we were in believing that somehow “this time,” the outcome would be different. It may seem that the negative climate in politics has gotten worse in recent years, but broken promises and voter discontent are hardly 21st century phenomena. Perhaps what’s new is the extensive repository of videos that can now be contrasted with the actions (or inaction) of those who’ve won an election. People don’t have to rely on the sometimes vague and obscure print media; a politician’s glaring inconsistencies now goes viral within minutes of the discovery.
Now the question arises in the minds of Sri Lankans as to what other options remain to ensure that their aspirations are fulfilled apart from voting these political JOKERS back to power in another election. Sri Lankans are still in the mindset of voting along the two party continuum since Independence and at the next election too, the same fate will befall upon Sri Lanka. Already the JO with MR in the lead are making noises and people are again becoming deaf and dumb, showing clear signs of being taken up the blind path once again. Politicians from both major parties have proved beyond doubt that they are unfit to rule and the way parliamentarians behave have given the voters no hope of any better times ahead. Can we imagine the destiny of this nation when the laws of this country are being formulated and voted upon by these pea brains with most of them not even gone beyond their OLs? What options remain to Sri Lankans? Of course, as a civilized country, we cannot prescribe Nazi style solutions or set fire to the Parliament as happened in another country! Or perhaps full scale a military intervention. But, if the country moves in this way, we cannot rule out the possibility of a Zimbabwe style military intervention!.
Sri Lankans should therefore either seriously consider the option of giving power to the third force –JVP who, despite some bloody patches in their past journey have proved credible with their present set of leaders and policies OR the time will not be far off when the time will make the people to be driven to reconsider the democracy process itself , in the way this ideal is being in operation in our countries, and go for other non –parliamentary options. In Zimbabwe, the military took the lead and ousted the dictator Mugabe but were careful enough NOT to introduce military rule; rather they left it to the democratic process to take charge leading to Mugabe’s ‘voluntary’ resignation, of course forced by the sheer force of People Power.
The best remedy is therefore to educate the electorate about their duties and responsibilities beyond putting their cross on the ballot paper and to ensure politicians and the party in power are held accountable- the need to elect those with credible, educated track records, have local based mechanisms to monitor their post-election performances, to have regular meetings with their public representatives to keep the communication channels open, make use of the RTI to obtain information about them, to pressurize the government to strengthen the mechanisms and institutions to investigate and punish the offenders in respect of corruption and power abuses. It is also important to have proper checks and balances ( Executive/Parliament/ Judiciary) for which purpose a viable constitution is imperative. Of course, the need for a vibrant Media and an effective law enforcement arm need not be over-emphasized. Public participation and involvement of intellectuals of all communities in politics is essential for politicians to be held accountable. After all, as George Orwell said, ‘In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of
lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia’.