Photo by REUTERS/Stringer, via Al Jazeera

A transformation of the political agenda

Despite many detailed analysis of Sri Lanka’s present political moment by a myriad experts, two of its significant aspects have so far been all but overlooked. It is perhaps to be expected that the visible change of regime that took place on 9th January would overshadow the less conspicuous changes that are transforming the political landscape of the country in ways that may – in the long run – prove to be more significant and more consequential. That is partly because history is introduced to us from an early age, as a series of political events orchestrated by ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ or other political ‘heroes’. We may therefore have to take a step back from the established views of our past, to understand history as a process. I will demonstrate that what enabled the political outcome of 9th January is a transformative process with historical significance that will continues to shape the Sri Lankan politics in ways that will challenge the newly elected government in much the same ways as the previous one – if they also fail to fully comprehend its political implications.

The progress made so far by the new government does not inspire confidence that the promised reforms will be carried out fully within the promised time-frame. The government must be held to account for carrying out the promised reforms in terms of both their explicit details and the spirit in which they were made. Even if a majority of those critical reforms are implanted, 9 January 2015 will merely become yet another memorable – and therefore historic – moment in Sri Lanka’s march towards democracy. But there is yet an unrecognised transformation in the Sri Lankan political conscience and our political priorities that is far more significant in terms of the history that is in making right now. That is because what happened between the 8th and 9th of January was not a revolution, but the outcome of a process of gradual transformation that still continues. The political moment that has dawned upon us may have been fashioned and shaped during the presidential election campaigns, but it was arguably conceived well before that. Simply by being alive at this juncture, we have all been afforded broader perspective of the history that is in the making than any future historians would have, and we owe it to them and to ourselves to understand and interpret contemporary events more deeply.

Any historians who look back on the political moment presently unfolding in Sri Lanka, are most likely to focus on the day Mahinda Rajapaksa called an early Presidential election and the days immediately afterwards when Mr. Sirisena surprised him by switching over to the opposition – triggering an extraordinary series of events that ultimately led to a refreshing political outcome. But, few among us would recall the 25th of January 2014 as one of the significant milestones in the journey that led to the outcome on 9th January. That was the day that JVP leader, Hon. Anura Kumara Dissanayake created his ‘fan page’ on the social media platform Facebook and uploaded the first of many speeches that had a transformative influence of the Sri Lankan social and political psyche. But why should they?

Few would credit the JVP – which holds merely three out of 225 seats in the present parliament – as the key to Rajapakse’s defeat. Before the election, even seasoned political analysts could not envisage a victory for Sirisena. Every ‘traditional’ post-election analysis of the result, broadly credited the strategists and tacticians in the UNP for orchestrating a split within the then ruling UPFA coalition which they attributed as the primary factor. It has been overlooked however, that the content of Sirisena’s manifesto was based primarily on an agenda dominated by political reforms – as opposed to Rajapakse’s campaign which was focussed on national security and economic development.

Since independence, and particularly during the thirty years of war, national security and economic concessions including welfare for the rural poor have dominated the Sri Lankan political agenda. The vast majority of the Sri Lankan electorate consists of the rural poor from which the rank and file of the armed forces were drawn. Ending the civil war had earned Rajapakse’s administration enormous political capital – particularly in the above mentioned demographic, but also among the urban middle class. The way the previous government resisted international pressure for an external investigation into allegations of war crimes – though using tactically unwise methods that were broadly harmful to Sri Lanka’s position in the world – gained it immense popularity domestically by an increasingly nationalistic majority of the Sinhala dominated south. Therefore, both from historic and demographic perspectives, Rajapakse’s campaign strategy would have been a clear and automatic winner against Sirisena’s. For the result of the election to be otherwise, it must have required a fundamental and almost unimaginable transformation of the political conscience and priorities of the electorate – with political reform and good governance replacing national security, development and welfare as the most critical political priorities for the people. If the broad economic and welfare concessions in the recent budget is any indication, the above shift in political priorities of the people remain largely misunderstood or misattributed – if not unacknowledged – even by the very government that rode those changes into power.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the most charismatic political leader with mass appeal in recent Sri Lankan political history. The fact that he is the leader of the JVP is secondary. When Mahinda Rajapakse came to power in 2005, television – and to a lesser extent radio and newspapers – were the dominant media platforms because of their unmatched reach into the masses. The masses themselves were passive consumers of information – without even an aspiration to be able to make their voices heard to those in power. Our social circles were restricted only to those we knew and we could only communicate with anyone whose address, phone number or email we already had. When Mahinda Rajapakse left office merely a decade later, a silent revolution had transformed the communications landscape in ways that we are yet unable to fully appreciate. Mobile phones are practically ubiquitous. Anyone with access to a smart phone is no longer a passive consumer of broadcast information; they can produce information and share them with everyone else who have access to the Internet.

This is not a discussion about access to technology and its social transformative power. But it must be pointed out that when the date for an early presidential election was set, even though television was still one of the most dominant mediums for mass communication, the open biases of state media had diminished their social and political value. Mahinda’s election campaign failed to realise they were now in an environment where – for the first time in human history – ordinary people were able to communicate with each other at both a local and even global scale for virtually no cost. Rajapakse’s campaign strategies came unhinged within the ‘online’ political space that ordinary citizens have come to dominate. When his campaign masters erected countless images of the president along highways, internet memes made fun of them by suggesting that the distances to just about anywhere could be measured by counting the number of cut-outs of the president between any two points. Many others recorded and shared numerous abuses of public resources by the Rajapakse campaign with a broad public audience. Almost everyone with a smart phone had access to these images as well as the ensuing discussions, and they always trusted first-hand information from their peers rather than the state propaganda that was being diffused in the mass media.

The influence of social media on the outcome of the presidential election has been duly acknowledged by prominent public intellectuals including Nalaka Gunawardena and Dr. W.A. Wijewardena. The discourse about political implications of the use of social media gained significant momentum after their prominent use in the post-election protests in Iran 8during 2009-2010. Subsequently, the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring brought the topic into mainstream academic discourse. However, the lack of a clear framework within which the influence of a given technology can be selectively attributed to specific characteristics or outcomes of mainstream socio-political events, is a significant gap in the existing discourse.

A functional understanding of the domestic political system in Sri Lanka requires, foremost, the identification of all political actors within it. Political parties and civil society organisations have always been recognised as legitimate political actors with the power to influence the political agenda. The political influence of the public or ‘ordinary citizens’ in shaping the political agenda has traditionally been thought of as a passive one – limited even as the true sovereigns under our republican constitution to casting votes either approving or rejecting the political agendas of organised parties. In that background, questions about the influence of social media in election outcomes seems the less consequential. Questions about whether the ability of ordinary citizens to communicate with each other at a global scale for virtually cost has changed the way they participate in political processes seems far more pertinent. Are they able to amass enough power to influence the political agenda? Do they have the legitimacy – within the current framing of their sovereignty and under the present terms of the social contract – to participate in and change the structure of a political system? These questions prompt us to re-visit Herbama’s concept of ‘the public sphere’ – and its extension, the ‘networked public sphere’ – as well as Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory in light of technologies that increasingly enable us to organise as individual citizens in the political system and coordinate our actions to achieve our collective political goals in ways that were inconceivable even a few years ago.

One may be sceptical as to whether Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s decision to utilise social media to bypass his access restrictions to traditional mass media, eventually proved to be decisive with regards to the electoral outcome on 9th January. Perhaps we may never know for sure. What is certain however is that it was exclusively his political strategy, and by extension the strategy of the JVP, to escalate the need for ‘good governance’ as the matter of utmost priority – displacing national security, economic development and social welfare – in political conscience of the electorate. The prevalence of the phrase “good governance” / “යහපාලනය” in ordinary political discourse today, leaves no room to doubt that Dissanayake’s strategy has indeed been a success. In hindsight, the fact that the JVP and its leader was able – almost singlehandedly – to effect a significant shift in the entrenched political priories of the people of Sri Lanka, is not only a matter of significance in terms of the results of the presidential election. The public interest in the need for political reform and good governance that was inspired by Dissanayake’s extended campaign, signifies a transformation of far more consequence for Sri Lanka’s future and a primary political moment in the island’s history – not least because neither of the ‘major’ parties – since the social/nationalist revival of the 1956 election campaign – have had the political courage, vision or capacity to successfully re-prioritise items in the domestic political agenda. The shift in the political conscience of the people is likely to force other political parties to reform and re-shape their political agendas and force them to change their tactics – from the choice of candidates to the way they engage with the electorate – at future elections.

“From little things, big thing grow”; goes the lyrics of an iconic Australian protest song written and sung by Paul Kelly & The Messengers. It is far too early to gauge how ‘big’ the changes that were heralded five weeks ago will be recounted in the annals of Sri Lanka’s political history. The fact remains however, that a lot of history remains to be created right now, and there is no doubt that a lot of ‘little things’ will combine to transform the political and social reform agenda that has captured the imagination of a majority of Sri Lankans, from an improbable dream to a tangible reality. The shift in political priorities – from “national security and economic development” to one of “good governance”; and the emergence of civil society actor-networks may represent tectonic sifts in the political landscape of Sri Lanka and provide a template for similar transformations in other countries. Perhaps they merely signify ‘little changes’ that would pale in comparison with the bigger changes that may eventually follow.

The author is a professional based in Melbourne, Australia. He has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Melbourne. For part 1 click here.

  • puniselva

    ”what enabled the political outcome of 9th January is a transformative process with historical significance that will continues to shape the Sri Lankan politics in ways that will challenge the newly elected government in much the same ways as the previous one – if they also fail to fully comprehend its political implications.”

    Sign of real change!