Photo courtesy of BBC
Why do Sri Lankan voters elect and re-elect corrupt and discredited politicians? This topic has been much talked about and commented on in newspapers and social media ever since Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a rare moment of self-realisation, asked this question from the voters of Sri Lanka. Why indeed?
Two years before the president posed this question in November 2019, I asked myself the very same question when to my disbelief and dismay, 6.9 million voters elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa as executive president. For the purposes of this essay I consider President Rajapaksa to have been a politician since 2005 when, as a political appointee to the post of Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, he wielded more power than any other politician except his older sibling, the then executive president.
A few months after the presidential election, when the results of the parliamentary polls held in August 2020 were announced, the disbelief and dismay I experienced in November 2019 deepened on seeing the re-election of Mahinda Rajapaksa (this time around as prime minister), together with some of his family members and toadies in tow.
This habit of electing and re-electing corrupt and discredited politicians seems second nature to our voters. How else is one to explain the outcomes of the 2019/2020 polls? Regardless of the spectacular failure of the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe National Unity government of 2015, was it a wise decision to vote in yet another Rajapaksa-led administration given the track record of its predecessors, a track record dominated by authoritarianism, rampant corruption, a flagrant disregard for law and order and a pronounced Sinhala majoritarian mindset to boot? Had the Sri Lankan voter forgotten in a space of a few years the perfidy, to put it mildly, of the Rajapaksa-led United People’s Freedom Alliance administration which so dreadfully mis-governed us from 2005-2014?
What made possible the return of the Rajapaksas in 2019/20 was a fresh infusion of the Sinhala majoritarian politics, which has a long and chequered history in our country. Historians consider that the reforms of the colonial Governor Sir William Manning (1918-1925) led initially to the disruption of the relative inter-ethnic harmony that then prevailed in the country. Until Manning came on the scene, the Sinhalese and Tamils formed the majority community while the Burghers, Moors and the rest were the minorities. In fact, relations between the Sinhalese and Tamils in the first two decades of the 20th century proved sufficiently durable for Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam to be elected the president of the Ceylon National Congress that came into being in 1919. The twin principles on which the Congress were founded were communal harmony and national unity. But barely two years later thanks to personal conflicts and communal wrangling, Congress was reduced to a hard core of low country Sinhala activists. The resignation at this point (June 1921) of Arunachalam and the bulk of its Tamil members from the Congress is attributed to differences of opinions among its members arising from the machinations of Governor Manning. Soon thereafter the Tamil Mahajana Sabai was established in August of 1921 to give expression to the demands of Tamils as a minority community. Sinhala- Tamil relations now were on a slippery slope.
With the grant of universal adult franchise in 1931, given that the Sinhalese formed 70% of the island’s population, the temptation to exploit its numerical superiority for their political advantage was too great a temptation for the Sinhalese politicians to resist. The notable efforts of D.S. Senanayake, the first prime minister of independent Sri Lanka, to revive national unity did not bear fruit, much to Sri Lanka’s future misfortune. Our politicians, in particular the Sinhalese, sacrificed the future well-being of our country for short term political gain by resorting to communal politics. Instead of treating all citizens as equal regardless of their ethnicity, religion and social status, a majority of the Sinhalese politicians determined that the Sinhalese are more equal than the other citizens. Consequently, the early 1950s witnessed a resurgence of Sinhala nationalism propelled by post-independence euphoria. The newly formed Sri Lanka Freedom Party (1951) and its founder leader S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike contested the general election of 1956 as head of an electoral alliance of smaller parties – the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP). The political campaign of the MEP exploited successfully, if cynically, the prevailing socio-political mood and secured a landslide victory. That unsavoury trend of seeking political power based on ethno-religious nationalism persists even today as we witnessed in 2019/20 as noted above. As in 1956, so too today, a majority of Sinhala voters and politically inclined Buddhist clergymen continue to believe, however mistakenly, that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese.
What has Sri Lanka achieved by disregarding national harmony and playing ethno-nationalist politics? Have we solved our economic problems and improved our educational and health sectors? Have we even made a dent in our problems of unemployment and underemployment? Today we are on the brink of economic, political and societal collapse. Meantime two of our South Asian neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan, despite the many challenges they have had to face, are forging ahead with visionary leaders at the helm. What has happened to “the best bet in Asia” that Sri Lanka was considered to be by many in the early post-independence years?
Despite the doom and gloom around us, in my less cynical moments I feel we have a 50/50 chance of turning the corner. For that to happen, though, we will need to turn our back on Sri Lanka’s inglorious post-independence past and begin from scratch. We need to form a new social contract and dramatically reform our political culture to make it genuinely inclusive. To the extent it is practically feasible, we must also find a new set of politicians and discard those over the hill, corrupt and discredited. If we are serious about a new beginning, shedding our Sinhala majoritarian mindset is a sine qua non. For without such a pluralist foundation, we will continue to produce governments that will never make Sri Lanka whole again; and our talented and educated young will continue to desert their country. The results of a new survey conducted by the Institute of Health Policy to assess public opinion as the country recovers from COVID-19 reveal among other things, that a majority of our youth and the educated want to leave the country probably more than at any other time in the past five years. Desperate situations call for desperate measures!
Who will provide the required political leadership in our quest to regain our true national ethos free of Sinhala, Tamil or Moor nationalisms so that we might, just might, save us from ourselves? In other words, who or what is the credible alternative to the dismal government currently in office? Realistically the only two options available to us are the Samagi Jana Balaveygaya (SJB) and the National People’s Power-Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (NPP-JVP). The SJB bestirred itself recently to organise a massive protest rally to show its strength. That’s all well and good, but it must not get carried away by the numbers it was able to muster because a majority of that crowd would doubtless have been from the disenchanted and disillusioned 6.9 million who only 24 months ago voted for the present dispensation. The members of both the SJB and the NPP-JVP have caught the public imagination by their spirited parliamentary performances in exposing a government that is at sixes and sevens. The carefully researched, well-crafted and effective contributions of the opposition to parliamentary debates are indeed impressive. Talking of political speeches, here is a suggestion for the consideration of the leader of the SJB. Would not it be more effective for him to use simpler language that the public would be able to understand more readily? Most times when he speaks in Sinhala or English, the SJB leader sounds overly formal and stiff. A more relaxed tone and choice of words may make his speeches easier on the ear and hence more effective.
Good as their parliamentary performances have been, the SJB and the NPP-JVP have to do way more than organizing rallies and making rousing speeches. First and foremost, they need to spend the better part of the next three years to re-educate our voters. They have to help to change the sense of Sinhalese Buddhist entitlement based on mytho-history (to quote Neil de Votta, Wake Forest University’s Professor in Politics and International Affairs) that these voters have been brainwashed to believe in over the decades by scheming politicians including those in government today. Without such a careful and sensitive promotion of inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding among the citizenry, no meaningful political or economic progress will be possible in Sri Lanka.
The next need, equally important and urgent, is for the SJB and the NPP-JVP to place before the citizens their respective alternative political programmes by which they propose to get Sri Lanka out of the unholy mess the country presently is in, on all fronts. The release of their political of manifestos cannot wait until the next elections are announced. It is imperative that they do so at the earliest possible time and arrange sessions to debate and discuss policy issues with a cross section of the voting public, so that these political programmes could be fine-tuned and refined based on inputs from the voters. Such an exercise would also result in a politician-voter joint ownership of these manifestos so that they will have greater authenticity come election time.
There is an additional challenge for the NPP-JVP to address at the present time. Perhaps fearful of their perceived rise in popularity, constructive critics and foes alike are talking of its history of violence. It will do their prospects at the forthcoming elections more than a world of good if they were to engage with the electorate in candid discussions on this issue.
In 2015 and in 2019/20, we witnessed two governments being swept into office by an enthusiastic electorate in the anticipation that they would implement promised policy changes for the greater good of the country. The enthusiasm swiftly changed to despair and anger as the promised policy changes never saw the light of day. The pressing need of the hour is that the public should not be led up the garden path one more time with promises that the governing powers fail to fulfill. The public should not have to wait five long years to throw out a government that fails to deliver in order to elect another which also fails to deliver, as has been happening ever since independence. There should perhaps be a referendum on the performance of the government midway through its tenure to determine its success or failure in policy implementation. In the event that the outcome of the referendum proves negative, the government should be forced to take appropriate action to change course. Such a provision should be seriously considered for inclusion in the draft constitution now being formulated. In the ultimate reckoning the government should be made to serve its people rather than vice versa.