As Sri Lanka goes to polls tomorrow, its outcome is a foregone conclusion. This is one of the most uneven elections in recent history, not least due to the fratricidal struggle within the UNP, and the fragmented opposition. Rather, the Sri Lankans decide on their future Parliament, when they elected a president or vice versa.
However, this election is one of many ironies. First of all, given the public mood, when most voters exercise their universal suffrage to elect a new parliament, they might well be voting to subordinate the Parliament to an all-powerful presidency. The government has already announced its plans to abolish the 19th amendment and introduce a new constitution. These changes would bound to weaken the separation of power between the three pillars of the government and restructure the institutions of the Republic around the office of an all-powerful- executive.
This is not altogether new. Sri Lanka has its fair share of experience. One of the bitter ironies of the populist authoritarianism that is rampaging across the world is that the undoing of the State and its democratic character is achieved through the popular vote - rather than through tanks and guns. In most countries, from Russia to Latin America such elections may be a farce. But, to give the government and the election commission their due, here in Sri Lanka, this election is a fair deal. One can not blame Pohottuwa for the UNP and Samagi Jana Balawegaya being at each other’s throats and throwing the election even before it was kicked off. The COVID-19 related social restrictions have surely diluted the election fervour. However, a bigger turn off for the independent voter is the pre-determined nature of the result.
However, None of that should make your vote uneventful. Electing the political representatives through free and fair elections is a fundamental right and casting your vote is a civic duty. Abdicating that right and wavering on that duty is at the root of erosion of electoral democracy. Voting blindly would not make much of a difference though. Even against the current odds, there are ways to make the vote meaningful.
A starting point would be casting the vote for the ‘right’ candidates- irrespective of the party differences. The ‘right’ candidate is not necessarily a mythical unicorn. Let’s start with a very low bar: the bare minimum requirement of not being implicated in fraud, criminality, thuggery and abuse of political power. Many politicians would fit the bill- and many others should face immediate disqualification.
However, these attributes are a prerequisite of a free citizen. A fraud or murder should be in jail, instead of in Parliament. Therefore not being a criminal is a very low bar for the entry into the august house of Parliament. Not everyone who is not a thug is good enough to serve in the public office.
Therefore, a second prerequisite. A politician who is ‘principled.’ That again is a vague quality. But, it could be seen in practice. A principled politician might not pole-vault at the sight of pecuniary rewards or an offer of a ministerial portfolio – Many local politicos in recent history have done the exact opposite. They may also not place their signature on a blank sheet.
Weeding out the potential pole vaulters and spineless sycophants would be worthwhile if one is not to regret his or her choice of the candidate. Old habits die hard. Those who did so in the past would do it again. But for the newcomers, your guess is as good as mine.
The government has already announced its plans to abolish the 19th amendment and introduce a new constitution. These changes would bound to weaken the separation of power between the three pillars of the government
Being principled also means speaking out and standing up for the interests of one’s voters. However, South Asia has a long line of big talkers, even seemingly principled ones, who have built bigger than life-size images, while reigning over abysmal poverty of their people. In retrospect, that sort of politics is void, and a self-fulfilling for a few at the expense of the masses. Most of all, a politician should be a taskmaster, who can deliver economic development to his people. At the national level, that is also about being a successful policymaker. That requires another set of qualities and skills: high degree of professional and academic competence. This is something most voters often overlook. Yet they are the same people who look for the best paediatrician for their kid’s ailment and the best school for his education. But when it comes to electing the holders of political office, i.e. the epitome of power in a practical sense, they often settle for someone grotesquely ill-equipped for the responsibilities of that post. That has made Sri Lankan politics cheep.
It does not mean that every PhD holder, economist and cooperate executive would make an excellent policymaker. However, in their long professional lives, they accumulate substantial skills and experience that should help running the affairs of the country. They are more likely to do a better job than the local timber feller and ethanol dealer who are sent to Parliament.
The government of Singapore and China’s Politburo Standing Committee select members for the high echelons of the state in the same way as the multinationals hire senior executives. As a result policymakers in these countries are taskmasters of their own right. In contrast, lopsided political empowerment in Sri Lanka had devalued the quality of the holders of the political office, effectively undermining the state and the prosperity of its people. When they vote tomorrow, Sri Lankan voters have an opportunity to fix this even in a small way.
It would also help to keep out racists and pseudo patriots who thrive in dog-whistling and overt racism. This applies both for the South, and Tamil nationalists in the North.
There is however a central problem that these piecemeal solutions can not address. After this election, Sri Lanka would head towards an era of political absolutism. In general, such periods are dominated by sycophants who thrive in their blind adoration of the leadership. That would call out the principled voices within the ruling party to speak out. Betting who is not a sycophant in the incoming government would still be a hard guess.
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