The French say they love revolutions. Yesterday they usurped one, electing 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron as the new President of the Fifth republic. Mr Macron’s victory – he won two-thirds of the popular votes in the second round against his far-right rival Marine Le Pen -- represents the most formidable response to xenophobic populist nationalism that led to Brexit and propelled those like Donald Trump to power.
There are signs however, earlier in the Netherlands, and now in France that far right nationalism in Europe is finally receding, before it reaches the developing world. That may be a blessing since the ideological battles could easily degenerate into outright violence in this part of the world. Mr Macron’s victory is consequent for regenerative properties of democracy that it manifested after the old order of politics was de-legitimized. Mr Macron, the former economic minister of the socialist government of president Hollande ran as an outsider, having built his own movement, En Marche, barely a year ago. The candidates of two mainstream parties, Francois Fillion of the Republican Party and Benoit Hamon, a former back-bencher of the Socialist Party were wiped out in the first round. Mr. Hamon came in a dismal fifth, polling only six per cent of the votes.
After a divisive campaign that pitted Mr. Marcon’s centrist, pro-EU, globalist credentials against Ms Le Pen’s economic protectionism and anti-immigrant xenophobia, Macron, who was virtually unheard three years back, romped home; his win hailed as a victory of liberal democracy against xenophobic nationalism.
Dysfunction in political institutions is not a problem unique to countries like ours. France was mired in its political paralysis and domestic discontent in recent times just like Britain had been in the 70s. The general tendency in the face of those crippling domestic paralysis is to seek simple solutions, thereby dragging the political discourse to the further extreme. Which is what is happening in Donald Trump’s America, Erdogan’s Turkey and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the latter was vaporized in the British local government elections held last week. Practical and effective solutions to intricate solutions need greater soul-searching and a more dispassionate approach and above all political institutions that are inclusive and a political culture that favour common sense over rabble rousing.
France may have pulled off the miracle by virtue of certain inherent attributes of its political culture. For instance, Mr. Macron now says his new party will field 50 per cent of its candidates for the forthcoming parliamentary election from political outsiders; from the civil society, student activists, professionals, etc. If that is ever tried in Sri Lanka, most of them are likely to lose their deposit, let alone winning. That tells a lot about the different level of maturities of political cultures.
Our political system suffers from a far worse level of political dysfunction, however its ability to evolve solutions to those defects are seriously compromised by the nature of our political institutions and political culture.
Our politics is to a greater degree distorted by dynasticism, which erodes the promise of electoral democracy. (This is not limited to Sri Lanka; take for instance, India’s Congress Party and myriads of ruling parties at the State level where politics is a family affair). Residual effects of an earlier feudal culture which had not been fully evaporated by the time when the universal suffrage was introduced continue to influence the voting patterns of the Sri Lankan electorate. Thus the passing of mantle from father to son or husband to wife is all too common. Though appearing innocuous in the eyes of the naïve, such practices compromise the diversity of political representatives and shut the door on qualified contenders. In the absence of competitive selection criteria or primaries, a majority of those who would run for elections, carry very little useful talents to elected office. Politics in rural Sri Lanka has more resemblance to the Wel Vidange system in the past, than any competitive democratic system.
The effects of this deformity is multiplied by a second defect; the absence of inner-party democracy. Sri Lankan political parties are personal fiefs of their leaders. The worst of this aberration was seen during the Rajapaksa era when the SLFP was reduced to a rubber stamp of the Medamulane Carlton House. This level of unchallenged authority trickles down from the top to the provincial leadership. Thus every leader at each level is a demigod to his sycophant followers.
"Though appearing innocuous in the eyes of the naïve, such practices compromise the diversity of political representatives and shut the door on qualified contenders"
The third factor is that Sri Lanka does not have institutions that mold young and promising leaders. Sri Lankan university politics is one that perpetuates demagoguery and insulates its participants in a political thought that had long lost its relevance. Sri Lanka needs to evolve a system to address that lacuna. Otherwise liberal democratic values would remain Greek to its political representatives and a wider section of public for a unforeseeable future.
Finally the social economic and cultural factors of a wider electorate contribute to regressive political undertones. Again, that is not unique to Sri Lanka. In France, thriving cities which had turned its old warehouses to tech startups voted in enmasse to Macron while Ms Le Pen polled most of her votes from the suburbs and abandoned factory towns. Those with degrees voted for Mr. Macron with a large margin while Ms Le Pen had a higher voter share from those without degrees. Sri Lanka’s electoral dynamics are no different. Those couple of hundreds of thousand souls that the joint opposition herded to the Galle Face may juxtapose the political divide in this country. Liberal democracy, sometimes need to be defended from its own people, like those who trekked to Colombo for a bottle of arrack and a thousand rupees. However, to that end, Sri Lanka should first reform its dynastic, exclusivist and sycophant political institutions. Without that there is little difference between Mr Rajapaksa and the rest.
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