It was a spectacularly crushing defeat. Mind boggling as it might have felt at the beginning, now in retrospect, the genesis of this debacle is all too clear. This government, which assumed with a public mandate to govern, simply failed to ‘govern’.
Some have put the blame on the delay in the constitutional reforms, non-revoking of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, bond scam, and even the reinstating of the defence attache’ in London who, it is alleged, had harmed the sensitivities was of diaspora Tamils. All those, if they had any impact whatsoever, were extremely peripheral.
Then there is the allegation of corruption. The bond scam was truly a major PR disaster for the government. But, if the public are so distraught by corruption, why vote for the robbers of the former regime and their acolytes, who did not even let their acts of mass robbery be investigated?
A more commonsense explanation would be that these votes for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna existed from day one. Mr Rajapaksa won 47.5 per cent in the presidential election and this time the SLPP won 44.65 per cent. Unlike the UNP which saw a major decline from 45.6 per cent at the general elections to 32 per cent at last Saturday’s poll, Mr Rajapaksa’s vote bank has remained more or less unchanged. At least a half of those votes are a retrograde and xenophobic lot. Of the rest, are people, who nonetheless have a preference for a strong government. They do not subscribe to those high-flown ideas of democracy that this government claimed it wanted to introduce. Then there are others, the floating voter, who also had enough of the perennial policy vacillation manifested by the government. The Yahapalana government was a byword for inaction and indecisiveness in all areas of state policy.
The consequences of public apathy towards the government were magnified by the dynamics of local level politics. In local level, people voted for the ‘game man’, irrespective of party differences. The election machinery of Mr. Rajapaksa managed to put together a list of candidates who had a local appeal. The UNP, which expected the elections to be postponed, was already late when it started. Its emphasis on national level politics, especially when there is nothing much to show, also had limited appeal at the local level at a local election.
The problem with the UNP was that it had been overly obsessed with the certificates from international community and was less receptive towards the public impulses. At the end, Sri Lankan voters did not vote the way the NGO captains and foreign diplomats wanted.
The problem with the UNP was that it had been overly obsessed with the certificates from international community and was less receptive towards the public impulses.
The government, of course,inherited a financial rot, and therefore, needed to implement a degree of austerity. Those policies hit the stomach, but, to make matters worse, the short-term hardships of those policies were aggravated by the sheer vacillation over implementation of development projects. A cacophony of discordant voices within the two main constituent partners held back major development projects. Had people witnessed something tangible on the ground, they could have been a little more merciful to the government.
When one is in a delicate position, it has to defend its back, more determinedly than in normal times. A long list of allegations of corruption blamed on the former regime provided this government with an opportunity of lifetime to incapacitate a pesky and degenerate opposition. Those of the UNP who take economic lessons from Singapore, should perhaps also research how Lee Kuan Yew did politics and handled those like Mr. Jeyaratnam, the late opposition leader. The government failed to take any adequate measures to hold the members of the former regime accountable for acts of corruption they were implicated in. Perhaps Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was too smart and thought of leaving the Rajapaksa cronies untouched would help divide the SLFP. Now the SLPP has run rings around both the president and the UNP. Soon the siege would be complete.
Perhaps, it is not yet too late, if the government wants to avoid a major political paralysis over the next three years or to lose power even before that. The first step should be the UNP and the SLFP to join ranks in the local government institutions where the combined numbers help form majority. Then provide adequate financial support to the members of those local institutions to win back the lost public support. Three years would be good enough to make a turnaround. Second, the government should at least now kick start the legal process against the corrupt doers of the former regime. Punishing its own who have been implicated in the bond scam should be a good starting point to assure the public that this is not a witch-hunt. Set a deadline to see that all crooks are behind the bars. Expedite the setting up of the proposed Special Courts and let them take their course.
Third, and perhaps the most important is the economic development. Given the extent of the indecisiveness on the part of this government, public can not be blamed for feeling nostalgic about Mr Rajapaksa’s authoritarian deliverance of economic policy. The government should strengthen both consultative and coercive mechanisms related to the implementation of development projects and overall economic policy. When the former becomes inadequate the latter should take over.
Time is nonetheless fast running out. If the government keeps vacillating like in the past, Yahapalanaya would soon be history.
@RangaJayasuriya on Twitter