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The curious case of ‘Manapa’ votes

23 August 2015 06:33 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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We don’t want our elected representatives to be murderers and fraudsters; but, have we been proved wrong?



ur choices for elected representatives are always a matter of curiosity. What qualities and credentials are we looking in them? A safe guess would be that we didn’t want them to be murderers, fraudsters and crooks. But, take a look at some of those people who polled the most number of preferential votes in certain districts, you will find that logic does not count anymore. 
A Chief Minister who is being investigated by the CID and Financial Crime Investigation Division topped the UPFA preferential votes from the Gampaha District. 
A former MP who is implicated in a murder came first in the Ratnapura District. Another, rabble rousing Mr Wimal Weerawansa, who is also being questioned by the FCID polled whopping 313,000 votes from the Colombo District.
At the same time, many decent folks, who ought to be in Parliament, lost (Partly because some of them were prevented from electioneering by an organised attempt by the Rajapaksa cronies) Even, when it is not the case, voters preferred political scions or the acolytes of the former President over the folks who tried to conduct a policy based election campaign.




This reveals one distressing character in our voting habits: A significant portion of our voters vote for traditional party and personal patronage networks, which in most cases override the principled policy based politics. 
The preference is to elect the crook as long as he is ‘our crook’. And those voters serve as a bloc vote for nefarious elements as long as they keep feeding the primitive passions of a regressive electorate.
This is dangerous stuff, but this is neither new, nor unique to Sri Lanka. Indians have a penchant to vote for convicted frauds, Africans to their tribal overlords, and going an extra-mile, the Kenyans elected a president implicated by the International Criminal court for involvement in crimes against humanity committed against his own citizens. 
In Sri Lanka, we have elected alleged killers of Padmasiri Trimavithana. Mass fraudsters who have been implicated by the Bribery Commission have romped home in subsequent elections.
However, in the recently concluded Parliamentary polls that proclivity hit a new high. Obviously, 384,448 odd voters disregarded allegations of a fraudulent land deal, in order to elect Prasanna Ranatunga to Parliament. And another 154,988 voted to send jailed Premalal Gunasekara, who was accused of an election related murder during the previous Presidential election to Parliament.
The problem is not solely about the calibre of the elected representatives; it is a reflection of the cheapness of the electorate. Ultimately, people got the leaders they deserved.





What was however unique this time was that the Rajapaksa factor propelled the electability of many a nefarious element, who wore the allegations of fraud, murder, rape and swindling of public funds as a batch of honour. 
A receptive and yet gullible audience viewed those allegations and on-going legal investigations as an unmistakable sign of their victim-hood under the new administration.
So, when all the crooks, thugs and murderers jumped on the Rajapaksa bandwagon, they knew the practical utility of that manoeuvre. Had they polled enough votes to form their own government under Rajapaksa, all the on-going investigations would be history. They failed in that, but their calculated act of self-interestedness enhanced their electoral gains.
The same logic applies to Mr Rajapaksa, who also failed in his Prime Minister bid, but, succeeded in sending a bunch of henchmen of questionable integrity to the House of Parliament.
Many of those individuals who rode to Parliament on the back of Mr Rajapaksa highlight the ex- president’s contribution to the polarisation and deterioration of the standard of politics in this country. Rajapaksa continues to wield a sinister influence on the Sri Lankan politics; his is a retrograde grip that holds back Sri Lankan politics developing into a civilised mature force of good.


 

"When all the crooks, thugs and murderers jumped on the Rajapaksa bandwagon, they knew the practical utility of that manoeuvre."




In democracy, the people are sovereign. However, if the crooks, thieves and murderers overpopulate the House of Parliament (even if they are voted into those positions by the sovereign people) that would be making a mockery on the very idea of democracy. Under certain conditions, those regressive popular impulses need to be moderated. In that sense, one can perhaps see the logic of appointing defeated candidates (of distinctive professional credentials and integrity) through the National List. In fact, the idea of the National List is to appoint individuals with distinction, skill and expertise to the House of Parliament, which is meant to be a deliberative assembly. 
However, one would argue that when the politicians who have been ‘rejected’ by the people are appointed through the back-door, that makes a mockery of the will of the people. That, of course, has a point.
However, the other side of the argument is that people who voted thugs and crooks to Parliament have proved that they were not fully competent in their duty. 
Imperfections of their decisions need to be moderated and rectified. This argument could be contested by those who feel, such an action would be excessively patronising by the political elites. (It reminds Turkey under secular liberal minded generals, who kept marauding Islamists at bay for decades, until they lost power to a populist Islamist President, who has now partly succeeded in dismantling the only secular state in the Middle East)





However, in countries at our social and economic levels, enlightened political elites have an important duty defend those liberal characteristics and institutions of the state and not to let them being overpowered by regressive impulses of a numerical majority.
History tells us that democracy (Or for that matter, economic prosperity) does not take root in the text book style. If that was the case, those early independent leaders of the British colonies in Asia and Africa, who went straight from Harold Laski’s class rooms to govern their newly independent countries, could have done miracles, instead, they unleashed misery. Leaders need to think and act out of box, when the circumstances call upon them to do so.
It is nice to have Geetha, Mutuhettigama, Lohan Ratwatte, Rohitha Abeygunawardene and et al in Parliament; because their respective electorates thought they ought to be there. However, it does not still appear right to entrust them with the government and the control of the exchequer, education and even kids. 
That is why we also need folks like Mahinda Samarasinghe, Rosy, Sunil Handunnetti and even Rajiva Wijesinha in Parliament.
To put this whole exercise bluntly, there is a simple explanation: The road to democracy, or its progressive variant, liberal democracy is lengthy and bumpy. 





Countries that are truly liberal democracies today were indeed liberal, before they became democratic. Those countries, primarily in the Western Europe, were liberal societies, underwritten by independent institutions, fundamental rights and property rights before their citizens began exercising universal franchise.
On the contrary, we became a democracy, because, the colonial British, driven by their own liberal calculations, thought we deserved to elect our leaders. But, we were not a liberal society then, nor are we now. 
Most of our liberal democratic exercises went astray, first, because, politicians of all parties and communities thought it was opportune to play into primordial impulses of a not so sophisticated electorate. 
Second, the abysmal economic performance, thanks to suffocating Statist economic policies kept the people eternally poor. The link between political freedoms and economic freedoms is so strong that recent history of political economy would reveal that it is hard for political liberties to be consolidated, in the absence of a sufficient level of economic freedom, which, in turn, generates economic prosperity.





While we have some salient achievements, one of which being the oldest democracy in Asia, we have a long way to go. 
Rajapaksa and cronies are a drag on this process. They feed on the primitive self of a sizeable portion of our electorate. Therefore, any leader who has a vision for the country is required to play a balancing act, not only now in the political choices, more importantly in the future, in the economic choices.
Also, the new government now has a unique opportunity to transform this gutter audience into one of enlightenment. That can only be achieved by empowering them economically and strengthening independent institutions, thereby reducing their dependency on the rent seeking politicos. If the new government succeeds in that, hopefully there would not be a reason to appoint defeated candidates from the National List, next time.
Follow Ranga Jayasuriya @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter
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