- Rajapaksas gave Wickremesinghe all the time he needed to realise his term has come to an end
- Political landscape of the country stands completely changed
“Discussions on ‘alternatives’ should begin when almost the whole society is in one mind. That begins from how a strong democratic opposition to the government could be forged” (English version of a Sinhala post on my FB wall).
As I sat to pen this piece, news of former PM D.M. Jayaratne’s demise came on media. “Di-Mu” as he is popularly called reminded me of Sri Lanka’s most crude, unceremonious and undemocratic ouster of a PM from office. Immediately after the final results of the presidential election were announced on January 9, 2015with a fictional coup the night before given heavy publicity, Wickremesinghe with only 43 MPs was sworn in as PM immediately after Sirisena assumed presidency. It was openly said, PM Jayaratne who then had a two-thirds majority in Parliament had not even resigned for Wickremesinghe to be sworn in. Jayaratne was therefore coerced to resign, grapevine stories said. This was applauded by Colombopundits and their civil organisations and termed “Rainbow Revolution” that established the “Yahapalana” (good governance) government. A good friend “Di-Mu” was, has left interesting anecdotes I would leave for a later day.
Then came news that PM Wickremesinghe, after much consultation and thought, had resigned from office. He was reported as having said though he commanded a majority in Parliament, as a person who respected democracy, he would resign to allow the new President elect to form his government. He has conveniently forgotten both opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa never rushed to oust him the way he did Jayaratne in January 2015 to become PM. Rajapaksas gave Wickremesinghe all the time he needed to realise his term has come to an end with the overwhelming mandate given to the SLPP presidential candidate. Before I finish this article, Mahinda Rajapaksa would be sworn in as PM for the third time in his life.
Now, the political landscape of the country stands completely changed. All calculations on election results were sent haywire that brought in the Rajapaksas once again – stronger than ever. All predictions were on an undisputed assumption that none could muster over 60 per cent of the total Sinhala Buddhist votes. From a voter population of about 11 million Sinhala Buddhists, it was assumed no candidate could ever collect 6.6 million votes. But Rajapaksas believed they could. After Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as the seventh Executive President, Mahinda Rajapaksa said he knew they could win on Sinhala votes alone. Gotabaya polled 6.9 million with Catholic and Muslim votes scattered here and there. How this massive Sinhala Buddhist vote came to be bundled into one large heap under SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also about how “alternate” candidates failed losing their deposits as well.
There were around four or five including JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake as the NPP candidate who projected themselves as “alternate” to the two main contenders Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa. In fact, there was a proposal to bring “alternate” candidates together and declare one among them as the “common alternate” candidate. But how “alternate” were they?
The need to have an alternate socio-economic programme for national development was totally misinterpreted to field candidates pinning faith on unknown personalities who promised everything good for the people. These promises were about a corruption-free, people-friendly government with rule of law; this time by new and untested personalities coming as alternate candidates.
Programmes of these candidates were not “alternate” but well within the free market economy the two main candidates also positioned themselves in. Without any serious distinction and without clear definition, they were also on the same page with the two main candidates in prioritising “national security.” They were also with the two frontrunners in accepting a Sinhala Buddhist Unitary State; the adjective “alternate” being a mere “tag.”
These candidates painted themselves “alternatives” by claiming they were “non-political.” They claimed all politicians were corrupt. Therefore, the slogan, “Throw the whole lot, all 225 out.” Their political understanding proved primitive to be alternates to the two frontrunners. They argued politicians were those who represented political parties and all those politicians were corrupt. They ignored the fact that all professions were corrupt beyond cleaning, were selfish and they too breached the law. They ignored the fact that politicians could not rob or loot unless these professionals back up. Thus, their projection as the dichotomy of mainstream political parties and that difference was projected as alternate.
After almost a quarter century in open electoral politics with the JVP in Parliament, in PCs and LG bodies, Anura Kumara could not use that difference to project himself as alternate. He therefore took a critical line in highlighting the errors and flaws in the system with heavy stress on corruption and waste. Part of the argument was that, if corruption and waste were done away with, education, healthcare and welfare could be funded with money saved. His manifesto and platform speeches therefore did not lift him above and away from the very system he was critical of. He was well within the “system” with no serious reforms offered for socio-economic and cultural development, making him not very different to other “alternatives.”
An alternate programme today should be one which challenges fundamental of the existing system economically, socially and culturally. It should be a programme that challenges this free market economy as a whole with a more regulated market economy and exploit especially the regional market for the benefit of national economy. An alternate programme should seriously reduce the disparity between urban and rural life in terms of income and quality of life and drastically reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.
- "Reforms should stop producing racially-biased warped minds that for generations have led to the polarisation of society
- The media is a major player in shaping and driving the social mindset"
It needs to be a programme with far-reaching reforms that could change the entirety of present education from pre-schools to tertiary and higher education. It should turn the education system into a modern system that would cater to the needs of the labour market with quality, disciplined and intelligent men and women. Reforms should stop producing racially-biased warped minds that for generations have led to the polarisation of society at every level and instead use completely new, secular syllabi with new content that would lead to rational learning of human history and ethics.
Also, bring far-reaching reforms to change examination-oriented teaching to analytical learning. The media is a major player in shaping and driving the social mindset and therefore is a crucial factor in social and cultural development. An alternate programme therefore should deny media space for promotion of racial and religious bias, irrational, unscientific and mythical beliefs in society. An alternate programme should have provisions for regulating media, both State and private, print and electronic through a thorough bred independent mechanism. It is therefore about transparency in how digital frequencies are leased out and conditions applied for socially-responsible professional journalism, both in private and State-owned media.
Alternate programmes should have a conceptually-different approach for transport and public commuting. It should change from individually-owned private commuting to publicly-owned services for daily and regular commuter travel. An alternate programme should be one that focuses on integrated services, promote eco-friendly transport with efficient management for comfortable and affordable commuting. There are also issues with unplanned apartments mushrooming in main cities and their suburbs spoken of as private housing for the middle-class. Housing for the rural poor is also without proper and adequate planning. Housing is about town and country planning. Alternate programming is thus about retaining green canopy and ensuring residential privacy, recreation and convenience of people.
All candidates who stood as alternate to the two mainstream contenders lacked such alternate approach in their political vision and mission. They did not have the capacity to engage with society on such alternate programmes. Their inability to challenge the traditional, dominant Sinhala Buddhist ideology with a convincing alternate socio-economic development programme left them without any attraction. It was therefore the call for the safety and security of the Sinhala Buddhist nation that gained currency. This call for security and safety gave importance to “national security” that was prioritised with discipline and freedom for all.
No manifesto, no promises from campaign platforms would solve major crises the country is facing. Apart from massive external debts, breakdown of trust in law enforcement and the judiciary, we need to find answers to the deepening crisis in education, healthcare, public transport and widening gap between the city and the village. The conclusion of this presidential election therefore leaves the discourse for an alternate programme still valid and necessary. The post-presidential election period is the period that would lead to the next parliamentary election. That leaves enough democratic space in society to discourse on an alternate national development programme accompanied with the social dialogue for a new Constitution that would change this procedural representative democracy into a “participatory democracy.”
Post-presidential election democratic space seems further broadened with two extreme Sinhala Buddhist organisations declaring they would disband themselves. That provides a sense of freedom for the minorities to engage in this alternate discourse. The highly-prioritised election time “national security” issue also seems irrelevant after elections with President Rajapaksa deciding to reduce his personal security and convoys. All that augurs well to engage in social dialogue for a completely new change on an alternate development programme. Now is the time for that !