Sri Lanka will hold its 16th parliamentary election on August 5 this year, the first being held in Aug-Sept 1947, a poll that lasted 19 days. It will also be the ninth since the country became a Democratic Socialist Republic. The fixing of the precise day had been often marred by the confusion that had arisen as a result of the corona pandemic that has infiltrated into the country. The general feeling was that until the corona viral infection showed a sure sign of ceasing, no election whatsoever should be planned. Amidst the plethora of diametrically opposed views and contentions, the election commissioner in dialogue with the health authorities overseeing the pandemic, finally came to a decision resulting in the fixing of the date. There had also been controversy over the early dissolution of the parliament by the newly elected President, the issue being contested even in court as unconstitutional but eventually ruled to have been legal and un-challengeable.
The story of parliamentary election in Sri Lanka has had a chequered history yet they have been as a rule carried out well within the frame of democracy with one exemption, namely the controversial referendum held on December 22, 1982 in place of a general election with 54.66% voting in favour. Hence, parliament of 1977 was extended by six years to 1989 keeping the UNP absolute majority in power. The referendum was exacted by the Supreme Court to validate the revolutionary 4th amendment needed for the constitutional change. It was further buttressed by the fact of the Executive presidency created in 1978 with an expanded parliament of 225members, and further, by replacing “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) with Proportional Representation (PR) in the parliamentary election. It is absolutely amazing that with time, a plethora of political parties had entered the national arena for contesting elections. Political analysts bemoan the fact that this referendum and extension of parliament were to cause the 1983 black July and the second wave of youth insurrection in 1988. The General Election of 1989 polled amidst chaos, with the LTTE unleashing an armed struggle in the north and east and the second wave of aJVP insurrection spread out in many other parts of the country. In the meantime, the turnout at the poll had dwindled to 63.60%, down from 70.82% during the 1982 referendum.
The Status quo
The political scenario that prevailed in the country during election dramas provides interesting and curious material for the study of the logic behind those polls. By the mid-eightees, two big parties, the right-wing, elite wedded to capitalism, the UNP on the one hand and the socialist left-wing SLFP had emerged as the most powerful major political parties which swung many of the elections between them. When they weakened, there were the various coalitions that kept them in power. There were various factors that made the people too swing from one camp to the other. Among the significant factors that decisively swung the elections, turned polls upside down and created unprecedented upsets were the ending of the long-standing 30-year war in the north and east in mid-2009, the apparently impressive development programs connected with high-way constructions, accelerated tourism and intensity of foreign exchange flowing through migrant labour from the middle-east as well as some European countries and more recently, the scandalous Central Bank bond-scam that affected the national economy in an unprecedented disastrous manner and the regrettable Easter terrorist attack on Christian churches. In the meanwhile, the factor of family-politics brought in a distasteful taste even into the general thinking of the people. Some of the political games did not play dividends.
These factors created issues on which elections were fought and with parties exploiting them in their election platforms turning and twisting them in their favour in ways really astute but also deplorable. It is time that the general public of the country come to realize the various powers at play in national politics and elections. People have often been treated into unrealistic policies and promises that finally proved unachievable and clearly false. But this lesson is still to be learnt by the country. What is needed to restore the country into prosperity is not a bevy of politicians, old or new, but statesmen who can genuinely see the urgent issues and serve the people in a constructive way. People should not become a pawn in the hands of politicians who twist and turn them to their own advantage with scant attention to the common good of the country as such. National politics should no more be the theatre for political satires and comedies that bewitch and drug the people.
"Parliamentary election has had a chequered history, yet they have been as a rule carried out well within the frame of democracy with one exemption, the controversial referendum held on December 22, 1982 in place of elections"
The time has come for the country to discern the sad situation we are in and look for alternative political choices that will put in power only genuine and authentic politicians. While the radical leftist movements of Marxist inspiration have almost disappeared from the arena, a residue of them have hung on to major parties of socialistic flavor. The JVP that began as a violent movement with the April 1971 insurrection eventually died out as an armed group due to state intervention that crushed them twice and gradually entered the democratic stream by being partners with major parties. At the moment they appear to be an independent third force always offering a radical socialistic alternative and acting as a critique of governments in office. The political parties that represent the Tamil people both the Sri Lankan (11.2%) and the estate population (4.1%) tend to act in pragmatic ways supporting the government in power to attain their goals. On the whole, the vicious, immature and short-sighted tendency in the country to do politics and form parties based on religious, ethnic and language ideologies have spelled and continue to spell disaster disrupt national unity and reconciliation. It has often been the death-knell of national integration impeding a common Sri Lankan identity.
Issues and the Way Forward
Distilling from the election platforms and policies on which parties come forward for elections, whether presidential, parliamentary or local government elections, some objectively serious issues of national urgency could easily be surmised, Among them the so-called national question or national unity concerning ethnic harmony and racial diversity, the ever threatening down-turn of the economy with its perpetual burden of debt both national and international and national security under threat from extremist ideologies both religious and secular, are three principal concerns. To this must be added some equally important concerns such as a healthy foreign policy and international relations that make our dear island nation stand tall in a position of honor and respect in the commonwealth of nations; stemming the menace of the drug trade that has made of our country, and sadly so, a south-Asian hub with its underground machinery and networks and finally, the preservation of national assets at any cost without trading them in dangerous international pacts and trade agreements.
The most crucial problem is the lack of production in our export sectors, in the apparel and textile industries that have to be revamped. The fast dwindling tea, rubber and coconut industries have to be saved with more creative policies and reinforced for greater production with modern technologies. The export sector is always the live-wire of any economic stability of any country. It will minimize the need of imports. There is so much that can be produced locally to cater to the local population as well. Hard work has to be encouraged and excellence demanded in all fields of industry. There must be a firm resolve to curb bribery and corruption in the government and stringent measures have to be taken to ensure honesty, transparency and accountability in the way these offices are held and performed. Much of the loss of quality resulting in the wane and the bane in national politics has been the rash and recklessness of those holding public office. In the over-all context of the national scenario, all are agreed on the urgency of a bounce-back plan to revive the virus-saddled economy that has experienced considerable set-backs in many sectors.
Let there not be any unpatriotic trend mooted or vicious cry raised for autonomous rule in any part of the country. This island-nation is one with one Sri Lankan identity. All races and religious groups must unite in one common ideal of pursuing a prosperous and peaceful motherland for all.