Tisaranee Gunasekara

Sri Lanka: Prelude to Elections

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“What are we supposed to do when the system consistently yields terrible candidates?”

Nanjala Nyabola (The Kenyan Kakistocracy – The Nation – 12.8.2022)

Most politicians have a questionable relationship with reality. The Rajapaksas operate in a reality that is all their own. Asked why brother Gotabaya fled the country, Mahinda Rajapaksa replied, “Who accuses him of fleeing? He went for a medical check up.”

So the SLPP, that quintessential Rajapaksa party, acts as if the recent popular uprising happened in a parallel universe. As poverty engulfs new swathes of population and malnutrition ravages the young, the SLPP is planning to present a cabinet paper authorising the payment of 117million rupees to favoured ex-officials (civilian and military) on the spurious grounds of political victimisation. This in a land where the main children’s hospital is making urgent appeals for orthopaedic surgical supplies.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa might be fleeing from country to country; his family has learnt nothing from his fate. Sons and nephews remain as clueless as fathers and uncles. Namal Rajapaksa sent a letter to the Minister of Environment recommending two names as CEO of a subsidiary of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, one a Pradesheeya Sabha member and former secretary to acolyte-politician DV Chanaka. (Ranil Wickremesinghe set up a committee to review and approve appointments and transfers in the upper bureaucracy probably in response.) When outrage ensued, the Rajapaksa scion clarified matters by explaining he gives such letters of recommendation frequently!

The SLPP has submitted a should-be-ministers list to the president. This roll call of favourites sounds (in most part) like the broader populace’s index of undesirables. (Whether President Wickremesinghe accedes to that request will say much about his ability to chart a path that bypasses some of the worst Rajapaksa excesses.) Unfortunately, if an election is held today, SLPP faithful will ensure that many on that list are back in parliament.

The SLPP will not gain a majority in the next election. But it won’t be wiped out either. The Rajapaksa family party is likely to command a significant minority with around 20% of the vote, especially if Mahinda Rajapaksa leads the campaign. The diehard Rajapaksa voters, the kind who sees a national threat in every Tamil and every Muslim (and Christian too), will vote for the SLPP to save the Motherland from these encroaching enemy-aliens. And their preference will go not to the least objectionable but to the most deplorable.  

Commenting on the upcoming US midterm polls, Senator Mitch McConnell warned that rival Democrats are likely to retain the senate due to ‘candidate quality’; the fringe-nature of Trump-approved Republican candidates may propel many moderates either to vote Democrat or abstain. In a first-past-the-post system moderate voters have a considerable say in deciding the winners. In a preferential vote system, it is the died-in-the-wool party faithful who determine who’s in and who’s out.

If the next Lankan election is held under the preferential vote system, many of the most unsavoury characters on both sides of the aisle will be re-elected. The kind that had other priorities on the day the parliament was to debate the state of the economy. The debate was cancelled for lack of a quorum with a majority of SLPP and SJB members busy elsewhere; this in February 2022 when the economy was freefalling and a sovereign default looming. Then again, given the abysmal quality  of the current parliament, the debate would have degenerated into a slanging match. It is hard to imagine a sober, well-informed, fact-based discussion of the economy or any other subject in this parliament.

Down with 225 is a popular cry. But we elected 196 of them. If the next election is held sans a change in the electoral system, we’ll be back ere long shouting, Down with 225!

This counter-meritocratic polity

Almost every job imaginable requires some basic qualification or skill set. Politician is perhaps the sole exception.

“The purpose of government is not to look after the gifted minority,” Eric Hobsbwam argued, but to care for the ‘ordinary run of people’. “Any society worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and scope for such minorities” (On History). In other words, a meritocracy which is committed to ensuring a liveable life to the ordinary majority.

Lankan system has been engineered and habituated to look after not the ordinary majority nor the gifted minority, but a supremely mediocre political caste and its business, professional, religious, and societal satellites. Ours is a counter-meritocracy where the worst own the earth (and pass it on to their progeny) while the better are forced to leave.

In our political culture brawn trumps brain and willingness to violate all norms of decency is a prized quality. The preferential vote system amplifies this twisted ethos. Non-partisan voters may decide which party wins how many seats, but who adorns those seats is decided mostly by the hardcore of each party, via preferences. And the hardcore of whatever hue prefer loud-mouths to sober minds, slavish loyalty to knowledge or capability.

Our elections are billion rupee affairs. The source of this money is as much of a mystery as how it is spent. Campaign finance is lawless territory. The resultant absence of limits, oversight and transparency has turned elections into corruption hotspots. Where do parties and candidates get their money? If the money is their own, how did they earn it? If the money is donated, who are the donors? What are their affiliations and interests? None of these are known, since there is no law to compel parties and candidates to reveal how they got and spent their money. All we have is the reasonable assumption that a donor would give a bunch of money only if the potential return is high enough.

Ending this dangerous opacity through the introduction of a campaign finance law before the next election will go some way in correcting the distortions inherent in our electoral system. A related priority is to change the electorate from district to constituency. As long as district remains the electorate, money, family connections, political and muscle power will play a disproportionate role in deciding winners.

A hybrid system which combines the positives of proportional representation and majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems might give moderate voters a greater say in electing our next lot of representatives. Incidentally, all professional politicians (including retired ones) should be banned from the national list which should be for people with knowledge and expertises. Such a hybrid system together with a campaign finance law could weed out some deplorables and reduce the oversized role money plays in our elections. If the opposition does not want to join an all party government, it can perhaps focus on electoral reforms and the abolition of the executive presidency in the six months between now and the earliest constitutionally possible date for a dissolution.

Given the enormity of the challenge we need parliamentarians who can think beyond the old shibboleths of the left and the right. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and former World Bank chief economist, has been a harsh critic of the IMF for decades. But his stance has changed in response to the IMF’s own shift away from the neo-liberal Washington Consensus. He has praised the IMF’s 2022 agreement with Argentina for its non-insistence on austerity hoping it “may set a precedent for dealing with debt restructuring and financial crises” in other countries (Argentina and the IMF Turn Away From Austerity – Foreign Policy). In its official proclamation, the IMF stated that the Argentine deal included the government changing its spending priorities to accommodate “higher energy subsidies and appropriate social assistance to protect the vulnerable from the food price shock.”   

In this post-Washington Consensus climate, a deal with the IMF need not lead to austerity for the people. The choice of who tightens belts and how much will be made in Colombo. For instance, if the government hikes defence expenditure or re-embraces the failed infrastructure-led development model, budget deficit will be controlled by axing health, education and social welfare.

The ball is in the national court. Much will depend on whether the government can stand up to vested interests, be it politicians, business class, the military, monks, or state-sector trade unions. The role played by the first four in pushing through policies harmful to the national economy needs no belabouring. But the last might need a word of explanation.

The recent hike in electricity has been justly condemned for imposing a greater burden on low income consumers; the exception is the CEB. The hike might compel many old and new poor to lose access to electricity. But the CEB’s beef is that the hike is not high enough. It demands more rate-increases to reduce a 45billion annual loss while insisting on its right to bonuses.  If this is not a vested interest that works against common good, especially the good of the poorest of the poor, then what is it? Are state owned enterprises which burden the budget, and thereby ordinary people, national assets or national liabilities? 

An election sans electoral reforms, may land us where Lebanon is. There, no party got a majority, former PM is caretaker PM, politicians are trying to cobble alliances, and the president is busy promoting his son-in-law. The people suffer. Sounds familiar?

Motherland returns?

The brutal attack on Salman Rushdie reminds us again what obscenities the marriage of religion and politics spawns. As writer Adam Gopnik said, the attack “is horrific in the madness of its meaning and a reminder of the power of religious fanaticism to move people” (Salman Rushdie and the power of words – The New Yorker)

Religion and race played a decisive role in the 2019 and 2020 elections, and here we are. Minimising these deadly influences is necessary to ensure that the next election produces a parliament that is more moderate and more rational.

The unbanning of some Tamil Diaspora groups has created a hype among Rajapaksa supporters and other extremists. The Rajapaksas initially banned the Diaspora organisations in 2014, five years after the war ended, to shore up their waning Sinhala-Buddhist support. The ban was lifted by Mangala Samaraweera in 2015 and re-imposed by the Rajapaksas upon their return. The ban was always a political gimmick. Now it will be used by majoritarian extremists to raise the Undead Tiger in all its striped glory. The decision to sing the national anthem in Tamil at the upcoming 75th anniversary of Independence and the proposed return of some of the military-occupied lands to their original owners will be further grist to the Motherland-in-danger mill.

There are countless grounds on which the Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency can be criticised, starting with the ongoing repression targeting Aragalaya activists, a practice even the courts have questioned. The inclusion of poet Ahnaf Jazeem in banned people’s list is both silly and dangerous. Using the PTA to clamp down on democratic dissent will create a deadly precedent (This abuse is the best argument for the abolition of the PTA). Rising inflation, non-appearance of the promised social security net, the continuation of corrupt practices such as giving chairpersons of dissolved provincial councils and their attendants thousands of litres of fuel – all are condemnable and should be condemned.

The SJB is currently not playing the race-religion card, but the advent of the Weerawansa-Gammanpila group and the Dulles Allahapperuma group into the oppositional space might change this. These grouplets are likely to use the Motherland cry out of necessity (to cut into the SLPP base), inclination or both. Even if they fail electorally, they will shift the political discourse to the extreme, making ethnic and religious racism fashionable again.

When Pope Francis visited Greece, a Greek-Orthodox priest called him a heretic. That charge would have led to a gruesome death by fire in most of Europe just a few hundred years ago. If that past seems not just another time but another universe, it was thanks to the work of Christians and Catholics who struggled for religious reforms and the secularisation of politics, often at the risk of their lives. It is the inadequacy of such struggles or their failure that creates spaces for fatwas against authors and their brutal implementation.

The Rajapaksas regained power by riding on the collective back of Sinhala-Buddhist monkhood. Their disastrous performance discredited religion-in-politics for a brief moment. Political religion regained credibility and relevance by changing its tune. It is now back in its self-appointed role as supreme guide in all matters secular, from politics to economics, from marriage to why girls are born (A monk called Mahamewunava Saddaseela preaches that daughters are born to parents as punishment for the sin of lying. He obviously lack the gray matter to understand that going by his own logic, if all Sinhala-Buddhists eschew lying, the race will become as extinct as dinosaurs in one generation).

In times of national distress, when a secular path towards political, economic, and social justice is absent, the door opens for political-religions. If the idea of common good cannot be pursued, society will fragment and into the resultant chasms irrationalism will creep. That is why in this interim time before the election, the more moderate parties should form an understanding about not giving nominations to clergy of any religion and keeping religious symbols out of politics in general and electoral politics in particular. Allowing extremism of any kind a role in politics will take us not to a better future but to the worst places in our past. Those who believed in the Kelani cobra are still with us.