23 May 2017
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Measuring the Maturity of the Sri Lankan Electorate - Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

electoralRank Absurdities and the Absence of Principle 

Expressing extreme exasperation late this week, a colleague of mine could not contain himself regarding the paucity of ideas emerging from competing candidates in Sri Lanka’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

 

As he reflected, ‘generally, at least during a pre-election period in any country, candidates and parties are compelled to put forward their principles and policies but what we see here is just nonsensical.’

Curiously enough, much the same sentiment was conveyed by an annoyed vegetable cultivator from Wellawaya who called a regular Sinhala political television programmes on Thursday to ask as to why the prime focus of candidates in the electoral fray was simply to throw mud at each other?

Rudimentary choices before us
Meanwhile a prime pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa supporter and a breakaway from the Jathika Hela Urumaya tied himself up in ungainly knots in arguing that the country does not need national policies. The focus was on education but this argument could be applied verbatim to any other subject. His eminently confused ramblings were that each party should have competing policies so that the voters could chose what suits them the best. Consequently therefore, striving for unanimity in education policies, for example, by major political parties was not desirable.

As these rank absurdities are forced down our throats, it may fairly be questioned as to whether these characters have taken leave of their senses, if indeed they possessed any in the first place.

But then this is not an election based on principles at any conceivable level. It is also not an election which offers a viable choice between political parties (or indeed, politicians) distinguished by any remarkable sense of worth. These were past luxuries that Sri Lankans could claim to only in infinitely gentler times. The choices before us today are far more rudimentary.

Losing sight of fundamentals
So amidst these tales told by idiots who, as the Bard reminds us, are ‘full of sound and fury signifying nothing’ even as they ‘strut and fret upon the political stage’, we are in danger of losing sight of fundamentals. Questions of justice and accountability where the minorities are concerned are marked by a deafening silence in the South as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) quite predictably makes federalism, the cornerstone of their own manifesto.

And where is the focus of each party to bring the country back to a functional framework of the law? Even as shameful cases such as the Trincomalee shooting of students and the murders of seventeen aid workers in Mutur drag on wearily, the report of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) to the court this week testifying to the torture of ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen and the staging of his death as an accident three years ago in Colombo is a pointer to the crippling impunity enjoyed by the Rajapaksa regime for virtually a decade. This month also marks the two year anniversary of the Rathupaswela incident where three civilians died as a result of the army shooting protestors demanding clean drinking water. Victims still languish without justice and compensation.

These are all signs that our legal system has been systematically crippled. The judicial institution faces a threefold crisis of legitimacy, credibility and capacity. By itself, the 19th Amendment does not ensure the accountability of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) for instance. And it is no answer to say that the JSC, as currently constituted, will be presumed to act justly. Processes and institutions should not depend on individuals. Internal checks and balances must be in place despite particular individuals in office at particular times.

The law, by itself, does not suffice
This is the same where other institutions are concerned. The paralyzing of Sri Lanka’s investigative and prosecutorial agencies cannot be met by special entities such as the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) acting on direction of a government committee. Instead, the focus must be to restore integrity to the various arms of the state apparatus itself.

This week, the Cabinet decided that Bribery and Corruption commissioners responsible for obstructing investigations would be investigated. But did it really take almost a full seven months for this realization to dawn? As this column had urged repeatedly, if the functionality of the Commission had been swiftly restored in the flush of that magnificent Presidential election victory in January 2015, these complaints may now have been unnecessary.

That said, the law certainly does not suffice by and of itself. This election period has seen (with some exceptions including Friday’s shooting incident at Bloemendhal) relatively far less election violations. It is simplistic however to attribute this purely to the empowering of the Elections Commissioner (EC) by the 19th Amendment as recently opined by the Sri Lanka Catholic Bishops Conference.

It was not that the EC did not have sufficient powers before under the constitutional scheme, as judicially expanded by the Supreme Court in its heyday when responding to issues on constitutional principle rather than with underlying political motives. To give credit where it is due, reduced election violations are less a matter of sufficient law and more a direct result of the change in the Presidency this year.

Slim victories and political bargaining
But apart from these slim victories, this election symbolizes crude political bargaining. Each party manifesto is replete with promises that are unrealistic as a matter of bare economics. The horse trading that will follow in the new Parliament with elected representatives crossing the floor for raw power and filthy lucre is inevitable. As was reminded last week, the 19th Amendment failed to ensure basic checks on this betraying of the peoples’ mandate.

Indeed, the one thread of sanity which we may grimly hold onto is the determination of ordinary Sri Lankan voters who, despite all odds, persist in showing grit and guts wholly lacking in their representatives. And one is reduced to veritably grinding one’s teeth when pompous politicians exuding insincerity from every pore, hold forth on how they will relieve the burden of the ‘poor innocent villager.’

The time for both innocence and credulity in this land is now long past. Let us be clear at least on that.

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