Editorial: Think, think, and think again!
The next general election of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is due to take place on Wednesday, 5 August 2020, three days from today. In a departure from the old practice prevalent since the first general election back in August 1947, the counting of votes will not take place immediately after voting concludes at 5 p.m., an hour longer than usual to conform to health guidelines, but at 8 a.m. the next morning. One can only hope that the cast ballots would remain in the safe custody of election officials overnight, which will help put a lid on conspiracy theories that are bound to emerge once results are released.
The long-delayed election is finally taking place exactly 100 days after the originally intended date, which was 25 April, but had to be postponed twice thereafter due to the Covid-19 global pandemic. Although the poll will go down in history as one of the most peaceful elections, at least in pre-election campaigning – largely due to the restrictions based on health guidelines and consequent lack of interest among electors – it should not by any means be a barometer of the importance and significance of this election.
In fact, it would be an understatement to categorise the upcoming poll as anything less than a watershed event, as it will determine the destiny of this country for years to come. In the post-pandemic world, with countries big and small, rich and poor struggling for survival, the voters of Sri Lanka now have an unprecedented responsibility on their hands to shape their own destiny and that of the next generation by ensuring that the best available talent is elected to govern the country in what could arguably be the most crucial five years in our post-Independence history.
Although Sri Lanka is just a dot in the Indian Ocean compared to neighbour India, it does have a relatively large and growing population of over 21 million. Yet, the people who represent them in the country’s legislature have more or less remained the same for decades, with a handful of families dominating the legislature. At the first general election in 1947, there were three million registered voters; at the upcoming general election, there will be nearly 16 million registered voters – over five times the number of electors in the first poll – but the same families that were involved in politics back then still hold the reins today.
For instance, the Rajapaksa patriarch, D.A. Rajapaksa, was the elected member for Hambantota in 1947. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the nephew of J.R. Jayewardene, who too was an elected member for Kelaniya in the same year in the first Parliament. Ranasinghe Premadasa, father of Sajith Premadasa, was elected an MP for Colombo Central in 1960. In the last Parliament, there were 71 MPs who had a close family member either in Parliament, a provincial council, or local authority. There were 32 MPs who were sons or daughters of former MPs while 10 of them were third-generation MPs. Obviously, this tribal mentality has a lot to do with the degeneration of parliamentary values and traditions. Families treating the Parliament of this country as their heirloom would not be a problem if performance is considered the yardstick for re-election. On the contrary, this has never been part of that equation and that is where the problem is.
The last Parliament was a recipe for disaster and that is exactly what transpired as evidenced by the events that took place at regular intervals, most notably in November 2018 when that august assembly was turned into a violent version of the Manning Market where even the Holy Scriptures became missiles in the hands of “honourable” members.
We can only hope that the 16 million electors would have taken due note of the performance of their last batch of representatives and will give them their just rewards. The bottom line is that there is absolutely no reason to keep sending the same people to do the same things that they have failed in and take this country further into the doldrums.
The light at the end of the tunnel is that some of the new candidates from independent groups and unknown political parties have the credentials to deliver the goods, only if the electors give them a chance. That is not to say that the main parties should be dumped wholesale, but it is about time that they were held accountable for their actions.
The culture of making promises just to get elected and then dumping those promises in the bin soon after must be stopped, and the only ones who can do that are the 16 million electors. In essence, what was promised pre-election and what was delivered post-election should be the sole criteria every candidate seeking re-election should be judged against. This has not happened in the past and it is about time it did, for the greater good of the country and its people who have been serially duped for decades. It is also the only way double speak – what is bad in Opposition suddenly becoming good in government and vice versa – could be eliminated.
We Sri Lankans tend to check and double check even the minutest of details before purchasing anything or entering into an agreement. Not stopping at that, we even look to the deities and the stars for further guidance. But when it comes to the all-important job of electing people to govern this country, none of that seems to apply. The only thing that seems to matter is how foul his or her mouth is.
These days, it is amusing to see candidates who did not spend a cent on the welfare of their constituents during the pandemic splurging millions of rupees on advertisements, asking the very same people they ignored to vote for them. It goes without saying that if the same millions were spent on the people who were fighting to collect Rs. 5,000 for their bare essentials, those people would today be lining up to vote for them.
Voters would also send a strong message to corrupt politicians by alienating the candidates with dubious records. Those who have not declared their assets and liabilities and those who have shunned austerity should be shunned altogether. The politics of holding up handcuffs as if it’s some precious trophy should be banished and such conduct should instead be looked up to with utter contempt. Such behavioural adjustment on the part of the electorate will help charter a new, long overdue course in Sri Lanka’s less than impressive post-Independence governance history where political criminals parade as heroes and the real heroes are consigned to the wilderness.
What is comforting is the fact that very little could go wrong by electing fresh faces to Parliament because whatever that could go wrong has already happened. There is no harm in banking on fresh talent and candidates with a clean and proven track record, for this could be the last chance the country gets before it hits rock bottom in the governance department.
After all, this election will be the most expensive in history and the estimated cost of Rs. 10 billion for conducting it works out to a mind-boggling Rs. 44 million to elect one MP. And there are 225 of those honourable members.
Given this colossal investment in electing the next government, it is only fair that at least the majority of voters exercise due diligence and help shape the destiny of this country for years to come. The ball is in the people’s court. Let’s hope history does not repeat.