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Sunday, 28 June 2015

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Pressing the Parliament 'refresh' button

So the battle is joined! By the time you open this newspaper, the whole country will be brimming over with excited political speculation. Hopefully, this edition of the Sunday Observer will help begin clarifying the speculation and indicating important trends and issues.

It is a speculation multiplied several times over given the number of contesting political forces that have risen to matured national electoral status. These forces now prepare to be tested electorally after nearly two decades of marginalisation by authoritarian politics that was also so intensely driven by solely ethno-nationalist rivalry - a 'Lion vs Tiger' big match almost as childishly simplistic as that of high school sports rivalry played out by the 'old boys' (an uniquely Sri Lankan trait).

After nearly twenty years of intense ethno-nationalist internal war and a parallel civilian politics, today the nation has broken out of the confines of that nationalist 'big match' and is flexing its political muscles in the variety of dynamics that necessarily drive a society.

Today, Sri Lankan Democracy reverts back to an arena of politics in which society's many issues - social, economic, political, institutional - are, once again, addressed with somewhat equal attention.

A sizeable chunk of that linear, ethno-nationalist contest certainly ended with the 2009 defeat of the LTTE. That defeat, rather than 'solving' the ethnic conflict, only worsened it in many ways - as the Muslim community learnt. The Tamil militant leadership, especially the LTTE must share the blame with the Rajapaksa regime for taking the ethno-nationalist contest to that bloody, barbaric, extreme.

More importantly, the reduction of militarist depredation enabled the nation as a whole to focus on the worse, bigger, depredation that the Rajapaksa regime wreaked countrywide and society-wide. As the flames and screams of the war faded, a growing cohort of citizenry awoke from the fantasy of tribal victory and supremacy to realise how much the edifice of society and polity was tottering courtesy of a presidency gone haywire.

The outcome of January 8 was the result of that awakening of many sections of the citizenry to the looming crisis of State. That awakening, itself, is of a scale that evidenced a maturing of Sri Lankan democracy. On their very own, without the Liam Foxes, the Solheims, the Gandhis or, even the dubious leverage of East Asian investors, Sri Lankans came together not just as the two traditionally alternate governing parties, but as a broad coalition of forces coming from all corners of the island and the range of social classes, ethnic communities and ideological streams. It is this broad-spectrum political coalition that is the most notable feature of the January 8 regime change. There are other features that also go to make this political movement historic.

The cream of the country's intelligentsia together with leaders of the business elite collaborated creatively in complementary activism to ensure initiatives for national recovery on several tracks - fighting corruption and nepotism, reforming the Constitution, revitalising the policy-making and national planning processes, among others.

Further, with full knowledge of the vast repair job needed, the political parties in the new ruling coalition have agreed to remain unified in purpose even after the parliamentary elections. Today, the ruling coalition has committed to the parliamentary electoral contest while reminding voters that even if the rival parties compete with each other during the elections, they intend to return to the same coalition in government for the next two years. This commitment - mandated in the January 8 elections, as well - signals the serious intent for continued and thorough political and social reform in the new Parliament as well.

All this careful coordination of intermediate term political goals among parties and a broad consensus on the long term vision of a revived Sri Lanka are clear evidence of a sophistication not hitherto seen in Sri Lankan politics. It demonstrates the longevity of genuinely democratic tradition despite the carcinogenic stamp of nepotism, racism and authoritarianism of the past decade. It portrays social commitment, political vision and elements of systematic planning - all essential for re-building of the polity.

These parties that have led the change, deserve to return to power free of those tainted with the corruption and violence of the previous regime. Those parties that have been out of power now deserve to take on leadership responsibilities so that the citizenry can experience new choices in government.

What remains to be seen is whether these same parties and their leaders can comply with all of the laws, rules and norms that govern the parliamentary electoral process as they go into the electoral contest.

Will the familiar motifs of thuggery, bribery, unsavoury deals, and sweeping disregard for election laws characterise the forthcoming elections? Can our new leaders refrain from the malpractices that were the hallmark of successive governing parties? Will there be new and relatively clean blood in the candidates for parliamentary seats?

Will politicians in power avoid abusing their offices and ministerial resources for political gain? Will we experience the ugly fisticuffs of 'manape' rivalry? Minus the independent commissions, can the elections be administered neutrally and fairly? Will media moghuls manipulate the public mind for their own political favourites?

The coming weeks until August 17 will show.

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