A people's manifesto to protect a mandate
Political uncertainty in the country reached a thriller climax when
the President dissolved the Parliament recently.
Maithripala Sirisena was a
surprise opponent when he defected to run against his former
When I heard that the Parliament was dissolved (visiruvaa), I was
immediately reminded of the Sinhala song, Visirunu Mal Pethi (Scattered
Petals of a Flower) by Athula Adhikari.
Athula, seemingly, without any sarcasm advises a naive girl 'who is
trying to make a flower out of broken petals' that scattered petals
cannot be gathered into a flower again. Election that was announced
after the Parliament was dissolved has brought the challenges that the
citizenry face to a head.
It is my intention to discuss the challenges that lie ahead. In order
to do that, it is preceded by a brief analysis of the developments that
took place in the Sri Lankan political milieu, particularly in the last
year or so.
It is evident that the outcome of the election on January 8 and the
public interest and activism in the run up to the election, partook of a
political praxis that was decidedly differently from our previous
electoral experiences. Several citizen activist groups which were fed up
of the Rajapaksa regime campaigned for about a year, stressing the need
for a common candidate in order to liberate ourselves from political
entrapment. These groups created a certain kind of political consensus
amongst the people and political parties and provided artists,
intellectuals, trade unions, young intelligentsia and other civil actors
with a forum to express their views. Such activist groups took their
message to the public even before Maithripala Sirisena's candidacy was
announced. Such organized and informal activist groups represented the
increasing public demand for a change. What these activist groups did
was transforming this abstract clamouring for change into a concrete
political manifesto and, in turn, sharing this manifesto with the
It was in such a context that Maithripala Sirisena was proposed as
the 'Common Candidate' backed by an alliance that included the main
opposition - the UNP, under the banner of Yahapalanaya.
2015 Presidential Election was different from the previous elections
which were necessarily motivated by narrow partisan political agendas.
People gave Maithripala Sirisena 'an alternative and 'common force' the
mandate to defeat the Rajapaksa regime that had lost popularity among
The public exercised its franchise to ensure the establishment of a
political culture that was based on a new set of principles and not to
support the political agenda of a single individual or a party. It was
against such a backdrop that Yahapalanaya emerged as the galvanizing
theme of the Common Candidate's campaign.
The January 8 triumph was a relief after 10 years of oppression.
However, the 'change' that the people expected was not solely the defeat
of Rajapaksa. They also expected to realise an alternative programme
within a certain time framework.
The public expected the President to exercise his mandate to create
the background to usher in greater change and not to advance the
political agenda of a particular party. After a new government was
inaugurated, the first month of the 100-Day Program was quite efficient.
The President, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet must be given the
credit for that.
However, the initial fervour for good governance abated and partisan
dynamics came to dominate the agenda. Reforming the Executive Presidency
which was the foundation of the 100-Day Program got mired in party
politics and became extremely diluted. This 'compromise' had to be paid
in ministerial portfolios to politicians who served under a leadership
that was rejected by the people.
A 'mega' Cabinet was created yet again and ministers resigning and
the appointments of new ministers became a weekly phenomenon.
Although the Right to Information Bill was developed as a draft, it
was subsequently abandoned. Although there were attempts to depoliticise
the Constitutional Council, it ended up becoming a political tool.
The appointments of the civil society members to the Council were
unnecessarily delayed. Maithripala Sirisena who was granted a 'common'
mandate became the leader of the SLFP and increasingly seemed to serve
the objectives of his party. This orientation is diametrically opposed
to the 'change' that the people were expecting.
However, the decision that the President took - despite the pressure
that was exerted on him by his party and those who were around him - to
dissolve the Parliament, must be commended. We expect the President to
function as a statesman that puts his country before his party. This is
the key challenge that he will have to tackle in the future.
As the new government, the Cabinet led by Ranil Wickremesinghe,
implemented a few measures - including the reduction of the prices of
several essential goods-to serve the interests of the public. These
measures were appreciated by the public. The government, at least to a
certain extent, created a space for free expression, in lieu of the
oppressive and anti-democratic rule of the Rajapaksa regime.
However, it is doubtful if the new government significantly reformed
the nepotistic economic program of the former regime. Although the
Central Bank Governor was exonerated by a committee, this incident and
the recent resignation of the Director General of Customs made people
question the UNP Government. Without a majority in the Parliament, the
UNP found it difficult to form a stable government. Exploiting this
difficulty a group of parliamentarians that supported the former regime
attempted to form a new government. Fortunately this did not happen
because the Parliament was dissolved.
In the final analysis it seems that, the collective wish for change
did not entirely become a reality even after 150 days. Instead, the
mandate that was granted was hijacked by the political parties to
further their own ends. There were attempts to by-pass an election
through what is described in Sri Lankan political parlance as 'deal
Decision to dissolve
The citizens must retrieve the power that they gradually lost. They
must re-enter the 'change' that did not entirely happen into the
democratic political agenda. Sri Lankan people must make sure that they
elect a stable government that is capable of coming to a new agreement
with the people.
It is uncertain what role 'change' and 'good governance' will play in
the upcoming election. Already 'Yaha Palanaya' seems to have disappeared
from the Sri Lankan political vocabulary. These two important terms
represented the expectations of the people. They must not be reduced to
'marketing punch-lines.' When political programs become over-determined
by advertising agencies, various pseudo-political marketing slogans can
emerge in the next few weeks. The new slogan can be fancier than
Instead of following these fancy slogans, we must, as citizens
enumerate the characteristics, conditions and the principles of the
change that we expect. Political parties and their marketing gurus must
heed such ideas of the citizenry.
It is fine if the advertising agencies hijacked one or two good ideas
of the people. Still, as citizens we must send a menu of our
expectations to the political parties; or else we will have to order
what is on offer. It is necessary to compile the ideas that we have as a
'manifesto' of the citizens.
Challenge that the organised and informal civil forces that paved the
way for the January 8 triumph have before them is to make the change
that they wish for, meaningful by giving a new government a new mandate.
Before this mandate is given, conditions, priorities and an agenda for
that government must be presented.
The disappointment and the anger among the people, caused by the
failure of the new dispensation to deliver on the promises which were
made, seem to increase gradually. These feelings must be harnessed into
a positive and creative public force.
Already the political parties have started to break the petals of the
flower of hope that bloomed on January 8. Those petals have been
distorted by them.
As citizens, we must attempt to keep the petals of the flower of our
expectations together. The citizens must wake up before the politicians.
When the politicians wake up from their slumber, they must be offered as
a cup of tea, the citizen political agenda.
We must choose those who are willing to accept our cup of tea. That
is the only way in which we can keep the petals of the flower that
bloomed on January 8 from dissolving visirimen.