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Sunday, 19 July 2015

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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 President (AFP)

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 masses.

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 masses.

Political transformation

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 politics.'

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 'change.'

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.

Public expectations

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.

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