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Sunday, 26 July 2015

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Sri Lanka's voters are a set of people who have long been used to a gush of promises by their political and governmental leaders. And they are equally used to seeing these promises being broken or unfulfilled in the time stipulated by those making promises.

In the early years of our electoral politics, the promises made to voters at election time were more down-to-earth and tended to be specific and concrete policy commitments. The promise of the Mahaveli river hydrel and irrigation scheme made during the 1970s by UNP and SLFP governments is a fine example of such responsible, genuinely governance-oriented election promises. The Mahaveli development programme was conceived not by politicians - even if some elements of it originated with some bright ideas of politicians - but by the country's technocracy and bureaucracy who devoted their trained minds to the imperatives of national development in the first flush of post-colonial nationhood. Successive governments - of rival parties - were happy to implement the programme without too much diversion from the original plans, except that the UNP managed to creatively 'accelerate' it in the interests of meeting a range of emerging development needs.

Sadly, it seems that as the nation grew older, it became more cynical than wiser. Politicians, in their frenetic bids for electoral victory, were soon unrestrained in their lavish promises of virtually anything to get votes. The preferential vote system encouraged such hyperbole in place of policy. Compelled to engage in fierce individual competition with each other to grab the preferential vote, candidates simply indulged in loose promises and vague arguments that played on the caprices, phobias and fantasies of the voter. Fantasies of quick affluence and luxury - using a super-rich neighbouring country as the example - were once offered by one party in the past. Its main rival party was the one that launched the fantasy of ethnic supremacy. The devastating extent to which that ethnic fantasy has been taken was seen in the way in which 'victory' was achieved against separatism. Indeed, that supremacist fantasy yet prompts violent outbursts against ethnic minorities at the urging of religiously garbed demagogues.

When political party contestation was transcended by coalition-based politics, the broader the coalition, the more vague became the respective rival political platforms of electoral contest. In attempts to bring together the broadest coalition of political forces simply for the purpose of winning governmental power, political leaders were soon making commitments to diverse social forces that were simply irreconcilable in terms of the practicalities of fulfilment. The most absurd seemed to have been those clearly contradictory commitments made - within the same political coalition - to both limit as well as broaden the devolution of power to the provinces. This had to be done in order to cobble together parties that advocated fully incompatible approaches to the ethnic conflict.

In the immediate past this swing to the near-absurd in election promises has begun to be reversed with the slow realisation among voters as to how far they have been taken for a ride by their elected representatives. After years of happy delusion over practically unattainable, if not unsuitable, national goals, the citizenry now seems to be waking up. On the one side of the ethnic conflict, ethnic minority forces seem to have backed away from their own fantasies of exclusivism either in terms of ethnically exclusive nation-states or in terms of exclusive religious communities puritanically distanced from those fellow citizens perceived as 'infidel'. On the majority's side of the ethnic conflict, there seems to be an awakening from a fantasy of ethnic supremacy - the supreme hollowness of such constructions revealed by the destructive and embarrassingly un-intelligent antics of the very leaders who embodied supremacism.

Other political forces that were once trapped in social class politics seem to be re-assessing their long term vision and adjusting strategy towards more pragmatic politics that combine their constituency interests together with creative new programmes and vision within the parameters of the larger interests of the whole national society. Political parties that traditionally represented the social elite now look beyond to those larger national interests that address the needs and interests of the collective of social classes in what could be a grander vision of social democracy.

In this decisive political year, the Sri Lankan voter may enjoy a better choice of political manifestos that may, hopefully, combine more civilised fantasies with the practicalities of social life and human endeavour that built our ancient island civilisation.


Violence: political and occult

Barely had we editorially mentioned the occult fetishes of some politicians than the country saw on videos widely circulated the physical violence that such cultic practices could engender. A prominent politician contesting the forthcoming parliamentary election seemingly almost bludgeoned a local party supporter possibly inebriated for his friendly handclasp that may have threatened to dislodge precious occult jewellery. Of course, such brutish personal behaviour is not limited to just a single candidate. In a country rent asunder by multiple violent conflicts over decades, it is but natural that the political society is infested with denizens reputed for their brutality.

The challenge to Sri Lankan civilisation is to address this tendency to brutish behaviour, tendencies that are expressed during elections and also in the election of representatives who practise it. The current general election process is remarkable for the low incidence of campaign violence. 2015 is a decisive year which provides Sri Lankans with the opportunity to end this cycle of brutish, occult and, consequently un-intelligent governance.

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