Alternatives To Mainstream Political Parties At Elections:  Where To Next?

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Under the parliamentary democracy, the State has to be a vehicle by which elected representatives, including the President in Sri Lanka’s case, utilise for the common good of people, especially the disadvantaged. However, looking at the situation since independence, the state has become a vehicle that works for the good of the privileged more so than the common people. The ruling class –though divided between various recognised political parties and vie for power at elections – is linked to each other by various factors including family ties, marriage, school friendships, loyalties based on locality, caste, political/party history of the family, and more. As a result, and failed economic policies that has brought the country into a serious debt trap with the potential to generate international dependency again, more and more people are looking for a third or fourth alternative that can capture power at the forthcoming elections and deliver good governance and socio-economic benefits for the majority. Among these alternatives –though still at embryonic stage- are the Nagananda (anti-corruption campaigner) camp aided by Vinivida Foundation and the civil society movement led by Dr. VInya Ariyaratne. Whether they will be able to generate grass roots appeal and how are a yet to be seen.

The UNP led coalition is preparing for the forthcoming elections in a background where there are many unfulfilled promises made at the last elections including the promise to bring those who embezzled state resources for private gain during the previous regime. The SLFP and its leadership has lost much credibility in the eyes of the voting public for the same reason. The fortunes of JVP are not believed to be great for various reasons including the fact that it is not a party designed to deliver material benefits to the voters as other parties are. TNA seems to be in a similar predicament in the North and East. It is subject to elitism critique that is levelled against major Sinhala parties. In this context, the emergence of Pohottuwa – family based party – during the last 4 or so years as an alternative has to be looked at in comparison to other non-political  alternatives mentioned above. If the SLFP does not come to an agreement with the SLPP about the future collaboration in electoral and governance matters, the prospects for Sinhala majority parties can be interesting due to the possibility of three way contests.

Reforming the state, how it operates and the constitution via established political parties that governed the country since independence is not going to be an easy task. We have witnessed the sorry situation in recent years during the UNF government. Vested interests seem to pull the strings in all directions to stifle any parliamentary process set in place for constitutional reform. The country is burdened with an archaic legal system that serves the interests of lawyers, the rich and powerful, more so than the common people who come before it seeking justice. No politician has provided solutions to long and undue delays in court cases involving even simple matters. In such a situation, the average man (and woman) is looking for an alternative force to compete against established parties who have failed them over the decades for a real change. They are looking for–not only of parties that will govern the country after next set of elections business as usual.  They want a government that can move the country forward by way of sustainable development including regional development, less corruption and patronage, less heavy handedness in civil affairs, less bureaucratic delays in decision making, less delays in court processes, less indebtedness to foreign countries and entities. Moreover, an alternative that will safeguard the sovereignty of country and its people in the face of competing interests from regional and global powers.

Our history is replete with examples of prominent and not so prominent people and families who sacrificed their pride, identity, nation and religion to embrace alien customs, habits and ways of life during the colonial period taking the side of the colonisers. Collaborating with the colonisers such individuals and families advanced their material and symbolic stock while assisting the colonisers to rule the areas under their control. Sinhala and Tamil leaders who were faithful to their own religion, culture, identity and people organised themselves and launched many struggles to safeguard the country and its people, their cultures and identities against those who embraced foreign ways and benefited from the colonial governments. When reading history today, such distinctions are not made clear cut. In political rhetoric also, the story is the same. In Sri Lanka, history –including colonial history- has been written from the perspective of the elites rather than the common people. This is a fact pointed out by one of the prominent historians such as S. Arasarathnam as early as 1970s. 

Today, among the Sinhala and to some extent Tamil politicians, one can observe the above-mentioned distinction between Euro (and American) centric, trouser and jacket wearing politicians and those wearing the national dress.   Voters are well placed to distinguish weather the former is better than the latter or vice versa in the forthcoming elections. However, it is clear by now that the dress alone is not a good way of reading one’s loyalty to the nation and its people. Voters have to look at the substance more than the appearance –even though from colonial times our people are accustomed to do the opposite. In this sense, they are advised to look at alternative political and social formations described above and give them a chance for democracy if not for anything else.

Mr. Nagananda Kodithuwakku recently visited Australia together with former auditor general Gamini Wijesinghe. They both made convincing arguments supported by facts about the state of affairs in the country (videos are available in U tube). Though they seem to understand the challenge in organising a counter movement and a new constitution to take the country out of its current predicament, and seem to profess about a plan to move forward before the next Presidential elections, many wonder about the mechanism that they plan to take their message to the village and the masses. Furthermore, unlike other mainstream politicians, they seem to be less concerned about political symbolism couched in religion. Politicians speak to masses by using symbolism and rhetoric.  If a movement is based simply on facts and figures –which can be boring at times – how can they cut through to the large masses? Though symbolism and rhetoric delivered in the vernacular indoctrinate the masses, they seem to work in the Sri Lankan context resulting in the transfer of power from the masses to the political class at elections.  Leaders of civil society movements mentioned earlier are well advised to visit temples more than seminar rooms if they are to acquire more traction and disseminate their message to the masses.

Source:Colombo Telegraph