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Sri Lankan Elections 2015: Will There Be 'Change'?

08/01/2015 13:00 GMT | Updated 09/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Today, 8 January 2015, Sri Lankans will be heading to the polls to elect a new President. Unlike in previous recent presidential elections, it now seems that there is a real contender to challenge the incumbent and suddenly the apathetic Sri Lankan voter has become energized. Voter turnout is expected to perhaps be one of the highest seen for a long time. In pure Sri Lankan politics style, the main opposition challenges has emerged from within the ranks of the president's own party adding a Shakespearean twist to an already fascinating tale of intrigue, nepotism, corruption and so on. Where else would you find the president running against his former health minister who whilst still belonging to the same party is being supported by a coalition of opposition parties?

Elections are nothing new in Sri Lanka, and over the last decade or so, we seem to have had our annual share of them. The process of elections in Sri Lanka is a rather superficial attempt to paint a picture of democracy in action. For the last 60 plus years, the two main parties between themselves have held power with very little difference in policy, approach and effect. Policies and manifestos seem to come second. There has been a trend of 'political up-manship' where the main opposition party would wreck attempts by the party in power to ensure that the country would not benefit from decisive decisions made at critical junctures. As a consequence,when rival parties came to power, they have tended to undo what has been done by the previous opposition government much to the detriment of the country. Most voters are largely not policy based but are mostly entwined in party patronage with parliamentarians being mainly elected for their ability to redistribute resources, provide access to public sector goods and jobs, and develop infrastructure for supporters.

This election has seen its share of this patronage. Support has been garnered based on much one can get out of each candidate, and so there have been crossovers and counter crossovers (from each party) like musical chairs, as 'horse deals' ensure that politicians and their supporters needs are met. Circumstances have now changed and former allies have become enemies and former enemies have become allies with actions being taken sometimes bordering on the point of absurdity in some cases. Take for example, a member of the Buddhist nationalist party who had crossed over from the government to the opposition a few weeks earlier, would then re-cross back to the government side citing a change of heart and establish a much more stringent Buddhist party (as if to indicate that he had an epiphany twice). The rumors (if true) of the amount of money being paid for politicians to cross over is staggering and points to expediency rather than principle.

This in itself highlights the glaring weakness in Sri Lankan politics and the current state of affairs in the country. This election rather than focusing on policies and manifestos has boiled down to removing the incumbent not because of anything but largely that even in this 'winner takes all' culture that has traditionally existed, it seems that there is a threshold that the incumbent has now crossed.

Even for politicians representing minority communities who have come increasingly under attack by Sinhala Buddhist nationalist elements declaring their support for the incumbent, their recent switch from the Government to the opposition was more in line with political opportunism than principled stance. After all how does this explain for example many of the Muslim ministers suddenly talking about how the government was complicit in the rising anti Muslim violence and rhetoric when over the last 2 years, no one responsible for perpetrating that has been brought to justice? A principled stance would also challenge the opposition candidate to being more clear with concrete policies in his manifesto to deal with the minority communities, an accusation pointing to the weakness of the opposition policies.

There is also very little appetite for any intellectual analysis of the situation on the part of the general public, especially those that live in Colombo, which is as far removed from the realities of the country as it can be. Everyone is advocating for a regime change, tired of the cost that the country has had to endure in the post conflict era; tired of the corruption of the political system, tired of how Sri Lanka has become as a nation and society. However very few people are willing to discuss and address the root causes that have allowed the system to manifest itself like this.

Speaking to people mainly in Colombo, there are only two camps. Those who want the incumbent and those who want the main opposition candidate with very little room in between. People have forgotten that there are actually other candidates for the election as well. There is not really a middle path or alternative and no avenue for a middle path. Those that advocate such are a silent majority on the sidelines. Yet dig further and you will find that people have absolutely no clue as to why one should vote for the incumbent or the opposition. 'Well we need to get rid of Mahinda so that is why we want Maithree' has been the most common argument that I have heard '. 'Mahinda brought peace and developed the country' is another one that has been said with those saying it, not wishing to go into the criticisms leveled against the incumbent.

What all this means though is that for the first time in 20 years, the Sri Lankan electoral carnival has come to life. This is one of the positives for the election and for the country. Apathetic voters have become energized; new voters are excited; social media has been in overtime and it has become the mainstay of most conversations over the last month, be it at the annual wedding season that seems to affect Sri Lanka at this time, to discussions with taxi drivers or in restaurants. There is an anticipation and expectation for change. Thus the stakes are quite high for both parties to win or lose. A loss for the incumbent might mean a quick exit from the country if the rumour mill doing the rounds in Sri Lanka is to be believed in terms of assets already being transferred abroad. A win for the incumbent, might mean that the challenger (and many of the government MPs who joined him in challenging the president) would have to seek residence elsewhere.

Of course, no matter who wins the presidency, he will have an uphill struggle on his hands. So much anticipation and expectation has been created that this could be difficult to handle if not managed properly. There will be the task of ensuring a political solution to the grievances of the minorities in a way that ensures that the country moves forward after 20 years of conflict. There will be a need to contain the Sinhalese Buddhist elements who seem intent on hammering the Sinhala nationalist identity home at the loss of the minorities stake in the country. However more importantly there will be the task of arresting the moral and intellectual corruption that seems to not pervade the political scene but has also seemed to have trickled down into society as a whole. Yet neither of the main candidates has presented a clear proposal for the reconciliation and integration of the society and for really addressing some of this burning root causes.

This then begs the question: will there be a change if the main opposition candidate is voted in ahead of the incumbent? Whilst a new face will get into the driving seat, the vehicle and direction will be the same. The paradigm will not have shifted!

Thus frankly despite all the illusions of grandeur of talk of change and principles, the concept of being 'principled' and seeking change by electing the main challenger or even the incumbent becomes laughable. Both these candidates and the parties and alliance they represent are two sides of the same coin and at this critical juncture in Sri Lanka's history may not be able to offer anything of value for taking the country forward especially as it moves towards post conflict reconciliation. Picking the opposition candidate is at best, frantically grasping for a last minute consolation prize and it would be based on a limited understanding of the ground realities and ingrained prejudices. There will be nothing pure or principled about the choice. It is about the desperation of the situation, which we find ourselves in to change the person at the helm and which frankly I am also not opposed to.

So let us be realistic and honest about this. The choice is not about 'change' of the vehicle per se but about the 'change' of the driver. The vehicle remains the same and will pose the same challenges (perhaps to a lesser intensity than previously) for people. However the start perhaps has to be this change in the driver. But people need to realize that this is just the start and not the end.

If people do want to make a principled 'change', then there will need to be a paradigm shift that involves changing the vehicle. Variations on the same old themes can not be the order of the day. They will have to insist on a radical overhaul of the whole system of party patronage, ethnic nationalistic representation and political 'up-manship'. This is the principled change that Sri Lanka desperately needs in order to meet the aspirations of all its people (regardless of whether they are the majority ethnic and religious community or the minority; whether they are urban elite or rural working class).

Regardless of who wins in this election, it is clear that people want a change for a better equitable future that allows them to voice their concerns, whilst having the security and stability for their children to go to school. Petty rivalries will need to be forgotten. Past grievances will need to be looked into and addressed. This requires the support of all concerned from within Sri Lanka and outside of it. This aspiration and expectation cannot be left unfulfilled or simply ignored. The consequences of doing this could be disastrous for the future of Sri Lanka.