A year of 'promises' and promising politicians
Nothing is so freely given as advice and promise. With less than a month to go for the presidential election, we are treated to cartloads of promises by the contestants. At the last presidential election, one candidate famously promised a cow each to all Sri Lankan families. He lost––not because people did not like free milch cows but because they did not take him seriously.
Some of the contestants in the presidential fray this time around have overtaken that man in style. Cows are nothing compared to the things they promise! They are promising something huge for everybody––from pay hikes of Himalayan proportions to gargantuan subsidies which not even the richest country on earth could afford. How to carry out their promises does not bother them at all, for they do not intend to honour them. They are only trying to win. They get and forget. Voters give and forgive.
Politicians know that promises are like the full moon––as a German saying goes; if they are not kept at once, they diminish day by day. It was Machiavelli who said, "A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise." He also said, "The promise given was a necessity of the past and the word broken is a necessity of the present." So, politicians keep on promising the sun and the moon. They even promise bridges where there are no rivers!
We are being treated to a promise-contest of sorts in the run-up to the Jan. 26 polls. A promise that one party makes is matched promptly by another. The fertiliser subsidy is a case in point. No sooner had the Opposition promised to make subsidised fertiliser freely available than the government announced that it would be available in the open market from the next paddy cultivation season onwards!
"We must not promise what we ought not," said Abraham Lincoln, "lest we should be called on to perform what we cannot." These words of wisdom do not mean anything to our politicians. Luckily, their manifestos are not legally-binding and electors have no way of avenging themselves for being taken for a ride.
Politicians of all hues have certainly taken this 'promising business' a bit too far and made a mockery of election manifestos which, in the final analysis, are not worth the paper they are written on. There have been strident calls from various quarters to infuse some accountability into politics. They want independent commissions established, the rule of law restored, assets of politicians declared and so on. But, there has been no attempt as such to make political manifestos legally valid documents so that the elected could be brought to justice or 'recalled' in case of their failure to honour their promises.
If the two main contestants in the presidential race, the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka really intend to carry out the plethora of promises they make, there is no reason why they cannot take steps to make their manifestos legally-binding and offer to resign if they fail to carry out their promises in the event of their election. During the recent Southern Provincial Council election, a youthful Opposition candidate went so far as to sign a letter in his own blood to the effect that he would not desert his party, as it was on the grapevine that he was planning to defect. He managed to convince his constituency. He won handsomely!
We don't want our two heroes vying for the presidency to waste their precious blood; they could use ordinary ink to give legal validity to their manifestos so that the people will take them seriously. True, an incumbent president enjoys legal immunity but we could at least try to sue him in his retirement in case of his reneging on promises.
Finally, in dealing with our 'promising' politicians, we would go by Bernard Baruch’s advice: "Vote for the man who promises the least; he'll be the least disappointing."