Are voters to blame?


There is nothing in the Criminal Code or those of Morality and Ethics that some of our politicians (supposed 'Leaders') have not transgressed. They are too well known to require repetition. There is a craftily conditioned plot to equate democracy solely to the periodic exercise of a vote. Sadly, many seem to have fallen for this bait. The media cannot escape blame for promoting this myth by excessive attention to a running commentary on the mechanics of this process. The "vote" from being a right has become more like an obsession - as if it is all that makes for "democracy". We are, after all, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Think about it! It is salutary to note that the more the hype, the lower the voter turnout. Truly, democracy should be about decency, fair play, justice, security and an orderly society. The very antithesis is what Sri Lanka seems to have achieved. Vulgarity, nepotism, arrogance and profligacy, lawlessness and exploitation in a corrupted society are what we seem to have - or nearly all what we hear and read about.

In the great ‘blame game’ the voting public are constantly blamed for this sorry situation. We are told that if bad people get into politics; it is solely our fault for electing them. What a travesty of the truth and an undeserved censure! Let us examine things more sensibly and put this convenient lie to eternal rest.

I consider that the widely touted concepts of "Peoples' voice", "popular demand" "peoples' representatives", "national interests" which are often cited to justify anything, are a cruel deception or, (if the editor permits), utter bullshit! Why? You may well ask. Do we not exercise a powerful and unfettered choice? Are we not politically mature in the regular changes of those who govern us? I venture to suggest that we are not. We have never "selected" a ruling party but "rejected" incumbents because of their failure or misbehaviour. The second best then floats up. Incidentally, not many may know that the collective noun for a gathering of owls is Parliament! Little doubt because owls are symbolically believed to be wise!

Under our current system, the candidates in the list presented to voters are decided by the leaderships of the various parties or groups. The voters have no say.

What the parties stand for is reflected in their manifestos. No less than a former PM (Mr. Ratnasiri Wickramanayake) and the present incumbent (Mr. D. M. Jayaratne) have said that only fools believe them, and that the promises in manifestos are untruths meant only to secure votes. Candid confessions from two prominent representatives of a group not overly given to truthfulness are seriously impressive. Price reductions of essentials on the eve of elections are in the same league. Lying, no longer draws disgust and opprobrium. However, we seem to be just learning the lesson that fibs may delude internal audiences, but simply do not wash with the international. Gullibility is an insult to intelligence. Nominated or elected, are required to file a declaration of assets. An overwhelming majority do not. Upon election, for MPs, the Speaker is said to be the custodian, who will make them available to anyone upon proper request. If any voter has succeeded in seeing any such declaration, as they are claimed to be entitled to, we are yet to hear. Ill-gotten wealth seems the norm. Demanding a declaration of assets along with the nomination form, and an automatic cancellation of office if annual updates are not provided is an obvious remedy.

Every type of skullduggery - bribery, banquets, abuse of state resources - notably vehicles, interference with public servants, and persecuting the ‘non-cooperative’, defying every election law (cutouts and posters) and many more are flouted with abandon. No one party is to blame. All are alike and possibly compete with one another. As the pithy JVP saying has lit: ‘unuth ekai - munuth ekai’.

Once elected, the earlier bond between the voter and the candidate vanishes. Ignoring provisions that promise access to the citizenry to obtain information on public finances and related matters, leads to a natural suspicion of guilty concealment. Little surprise that any attempts at introducing a "Freedom of Information Act" are resolutely opposed. The few facts that are known, disclose utter injustice and unbelievable privilege. Elected persons entitlements to unique pension arrangements, vehicle permits, free utility services, lavish allowances for rents, petrol, telephones, security, life and medical insurance, foreign travel etc., are nothing less than obscene. Few of the beneficiaries are naturally willing to talk! In the absence of proper disclosure, rumour is the only source. The injustice that may be done by unfair surmise should be met by the more honorable members pressing for disclosure, especially where funds of an impoverished and groaning citizenry are involved. The few attempts to expose instances of profligacy are promptly and shamefully side-stepped.

Generic condemnation of all politicians is unjust. There are obviously several who are talented, devoted and have made important sacrifices in the interests of a serious career in politics. Sadly, passengers or worse, crooks and criminals, self seekers and opportunists, thugs and rowdies, drug dealers and bootleggers are alleged to outnumber the decent, and hence this kind of generalization. The cruelest impediment to citizens to ‘select only the best for political office’, is the design of the ballot paper. Since quality is not the monopoly of a single party, good choices may come from different parties. Where the voter is permitted more than one vote, any serious attempt should enable picking the best from among the entire list. This is effectively prevented by the first required step of selecting a party. This confines the choice to the list of one party only. This is surely a partial self- disenfranchisement! So, what sincerity is there in the cry to "select the best"?

Even with this much flawed process, it is not uncommon for people’s rejects to come in on the ‘nominated’ list or become Chairmen of State Corporations, Provincial Governors or even Ambassadors! The results are predictable.

As I said at the start, there are notable exceptions. There undoubtedly are respectable and honourable persons in politics who have surrendered lucrative positions in the interests of service. But, the majority let down such rare people. How then can the situation be remedied?

A first and obvious step is to drastically reduce the rewards of political office, to cause even a semblance of equality with other occupations. This would go some way in attracting the honest, competent, qualified and devoted to come forth to replace the obvious adventurers and seekers of the easy "jackpot". It will also eliminate ‘dynasty politics’ - where family, in-laws and other relatives enjoy a monopoly of unjustifiable power, position, recognition and reward. No ‘political reforms’ that do not address these horrendous aberrations, can ever succeed. One recalls the days of the State Council, where, I believe, members only got railway warrants to attend sittings. Many persons of integrity, stature and courage were attracted - even at the expense of their personal wealth. Popular demand should be: ‘Disclose fully the perks and privileges of political office and make a genuine effort to be fair, and to make them comparable to those of others.’

I am bold enough to express these thoughts because they are plausible, and reflect the views of many who are however unable or unwilling to express them. I mean no offence to anyone.

Dr. U. Pethiyagoda

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