Before the elections -2

By Izeth Hussain

Why is it so important that Governments should observe standards of public morality? It is a fact that all human societies have moral standards. There may be no elaborate system of ethics but notions of what should be done or what should not be done, of what is permissible and what is taboo, have been universal in all human societies right down the ages. That certainly has to mean something about the human condition. The probable explanation is that commonly accepted moral standards are required to hold human societies together, and that is of supreme importance because human beings are social animals. The important point is that unless human groups are cohesive they will not be able to withstand threats from outside the group. Another relevant point is that human beings seem to be born with an innate moral sense. It seems reasonable to conclude therefore that the moral sense and standards of public morality are part of the human equipment for survival. In 1977 the UNP Government assumed power glittering with promise but it showed utter contempt for standards of public morality and by 1989 Sri Lanka was brought to the edge of doom: two rebellions were going on simultaneously, the IPKF troops were here behaving like conquerors, and the Government had lost control over a third of the national territory and almost half the coastline. In 2009 the present Government was glittering with promise after defeating the LTTE. But it too has been showing utter contempt for standards of public morality. If it continues in power without mending its ways another 1989, or even worse, could become inevitable.

I will now address the question of what we should look forward to from a change of President and Government. Obviously we have to struggle to bring about a fully functioning democracy. Our experience of dictatorship has shown that an excess of power leads to an inability to distinguish between right and wrong, and also a weakened grasp of reality, after which there follows doom. After 1956 our politics have taken the form of "organized hatred". Politics of course are inevitably conflictual but there has to be a strong element of the consensual if the public good is really prioritized. The fact that the Opposition Presidential and Prime Ministerial candidates represent the Old Guard of the SLFP and the UNP holds out the promise that our politics might move, at least to some extent, in a consensual direction. A question that arises is this: Why should Maithripala Sirisena hand over executive power to Ranil Wickremasinghe when the electorate chose him as executive President? Part of the answer is that he promised to do precisely that in his election Manifesto. The other part of the answer seems to me more important: he would not have won without the support of the UNP, and Ranil W would not have won without the support of the Old Guard of the SLFP. That fact points to the need for a sharing of power, to a duopoly the successful operation of which would require a significant degree of consensuality between our two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, which have been in opposition since 1956.

But of course our hopes of a successful duopoly could prove to be over sanguine, and what we might have instead could be rivalry, conflict, and chaos within the ranks of the new Government. However, we would have the obligation of trying to bring about a successful duopoly, unless of course Maithripala S would be content to become a figurehead President with no power worth talking about. There is one factor that favors a duopoly. Neither MS nor RW is the charismatic type who could fancy himself as the savior of the country and would therefore want to monopolize power. Both seem to be the bureaucratic type who would want to do a good job in a practical down to earth manner, and that is what this country needs today. We have had our fill of supposedly charismatic leaders who have abused power and wrecked this country.

I must say that I have a very favorable impression of Ranil W. True he has been a serial loser. But it is a fact that should not be forgotten that he would have won against Mahinda R in 2005 if not for the Tamil abstentions following on the LTTE diktat. But what is there to suggest that any other UNP figure in his place would not also have been a serial loser, particularly in the period after 2009? The truth is that people vote for change when they feel that the time has come for change. My very favorable impression of Ranil W is based on my first-hand experience as an official in the Foreign Ministry when he was Deputy Minister. He was very powerful as the nephew of President JR but he never threw his weight about, in striking contrast to the grotesque power-mad Foreign Minister of that time. He was only interested in getting a job done, and that was his reputation when he moved to other ministries as well. I must add, basing myself on first-hand experience, that he is devoid of anti-Muslim prejudice. He is well fitted to lead this country to a fully-functioning democracy.

The prospect of the UNP and a part of the SLFP coming together seems to have enthused many people, even to the extent of their believing that it would amount to a national Government. That would be a mistake because such a Government would not be properly representative of the ethnic minorities. But the enthusiasm is understandable because people sense that it is a development that bodes well for the future: the move away from an excessively conflictual to – at least to some extent – a consensual politics. At this point it is relevant to recall some observations made to me around 1980 by the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe. He thought that the 1977 UNP Government was a seriously unbalanced one because it had its center of gravity in the low-country since President JR came from a low-country elite family which had no Kandyan connection. On the other hand, all the previous leaders, the Senanayakes and the Bandaranaikes, represented a fusion of the low-country and the Kandyan provinces, of the Westernized bourgeoisie and the traditional rural hinterland. He thought therefore that the 1977 Government leadership lacked an authentic feeling for the land, and that he believed represented a serious imbalance. The point he was making is worth thinking about. The UNP-SLFP coming together, partial though it is, could turn out to be a highly significant development, the portent possibly of a new polarization in our politics.

An important contrast between the periods 1977 to 1994 and the period 2009 to 2014 is that in the earlier period there were two major problems: the problem of dictatorship and the ethnic problem, while in the latter period there are the same two problems with the difference that the ethnic problem seems to derive from the problem of dictatorship. This is because the dictatorial drive under President Rajapakse has a distinct racist neo-Fascist character, for reasons that I have explored in earlier articles. The important point is that the prerequisite for solutions of our two ethnic problems of the present day, the Tamil and the Muslim one, is a fully functioning democracy. Both minorities should therefore vote solidly for the combined Opposition. It may be that President Rajapakse will scrape through to a narrow victory, not a substantial one. In that case he should seek a new direction for his politics, abandoning the present one which without representing a true national consensus will almost certainly lead to national disaster.

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