Secret Gerrymandering could spell death knell for reconciliation

  Gerrymandering involves the wily redrawing of electoral district boundaries in a manner that will deny majority groups of voters victory at elections, by creating the ‘wasted vote effect’. Electoral boundaries are drawn in such a way to "pack"majority voter groups into a few districts they would win anyway, wasting many extra votes;

 By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

The dawn of 2016 appears to have induced some welcome changes in the general stand of President Sirisena in the form of attempts to curtail the cultural degeneration of the Sri Lankan society. His announcement of the need to ‘whip’ the organisers of the ‘thuppahi’ concert in Colombo and the subsequent apparent toughening of the stance bodes well for the country. Significantly, he has also announced that the Russian President Vladimir Putin is his favourite international leader whom he plans to invite to visit Sri Lanka on a future date.

Both these new policy positions run counter to the lines being actively pursued by his UNP bedmates: they are ‘unashamedly’ promoting overt cultural surrender to the globalised, so-called ‘western’ culture- sans any values. This is being displayed through ridiculously inappropriate attire for the climate being sported by the key fig ures of the UNP and others, knowingly or unknowingly, adopting even the American naming custom, complete with middle initial and all! As purported national leaders, they seem to be oblivious to the degrading symbolism of such practices on the general population.

On the economic front - as being pronounced endlessly by cabinet members holding key economic portfolios - the UNP’s subservience to the despised neoliberal economic model appears to be complete. The prime minister’s unrolling of the red carpet to the Hungarian Robber baron George Soros removes any doubts. Hopelessly bereft of creative, independent thinking on means to revive the economy, they don’t even seem to realise the inappropriateness of a struggling developing country embracing an economic model that is an excuse for plunder of the global poor by the rich 1%: the label ‘neoliberal’ is a ‘clear’ misnomer because there is nothing ‘liberal’ about this obscenity being perpetrated on the world’s poor. In this context, the president’s admiration of President Putin, the joint leader (with China) of an alternate economic model, is encouraging.

The president’s demarcation of some ‘points of difference’ from those he is cohabiting with however, could merely be a clever political trick aimed at appeasing the grass roots level SLFP members who are yet to join him in the ‘yahapalana’ flight; The values he is now pronouncing are clearly long-held SLFP policies - since 1956 - and the SLFP rank and file clearly held on to those values when a ruthlessly ambitious Sirisena decided to abandon them in 2014. So it is clear that the need to establish his leadership credentials by winning back the SLFP’s heartland from Mahinda Rajapaksa, as well as by defeating the UNP at the local government elections is behind Sirisena’s rediscovery of cultural allegiances and patriotism.

The delayed ‘timing’ of the local government elections however, is dictated by the sad political plight of the so-called ‘national government’ of unity: there clearly is a ‘pillow fight’ between the bedmates, with the SLFP wanting to buy some time to patch their internal differences and settle differences with the UNP, whereas the UNP is keen to have them early in order to exploit those divisions.

But both parties are sharing equal measures of desperation, due to the collapse of two of what may be called the ‘tripod’ of promises on which they got in to power - namely eliminating nepotism and corruption - are in tatters, and the third, ‘national reconciliation’ is precariously hanging by a thread.

The Sri Lankan people have clearly given up on the government’s promises to eliminate nepotism in view of the brazen appointments of countless ‘nepotes’ to government posts by the president and his ministers; The failure to unearth any significant cases of corruption by leading members of the previous dispensation suggests that claims were exaggerated in the first place, based on the advice of foreign backers of regime change.

The promise of urgent national reconciliation is now facing a similar fate due to the cynical politicisation of this highly complex task; The deferral of the local government elections in order to enable electoral redistribution (Gerrymander) is likely to be the last nail on the coffin of reconciliation for the reasons elucidated below: The reasons arise from the very nature of reconciliation as an amorphous concept and process, and the fundamentally undemocratic political landscape the secretive Gerrymander is going to give rise to, with prospects of alienating the majority Sinhala speaking community.

Reconciliation, at best, is a concept that defies easy definition: it seems to be obvious when it is absent,but its proponents will be hard-pressed to cite any examples of "reconciled societies" of the type they are wishing for: It is a counter intuitive proposition that media-driven tamashas could potentially generate significant amounts of goodwill between community groups who have been at loggerheads with each other, due primarily to economic insufficiency. It is perhaps this slippery and fundamentally ineffective nature of ‘reconciliation’that attracts cynical groups with global political agendas, aided by domestic lackeys as in the case of Sri Lanka, to exploit this process for nefarious ends.

To ‘reconcile’ originally meant to ‘resolve’-a term used in the context of divine-human relationship that is linked to the notion of salvation in Christianity;Neocons expanded its meaning to include resolving disparities among groups formerly at odds with each other, offering them hope of peaceful futures. Notwithstanding the ill-defined nature of the term, all nations are being advised by the neocons ‘to reconcile’ if they are to have any future.

The reconciliation bandwagon grew in the 1990s following the end of apartheid in South Africa (SA). Amusingly, the democratic government of SA attempted to legislate for reconciliation in the form of a National Unity and Reconciliation Act (1995), and further attempts were made to promote it through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Nearly two decades later social relations, or economic disparity, between the Black majority and the white, privileged few have hardly changed. Later the reconciliation bandwagon found its way to other, totally different scenarios like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Even established states such as the US, Canada, and Australia chose it as a platform to deal with their own historical legacies of injustice towards Indigenous populations.

Such wide adoption of a concept that has no clear norms inevitably attracted people and bodies with dubious sincerity of motives to misuse it:Tony Blair, a man who failed to express remorse for his despicable role in causing up to a million civilian casualties in Iraq sought reconciliation with the Irish through a ridiculous ‘apology’ for the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s! Similarly corrupt and dishonourable US Congress debated an official apology for slavery - without any mention of reparations.

Efforts of reconciliation between majority and minority communities in many developing countries however, even within the obviously limited scope the process offers, require ready acceptance by the majority group if they are to succeed at all; The failure of the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people the Australian Parliament unanimously adopted in 1991 provides an example:the effort aimed at creating a ‘united’ Australian people through the sharing of histories, cultures and identities failed due to the rejection bythe majority to concede that the current plight of the Indigenous people is rooted in historical factors such as the invasion, colonisation, massacres and theft of land and children;This shows the salience of receiving majority support for any reconciliation effort to succeed.

It is asserted here that the Gerrymandering that is currently taking place ‘under the table’ -during the time bought by postponing the local government elections - is going to deprive the reconciliation equation of this all-important factor by reinforcing the fears of the Sinhala majority that they are forced to sacrifice more than what a ‘reasonable’ pact would entail.

Gerrymandering is a practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or a demographic (such as a political, ethnic, racial, linguistic, or religious group) by manipulating electoral district boundaries. - It was the redrawing of irregular boundaries of Massachusetts in 1812 by Governor Elbridge Gerry, to result in a map resembling the ghastly amphibian salamander that gave the name Gerrymander (Gerry+ salamander) to this exercise.

Gerrymandering is an on-going feature of American politics, with the party in power having the total power to draw boundaries in 41 of the 52 states; It is alleged that the Republican ‘victory’ of the 2012 election for the US House of Representatives by a 234 to 201 margin, despite Democrats receiving 1.4 million more votes was a typically distorted result produced through Gerrymandering. It is not surprising that,the same American neocon operatives behind the 2014 regime change are advising on further measures of destabilisation of the country.

Gerrymandering involves the wily redrawing of electoral district boundaries in a manner that will deny majority groups of voters victory at elections, by creating the ‘wasted vote effect’. Electoral boundaries are drawn in such a way to "pack"majority voter groups into a few districts they would win anyway, wasting many extra votes;The remaining,majority of districts would be constructed more tightly, with the disliked group "cracked"out of them, allowing close victories to those doing the Gerrymandering. These tactics are typically combined in some form, creating a few "forfeit" seats for packed voters of one type in order to secure more seats and greater representation for voters of another type. This results in candidates of one group (the one responsible for the gerrymandering) winning by small majorities in most of the districts, and another group winning by a large majority in only a few of the districts.It distorts democracy in a major way by denying the ‘majority’ control,the avowed principle of true democracy.

It does not demand exceptional intelligence to see how this process could be used to ‘strategically’ distribute voters belonging to certain ethnic minorities, residing predominantly in urban areas (of Colombo, Galle, Kandy Dehiwela, Kotte).It is clearly not a coincidence that these urban areas have been earmarked for gerrymandering by the minister for local government and he campaigned for the deferral vehemently, to give himself enough time to effect change. The situation is worsened because the same group has demonstrated,at the last presidential as well as general elections, their preparedness for ‘block voting’ under the influence of various forces at work.

Only the President and the Prime Minister - who collectively share political experience of over 80 years - can prevent hasty, underhand electoral redistribution at this juncture by groups with aggressive hidden agendas.It is also significant that the very same ethnic minority politicians who enjoyed all the privileges and ministerial posts under the last dispensation - for its entire duration - are the ones scheming to fundamentally change the integrity of Sri Lankan democracy.

In less than 12 months the current regime has proved much more nepotistic, and at least as corrupt as the one it replaced. Alarmingly, it is short of any coherent economic plans other than talks of a trade-led recovery. Allowing cynical minority politicians within it carry out Gerrymandering of urban areas will destroy any remaining credentials of the government’s ‘love for the country’ - and its future.

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