After crucial poll, priority for good governance

By Ameen Izzadeen
A crucial election held, a winner declared, what’s next? The way forward is not victory celebrations or taking political revenge. What Sri Lanka badly needs today is a civilised political culture. The task should begin now to take the country towards a political culture where people will have no reason to doubt the integrity of the elections commissioner, the police chief and other state and military officials. The manner in which the Elections Commissioner handled yesterday’s presidential election — his first — without bowing down to political pressure or buckling under work pressure is an indication that a new dawn is emerging over the political landscape of Sri Lanka once again.
We yearn for a political culture where the will of the people is respected and not distorted; where the vote of the poverty-stricken citizen is not bought for a few hundred rupees and a packet of lunch; where the politicians are held accountable for unfulfilled promises made on election platforms; where racism or communal politics will have no place; where the Rule of Law will prevail; where the police will act impartially; where the public servant will have the courage to say no to the politician; where the judges can have a clear conscience; where citizens will use their right to information to ascertain whether their tax money is properly and efficiently used; where the government deals will be transparent and corruption-free; and where the right person will get the right job.
The wish list can go on but it is not mere wishful thinking of an idealist. The dream of good governance is worth dreaming, for it is good governance that ensures economic stability, which, in turn alleviates poverty and propels growth. Nobel-Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen argues that freedom and good governance are essential for economic development.
At Independence 66 years ago, ours was a country which the world stopped and took note of – not because of its value as a strategic location during a world war, but because of its values. The little country which was only known as Lipton’s tea garden during the 19th century colonial era, stood tall after Independence as a shining star among the civlised nations. Within decades of regaining Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka was playing a big role in world affairs – the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951 — and in peace efforts aimed at solving many world conflicts such as the 1956 Suez war, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the 1962 war between India and China. Morality-based politics and a foreign policy that displayed zeal to bring about a global order founded on justice and equality saw Sri Lanka playing a key role as a beacon of Non-Alignment in the struggle to free Asia and Africa from the yoke of colonialism and neo-colonialism.
During the last decades of the colonial period, we embraced democratic ideals and notions just as duck took to the water. This was probably why Sri Lankans were accorded universal adult franchise in 1931 just three years after people in Great Britain were granted it and even before India and Britain’s other colonies. The concept of a just society was deep-seated in Buddhism, the religion of the majority of Sri Lankans, and was not alien to the followers of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam either.
Democracy was so entrenched in Sri Lanka’s politics at Independence that a proposal to instal a descendent of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, the last king of the Kandyan kingdom, as a figurehead monarch when the colonial rule ended died no sooner than it was mooted.
At Independence, Sri Lanka was a politically mature society with the working class pinning its hopes on socialism while its ruling elite and the middle class pursued a liberal philosophy in politics and economics. The dynamism of this political maturity manifested in the hartal of 1953 and insurrections in 1971 and 1988 when attempts were made to undermine democracy and the welfare state.
But, sadly personal and party gains took precedence over statesmanship, paving the way for communal politics and confining to the dustbin of history the unity with which all Sri Lankans fought for Independence. The situation took a turn for the worse with the introduction of the Republican Constitution of 1978. The Constitution per se is not bad. But don’t they say that a bad constitution can be good in the hands of a good leader and a good constitution can be bad in the hands of a bad leader? The 1978 Constitution had many democratic features despite its many defects. One major defect is the Proportional Representation system and the preferential voting systme with the district as the basic electoral unit. This paved the way for the criminalisation of politics and the politicisation of crime. The politician needs a fortune to campaign throughout a district — a much larger unit than the previous electorate — and much of this money comes from anti-social elements on a quid-pro-quo basis.
Of course, the attempts to end the separatist war, which went on for three decades largely due to Velupillai Prabhakaran’s megalomaniac barbarism, required the citizens to forego some of their key freedoms. It was a reasonable sacrifice in the interest of the national cause. But the sad part of it is that many of these rights the citizens agreed to forego as part of their contribution to achieve peace did not come back to them in full. Worse still, many a law passed after the end of the war took governance towards authoritarianism. As a result there is a big democracy deficiency in the country, so much so that not a single law was passed after the war ended to strengthen democracy.
The freedom regained after the May 2009 war victory cannot be defined as the freedom to move from Devundara to Point Pedro without fear or being stopped at checkpoints. Freedom of movement is just a small part of the freedom we crave for. We are yet to see the fullness of the freedom of expression, the judicial independence and the freedom of public servants and police officers to carry out their duties without fear or favour.
Equally, development should not be confined to infrastructure. Development encompasses a much larger concept. Real development means simultaneous progress in the economic, social, cultural, moral and political life of the State and its people. What is the use of achieving a per capita income of US$ 10,000 if the country is morally bankrupt? The way forward is good governance, whoever has won Thursday’s election.
(This article first appeared in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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