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National Lists: the last refuge for the politically displaced?

By Malinda Seneviratne

(February 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In October or November of the year 2001 I wrote a piece in the daily ‘Island’ titled ‘A refugee camp called "The National List’.It was a light and cynical look at the national lists submitted to the Elections Commissioner by the People’s Alliance, the United National Party and other parties. I called them refugee camps because both major political coalitions had unashamedly given the finger to the spirit in which the notion of ‘national lists’ came about, namely to allow for decent, skilled, honourable people (who neither had the wealth necessary nor the inclination to dive into the wasuru-keliya (shit-game, literally) that is electoral politics - a chance to be sent to parliament. .

The ‘National List’ was to be for professionals and not for political has-beens who were no longer sure of being elected. It was not meant to be used as ‘payment’ for support extended by smaller parties. In 2001, the only party that seemed to have taken the expressed purpose of the National List idea seriously was the Sihala Urumaya. After the elections, the UNP and PA basically used the national list to reward coalition partners and cronies thick with the party leadership. The Sihala Urumaya didn’t get any seats and that’s not because they didn’t fill their National List with retirees, kudu kaarayas and thugs who had pumped money into the election campaign.

In 2004, we had the same story. The UNP got 11 slots, and 8 of them were given to minorities. Ranil Wickremesinghe ditched people like Dr. Ranjith Atapattu and Ravindra Randeniya. The UPFA had 14 slots and seemed to have tried to take the matter more seriously. That’s how the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, Tissa Vitarana, D.E.W. Gunasekera and Viswa Warnapala came to parliament.

What do we have in the year 2010? Let us consider the UPFA and UNP lists. I am deliberately leaving out the Democratic National Alliance of Sarath Fonseka and Tilvin Silva because I would be extremely surprised if they would poll enough votes to make any impact on the overall result. .

First, let me insert a parenthetical note. The district lists of both parties show that people who have wealth, have thugs, have criminal records, have a history of underhand dealings, have little by way of integrity, are incompetent, are greedy and self-seeking are preferred over decent people. To the voter, I say, vote them out!

Ok. Back to the NLs. Let us start with the UPFA. Most of them are politicians and not the upright, professional citizens one dreams NLs would accommodate. Many of them are unlikely to secure a seat in the next Parliament had they contested. There are four of five people in the list who are ‘deserving’ at least in the sense that they are ‘stand-out’ personalities compared with the riffraff that party leaders have listed into Parliament in the past.

J.R.P. Sooriyapperuma needs no introduction. He is a presence and that’s usually the case with giants. Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha will not get elected were he to contest but he has certain skills that would be of great use to the President and the Government should the UPFA win, as expected. Janaka Bandara, former Public Trustee, is one of the best minds of my generation and it is hard to think of anyone with a greater sense of responsibility, integrity and honesty. Dullas Alahapperuma is an asset, D.M. Jayaratne is not. Dullas should have contested.

Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka, like Sanath Jayasuriya is hard to drop, not for being ‘in form’ but for sentimental reasons (at least on the part of the President and the party, not mine). Visva Warnapala and G.L. Peiris have not reached ‘use by date’, and ‘DEW’ can be more effectively used, especially in getting the Language Act implemented. Anuruddha Ratwatte is an embarrassment. So is Vinayagamurthi Muralidharan (‘Karuna Amman’).

Then there is W.J.M. Lokubandara, who has finally discovered his true political home, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He deserves reward certainly, but perhaps not in this way. I am not sure what M.H. Mohammad should be rewarded for. Geethanjana Gunawardena has not demonstrated that he is packed with his father’s genes. Ven. Omalpe Sobitha and Ven. Ellawala Medhananada are certainly heads and shoulders above most of the names in the list for many reasons, but I believe they have outlived their parliamentary role. Both theros are endowed with remarkable qualities of intellect, drive and sense of social responsibility and it can be argued that they (along with the rest of the Jathika Hela Urumaya complement in Parliament) played a key role in the last six years, but that’s all done now. They have a role in society, but not in Parliament.

Sarath Kongahage would be best as an advisor to the President; not one of the hundreds but one of the ‘inner circle’ that has Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ear. I will not comment on the unknowns thrust into the NL because their parties insisted.

The UPFA list, then, has pluses and minuses, and does have a bit of ‘national’ colour in terms of the nationalistic and honourable credentials of some of the persons in it. Taken as a whole, though, it is not ‘national’. It is essentially a refugee camp for politically displaced persons.

The UNP’s NL is a howler. It has 16 slots for minorities and that’s going way over the ‘ethnic breakdown’. No, there’s nothing wrong in that if one was guided by priciples related to meritocracy. These are not professionals, though. These are petty politicians belonging to minority parties. If Ranil Wickremesinghe really wanted to restore some kind of ‘balance’ due to perceptions of ethnic-imbalance, that is quite ok and even worthy of applause. He could do that and at the same time be loyal to the NL-spirit, so to speak, for there are enough men and women with skill, integrity and professionalism among Tamils and Moors. Instead, he has reinforced the general perception that he doesn’t give a damn about the majority community and is once again pandering to the demands of racist and chauvinistic identity-based political parties.

Seriously, what kind of party would be too shy to field its General Secretary in an election? Is Tissa Attanayaka scared he would not win? K.N. Choksy almost crossed over. He is like M.H. Mohamed. They had a role to play. No longer, though. Joseph Michael Perera and Rukman Senanayake are both politicians and should contest if they have any shame.

There are two names that stand out. Eran Wickramaratne and Harsha de Silva have both made names for themselves as professionals. Harsha, a childhood friend, and I don’t see eye to eye on many things, but I will say this much for him: he is honourable, has the courage of his convictions and a man who will be an adornment in a parliament that also has people like Mervin Silva, Range Bandara and possibly Duminda Silva and Harsha’s batchmate at Royal, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, not to mention dozens of others who can’t put two thoughts together on pain of death. I don’t know Eran personally and I am wary of the religious politics of close family members, but I think he too would adorn the UNP and the next Parliament because he is skilled, decent and by all accounts not easily purchased.

There are people I would have through Ranil Wickremesinghe would have penciled in. I was looking for two names. First, Imtiaz Bakeer Markar. The fact that he is not contesting shows that either Ranil doesn’t see his worth or lacks the leadership qualities necessary to convince the man to contest. Imtiaz would have won easily. I thought that he would be in the national list. I mean, if a mumbler-grumbler like Tissa Attanayake is in it, then why not Imtiaz, unless of course the latter feels cheap in such company.

Krishantha Cooray is another name. He is ‘national’ in ways that few in the UNP are. As the CEO of Rivira Media Corporation, Krishantha, whose political loyalties were with people like Lalith Athulathmudali and Karu Jayasuriya, was steadfast in supporting the effort to eliminate the LTTE. He bore no personal grudges and encouraged his staff to call a spade a spade. He had a good thing going until he resigned. He chose to side with the UNP at the last Presidential Election and there’s nothing illegitimate in that choice. I have disagreed with him on numerous issues, but am willing to stake the truth value of everything that I write on the man’s integrity, love for this country and considerable (and hardly used) skills as a lawyer, communicator and manager. If national lists are about ‘nationalists’, then what’s most visible in the UNP’s NL is the absence of Krishantha Cooray’s name.

Perhaps he didn’t want to be included, perhaps he was not remembered. On the other hand he may have been remembered, only to be un-remembered because others had to be ‘remembered’. That would explain, I think, not just why the UNP’s NL is more of an IDP facility than that of the UPFA’s, but why the UNP has become a veritable home to politically displaced persons.

It is more than eight years since I likened National Lists to refugee camps. Today I am less cynical than sad. We’ve come a long way in the past eight years. The leaders of the main political parties ought to have learnt something or at least tried to be different this time around. Both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe get F’s from me for the National List exam paper.

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