A new ethos to obtain electoral and economic victory

by Jehan Perera

(January 11, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The government has dissolved most of the local authorities and declared that elections to them will be held in March this year. These elections will be taken by all parties as a referendum on the government’s continuing hold over the electorate. After President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election as President in November 2005 by a whisker, the government has repeatedly demonstrated a stranglehold over most of the electorate, with the exception of some of the areas inhabited by the ethnic minorities. It is generally believed that this has been on account of the electorate’s appreciation of the government’s victory in the war and elimination of the LTTE.

There is however an erosion today of this support on account of the absence of the peace dividend that was reasonably anticipated after the war. The hope of people for an immediate improvement in their economic circumstances has not materialized. The inability of the government to even fulfill its election time promises of a salary increase has shaken the confidence of the people in the government’s word. The inability of incomes to match the rise in prices has impoverished many people, especially those on fixed incomes. There are more and more voices even within the government leadership expressing their concerns about easing the economic burdens on the people.

The government’s decision not to conduct the local authority elections under the first-past-the-post system for which it has prepared the necessary legislation is probably due to the concerns expressed by local level government politicians that they will not fare too well in face to face contests with the opposition. The existing proportional representation system, which the government had sought to modify, reduces the margin of victory and defeat, and is the safer option for a government that is no longer sure of its electorate.

While declaring the local authority elections the government has also decided not to hold these elections in the urban centres and towns at this time. The government has explained its decision to postpone elections in the municipalities and urban councils on account of preparations for the World Cup cricket tournament. The government would also be concerned about the possibility of suffering electoral reversals. The more educated and fixed income earning class of people live in urban areas and are more likely to be affected by price rises than their more self-reliant rural counterparts.

Misallocating resources

The government has devised various strategies to reduce the economic burden on the urban population. An original concept attributed to the President is to get the armed forces to sell vegetables at cheaper prices than in the open market. This strategy is unlikely to have much of an impact on the cost of living. The media has reported that the sales outlets are few in number and that the commodities on sale are also limited, although sold at about half the price of the open market. In the past, the government had a Marketing Department which fell casualty to its inefficiency and inability to compete with the same private sector that is today being demonized as rapacious middlemen.

There is a need on the part of the government to re-think its strategy of development and resource allocation for the future. During the time of war it made rational sense to increase the size of the military by beefing it up with additional personnel and equipping it with more sophisticated weapons. However, it makes no similar sense to continue to engage in the same practice in a post-war situation. The utilization of the excess manpower in the military to buy and sell vegetables is difficult to justify on the basis of any rational economic theory. It would be described by economists as a misallocation of resources for political purposes.

If the government wishes to adequately address the post-war problems faced by people and ensure its electoral viability into the future, it needs to make the transition to peace-time governance. War-time governance required the centralization of decision-making capacities, emergency laws and an enhanced military budget. By way of contrast, post-war governance requires a non-violent style of leadership that alone can heal the wounds of war and unfetter the economic energies of the people. When decision-making power is concentrated in a few hands, emergency laws prevail and the army is entering the vegetable trade, the message being sent to potential investors is not a positive one.

Providing a leadership that heals the wounds of war and transforms the structures of violence is the new challenge for President Rajapaksa and his government. There is widespread belief that whatever the infirmities of government, the majority of people continue to trust the President’s intentions with regard to the unity and development of the country on account of his conduct during the time of war. Most people would like to see the President lead the country to a new phase of its history after the war, as did King Asoka in ancient India. King Dutugemunu in ancient Sri Lanka is another example. These leaders are cherished in historical memory not only because they won wars, but because led their people to new heights by respecting their fallen opponents and de-militarising their post-war societies.

American example

There are also examples of leadership from other parts of the world that could be useful in Sri Lanka at this time. Over the past week I was present at a photographic exhibition and educational workshops that celebrated the vision and work of the great American civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. There was a message in this programme, which had relevance to all those people of Sri Lanka who feel that they are being marginalized and their problems are being glossed over. At the time of Rev. King’s intervention in the 1960s, the American black population faced greater discrimination and marginalization than any community in Sri Lanka. They were not even permitted to sit on buses next to white Americans.

In many other societies such oppression might have led to violence and terrorism. Sri Lanka is a society that has gone through such cycles of violence and terrorism both in the North and South. In the three main instances of violence, the outcome of these efforts to change the system was large scale destruction of life and property. The United States was able to escape this fate due to the leadership shown by Rev. King who used non-violent means of mobilizing the black population, and the responsiveness of white American society and the political leadership who responded to non-violent campaigns with major political reforms. Fifty years after Martin Luther King, American society had transformed so much that it was able to elect a black to be its President.

At the Martin Luther King event in Matara in the deep south of the country, I was able to witness a hope giving scene for Sri Lanka. Over a thousand schoolchildren and youth attended the two day programme. Like most Sri Lankan children they were shy and reluctant to raise their hands and ask questions or make comments. But at the conclusion when they were asked to make their observations one teenage boy raised his hand. He said that everyone was happy that the war had ended. He asked the other children not to be angry with what he wanted to say—that it was not enough to think that the war had ended and all was well. He asked if the other children would mind if a Tamil family moved to live amongst them. This would be a truly united Sri Lanka, like the one in the United States that Martin Luther King had worked and died for.

The lesson of this is that the government need not be hostage to the past and to its past slogans and electoral campaigns. In order to defeat the LTTE on the military battlefield, it may have been necessary to make use of ethnic nationalism to mobilize the people for war and to militarise the society. But now that phase is over. The people no longer need to be mobilized by nationalism to back the government that leads them. The cycle of confrontation, polarization and nationalistic rhetoric will not help to promote economic development nor will it attract foreign investments that the economy needs. There is an entirely new direction that the government can take and needs to take. The indications are that the people will be happy to accept leadership that stresses reconciliation, tolerance and respect for the other, which is part of the Sri Lankan ethos and which the world will want to support.
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