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When politics becomes a family business

| by Dilrukshi Handunnetti

( January 15, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the Middle Ages, it had been tradition that Catholic Popes and Bishops passed on their titles to their nephews. Having taken a vow of celibacy, it was not possible for them to produce offspring, and relied on their nephews (nepos in Latin) to continue the religious dynasties, giving rise to the condemned practice of nepotism.

Popes and Bishops took vows of chastity that prevented them from having children, but even the church found a way to perpetuate control. This has caught on and in the world over, there is so much nepotism, making it a way of life than a questionable practice that perpetuates inequity, recognized by global graft fighters as a form of corruption. 

History records instances of very young persons of being Cardinals, and the dynastic practice came to an end only in 1692. The term, nepotism, however, took on various forms and survived well beyond the church, becoming a common practice and even a social norm that is difficult to break.

Today, nepotism broadly means favouritism practiced in politics. It is where nepotism appears to flourish the most, particularly in Africa and South Asia – a practice these countries appear to have extreme difficulty in curbing.

Sri Lankan status

Sri Lanka’s own dynastic legacy in post independence is largely linked to both the Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes. The United National Party (UNP) was once known as the ‘uncle nephew party’ – an identity it still fails to shed with Party Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, promoting not a nephew but his cousin, Ruwan Wijewardene, despite strong opposition from within – and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is no better. Starting from the Bandaranaikes, the SLPF had continued with the same tradition that denies equality, for which the current administration is well-known for.

Wikipedia, in a section that offers examples of nepotism refers to several country examples including Sri Lanka. It states: “Mahinda Rajapaksa has been accused of nepotism, appointing three brothers to run important ministries and other political positions for relatives, regardless of their merit. The Rajapaksa family hold the Ministries of Finance, Defence, Ports and Aviation, Highways and Road Development. The President’s brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, was given the post of Defence Secretary. He also controls the Armed Forces, the Police and the Coast Guard, and is responsible for Immigration and Emigration. Rajapaksa appointed his brother, Basil Rajapaksa, as Minister of Economic Development. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eldest brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, is also the current Speaker of the Parliament of Sri Lanka, and has held many other posts before, while his eldest son, Namal Rajapaksa, is also a Member of the Parliament and holds undisclosed portfolios.

“Others include: His nephew, Shashindra Rajapaksa, who is the Chief Minister of Uva; one of his cousins, Jaliya Wickramasuriya is the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States; and another cousin, Udayanga Weeratunga, is the Ambassador to Russia. Dozens of nephews, nieces, cousins, and in-laws have also been appointed as heads of banks, boards, and corporations.”

Case of being ‘whose who’

For long years in this country, it had been a case of being ‘whose who’ that qualified new entrants to politics much more than the contribution they could make or the vision they had to offer an electorate.

True to tradition, now that two elections in extremely important two Provinces – Southern and Western – have been announced, there is a flurry of political activity with Party Headquarters getting geared for the upcoming hustings. One has to only look at those who have announced their political ambitions – sons, nephews, wives, widows and daughters – all ready to continue to practice dynastic politics.

Ask any one of them, the answers come fast and furious as to why it is right for them to do so. The first– there is a public expectation. We need to conclude that these candidates are simply there to please a few people who want to continue with the old powerbases, but have little else to offer. Besides those who are threatening to continue with family legacies and seek justice for their dead (like Hirunika Premachandra who is willing to turn her charm on the electorate and survive on the sympathy votes she hopes to garner, in her own words), there are others who think it so perfectly acceptable to continue nepotistic politics simply because voters will cast their preferences to secure their victory.

Voter education 

In this country, similar to many other countries, including neighbouring India that boasts of a stronger democratic tradition, nepotism is also part of political history. Adult franchise has not rendered our voters mature. They continue to rely on family links and vote families that have been trusted for years, perpetuating a system which, in its true face, debars qualified persons who may lack the political family connections to enter politics. The names that are touted at present are an embarrassment, given that they are in it, simply because of their families.

In Sri Lanka, if the candidates are ascending power purely due to dynastic politics, the voters deserve equal blame but not more than the political parties. It is the political parties that keep introducing generation after generation into politics, whether they have the aptitude or qualify as true peoples’ representatives. The bankruptcy of the island’s politics is clear, looking at the level of nepotism that prevails and by the actors and actresses who seek to use their stardom to garner some votes.

In the final analysis, the political parties of this country have failed to mentor a second generation, one that is keen to dabble in politics and show commitment. Instead, they have to rely on families who love to perpetuate family names through generations of nepotistic politics and starlets whose fame might render them successful. In that light, there is very little hope in this island for enlightened politics.

( The writer is a editor of the Ceylon Today, a daily newspaper based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where this piece was originally published) 

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