| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena
Courtesy: The Sunday Times, Colombo

( September 29, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Rajapaksa administration faced its harshest post-war reality-check administered by the villagers of Uva-Wellassa last week when it lost electoral strongholds in the Badulla District and only scraped through with proverbial inches to spare in regard to the leadership of the Uva Provincial Council itself. 

Reason to celebrate 

This was despite multifarious election violations and the garish abuse of power including rampant bribery and corruption by ruling party politicians which went unchecked by elections officials and the police. 

So there is reason to celebrate. Devoid of party-political loyalties, all Sri Lankans who do not wish to see the country reduced to the corrupt fiefdom of a single ruling family must surely hail the result. The grotesquely imbalanced power equation that we see now must be corrected. Even the most establishment-prone among us, (I refer here not to slavishly loyal lackeys but rather to those who persist in seeing some good in the government trajectory), must acknowledge this. 

For the United National Party, it is a spectacular drawing back from the abyss, engineered by a young opposition parliamentarian who cannily shifted his base from the national to the provincial and arose above vicious intra-party conflicts. 

Dispelling of persistent myths

Some persistent myths need to be dispelled at the outset. As oft reiterated in these column spaces, the first telling lesson to this government would be taught by rural voters rather than by urbanized liberals or the elite who tend to dismiss the ‘hoi polloi’ with scorn. Last Saturday’s election bears this out in no uncertain terms. Similarly, the Uva result negates the perception of a continuing monolithic preference for the Rajapaksa regime by ordinary Sinhala-Buddhist voters. 

Indeed, the voters of Uva numbering some of the poorest in the country, hammered home a point which many sophisticated urban voters had failed to grasp for a while. This time around, the fiendishly clever tactic adopted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa of separating himself from the misdeeds of his administration did not quite work. President Rajapaksa’s direct engagement in Uva election meetings on behalf of contesting government politicians failed to sway the votes in Badulla.
The fact that the provincial leader of the government team was a Rajapaksa relative of the extraordinarily close kind did not work either. 

Time had come for a ‘good lesson’

Profound dissatisfaction with government policies based on needless extravaganzas and the cynical encouraging of communal and religious divisions had been growing for some time. As a Sinhalese vegetable cultivator in Bandarawela observed in a casual conversation with me last year long before September’s Provincial Elections was even on the cards, ‘anduwa natanawa wadi, balayath wadi...honda padamakata kale hari’ (this government is dancing too much, it has too much power…the time has come for a good lesson).

Moreover, the electoral results should not be interpreted to mean a mere reprimand administered by poor villagers struggling for their basic survival. True, Rajapaksa policies which seemingly depend on the rural Sinhala Buddhist voter for its electoral base but cater overwhelmingly to the economically privileged were bound to confront their inherent contradictions sooner rather than later. These contradictions are not merely theoretical but result in the practical deprivation of livelihoods.
Take the Uma Oya project in Welimada for example, meant to take the waters of the Uma Oya to the Southern dry region. This is a project that had been rejected on numerous occasions earlier by leading multilateral donors on the basis, inter alia that it was unsustainable due to the insufficient income generated when compared to the incurred cost. Under the Rajapaksa government however, this project was implemented with ‘aid’ from the Government of Iran without proper environmental impact assessments and contrary to law. Catastrophic consequences have ensued for affected villagers and the environment, contrary to the frantic cries of Badulla based government politicians. 

Stop the crippling of the democratic process

And unlike a decade ago when problematic development efforts were legally challenged, the courts are not envisaged as a practical forum to appeal for relief given the lack of public confidence thereto. But disastrous development policies aside, the rationale underlying the Uva vote result emerges from a stronger base. It is underpinned by the electoral acknowledgment that a government veritably gone mad with power has to be reined back, expressed in the most homespun language possible by my erstwhile conversationalist in Bandarawela. 

Whether the blow administered by the Uva voters can be strategically taken to a national level by Sri Lanka’s opposition remains to be seen. On its own part, the Rajapaksa regime would do well to restrain itself from further degradation of the governance process. Recent plans to amend local government laws enabling heads of local authorities to stay in office despite annual budgets being defeated on two consecutive occasions during the year under review is one example. Yet another is its intention to legalise election violations as recently reported in this newspaper. 

These are unacceptable deviations from the democratic process. Particularly now they will only be seen as further enabling of ‘hora’ (robbing) of the vote. 

Addressing national failures in justice 

Most of all however, this government must realize that the assumption of ‘eternal gratitude’ of the rural Sinhala-Buddhist vote bank for ending active fighting with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the North and East is dangerously faulty. It must reverse its post-war militarization drive and reach out to the minorities. State protection must not be given to militant groups who spew racial and religious hatred while clad in yellow robes. 

Indeed, the correction of national failures in justice will impact positively on international opinion regarding the treatment of our own citizens during the ending of war in the Wanni. The democratic health of judicial, policing, prosecutorial and electoral processes must be revitalized. These imperatives can only be for the greater good of the country. 

For the moment however, we can only take our hats off to the voters of Uva-Wellassa and give a resounding cheer.