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Sri Lanka: Shifting from democracy to demagoguery?

Our values are changing from Liberty, Equality and Fraternity to Corruption, Nepotism and Demagoguery. Demagoguery may be described by as the ‘worship of jackals by jackasses’.

by Gamini Weerakoon

A few weeks after India’s great political dynasty of the Gandhis suffered an ignominious defeat, in neighbouring Sri Lanka attempts were being made to resurrect two defunct political dynasties.

At the SLPP's inaugural convention in Colombo last Sunday, Gotabaya Rajapaksa being introduced as the party's presidential candidate by his elder brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Alas... Sri Lanka

Most South Asian countries have a penchant for political dynasties: India with the Gandhis for more than four decades; Pakistan with the Bhuttos, Bangladesh with Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League led by his daughter Sheik Hasina and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party founded by President Zia Ur Rahman with his wife in jail still battling it out; Nepali Maoists having brutally exterminated its royal family; Bhutan still revering its monarchy and Sri Lanka with the Senanayakes Vs Bandaranaike's. And now is it: Rajapaksas Vs Premadasas? Whether political dynasts are the cause for the present plight of South Asia or not, this region houses the poorest quarter of humanity today.

Mahinda Rajapaksa the former president debarred by a constitutional provision from running for presidency for a third time, proposed a younger brother of his, an army colonel, Gotabaya, as the presidential candidate of the new political coalition, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna ( SLPP) at the election to be held in a few months’ time. Sajith Premadasa, the Deputy Leader of UNP, too, threw his hat into the ring last week in distant Badulla, before a surprisingly large crowd. His party has not yet chosen a presidential candidate.

Both have hurdles to clear before starting off on the presidential race.

Gotabaya has to clear the constitutional hurdle that debars a person holding foreign citizenship from running for presidency. It’s necessary for him to be stripped of his American citizenship officially, he being a holder of dual citizenship—American and Sri Lankan. Sajith Premadasa has to be officially nominated by his party, the UNP, but at the time of writing these comments party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, too, is expected to make a bid to be the presidential candidate.

History shows that dynasties the world over have taken countries to glory and precipitated abject disasters on them. Most did not last long save with the exception of the Ming Dynasty that lasted for 276 years (1368—1644). On the other hand, we have the apocryphal story of Roman Emperor Caligula who wanted his own dynasty but had had all his kinsmen murdered lest they should kill him to seize the throne and ended having no kinsman as a successor resulting him naming his favourite horse as his heir and emperor.

Despite the talk of an ensuing Rajapaksa dynasty and a Premadasa dynasty, Sri Lankans are fortunate in not likely to suffer the same fate as post-Caligula empire citizens in having a horse as their emperor. The Rajapaksas have been declaring for quite some time that their objective is not the establishment of dynasty as alleged by their opponents. Former President Ranasinghe Premadasa whose political clout was that he was a ‘common man’, too, had no desire to establish a dynasty and kept his son Sajith who was a stripling during his presidency, away from political platforms.

While Gota (as he is called by his admirers) is seen on TV worshipping religious dignitaries, ancient edifices and flashing presidential teflon smiles and Sajith is roaring in the countryside that he is the UNP presidential candidate, both have to take that ‘giant step’ forward in getting clearance for candidacy.

With the two ‘candidates’ in the thick of the pre-election jamborees, what happens if Gota does not get the required clearance or Sajith fails to get nomination? If Gota insists that he is entitled to be a candidate with or without due clearance in accordance with the constitutional provisions, there is bound to be chaos of an undetermined nature, to say the least. Sajith has said that if he is not given nomination by his party he will contest on his own. By that if the UNP vote is split it will be political hara-kiri.

We are certainly living in ‘interesting times’ and the Chinese say that ‘it is a curse to living in interesting times’.

What of the people—the king makers, with whom the sovereignty of the nation is supposed to be vested in? While many will pay the ritual obeisance to the voters, who is the king maker? In the opinion of some political observers, a significant section of the masses, in recent times, have evolved to be asses. The Sinhala electorate — a part of it — appears to have been polarised into a spiritual trance and is mesmerised by some devil dancers such as in the traditional ‘thovil’ (devil dancing ceremonies) for which the Southern Sri Lanka is very famous for. Some of the once independent people will sway, dance, repeat and do exactly what the political ‘Kattadiya’ (exorcist) — will say. This is evident in the obeisance exhibited to the opportunistic politics of their political leaders by even professionals such as trade unionists, teachers, doctors, students and even the so-called intellectuals at news conferences, talk shows and in newspaper articles.

American journalist and satirist H.L. Menecken categorised those involved in politics into two lots: demagogues and ‘demaslaves’. A demagogue (we have used this quote often in this column) is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots. The ‘demaslave’ is one who listens to what these idiots have to say and then pretends that he believes it himself.

These observations applied to the Lankan political scene have made us believe that Sri Lankan democracy is sliding away from democracy to demagoguery. Our values are changing from Liberty, Equality and Fraternity to Corruption, Nepotism and Demagoguery. Demagoguery may be described by as the ‘worship of jackals by jackasses’.

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