A pauper’s choice

Thursday, 30 January 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“Today, only money talks. Intelligent people no longer come forward to contest elections. Women don’t contest. It’s only rich thugs who enter the fray” - Senior Minister D.E.W. Gunesekera, 31 August 2013. On 31 August 2013, with less than a month to go for the historic Northern Provincial Council election Senior Minister D.E.W. Gunesekera publicly made some prophetic statements. Hailing the Tamil National Alliance candidate list, the Communist Party Leader said Supreme Court judges and former Parliamentarians of vast experience had been chosen to represent the country’s main Tamil party at the election that has meant the most to its people since 1989. “When they win, and they build their cabinet, their conduct will be a lesson for all other Provincial Councils in the country,” Minister Gunesekera said, in a speech that garnered very little publicity at the time. His sentiments came at a time when the ruling UPFA was going hammer and tongs at the TNA and its Chief Ministerial Candidate former Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran for allegedly making a case for separation in the party’s election manifesto. In the same speech, Minister Gunesekera opined that Sri Lanka had laid the foundation stone for separation on the day it passed the 6th Amendment to the Constitution in 1983, sealing the fate of 18 TULF members – the largest group in Opposition at the time – who were expelled from the legislature. The Sixth Amendment, that outlaws political parties and individuals seeking to espouse the cause of a separate state, thereby threatening the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, The International Commission of Jurists, following a reporting mission to Sri Lanka, observed that the amendment effectively violated Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that Sri Lanka is signatory to. “The freedom to express political opinions, to seek to persuade others of their merits, to seek to have them represented in Parliament and thereafter seek Parliament to give effect to them are all fundamental to democracy itself. These are precisely the freedoms which Article 25 (of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights) recognises and guarantees - and in respect of advocacy for the establishment of an independent Tamil State in Sri Lanka, those which the 6th Amendment is designed to outlaw,” ICJ Jurist Paul Sieghart writes in his report entitled, Sri Lanka – A Mounting Tragedy of Errors in 1984. Arguments for the amendment at the time would posit that Sri Lanka was on the brink of separatist war, with the Tamil militancy growing in strength and resolve, especially following the ethnic pogrom of July 1983. What the Sixth Amendment is most certainly no more, is grounds upon which to attempt to proscribe legitimate political parties engaging in the democratic process.       TNA’s sword of Damocles But ironically, weeks after Gunesekera’s outburst about the Sixth Amendment and its contribution to exacerbating the ethnic struggle in Sri Lanka, it was the same constitutional provision cited by nationalist groups to seek a proscription of the TNA just ahead of the 21 September poll. The Supreme Court stopped short of suspending the Northern Provincial Election as requested in the petitions, but granted the six petitioners leave to proceed in the case. The case is still in the process of being heard, with regular postponements and technical amendments four months later, poised like the sword of Damocles over the heads of 13 TNA Parliamentarians and 30 provincial councillors who will be poised to lose their seats if the party is banned. The Government will play this particular hand only when it is completely ready however to damn international opinion and repercussion to hell. To seal the TNA fate thus, would effectively mean sealing its own, by proving to an international community that is pushing hard for reconciliation and a permanent political solution that the Rajapaksa Administration has very little interest in either. Thus far, the Central Government is content with tying the Chief Minister’s hands with bureaucratic wrangles and frustrating its political efforts, certain that the Tamil voters that polled overwhelmingly in favour of the TNA will lose faith in the political process as time goes on with so little being achieved. Every once in a while, it will also issue veiled threats. Recently the Defence Ministry pledged to rehabilitate TNA Councillor and second highest vote taker, Ananthi Sasitharan to purge her of separatist ideals, and yesterday the defence establishment announced an investigation into the TNA-LTTE links in the 2001 and 2004 Parliamentary elections based on a EU polls report and photographic evidence.     The right choice But while the Northern Provincial Council may be unpopular and downright dangerous as far as nationalists in the south are concerned, four months after its election into office, just about everyone else has begun to sit up and take notice. The TNA went into the Northern Provincial Council election confident of victory and equally confident of the impotency of the PC system. The party’s highly contentious election manifesto says as much. The TNA commitment to winning that election therefore, had more symbolic and experimental value than any real conviction that it was a process by which the political and economic rights of the Tamil people of the war-torn north and east could be secured. Critics of the TNA’s four month old administration in the Northern Province believe that the party would serve its time in office better by attending to the real time problems of the bruised and battered people of the region, instead of engaging in showdowns with the ruling regime in Colombo. Problems of shelter, healthcare, livelihood and resettlement remain major concerns for the people of the Northern Province and problems the new TNA-led Council could sink its teeth into and get moving on, even on its meagre budgets, these critics claim.       Playing into their hands But convinced that the nationalistic tenor of the Rajapaksa administration’s policy towards the Tamils would mean that the regime would blockade any meaningful progress the Council seeks to make in the Northern Province, the TNA set out to prove from the outset that the Provincial Council System afforded no real devolution to the periphery. Every move the Rajapaksa administration makes to obstruct the smooth functioning of the Council, by allowing an all powerful Governor and provincial bureaucracy that is unshakably loyal to the Executive to hold all the cards effectively proves the TNA’s point. The Sampanthan strategy to field a candidate of unsurpassed credentials, intellect and universal appeal as the Party’s Chief Ministerial candidate therefore was more far-sighted than any political decision has been in recent memory. The 80 year old TNA Leader, Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, in consultation with equally erudite advisors, chose Justice C.V. Wigneswaran. The former Supreme Court judge, born and bred in Colombo to parents who hailed from Jaffna was a symbol of north-south integration if ever there was one. And while he may have faltered somewhat during the polls campaign by a display of political naiveté and less than judicious platform speeches, in the aftermath of that heady election season, Wigneswaran still appears to have been the correct choice. As Northern Province Chief Minister, his wings may be clipped administratively, but he has become an international focal point for Tamil representation by virtue of his massive public mandate, the most recent and overwhelming since the conclusion of the conflict in 2009. Every diplomatic visit to the north includes frank discussions with the Chief Minister, a man who is able to communicate at the highest level the plight of his people and explain his own predicament at the helm of the Council, hemmed in by a government and an administration that remains inherently prejudiced towards the TNA. Between Wigneswaran and his Councillor Ananthi Sasitharan, the case for Tamil rights and greater devolution is being made more eloquently than ever; the Chief Minister because he is a man of law and learning and Ananthi because of her own experiences as the wife of a disappeared ex-LTTE cadre. Contrast the strategy and calibre of the Wigneswaran-run NPC with the prospects facing the Western and Southern Provinces today.     Nadir of political representation The ‘beauty queen display’ of potential candidates that has come in for such strong criticism, marks a spectacular nadir in the calibre of political representation being offered up to the electorate at what the ruling administration and the opposition claim are crucial elections. Elections that these parties insist will precede a national poll early next year. That the five female candidates who went before the Sri Lanka Freedom Party Nomination Board were for the most part actresses, models or entertainers was hardly the problem. To seek election is the democratic right of every citizen that meets the legal criteria to appear on the ballot. Sri Lanka has a fairly robust tradition in fact, of actors and entertainers turned politicians – men and women of substance and character entered the political fray and left indelible marks. Gamini Fonseka and Vijaya Kumaratunga immediately spring to mind, while even more recent entrants like the UNP’s Rosie Senanayake have transcended beauty-queen and entertainer labels to become political forces to reckon with. The trouble with Judith White (Ginger), Gayesha Perera, Ruwanthi Mangala and Hirunika Premachandra is that these nominees have no political vision or genuine will to engage, and are more likely to aspire to the embarrassing standards set by the likes of Upeksha Swarnamali (aka Paba) who showed herself to be completely ignorant of the Sri Lankan constitution during a high profile political interview on television a few years ago. Perhaps even more troublingly, at least two of these candidates – Ginger and actress Ruwanthi Mangala have already admitted to being politically groomed by Kolonnawa kingpin and Monitoring MP of the Defence Ministry Duminda Silva. For a Government whose sole preoccupation lies with winning at any cost, the ‘five’ appear to have been picked purely on the basis of their entertainment value and face recognition amongst voters. In the cases of Ginger and Ruwanthi Mangala, the two nominees are being actively fielded by MP Duminda Silva in order to counter the Hirunika Premachandra phenomenon in the Colombo District. Taking its cue from the ruling UPFA, the main opposition United National Party has also decided to field an actress of its own.     A crisis of choice The likely success of these candidates is as much an indictment on the Sri Lankan voter as it is on the venerable members of the ruling party’s Nomination Board. In the last Parliamentary election in 2010, ‘Paba’, then a UNP candidate, performed better in the preferential vote list than the party’s Deputy Leader, Karu Jayasuriya. Sri Lankan Politicians, men or women are rarely ever beacons of integrity and honour. Some might say many of them would easily qualify as proper thugs and scoundrels. But the ‘dumb-down’ culture, actively propagated by the Sri Lankan mass media and the ruling regime that persists in picking candidates based on the amount of money they can spend or their star power with voters, has altered the mindset of the voter. In the absence of good political role models, the calculation appears to be that one may as well elect into office a face they recognise from an advertisement, teledrama or musical show. The call to increase female political representation at all levels of government is gravely damaged by the selection of such candidates, who are relegated to the sidelines at the end of election season, rarely even in attendance at Parliament or Council sessions. Against such star power and the resources that will be thrown at such candidates by the likes of Silva, what chance does a female candidate of substance and character have to be elected by the people? The burden lies heavy on the shoulders of the SLFP Nomination Board. The party is struggling to stay afloat against the juggernaut of influence exerted upon it by the ruling family. Flooding the field with outsiders who have little interest in the political process and whose allegiance to the Rajapaksa dynasty or its loyalists are beyond doubt, is part of the strategy to weaken the SLFP from within. Permitting these candidates to contest on the ruling party ticket therefore, speaks directly to the heart of the SLFP’s own bankruptcy. That the Party seniors cannot bring candidates of substance and hardcore SLFP members to the Nomination Board is proof positive that its clout within the ruling alliance is dwindling. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party has watched with glee for years as the fortunes of the UNP have faded and the party has disintegrated, little realising that its own base has been grievously wounded.       Reflective of national realities And so Sri Lanka will have it. The state of provincial politics is reflective of the national political reality. Sri Lanka has a Northern Provincial Council run by a former judge of the highest court, and a provincial people who are represented throughout the world by a learned and eloquent man. Meanwhile, its counterparts in the west and the south will be flooded by political kith and kin, actresses and supermodels with little interest in people or politics, swayed only by the prestige and power political office will offer. It is what the rulers deem the southern provinces deserve, and the electorate laps it up. Nationally, the crisis is not very different. The Government argues that Sri Lanka is embroiled in a political conflict, between north and south, pro-LTTE and anti-terrorist, separatist Diaspora and patriots. It argues this case domestically and internationally, even as the walls close in on the prospect of the Rajapaksa administration having to face an international inquiry into crimes committed in war-time. Fighting in the Government’s corner are the rabble-rousing right wing Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka, violent political elements like Duminda Silva and now the plethora of pretty faces that will ensure the UPFA’s poster campaigns are plenty colourful. Sri Lanka’s political north meanwhile, that southern politicians claim is still under the influence of separatists, is represented by the collective intellect and political wiliness of the triumvirate of Sampanthan-Wigneswaran and M.A. Sumanthiran. If, as the Government portrays it, this is a battle for Sri Lanka’s territorial survival, the joke, is undeniably on the south.

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