Christmas is a universal holiday, enthusiastically embraced by all Sri Lankans. Many in the capital have been busy for weeks, sometimes even months, getting ready the decorations and festivities to mark the season. In many ways the adoption of Christmas by people of different religions in a rare but vital instance of cultural and religious unity in Sri Lanka that must be viewed with appreciation.
Just a month ago clashes in Galle between Muslims and Buddhists showed just how fragile Sri Lanka’s peace can be and how important it is to never lose sight of the fact that we cannot be one country unless we recognise and tolerate the differences of the other. Reconciliation, in a meaningful sense, has proved elusive for Sri Lanka, despite the end of a three-decade war in 2009, and it is essential that this fundamental need is reiterated as a goal that we as a country must continue to strive for.
The Government has allocated funds for the Missing Persons Office, to be initiated next year, and has stated on numerous occasions they will continue to work towards reconciliation. But the road has proved to be tough and with elections around the corner, could become worse. Elections in Sri Lanka have increasingly become platforms to spread extremely divisive and narrow views to divide people along ethnic and religious lines to garner votes.
Politicians adroit in the insecurities of their electorates often wage campaigns on dangerous ground. They pick at the minor annoyances and disgruntlement that exists, usually dormant, in multi-ethnic societies and pits one faction against the other. The move is an effective one because sectarian violence provides politicians with a screen behind which they can hide their own corruption and other shortcomings. Gripped by fear and mistrust voters turn to those that promise to “protect” them, sometimes from people they have known their whole lives.
A distracted electorate then forgets to evaluate politicians on what counts; namely development, inclusivity and governance. Local Government elections are traditionally polls that garner little interest because practical Sri Lankan voters are aware that the true centre of power lies with parliament and the executive. As such the highest voter turnout is always for parliamentary and presidential elections. However, in the upcoming edition the stakes have been raised with the poll looming as a vote on the achievements of the three-year coalition Government.
Even though in practical terms the election is about communities electing their representatives at the lowest level of power, the discourse has been ratcheted up to mean much more. In some ways this is detrimental because it obscures the real issues at grassroots level and distracts from a process that should be to hold Local Government officials accountable. Viewing a local election as a national one means that problems at the village level will likely be obscured by larger political wrangling and a chance to ensure that worthy candidates, especially women are given the chance to vie for selection based on their own merits rather than the party could be swept under the carpet.
If early indications are anything to go by voter turnouts may be moderate but it is important for voters to also take into consideration that fighting for better governance is not just a process at the top but at the bottom as well. In that sense the Local Government elections provide a unique opportunity to ensure that the battle against corruption is waged at a different and, perhaps a more practical, level.