Claiming rights to the war victory by politicians has been a thorny issue in Sri Lanka for a long time. Since 2009, or perhaps even before then, the war victory has been used for political gain on both sides of the political divide, with the fight for credit usually intensifying closer to elections. It has been no different this time around and Election Commission (EC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya taking the initiative to ban the war victory being used in campaigning for the Presidential Election is a positive step that will be welcomed by many.
Deshapriya this week took the stance that the war victory is not owned by one person, political party or community and it was instead an effort that required support from the entire population for decades. This is a valuable and moderate stance to take because there are also communities that have suffered due to the conflict.
Thousands of families across all communities have faced deep personal losses and some are still waiting for closure. The families of the disappeared are key among these and they are also part of the democratic process. The war was won due to the perseverance and sacrifices made by the entire country and as such is not the personal domain of one person or family or party to take credit and use that to push forward their political agenda.
The politicisation of the war victory has not just resulted in different political parties scrambling to get part of the credit pie but is also used as the basis to bolster their competency and credibility on many other fronts. It is assumed that because they played a part in the war effort that automatically makes them competent at governance within a democratic structure, even though many would argue that the two are very different.
An institutional democracy calls for people who can work in a civilian space where dissent, discussion and accountability are inherent in the system of governance. Governance in the military is about making and obeying orders and the mixing of the two raises many concerns among the democracy-minded public.
Sri Lanka, for all its political flaws, has stayed true to its commitment to a democratic government ruled by civilians with checks and balances that should be ensured by a free media, independent Judiciary and independent public service. The fact that one person or a group of people were effective in a military campaign does not mean that they will automatically be able to perform competently within a well-functioning democratic space. And it is a democratic, institution-based governance framework that Sri Lanka should be aspiring to.
The public are constantly told that a person who was involved in the war effort can be an effective leader, but even though there is definitely an overlap in competencies, harping excessively on the war victory takes away from the secular nature of governance needed in an institutional democratic framework. It also minimises the component of accountability through legal frameworks and being answerable to the public. These may seem unimportant but they are nonetheless systems that ensure individual freedoms and rights. They are what give the public power and a voice to direct their representatives in the right direction. Without those mechanisms, democracy can die.
Elections are integral to these systems. It is an opportunity for the people to decide on their representatives. In this system it is also important that public service employees, which includes heads of the military, are not seen as being prejudiced. The Elections Commission has done its best to create a space where collective achievements are not co-opted for political ends, but this has happened for so long that one fears it is too entrenched in the voter psyche to now be eased.