This is the last issue of our newspaper before the country goes to the polls on Aug. 5 to elect the 13th Parliament since 1947. Talk of ‘floating’ votes notwithstanding, most people have by now decided how they are going to vote or if they are going to vote at all. If various pre-poll analyses are correct, the out-turn at this election is likely to be lower than usual. Voter turnout at elections in this country is relatively high, much more so than even in most developed countries. As many as 83.72 percent of the electorate voted at last November’s presidential election, higher than the 77.66% at the preceding parliamentary election. But many observers expect that there will be much fewer people voting this time round, partly because of ongoing health issues and the lowkey campaigning it compelled. Also, given the presidential election result, some would regard the conclusion as foregone and not bother to vote.
We can all be thankful that violence this time round has been less than previously in recent years. That, unfortunately, is not due to fewer thugs and undesirables running for election or more efficient law enforcement. The ban, or rather the tighter controls, on the display of election propaganda material served the salutary purpose of both sparing the environment and eliminating the ‘war’ between rival poster-pasters as has been common at previous elections. Different figures have been published of how much the contenders have spent on their campaigns. However accurate or not they may be, there is no doubt that big bucks have been splurged as always. But our law as it stands does not require campaign contributions or identities of donors to be disclosed. This is a lacuna that needs addressing urgently. Many large contributors, inevitably big businessmen, regard contributions to political coffers as investments and expect a payback. Some of them also back both sides for insurance, but the public are not privy to who they are and how much they put into different war chests.
Undoubtedly most electors are not happy about the quality of the vast majority of those they send to parliament. But they have no option but to choose a political party or independent group as the case may be, and then cast three preference votes for individual candidates whose names are on the ballot paper. Despite widely prevalent public opinion, political parties have done precious little or nothing to run slates that include people of good repute and integrity and give the voter the opportunity of sending better MPs to parliament. The fact that the vast majority of members of the last parliament are seeking re-election, under the different party banners, speaks for itself. Only a handful of them have performed well and deserve re-election from whichever party they are running from. There are well known rogues and undesirables among the candidates although they might have not been convicted in any court of law. Party leaders cannot cling to the belief that all persons are deemed innocent until they are proved guilty and anoint rank bad people on their lists. Some of those running this time, in the glare of live television coverage, displayed rowdy behaviour in the parliament chamber itself not so long ago.
Successive elections in the recent past have become more and more expensive to the taxpayer who must pay the cost. He might rightly wonder about the cost-benefit ratio of such expenditure with presidential elections following local elections and parliamentary elections, with provincial council elections on the way. Special arrangements that Covid 90 has compelled would add billions to the final tab. But whether all this is going to be worth it is an open question. This election was twice postponed due to the health emergency confronting not only this country but also the whole world. It is well known that the incumbent government was anxious to have the election done and dusted while the UNP would have liked a further delay. This was in the hope that the two factions of the party would then have more space to overcome their differences and present a united front against the SLPP. But that was not to be. The Elections Commission declared that it would abide by the health guidelines laid by the competent authorities. These have been flagrantly violated by most of the contestants who paid only lip service to rules. Not even feeble enforcement efforts were attempted by the police who have long shown a marked reluctance to tangle with political VIPs.
Older readers will have nostalgic memories of the past when parliamentary elections saw high caliber people, many from the old left parties, elected to the legislature. Names that come to mind include N.M. Perera, Colvin. R. de Silva, Pieter Keuneman, S.A. Wickremasinghe and more recently Sarath Muttetuwegama. The right wing sent giants like D.S. Senanayake and his son, Dudley, SWRD Bandaranaike, JR Jayewardene and many more to parliament. There were no pensions and tax free car permits then. The allowances paid were modest at best even in those pre-inflation days. But the frontbenches on both sides of the old House of Representatives included greats who provided debates of a quality that would have been a pride of any legislature anywhere in the world. The rewards of sitting in parliament then were modest if at all and we did not have the professional politicians of today who have amassed crooked fortunes and got off Scott free.
Criticism abounds on the executive presidential system of J.R. Jayewardene that continues despite the promises of most of his successors who pledged to abolish it. They welshed on that one with one even doing away with the two-term limit via a constitutional amendment enabled by a two thirds majority granted not by the electors but by defectors. Hopefully the voters will do what is best for themselves and our country despite the limited choices come August 5. We will then, as the saying goes, get the government we deserve. That is a price of the democracy that we have long cherished.
Gallup polls and G-strings
Thursday 11th August 2022
The results of an opinion survey, released recently, indicate that JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is leading where the public approval ratings of the candidates who vied for the presidency in Parliament last month are concerned. Dissanayake leads the survey on trust in leaders to do the right thing to resolve the economic crisis, with 48.5%, followed by Ranil Wickremesinghe (36.6%), Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa (29.1%) and Dullas Alahapperuma (23.7%).
The outcome of the aforesaid opinion poll is likely to make the JVP believe that it stands a better chance of shoring up its image and improving its electoral performance if it remains independent of the grand alliance thought to be in the making, and acts as the Opposition. If all other parties represented in Parliament join forces with the SLPP to form a unity government officially, then the post of the Opposition Leader will have to go to the JVP; that is the basis on which TNA leader R. Sampanthan became the Opposition Leader in 2015.
However, it is not advisable for anyone to go solely by opinion/polls survey results in making vital decisions, for public opinion could be as elusive as the weather; forecasts thereof could go wrong, and some politicians who disregard this fact have found themselves up the creek without a paddle. What befell Keith James Locke, a New Zealand Green Party member, may serve as an example. In the run-up to the 2005 election, he was so confident of victory in his electorate because of Gallup polls predictions favourable to him that he undertook to run across Epsom, in the buff, if his rival won. Unfortunately for him, the pollsters’ predictions went wrong, and he lost! Under pressure from the media and his political rivals, he carried out his promise; he made a dash across the Auckland suburb, wearing a G-string with bodypainting depicting a full suit!
Even in the US, where pollsters employ advanced methods to gather data and analyse them, the Gallup polls results went wrong as regards the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Polls forecasters confidently placed Hillary Clinton’s chance of winning at between 70% to 99%! But Donald Trump came from behind to beat her. It may be argued that Clinton won the popular vote, but the fact remains that Trump secured the presidency. Pollsters also failed to predict the outcome of the British general election in 2015.
One may recall that in Sri Lanka, too, something similar happened at the 2015 presidential election. All secret opinion surveys commissioned by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government ahead of that election predicted a landslide win for the sitting President, but his main rival, Maithripala Sirisena proved to be a dark horse. Rajapaksa did not know what hit him. Even Sirisena may not have expected to pull off such an upset victory.
Sri Lankan pollsters may be familiar with the idea of ‘shy Trumpers’, which came into being during the 2016 US presidential election; many Americans did not want to identify themselves as the supporters of Trump, during surveys, due to his undesirable behaviour but approved his policies and voted for him. Likewise, there may not be a dearth of ‘shy Rajapaksers’ in the Sri Lanka polity, and the beleaguered Family may be planning a comeback a la Bongbong Marcos of the Philippines. This may be the reason why they enabled two non-SLPP members, Wickremesinghe (UNP) and Dinesh Gunawardena (MEP) to secure the presidency and the premiership respectively and function as placeholders, while enjoying life, until the time is opportune for the Family members to crawl out of the woodwork.
President Wickremesinghe has likened his unenviable task to that of Grusha, who carries a baby across a collapsing rope bridge, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. That, we believe, is an understatement of his daunting mission; he is carrying a much heavier burden—a full-grown, former ruggerite, who is the son of not just a former Governor but an ex-President, no less!
As for surveys and statistical analysis of public opinion, it behoves politicians to tread cautiously. Prudence demands that they keep an ear to the ground, and factor in all political developments and trends in making crucial decisions, instead of being carried away by survey results.
Reds at sea
Wednesday 10th August, 2022
The JVP has refused to join the proposed all-party government, calling it a ruse to perpetuate the Rajapaksa rule, in all but name, with President Ranil Wickremesinghe being at the beck and call of the SLPP leadership. What the country needs is an interim government pending an early general election because the SLPP’s popular mandates have expired, the JVP says. This is an interesting argument.
Mid-term elections are the best way to ascertain public opinion about a government in power, and this is why the SLPP has postponed the local government polls indefinitely, but it has been losing the co-operative society elections, which are considered a political windsock in that they help gauge popular support for a government. Popularly elected President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has resigned, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the SLPP’s general election campaign in 2020 and obtained a mandate for the party, has stepped down; Ranil Wickremesinghe, who did not run for President and failed to secure his parliamentary seat, has become the President with the help of the SLPP. Thus, the current dispensation has lost legitimacy, as the JVP claims. It is like a third-rate mega teledrama dragging on without the title character.
It is being argued in some quarters that the SLPP administration is constitutionally empowered to complete its full term because it has a working majority in Parliament; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s successor has been elected by the legislature in the constitutionally prescribed manner, and therefore the government has a legitimate right to remain in power, and there is no need for a snap general election. But what is constitutionally permitted and approved by Parliament does not necessarily become legitimate or morally right or acceptable to the public. The 18th and 20th Amendments introduced by the Rajapaksas to enhance the executive powers of the President may serve as examples. They passed muster with the Supreme Court, in the bill form, and were ratified by Parliament with two-thirds majorities, but the very MPs who voted for the 18th Amendment, overwhelmingly supported the 19th Amendment, which curtailed the presidential powers, in 2015; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had the 20th Amendment ratified for self-aggrandisement, finally agreed to deep-six it. In 2018, the UNP government succeeded in securing a majority in the House and defeating a bid to dislodge it, but it suffered massive electoral setbacks in 2019 and 2020. So much for the public acceptability of parliamentary majorities!
The JVP, however, has a history of propping up crumbling regimes and supporting governments while being in the Opposition; in 2018, it defended the UNP-led UNF government vis-à-vis a bid by the then President Maithripala Sirisena, and Mahinda Rajapaksa to wrest control of Parliament. It voted with the UNP, enabling the latter to retain a working majority in the House. The JVP was also a member of the National Executive Council (NEC) set up by the Yahapalana government in 2015 purportedly to strengthen democracy; the NEC consisted of political parties with parliamentary representation, and some civil society outfits. Subsequently, the JVP pulled out of the NEC, which became defunct. In 2001, the JVP offered to shore up the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, which was teetering on the brink of collapse, owing to a spate of crossovers, and undertook to introduce the 17th Amendment, curtailing the powers of the Executive President. So, President Wickremesinghe may be able to enlist the JVP’s support if he can assure the outfit that the all-party government on the anvil will be an interim one. Such an arrangement will go a long way towards restoring political and social order.
What the JVP ought to bear in mind is that the time is opportune for making some progressive laws that the country is badly in need of. The Executive Presidency is like an attenuated virus in a vaccine; the incumbent President is without popular support, and the SLPP fears the public. It is hoped that the JVP and other political parties that claim to be pro-people will not squander this opportunity. As the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera famously said, rotis must be baked while the griddle is hot.
Mahadenamutta and his golayas
Tuesday 9th August, 2022
Sri Lanka is no doubt a land like no other. Nowhere else in the world are intellectually-challenged, self-important characters are allowed to go places as leaders, causing irreparable damage to vital sectors, especially the economy. Sri Lankans have earned notoriety for not only suffering fools gladly but also electing and deifying them.
Mahadenamutta, a self-proclaimed pundit who always comes out with stupid solutions which turn out to be worse than the problems he undertakes to sort out, is a character we come across in local folk stories, the most interesting being the one where he has a goat beheaded to save a pot, which its head is stuck in, and then gets the pot smashed to extricate the poor animal’s head. But going by what is unfolding in this country, one wonders whether Mahadenamutta actually lived here and his descendants are holding responsible positions in politics and in the state service.
Some Wildlife Department officers have proved that they are proud descendants of Mahadenamutta by carrying out a rescue operation in Hatton. In a bid to save a leopard, they felled a tall tree, on which the animal had got stuck while escaping from a wire trap. The falling tree crushed the poor creature, and then the officers removed the trap! Minister Mahinda Amaraweera lost no time in ordering an investigation into the incident, and this is a baby step in the right direction. Much more needs to be done to save wild animals that stray into villages and estates.
Leopards continue to perish in traps and at the hands of villagers and hunters in the hill country; these endangered creatures must be protected and those who harm them severely dealt with. Leopards invade villagers as their natural habitat is fast shrinking owing to human activity. Instead of conserving forests, the government has, in its wisdom, introduced a scheme where their buffer zones are released for agricultural purposes. If this disastrous policy is followed and the ruling party supporters are allowed to clear the areas necessary for the recovery and natural expansion of forests, people will have more wild animals roaming in their villages, and the Wildlife Department will go on cutting down many more trees with animals trapped thereon!
Wildlife officers are not alone in emulating Mahadenamutta. It is also thanks to the Mahadenamutta in the garb of political leaders and servile panjandrums that the national economy has collapsed on the hapless public, crushing them, so to speak. They slashed taxes recklessly to win elections, and threw around billions of rupees by way of pandemic relief for political reasons, printed colossal amounts of money, defended the rupee at the expense of the country’s foreign currency reserves and then opted for a free float of the rupee. They refused to seek IMF assistance last year despite warnings by the Central Bank experts and other economists. A blanket ban was imposed on agrochemicals in the name of green agriculture, which should have been implemented in stages; it was lifted after it had ruined the agricultural sector and incensed the farming community beyond measure. Having thus caused the economy to collapse, the ruling party Mahadenamuttas are now trying to resurrect it by undoing what they did.
The Wildlife officers responsible for the leopard’s death are now up a gum tree, but the Mahadenamuttas in kapati suit and their bureaucratic golayas or pupils have got off scot-free, to all intents and purposes despite having ruined the economy and reduced the country to penury.
When Parliament was prorogued the other day, the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) had begun questioning some government officials responsible for bankrupting the country. The COPE now stands dissolved and will have to be reconstituted fast. It will become compliant and stop investigating how the economy was ruined unless its former members are reappointed with Prof. Charitha Herath as its head. One can only hope that all those who have caused the people to be crushed under a heavy economic burden just like the poor leopard in Hatton will be brought to justice.
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