Self-aggrandizement is on display – on stage, in the media and on online platforms and handbills. Equally, there is toxic vitriol, back biting and finger pointing. These are the games of politicians, a tapestry of personalities that describe each other as dictator, murderer, thief, rapist, drug dealer, money launderer, swindler, corruptor and the imbecile. Some may say that in this muddle, luckily there are some professionals (although we know the track record of professionals who have hitherto served in the legislature). These men (and a lesser number of women) are our choices to run the country as we prepare for the polls. It is sad that every so many years, that the same brood of bile and narcissistic individuals ask the public to appoint them to steer the destiny of this country.
For all the good things that this country, geographically has been blessed with, the bane seems to be the political system. Electoral politics and the preferential voting system is rotten and has turned sour, albeit its strength to select the best, it is its weakness that has resulted in tumultuous periods in the country in the past. Its proclivity and space for corruption and under-the-table deals and dealings to buy over individuals, against the wishes of the voters is a mockery of democracy. What we have seen in the recent past is how shady these deals can be, not short of pimping to acquire allegiance in return for a cache of perks for self, family, kith and kin and associates, much to the frustration of the ‘ordinary’ voter who does not want x, y and z in power and running the country.
Much clichéd is the term that politics is an ugly game, vis-à-vis the race for preferential votes. It has birthed clientelism, a distorted bond between a patron and a client, which is widespread in under-developed countries like ours. The politician in Sri Lanka is ‘Father Christmas’ to many, offering favours, distributing gifts and even bending the rules in return for political support. For the voter-client, the politician in the electorate is a person of influence, hence deemed as an individual important enough to be seen at important family events, in addition to finding job opportunities, land and housing, investment capital and more. The patron-client relationship that thrives in our country is not new though. It is an extension of our own traditional political culture. Immediately after independence and for some time later during the first-past-the-post electoral system, most candidates were drawn from the anglicised elite or the village elite. Notwithstanding character flaws, these individuals were held in high esteem for their stock and heritage. These rich patrons continued the status quo, which helped them to maintain their eminent position among their people.
Then, in the post-1978 era of the preferential voting system the trajectory got altered to such an extent that it has allowed a canvas of colourful individuals, some with a sordid track record to seek a mandate to enter parliament. Hence, the patron-client relationship has continued, stronger this time.
The post-1978 changes have created unprecedented competition inside a single party/alliance and between parties, that the ugliest and meanest and the cheapest rhetoric is spewed on the campaign trail. The spectacle of thousands cheering the ridicule, the vulgar comments and the hate speech at outdoor meetings tells what a debased voting public we are. Added is the fact that we are hardly a well-informed and an active electorate of people. If we were, then we wouldn’t be getting into a quagmire every so often.
While people cheer at cheap sniping and spar with each other based on partisan politics, post-election is a circus where enemies become friends and allies. This reality, although obvious and in plain sight, does not stymie voters hooked onto certain politicians, deeming them as knight in shining armour, safeguarding the country and its sovereignty against the enemy, external forces and foreign conspiracy, imagined or otherwise, while they place complete trust to finally deliver the country from all its economic woes. For all the achievements that successive governments have made, mismanagement of the economy has been the scourge of our current plight, and to imagine that the appointed will deliver us from our current state of unemployment, poverty, etcetera, etcetera into economic liberation although flimsy, is what we have always hoped for in appointing people to office.
As if a light at the end of the tunnel, many have said enough is enough and that they want a ‘system change’, the buzz word among the so called progressives among us, who either led by the ideals of western culture as a prototype or simply led by the grandeur of western civilization that championed social norms and ethical and political systems fail to see that the old guard continues and the new is an appendage of the old.
Politics is definitely the redemption for those in political office. For us, the multitude, the story is different. We will always remain the masses and like many that we meet on a daily basis, from the vendor in the market to the cleaner on the street ‘all we have is what we earn’. A good mantra to remember as we head to the polls.
Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane