Where will battle for PR end?

There was a time when the term ‘political animal’ was coined to describe the quintessential politician, an individual who thrived on politics and all its nuances and converted governance into an art form. Recent incidents however, prompt us to inquire whether politics is now the pastime of animals and whether the phrase ‘political animal’ has taken on an altogether different meaning.

Why we say so is because politics is increasingly becoming a sport where the law of the jungle prevails. It has also been transformed into an occupation where survival of the fittest is the name of the game. And we need to look into why this is so and whether anything can be done to arrest this downward spiral of a once esteemed calling.

Sri Lankans are quite a resilient people. Honed by decades of post-independent humbug by its politicians, and the travails of twin southern insurrections, plus the world’s most ruthless terrorist war, they were a people resigned to their fate. So, they were even prepared to accept the likes of Mervyn Silva as one of their ministers.
Now, just when they thought they were immune to the antics of Minister Silva, there comes another macho man by the name of Nishantha Muthuhettigama, who has managed to capture the headlines in the Southern Provincial Council poll by threatening the glamour girl of the silver screen, Anarkali Akarsha.

We could have passed off the incident as yet another political gimmick by a headline hungry politician. But Muthuhettigama keeps reappearing in the southern political landscape like a bad dream. He claims he will be Chief Minister, take over police powers and even teach the boys from the presidential security division a good lesson. And not even being arrested and remanded can dampen his ardour!

Now, such antics are not the exclusive preserve of the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Also this week, we had the son of a deputy minister allegedly beating up a police constable of his father’s security detail. The irony of course was that the son belonged to the opposition United National Party (UNP) from which his father had defected earlier.

Such incidents prompt the question as to whether politics in this country is descending into a playground for the pariahs. And if this is indeed so, we need look at why this has happened.
Arguably, one of the major factors is the Proportional Representation (PR) system. Introduced under the presidential Constitution in 1978, the PR system was meant to redress the imbalance caused by landslide victories for one political party and ensure a semblance of balance in the country’s several tiers of democratically elected bodies. It was also meant to ensure a more equitable proportion of elected representatives for the so-called ‘minority’ communities.

This has been achieved to some extent, but that has come at a heavy price: internecine intra-party rivalry in the form of turf wars between stalwarts of the same political party vying for ‘preference’ votes, to ensure that they got elected from an area which was wider than the actual patch they represented. For example, a candidate standing for a general election from the Kotte electorate, now has the luxury of campaigning and pitching for votes not merely in Kotte, but from the entire Colombo District where Kotte is located.

Thus we have the spectacle of man biting man from within the same party, all for the sake of a few preference votes. And, as the ‘results’ from the Southern province show already, it is not a welcome trend. In fact, the cancer has grown into such menacing proportions that even the pleas of the Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, who is also the leader of the UPFA, seem to be falling on deaf ears, and now, the Alliance has to resort to the long arm of the law to detain its own candidates in order to contain them.

Where will this end? Are we slowly but surely heading towards an era where brute force will be the criteria on which our elected representatives will be chosen? Are we on the path towards annihilating all gentlemen who take to politics with the sincere intention of serving the nation? Will, for example, another in the calibre of the late Lakshman Kadiragamar take to politics, when he knows he has to tread among thieves and thugs?

Certainly, amendments will be needed to the PR system. But that is easier said than done. Any such change has to go through a complicated process of Constitutional amendments. And until such time that happens, it will be up to the major political parties to ensure that the likes of Muthuhettigama are dealt with promptly and properly.

The big question is whether political parties are equal to that challenge. So far, we have seen little that convinces us that this is indeed so. But it is not too late even now for the major parties to send a signal to its candidates that political hooliganism is a stepping stone to oblivion, and not to guaranteed election at the poll.