|Sri Lankans are a politically astute nation.
Prior to 1977, they were quite adept at changing
governments at every election. Understandably
therefore, the upcoming presidential elections, due
in just over a fortnight, have captured their
imagination, especially because it is the first free
and fair countrywide poll held in nearly 30 years.
However, the manner in which their politicians are
treating them, leaves much to be desired. We say so
because this presidential election campaign, for a
variety of reasons, is turning out to be one of the
ugliest polls the country has ever seen.
Last week, goons went on the rampage in
Kiribathgoda, when activists of opposition parties
were engaged in peaceful electioneering in the area.
They were reportedly told that they would not be
allowed to engage in politics in that locality, and
set upon by hooligans armed with clubs. The
collective opposition, while bearing the brunt of
intimidation, is also not totally free of blame.
Some of the rhetoric that they indulge in is more
invective than innovative, and there appears to be
an element of hate in the styles and strategies of
As a result, we are being treated to the
spectacle of mudslinging on an unprecedented scale,
and the campaign has become a clash of
personalities, devoid of discussion on key issues.
This trend appears to be spiralling out of control
now, and the election is descending to hitherto
There was a time when politics in this country
was played out at a different level. There were
always the juicy ingredients: Intrigue, backstabbing
and internal conspiracies, and even the occasional
crossover, which made headlines. Nevertheless,
everyone followed certain standards, and it all
happened ever so quietly, with blood rarely being
spilt. Unfortunately, times have changed.
It is difficult to pinpoint when the rot started.
Some attribute it to the trend of post-election
violence that began in earnest, with the election
victory of the United Front under Sirima
Bandaranaike in 1970. Others conveniently put the
blame at the doorstep of J.R. Jayewardene, who did
turn a blind eye when supporters of his United
National Party went on the rampage after their
overwhelming victory seven years later.
Whatever the reason and whenever the origin, the
politics of decency now appears to have been
superseded by the politics of decadence. If one were
to postulate a hypothesis for this, it could be
argued that the personalities engaged in politics
today are radically different from those who did so
three or four decades ago: Today, it is more the man
looking for a quick buck, rather than the gentleman
who takes to politics, willing to serve the nation.
Indeed, the erudite and the professionals now shun
politics like the plague!
Changes in such trends will not come about
overnight. Yet, the politicians of this country do
still have a duty by the people, to engage in their
chosen vocation within the norms of decency, and
maintain some moral standards while doing so.
While the leading contenders themselves have kept
their distance from each other, their supporters,
including some of the leading lights from both
camps, have been engaged in bouts of liberal
mudslinging. That may evoke a few wolf-whistles at a
campaign rally and keep the cartoonists busy, but
there is a lot of collateral damage in the process.
It raises the question as to whether Sri Lanka, a
country which has enjoyed universal suffrage for
nearly 80 years, and one of the first non-western
countries to earn that privilege, has matured as a
democracy. Or, are we, instead, relying more on the
primitive instincts of the survival of the fittest,
to decide our political fate?
Also, this country is now at a critical crossroad,
arguably, more than ever before. Sri Lankans, for
the past three decades, found a convenient scapegoat
in the war against terrorism, and blamed anything
and everything on that phenomenon. Now that the war
is over, we have a tremendous opportunity to make
good as a nation and emerge as a peaceful and
prosperous country that would be the envy of other
States in the region.
Whether we will achieve that, largely depends on
the programmes we follow, the commitment we make and
the leadership given by our politicians. That is why
they must set the tone by cultivating a culture of
dignity and decorum, instead of indulging liberally
in the politics of hate, which is what we have seen
so far in this presidential election campaign.
That is why we must urge both the government and
the opposition campaign machineries to tone down the
venom, vitriol and violence that are spreading. May
the best man win- but may he do so in style and
spirit, and not by hook or by crook.