Politics of hate must end
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 their campaign.

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 unknown depths.

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Whatever the reason and whenever the origin, the politics of decency now appears to have been superseded by the politics of decadence.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.