Policy discourse vital before future elections

Sunday Times

With the Provincial Council elections followed by the Presidential and Parliamentary elections likely to be held this year, political parties are focusing a large part of their energy to plan for these polls.

New alliances are being formed to strengthen political parties’ chances of success when they go before the people. Electoral organisers are being appointed and media personnel keep throwing questions at politicians as to who will be the likely Presidential candidate from their respective parties.

However scant attention is being paid to what the policies of the new alliances would be and one hardly sees media personnel questioning politicians as to what their stance is on any one of the burning issues faced by the country.

Whether it is a presidential candidate or an electoral organiser who in most cases becomes a parliamentary election candidate, it is the policies of the party which have to be presented to the electorate — and the people need to be convinced that such policies are beneficial to the country.

To identify potential candidates and ask them to organise themselves politically is like putting the cart before the horse. The absence of a message to take to the people at a time when elections are round the corner makes the political gatherings that electoral organisers preside over fruitless exercises.

In earlier times the broad policy distinctions were clear with one camp standing for open economic policies and the other for socialist policies where the commanding heights of the economy were under the control of the State. Another political grouping would come before the people with ‘middle path’ policies, which the then SLFP ideologue and Minister, the late T.B. Ilangaratne, dubbed ‘practical socialism’.

Today the issues of governance encompass more than mere economic management but include the national question, corruption, the abolition of the executive presidency, strengthening of democracy, and social and economic justice among a host of other issues.

Besides, the policy differences between the two main political parties, the UNP and the SLFP, are now blurred as evidenced by the fact that there are many politicians who flit from one party to another and back again without batting an eyelid. The current political culture has also thrown up another category of politicians who choose which party to contest from based on the likelihood of winning a Parliamentary seat rather than from a policy perspective because Sri Lanka’s skewed electoral laws enable an elected member to switch his allegiance to the party forming the Government after the elections even if he has contested from the losing party.

The absence of policy based options for the electorate also has a negative impact on governance and democracy. Examples from the country’s political history can be cited in support of such a proposition.

In 1965, when the United Front Government lost the general elections, the SLFP and the two left parties started to work on forging an alliance and a common policy from the next month onwards. By 1968 after a great deal of negotiations between the three parties, a Common Programme was presented to the people at a public rally at Bogambara in Kandy.

This provided the people and the opponents of the United Front two long years before the general elections to discuss and debate the pros and cons of the Common Programme. Consequently when the United Front came to power in May 1970, there was a smooth transition, with even the key officials who would hold office in the event of an election victory having been identified beforehand.

Consequently, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was able to hold together the Government for five years despite having in her ranks powerful personalities such as N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Felix Dias Bandaranaike and Pieter Keuneman, who held contradictory views.

This she was able to do in view of the preparatory work done in the previous years and by tying them down to the Common Programme which had been painstakingly drawn up by them.

Contrast the experience of the Yahapalana Government of 2015. The Yahapalana Alliance was a hastily cobbled together group of disparate forces with diverse outlooks without a common policy. The unexpected early call for a presidential election meant that the forces which united to support President Maithripala Sirisena did not have time to thrash out the policy details sufficiently to run the Government smoothly.

Although the ideological direction of the Yahapalana movement was based on the inspiration provided by the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera and his call for the abolition of the executive presidency, some of those who joined the movement did not subscribe to its core values. One of the 48 signatories to the document signed at Viharamahadevi Park, the Nava Sinhala Urumaya, stated soon after the signing that it was for the retention of the executive Presidency. Some began to speak of democratisation of the executive presidency (a contradiction in terms) as opposed to the abolition of the executive presidency.

Others who boarded the Yahapalana bandwagon did so only after the postal votes were cast and therefore were not stakeholders of the process and consequently had no real commitment to the Yahapalana policy. Yet others came on board after the elections having worked earlier against the Yahapalana policies.

One of the reasons for the recent challenges faced by the Yahapalana Government was the failure to sort out the policy differences between the constituents who joined it prior to the elections and the newcomers to Yahapalanaya at the time of the formation of the National Government.

This enabled even those who were part of the Yahapalana Unity Government to continue to take stands contrary to the original goals of the Yahapalana movement.

Even the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna has not learnt from the country’s experience of the past. One month after the Yahapalana Government was elected to office, the Joint Opposition held a meeting at Nugegoda in February 2015 under the theme “Mahinda Sulanga” to start off its campaign against the Government. But to date the country is in the dark as to what its policies are with regard to the issues faced by the people.

Even the contradictions in the camps of the SLFP and the SLPP need to be addressed well in advance of elections if the people are to make an informed decision as to who should form the next Government.

The country has been adversely affected by the absence of clear-cut and well-thought-out policies in the area of governance. This will have to change for the better if the country is to progress and the lot of the people improved.

(javidyusuf@gmail.com)

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