Thursday, January 15, 2015

Elections for People

Sri Lankans voted in another election, the  seventh election to choose a president for the country. This took place in a background of political debate which centered on the arguments for a constitutional reform and the usual question of the cost of living. People decided on what their priorities were, based on the past, the present and the future.

An election is the occasion people get the chance to directly elect their representatives. People hope for a better future in taking a decision. In a multiparty democracy, as it is said, people get the government they deserve. People have the chance to take a decision based on what they hear and see and their prediction of the future.

Work is over at the Polling Station (Pic. Chamara Sumanapala)
Some will agree with the decision of the people, while some will not. It will not be easy for those on the losing side to reconcile with the result. Meanwhile, the winning side will enjoy a sense of success and self-satisfaction that a majority of the people had chosen their side. A winner will always want to do more for the people, at least for a certain period of time. Grandiose dreams of radical sociopolitical changes will be seen by both those in power and those who voted for them.

As George Orwell said, “he who controls the past commands the future. He who commands the future conquers the past.” On each Election Day, people decide on a side to vote based on their ability to fulfill certain aspirations. This is decided taking the past into account. Sometimes they vote out of a sense of loyalty or a sense of gratitude. Whatever the reason may be, people always have at least a vague idea of voting for the future, while analyzing the past. The leader who has delivered in the past will be chosen to lead the future. But if a particular leader has not delivered, a new leader can appear and create dreams of a brighter future. This is true for any election, in any country.

The trouble is that people and politicians have had such dreams from time immemorial. In the case of Sri Lanka, people had been promised many things under the sun during the past 67 years. People will continue to have such dreams for years, decades and centuries to come. How much of those dreams have been fulfilled and how much could have been fulfilled under the prevailing circumstances are the questions to be answered.

For 67 years, people have voted for politicians of various parties and colors. People have seen insurgency, war, increasing crime rates, certain improvements in certain sectors and rapid infrastructure developments in the recent years. Yet, a considerable section of people live in poverty, 67 years after the British left the country. While there are improvements, there has always been room for more improvement. In the economic sector, Sri Lanka has been overtaken by countries like South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia decades ago. Sri Lanka, while moving in that direction, still has some distance to go to catch up.

Ironically, the first Sinhalese film which was screened in Sri Lanka on January 21, 1947, was named “Kadawunu Poronduva” or “The Broken Promise.” Sri Lankan politics have been largely a broken promise. Before each election, people strike a bargain and usually end up no better than they were.

The most important step people can take in making an election result count will be to strengthen the democratic institutions. When democracy prevails leaders will not be able to go against the people they vote for. As US writer Matt Taibbi said, “in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.” It also implied that organized democracy will counter organized greed better.

The idea of a democracy is the fact that every sector, every individual gets a voice. This pure form of democracy is hard to be instituted in the national level. But it should be introduced in the local levels at least.

Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer. People spoke without interruption and the meetings lasted for many hours. The foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens.

The above description is not from a book about Athenian Democracy, and not about the Western world at all. It is a description of the Xhosa royal court given in Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.” Democracy, one might say was better practiced in early 20th century in Africa than in many countries today.

This strengthening of democracy is vital for any country for its elections to have a better impact. Otherwise, whoever wins, it will be a certain class of people who will benefit. If the economy is not well managed, the vast majority of people will have to wait for the trickle down effects of wealth created by development. People should keep this in mind during or after election times.

As Marx said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” But if history repeats over and over again, we the people will have to blame ourselves.

First published on The Nation on January 11, 2015

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