Editorial | Sunday Observer

Editorial

What did the voters really say last week?

Last week, Sri Lankans voiced their political choices at the level of local communities and did so in a manner that has made everyone sit up and take notice – ordinary citizens, the elite, politicians and bureaucracy, as well as the international community.

Popular governance, as in an increasingly genuine republic like Sri Lanka, requires the exercise of the citizens’ vote at different levels of society and in all parts of the country and, done so in a manner conducive to calm decision-making by the voter, well informed and free of intimidation. The citizens of this country last week certainly enjoyed this right and privilege as never before.

In the first place, citizens cast their votes in accordance with the most refined voting method so far put in place in this country. The full outcome of the vote, in terms of who controls which local council, is yet to be fully worked out because the numbers of votes cast need to be carefully reconciled with the success of each individual candidate. The Elections Department is busy right now making the calculations, after which, various political parties and groups will need to negotiate their access to governmental power in the local councils.

While in many councils the vote has been quite clear, there are several dozen councils in which, given the distribution of votes, the balance of power requires coalition-building and adjustments to candidate lists in order to achieve a stable administration.

Hence, the rush of excitement and confusion last week over who is ‘victor’ and who is ‘loser’ was somewhat premature and only allowed publicity mongers to make loud claims on different sides, purely to impress audiences and exploit any advantages in public opinion for political gain. Ultimately, the election to local government councils has no direct bearing on either provincial or national levels of governance.

The fact that the control of a large number of local government bodies is likely to go to the main parliamentary opposition forces, is certainly a welcome development. One of the important aspects of a genuinely democratic republic is that there should be little room for the kind of totalitarian, ‘winner-takes-all’ governance that was previously sought after – by hook or by crook – during the decade of the previous regime.

As has been exhorted by sages since the dawn of civilization in this region, society can succeed as civilization only when there is concrete recognition of diversity. There has to be a plurality of empowered social forces that must then negotiate and build consensus rather than dominance. The latest local hustings has ensured just that.

The coalition currently in national government can rest assured that its popular mandate, in terms of the sheer combined votes cast in its favour last week yet remains superior to that of the unified national-level opposition. The SLPP, after all, could only collect just over 44 per cent of the total popular vote cast in the local polls. The combined vote cast for the parties of the National Unity coalition topped 46 per cent, and, if further combined with the votes cast for smaller parties that politically sympathize with the coalition, will top the 51 per cent mark.

Last week’s election result is of high value for Sri Lankan democracy in two ways. Firstly, the diffusion of political power will enable a more critical and representative governance at different levels in the country. Such a political diversity has long been missing in recent decades due to the pervasive political culture that drove nationally ruling parties to force their dominance across all levels of government. Perhaps, the worst bout of such totalitarianism was experienced during the last regime.

Leaders of that same past regime, now controlling the SLPP, seem to be trapped in that same mentality with their call for the national government to change simply because there is a different configuration of power at local level. If the citizens wish to make such a change at national level, they will have that opportunity at the next scheduled presidential or parliamentary elections. It is to be hoped that these past leaders can understand better the refinements of genuinely republican democracy where there can be a diversity of political alignments at different levels of government.

Those leaders need to realize that it was precisely the refusal of the National Unity government to try to enforce such totalitarian rule that enabled an orderly local polls that now enables an orderly re-distribution of power so that local communities can enjoy local leaders of their choice while looking to a continuation of the national regime.

The second significance of last week’s vote is that the shift in the local vote towards opposition parties is a strong message to the national coalition that it needs to get its act together. Taking advantage of a clean and peaceful electoral contest, the voters last week have indicated to the Yahapaalanaya regime that they are not satisfied with the success shown so far in good governance.

That this message has been heard and is being taken seriously by the National Unity coalition can be seen by the various hurried discussions and debates current within the coalition. As the polls outcome became clear, the coalition’s collective leadership agonized over the diverse aspects of policy and political strategy that is needed to genuinely and adequately respond to the sharp rap on the knuckles given by the voters.

Despite raucous jeering by triumphant local victors, however, the citizenry will look to the national leadership for a sober and rational response to its political message. The fact that the combined vote yet favours the Yahapaalanaya coalition means that the citizenry is prepared to wait out the tenure of the regime before changing its mind. It is up to the President and Prime Minister now to lead the coalition in responding the call of the people.

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