Five years ago, there was a parliamentary elections, one which saw the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) grab 144 seats and an easy majority. The opposing United National Party (UNP) obtained less than half that number. In addition to the MPs who were elected, both parties unveiled their National Lists.
Some names stood out. They were ‘fresh’. Others didn’t. They were ‘vintage’. Several defections, changing loyalties, and attempts at wresting control from the ruling coalition later, the UNP emerged from some of the worst defeats it encountered. The parliamentary elections held this year saw several members moving from the List and opting for the manape fight.
Two of them merit highlight- Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne.
When JR Jayewardene introduced proportional representation courtesy of his Constitution, he implemented a system whereby professionals, academics, and technocrats could get into Parliament without the need to poll numbers. This was the National List.
Both Harsha and Eran had been in that five years earlier. Both of them courted enough votes to beat older contenders. Few, for instance, could predict defeat for Rosy Senanayake. But it happened. Both these newcomers topped her. Heavily.
There’s a lesson here. National Lists were not ready-made for rejects. Those who came in because of them had to build trust and that in a way which ensured popular support. This was and will be the ‘litmus test’ for such a mechanism, notwithstanding what happened then and after the election this month. As such the lists of not just the UPFA and UNP, but other parties should stand up to this.
Predictably though, they haven’t. Here’s why.
The UPFA, for the most, made a mockery out of its National List. For a president who actively asked voters to vote in intelligent, educated individuals Maithripala Sirisena put away the likes of GL Peiris and Tissa Vitharana. True, he played for keeps by casting aside key loyalists of his predecessor, inimical to the people’s will though it was. True, he then put in the likes of Mahinda Samarasinghe, who is both educated and has shown regard for truth and justice even in the face of dissenting opinion.
But these were rejects. Professor Sarath Amunugama, for instance, was in the original list. He was not put out. Why Vitharana and Peiris were is anyone’s guess, even factoring in the president’s need to purge his own party. Worse, both Sumathipala and Samarasinghe were rejected in favor of those whom the people had elected in. Where’s the democracy in rescuing them?
Some of these people, moreover, were ‘allies’ of the former president. They have changed colors, true. But the way they shifted loyalties warrants censure if not outrage, a point the president should have kept in mind when promoting them. After all, they were known and condemned by the then opposition. Why take them back? And why take out clean names for the sake of expediency, especially when it involved the virtual erasure of a key Sirisena supporter (and Ranil Wickremesinghe critic), Shiral Lakthilaka?
Let’s not kid ourselves that many of these rejects embraced Maithripala Sirisena because they affirm good governance and democracy. Let’s not kid ourselves that they aren’t known for jumping back and forth, landing on whoever’s able to bail them out whenever they’re in need of an ‘opportune moment’. Anybody who’s willing to bet that these politicians (who sided with Mahinda Rajapaksa, even for these past two months) are out there to help citizenry and ameliorate structural flaws must be very, very brave.
Sadly, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) echoed the same thing. It spouted enough feel-good rhetoric to make us believe that it would stand by position. It didn’t.
Forget what Chrishmal Warnasuriya stated after his party’s leaders claimed ‘full agreement’ over the composition of the National List. Forget the ‘Nation’s Conscience’ tag JVPers pinned on themselves. Forget the fact that the party became politically schizoid when it implicitly backed the UNP, and then decided to criticise both major parties at the 11th hour. Even setting all this aside for argument’s sake, was putting in a reject, even someone as ‘venerated’ as Sunil Handunnetti, a ‘must’? Did the people ask for him?
Rightly then, the JVP has raised hairs. More importantly, it has undressed itself.
Incidentally, Warnasuriya’s remarks invite assessment. Bimal Rathnayaka claimed that the entire party was with the decision to re-select Handunnetti. Warnasuriya publicly denied this, laying out how incredulous and unnecessary the proposal to bring Handunnetti back at the cost of his NL seat seemed to him. Which means, logically enough, Rathnayaka erred and twisted himself. Badly.
Next came Tilvin Silva. “Handunnetti was wanted,” he commented. “He cannot be described as a defeated candidate,” he offered as justification, as though it endorsed unqualified acceptance. He then elaborated: “He lost because the JVP couldn’t attract enough votes”. Wonderful! By the same logic, rejects from other parties (and not just the UNP or UPFA) must take losers back in regardless of whether the people voted for them or not because those parties didn’t perform well enough. A fine example to follow indeed!
Having sanctioned all this while spewing feel-good remarks about democracy and the people’s will, the JVP’s leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has absolutely no moral right to point fingers at the UPFA over its List. Indeed, if his words and those of his politburo buddies are anything to go by, he has no moral right to point fingers at anyone over any other issue hereafter.
The UNP ‘won’ here, relatively speaking. Yes, it put in one defeated candidate, and that even as its own secretary went on the record saying that it wouldn’t do so. As The Nation reported last week, the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) had to contain several internal rivalries, particularly in Rishad Bathiudeen’s and Rauf Hakeem’s parties. Viewed this way, the UNP’s decision appears to be a minor transgression, though one that will provoke reaction if other defeated candidates are re-selected.
Judging every National List is not important and hardly worth the effort. A rough perusal, however, should convince anyone that the UNP took in clean names and not just bigwigs. The UPFA had those names too, but sadly the president’s word was privileged. Having salivated over democracy and then badmouthed it by rescuing those rejected by the people, the JVP earned ire.
The UNP wins on this count, inasmuch as politics is all about playing relative merits against each other. It has set an example which even the president couldn’t follow. Maithripala Sirisena has sent a message, hence. That message reeks of expediency, we note. Not good governance. Certainly not clean governance. If he hands out ministerial posts to rejects, therefore, we can conclude: “Morally bankrupt!”