Politicos’ image plummets to lowest ebb

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By 2018-01-15

By Sugeeswara Senadhira

Public image of the politician plummeted to the lowest level in Sri Lankan history of Parliamentary democracy, last week, causing a serious setback to the efforts to increase the proportion of educated, cultured, decent men in politics and women participation. The roguish and wayward behaviour of some Members of Parliament, including a few seasoned politicians hitherto known as decent men, shocked the nation. There were horrid scenes, fisticuffs and premeditated physical assaults in the August House last Wednesday.

"Do you think decent women would come into politics after witnessing such behaviour of Parliamentarians?" a leading academic asked this columnist. "How can one ask women to join politics to give them an adequate representation? Even decent men will shy away from politics after witnessing this raucous behaviour."

The saga began, with members of the Joint Opposition breaking accepted Parliamentary norms displayed placards and then rushed into the well, in protest, when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe began his statement. Members of the United National Party (UNP) instead of watching the unruly scene from their seats, perhaps with an amusing look like gentlemen, rushed in creating an ugly scene grabbing the posters. If the UNP members sat quietly, their image among the public would have sky rocketed. Instead, they started a fight showing that in roguish characteristics they are second to none.

It may be true that septuagenarian politician Gamini Lokuge, known in his young days as a man who would not shy away from street fights, slapped the young UNP member S M Marikkar. But for the young politician to come back with vengeance after the commotion was over and all the members were back in their seats and give a severe blow to Lokuge, who is old enough to be Marikkar's grandfather is an act that cannot be condoned by any decent man. Furthermore, Marikkar's attack was not an instant retaliation during a fight, but a premeditated attack that he had planned, while being seated on the treasury side after the first round of the fight was over.

At the same time, the action of several JO members to surround Chaminda Wijesiri and assault him even after he fell down must also be condemned on the same terms. Last but not the least, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe lost his 'Mr Clean' and 'Mr Decent' images in a matter of minutes. When the issue was the findings of the Presidential Commission on Central Bank Bond Issue, he should have waited for the debate to make a statement. Rushing in with a statement before the detailed account of the Report was known, indeed an ill advised move, to say the least. His role in slogan shouting, later, did not do any good to his image of the decent politician and not that of a street fighter.

It is true that there were unruly behaviours in the past Parliaments, but most of them were on nationally important issues and not to score brownie points over opponents. Leftist leaders like N M Perera, Colvin R de Silva, Phillip Gunawardena, W Dahanayake, Somaweera Chandrasiri and many others challenged the Speaker of the House and when they continuously disobeyed the ruling, they were evicted forcefully. Even President Maithripala Sirisena, as a young member in 1991, deliberately addressed the Speaker M H Mohamed as Garu Paga Nayaka Thumani (Honourable Leader of Bribery) and he was ordered out of the House during the impeachment attempt of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Those protests were part of democratic traditions and they were useful to highlight major national issues and bring them to the notice of the people, unlike last week's raucous spectacle, which was created basically to suppress issues and make a diversion.

Loss of image suffered by politicians at this juncture is all the more unfortunate as it would further dampen attempts to increase women representation in legislature. Women representation in Sri Lanka Parliament is even lower than that of many other South Asian countries. Although Sri Lanka is high in many human development indices, when it comes to women representation in Parliament, it is a mere 5 per cent, which is comparatively a lot less than Nepal (33.2 per cent), Bangladesh (19.7 per cent) and India (10.9 per cent).

Sri Lankan women are well aware of politics, but they are extremely reluctant to enter the political arena as the image of politicians in the eyes of the public, is very low. They are aware that the political campaigns are run mostly by males and campaigns are known for rowdy acts, fisticuffs, distribution of liquor and freebies and it is no place for even a decent male, not to talk about decent womenfolk. The raucous incident in Parliament last week must have strengthened this belief.

As President Maithripala Sirisena often says, what is essential is to nominate 'clean' and 'pure' candidates so that the general image of the politician could undergo a transformation and a new political culture could be established. In such a scenario one can expect qualified women to enter politics, in sufficient numbers.

President said that the people should fulfil their duty in a responsible manner during an election, as it is the first step to rectify the errors and create a people friendly, corruption free political culture in the country. We should elect disciplined political representatives for the Local Government institutions as it is the first step towards creating suitable national political leaders, the President said. He added that with the emergence of clean, honest people's representatives to Local Government institutions, the whole political culture would take a positive turn.

It might take a long time to erase the ugly memory of the unruly scenes witnessed in Parliament on 10 January, but this shocking scene could also serve as a motivator for the people decide to look for good, educated, decent candidates at the forthcoming election, as the ill behaviour of their elected Members of Parliament would be still fresh in their minds, when they go to the polling station on 10 February.

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