The System Change Myth
Posted on February 6th, 2024

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe Courtesy Ceylon Today

This year is to be an election year. If schedules are maintained, we should have a new government before the end of 2024. Whether we would continue to have the same president is hard to predict. There may be few new faces, but in the whole it will be the same faces that have dominated Sri Lankan politics for the past couple of decades. All an election does is shuffle their seats. Some of those who sat on the government side will sit on the opposition side and vice versa. There are also some who will continue to sit on the government side, no matter which government comes to power. 

The only thing we can be quite certain of is that the political front may end up even more weakened than it is currently. Somehow, this possibility does not bother many. Most would like to see the present lot stripped off their power. Removing the present powers from their positions has become more important than empowering representatives on our behalf. Such is the contempt we have for our politicians. 

Apolitical President is Not Feasible 

As much as we would like to fantasise of a parliament without any of the present 225 faces, it is however not a realistic dream. In 2019, we voted in an apolitical president. Though a very well known face, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not a politician, but a retired military and a civil servant with a proven track record. The fact that he was not a politician was what attracted most of the votes. 

He did not go to Parliament alone but with a team of his own. Professionals who had excelled in their own respective professions made up this team. None of them had any prior political interactions. Some in this team took their roles as Members of the Parliament (MP) while others took 

up top positions in the administration. Their entry into politics answered a long-standing call for the educated to be in charge of our administration. 

However, before long their political naïveté made a difficult job impossible. Eventually, President Gotabaya was forced to resign and even leave the country for a while for his own safety. Most in his team are no longer on speaking terms with him or each other. 

Our takeaway from this unsavory episode is that the president of this country must be a politician. That politician must have enough experience to network and balance between different political forces. It is not enough that the candidate comes from a political background. 

President Gotabaya came from a political background as solid as solid gets. His father was in close ranks with SWRD Bandaranaike since independence. Together, they saw the birth and rise of the alter ego of the then ruling party – the UNP. Since then, his elder brothers – namely Mahinda and Chamal Rajapaksa – worked as SLFP MPs and held important portfolios in SLFP dominated governments. 

At the peak of their political careers, Mahinda Rajapaksa became president of Sri Lanka.  Before, that he was the Prime Minister. Chamal Rajapaksa was the Speaker. Though Gotabaya Rajapaksa stayed out of politics throughout this time, he played a strong support role to his brothers. In fact, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s unparalleled success was having an extremely loyal and capable Defense Secretary – a luxury President Gotabaya himself did not have. 

Since we have written off non-politicians as worthy candidate for presidency, we are faced with quite a conundrum. We are not happy with our present politicians. At the same time, we are not confident of new faces. 

New Presidential Aspirants 

Interestingly, despite the general census consensus that presidency must be filled only by a politician, it has not stopped non-political actors from aspiring for the job. So far, a media conglomerate and a business tycoon had both stated their willingness for the job. One of these candidates has already started landing debilitating punches at his opponents and other entities that will win him applause. 

He is particularly proud of the punch he shot at the incumbent US Ambassador Julie Chung. The fact that these verbal shots at local rallies fail to neutralise interfering foreign forces is lost on this erudite presidential aspirant. 

Meanwhile, various groups are organising themselves on different platforms to forge a path towards a system change. At this point, they are confident of their ability to walk the talk. It will be interesting to see the progress of these entities. Even more interesting than their progress would be the solutions they come up with and the issues they are willing to tackle. Right now though, all we hear is the phrase, system change” that is being bandied about. We also hear catch phrases as prosperity”, security”, corruption-free” being tossed around. Yet, these end goals need to be better defined. Change could be good but it is important to understand that with any change, losing out is also part of the package. 

At the risk of sounding cynical, it appears that many of the actors who are eager to get on the bandwagon seems intent on filling a vacuum. However, whether they have a clear understanding of the challenge they are asking for or solutions to meet these challenges is not very clear. Without this clarity, system change” will continue to be a myth.

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