The mood in Colombo since the election has been quiet verging on apathetic. We knew who was going to win, and we had a good idea of by how much. Whether or not we were happy about it, there was nothing very surprising in what happened on April 8th.
Except for Mervyn Silva.
Many of us had been salivating at the prospect of this man - best known for his foul mouth and thuggish behaviour - getting ejected from Parliament. And for good reason. He isn t the kind of person I would like to represent me or my country, and plenty of Sri Lankans agree. Legislatures need honest, intelligent and compassionate people to function. This man will never qualify, however many doctorates he picks up.
But it didn t happen. In fact, Mervyn Silva did more than win. He came third out of 12 elected from the UPFA list in his district.
How could the voters of Gampaha have given him more than 150,000 preferences? He was beaten only by the Rajapaksa family s record-breaking campaigner Basil and Sudarshini, widow of the popular martyr Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. Even a high-profile monk like Athuraliye Rathana Thero couldn t beat Mervyn Silva, while former minister Felix Perera fared still worse with only 70,000 preferences. Why?
His fellow politicians were almost as disturbed as the chattering classes.
From complaining that the presence of such a man in Parliament demonstrated the problems of allowing parties to appoint members via a National List, as some were until April, people have now switched to being upset about the idea of Preferential Voting. Voters can t be trusted to select MPs either, it seems. I m not sure who that leaves. And if Sri Lanka goes back to a kind of First Past the Post system with Single Member Constituencies, they will be moaning again, because he can get elected that way too.
Mervyn Silva is simply more popular than a lot of other politicians, at least among a certain demographic.
I am talking about people who drive buses and three-wheelers, work in the local kade, sweat in the hot sun on building sites and run around cleaning up the mess the rest of us leave behind. The poor. Those who have come to expect very little from democracy. They back him, and apparently in large numbers. Maybe only because his version of campaigning involves nothing more sophisticated than bellowing I am with you! and handing out some of his mysteriously-acquired fortune, but why not? At least he bothers to address these people. Even if he didn t lift a finger to help them after getting elected, it wouldn t be so terrible.
Politicians - prone as they are to leap to wrong conclusions - are bound to think of refocusing their efforts on things like increasing the supply of arrack in their areas during an election, seeing his success. They may even decide that what people really appreciate is having goons unleashed on them.
But they would be missing the point.
There are roughly three million people in Sri Lanka who live below the Official Poverty Line, according to the Department of Census and Statistics. This means that their annual expenditure doesn t exceed Rs. 27,000.
Think about it.
Many others scrape by on not a lot more. These people might spend Rs. 3,000 monthly. Hundreds of thousands of them in every district. But what do politicians care about their problems? It would be difficult to tell from their campaigns, as a rule.
Especially in the Western Province.
The Government often trumpets its success in more than doubling the per capita income and says it will turn Sri Lanka into a Middle Income Country before the end of its term. People are told to dream of living in the Wonder of Asia . It is beautiful rhetoric, harking back to the glory days of kings like Parakramabahu and promising to build a modern version of his empire. Growth will be maintained at over 8%, it is claimed. Meanwhile, much is made of statements like that of The Economist magazine predicting that Sri Lanka will be one of the top successes of the decade in this region, financially speaking.
Even if it happens, many of the people I am talking about won t notice the difference. They will only see that some others are benefiting.
Politicians are actually far more interested in making the poor disappear than they are in improving their standard of living. Take the recent call for beggars to be prohibited from entering buses and trains, for example, and efforts to remove hawkers from key locations in Kandy and Colombo. Who are these decisions going to help? The disturbance they cause to most of us is pretty insignificant.
Those whose incomes are increasing will feel less guilty, but that s it.
Only a few officials admit that there is more to life than we are led to believe in the Mahinda Chintana, and only on rare occasions. I was happy, therefore, to read the remarks of P. B. Jayasundera at the launch of the Central Bank s Annual Report for 2009. He admitted that striving to increase the Gross Domestic Product was essentially meaningless if inequality continued to rise. Of course. But I can t remember the last time I heard anything so sensible from either the Opposition or those in power.
During the election, talk about poverty was no better informed than usual.
I didn t go to any campaign events or listen to many speeches or debates on the television, or read their advertisements. Like a lot of people, I decided that it would be a waste of time. Most politicians are too busy shouting about who is the most patriotic - according to their terribly warped idea of what that means - to find time to discuss something important.
Ministers appeared to think that their main activity should be fear-mongering about implausible conspiracies dreamt up in the West.
Their priorities were further exposed when it came to pretending to be interested in things for the sake of winning votes. And the demographic referred to above hardly figured.
Champika Ranawaka was one of the politicians whose campaign attracted a lot of media interest in Colombo. But what for? He appeared to spend most of his time claiming to promote eco-friendly transport by - of all things - riding bicycles and launching a hot-air balloon. When his sycophants weren t filling the newspaper pages and airwaves with reminders about his not having put up any posters, as if that were the most important consideration. His supporters will probably be used to such nonsense, of course, as that party s hot-air balloons regularly transport people to other worlds. But they surely wouldn t be seen dead on a bicycle, even for sport. It is only those they ignore who have to use them for want of a more comfortable option.
This is what gets drug dealers into Parliament, I suggest. Although I must say their views on some of the more pressing issues facing the country in the current context may prove to be less offensive.
And don t let anybody argue that it s all about money without giving a full accounting of the election. The soundly-defeated former minister Rohitha Bogollagama isn t known for being a spendthrift, now is he? And he ended up with a pathetic 45,000 preferences. It won t have been his money this time either.
Coming back to Mervyn Silva, this should certainly not be taken as an attempt at rehabilitation. He is beyond that. And he doesn t deserve any credit for his campaign, which was as flawed as they come. It is the other politicians who have failed to inspire this particular section of the population - and often behave as though they don t remember that it exists - who should be blamed for their attitude. There is only a handful among them in the whole of Sri Lanka who even come close to living up to the democratic ideals so many of us hold dear.
As the new MPs meet for the first time tomorrow, April 22nd, this would seem to be a good subject on which to reflect for a while.