At least one person of Sri Lankan ancestry is vying for a seat in the House of Commons as the UK heads for a general election in about three weeks from now. The Conservative Party candidate for the Cambridge constituency is Chamali Fernando, a confident, smart and articulate barrister who threw in her lot with [...]


Oh, to be in England now that polls are near


At least one person of Sri Lankan ancestry is vying for a seat in the House of Commons as the UK heads for a general election in about three weeks from now. The Conservative Party candidate for the Cambridge constituency is Chamali Fernando, a confident, smart and articulate barrister who threw in her lot with the Conservatives six years ago and was selected by the party to contest next month’s election.

Chamali Fernando canvassing in her Cambridge constituency. Pic courtesy

Her father Sumal Fernando himself has been a lawyer for many years and was perhaps the first person of Sri Lankan origin to contest a parliamentary seat here. That was way back in 1983 as a member of the now defunct Social Democratic Party started by four moderates in the Labour Party who came to be known as the “Gang of Four” though they were hardly characteristic of the four persons who made history under that sobriquet during and after Mao Zedong’s rule in China.

Perhaps there are other persons of Sri Lankan origin who are contesting the May 7 election, particularly from the Labour Party, but so widespread is the electoral map with the Commons consisting of 650 MPs that it is difficult to immediately ascertain the ancestral background of the candidates.

There are of course several persons of Sri Lankan origin, especially from the Tamil minority though there are some Sinhala and Muslim councillors, who have made their way into politics via the local government borough system. Some of them have held mayoral office and whether they are contesting next month’s parliamentary election is difficult to say right now.
Chamali Fernando is also a senior policy adviser to the campaign that wants to see an international court for the environment which today is becoming increasingly important given the arbitrary manner in which the environment is being abused and climate change is visibly occurring putting our planet in great danger.

The environment is also a subject of immense interest to Justice Christie Weeramantry who has often lectured here and elsewhere on the havoc caused to the environment by the military-industrial complex.

Any Sri Lankan coming to the UK today after having gone through a presidential election campaign at home not too long ago would be struck by lack of visible signs of a general election.

Whereas we who have witnessed over the decades numerous election campaigns back in Sri Lanka with huge election rallies that attracted thousands of people, raucous political debates (and now almost unending television discussions) and even physical violence and damage to moveable and immoveable property, would surely wonder whether there is an impending nation-wide election at all.

Boundary walls of public and private places are not plastered with posters usually depicting the candidate. Public address systems set up for political rallies do not blare forth loud music late into the night after the political figures have all gone home to bed or wherever.

There are no cut-outs, as they are called, that adorned Colombo and the suburbs during the presidential election campaign and continued to stand undisturbed even though election law required them to be dismantled several days before polling.
But here there is nothing of the sort. Just three weeks from now voters will head for the polling booths if they can bestir themselves to set out to exercise their franchise. When parliament was dissolved last month those accustomed to campaigning practices in Sri Lanka would have expected candidates and their supporters to fan out and vigorously try to persuade the voters to their way of thinking on political issues and parties to support.

Yet I am still to see any such public campaigning except for the occasional leaflet stuck through the letter box or a television shot of Prime Minister David Cameron feeding milk to a baby lamb while on the campaign trail in farming country or Labour leader Ed Miliband addressing a group of party faithful or voters in a small town hall.

This contrast in political conduct and electioneering styles is so striking that one wonders what makes it so different. Is it the difference in political cultures though Sri Lanka and the UK both are committed to the democratic system and regular elections?

It is true that the British public seems apathetic to politics and have increasingly lost faith in their politicians. Hence the generally low voter turnout at elections though this time round the very close result predicted might cause more voters to cast their ballot.

The faith of Sri Lankans in politicians cannot be very much higher than that of the British public. But the difference in approach to elections seems to me because of the over-politicisation of our society where positions in the bureaucracy and in state-run or owned institutions and jobs in general are dependent on the support given to party candidates and the enthusiasm displayed by aspirants for high places during the election campaign.

Moreover the violation of election laws and their abuse by state-run institutions that spend public funds in support of their chosen candidates makes a complete mockery of free and fair elections.

Let me put it this way. Since the election campaign began here I have still to see a major rally in a public or private place. It would have shocked the British public if it heard that state-owned buses — hired or otherwise obtained — transported voters-coerced or not — to shout and applaud candidates.

If our own political culture is to be changed — assuming such a thing is possible — then it is necessary to change the attitude and conduct of our elected politicians first.

What Sri Lanka’s legislature requires is, as in Britain, a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who is an officer of the Commons and is in charge of regulating MPs conduct and propriety. One of Commissioner’s main tasks is overseeing the Register of Members’ interests intended to ensure disclosure of financial interests that may be of relevance to member’s work.

The Commissioner’s role encompasses numerous tasks including monitoring the MPs Code of Conduct and the Registers and investigating complaints against them such as fiddling of expense accounts which has resulted in many MPs being faulted after stringent inquiries.
Public confidence in the standing and reputation of Britain’s legislature is crucial to the working of the country’s democratic system. This is why over the years the two Houses have tried to tighten up on the codes of conduct both for MPs and Lords.

Sri Lanka’s new government has promised to introduce a Code of Conduct for parliamentarians. We have had no opportunity to have a look at a draft of this. But the sooner such a code is introduced and all MPs undertake not to breach its provisions the better the chances of restoring some faith in our political establishment. Respect for the law by whomsoever is the foundation for good conduct.

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