With general elections anticipated to be held soon, political propaganda is once again being generated by those who hope to attain their goals by it. The elections may be held as soon as June 20 which is the date presently set by the Election Commission. However, the continuing increase in the number of Covid infections is a deterrent to a decision to go ahead with the elections. The fact that the numbers are increasing, albeit relatively slowly in comparison to other countries and in spite of the lockdowns and curfews gives an indicator of a possible spike in the numbers in the event of a no-holds-barred general election. The Election Commission shows no enthusiasm to take on the responsibility and blame for being responsible for contributing to a catastrophe in the health situation.
In this context, the election date set for June 20 is likely to be further postponed. How far back they are postponed will depend in part upon the Supreme Court decisions regarding the several cases before it that challenge the validity of the presidential proclamation that dissolved parliament on March 2. One of the key arguments is that inability to ensure that parliament is convened three months after its dissolution negates the validity of the proclamation. This would lead to the dissolved parliament being summoned back which could function till September 1 as this is when its five year term ends. On the other hand, if the Supreme Court rules in favour of the validity of the current presidential proclamation, elections are more likely to be held sooner rather than later.
As in the run up to the presidential elections in November 2019, and earlier, there is a discernible rise in nationalist sentiment. This is a common phenomenon at election time. The use of nationalism in an ethnically divided polity is part of a winning formula to those who use it. This has been the case since the watershed election of 1956 in which the issue of the official language took the centre stage of ethnic politics. The sense of identity and of belonging to a nation is a powerful sentiment that can take precedence over other considerations. The use of nationalism at elections has not been limited to any one community but has formed the bedrock of the country’s politics.
The rise of nationalist sentiment in times of election is generally attributed to political parties and their candidates. They are the ones who directly benefit by polarizing the population on ethnic and religious lines and thereby obtaining their votes. At the last presidential elections some of the most potent slogans were generated by politicians. One such was against the co-sponsoring of the UN Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva, which targeted war crimes and other transitional justice issues during the war with the LTTE. Another was the failure to act effectively to protect the country from the ravages of the Easter Sunday suicide bombing. The failure of the former government to act against external powers was denounced as acts of betrayal.
Among the issues that also loomed large at the last election was the charge that the previous government was giving in too much to the Muslim community within the country. The fact that the Easter bombings were by Muslims added force to this charge. The prioritization of national security in the election campaign of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had popular support in the context of the Easter Sunday bombing which signified a massive security failure on the part of the government and its leadership. This attack gave renewed life to the existential fears of the ethnic majority who saw the problem of Islamic extremism, and its violence, as extending beyond the shores of Sri Lanka and relegating them to the status of a threatened minority, albeit in international terms.
During the presidential elections the political parties and political leaders were not the only voices that promoted nationalism and aversion to the other, both local and international. The influential religious clergy, associations of professionals and mass media also joined the battle in earnest. They echoed the politicians and their messages reinforced one another. The Buddhist clergy took the message that this was the last chance for the country and religion to be saved from destruction and that the people needed to vote against the incumbent government which they described as having engaged in many anti-Buddhist actions and being supportive of those forces that were opposed to the Sinhala people.
These messages were magnified by the media and rationalized by the professionals.
With elections on the horizons these same political and social forces are getting mobilized once again. The shock of the Covid infection is on the wane and with the lockdown much reduced it is getting back to a situation of business as usual. Anti-Muslim slogans are coming back to prominence. The old ones are there, that the Muslims are disloyal to the country and accused of putting birth control pills into food served to Sinhala customers at Muslim restaurants. But this time the anger is not only at the opposition who were the targets at the presidential election when they formed the government. Instead a section of the Sinhala nationalist political forces have also started to even politicians on the government side. A Buddhist monk’s criticism of the president’s support to a member on the ruling party’s national list of candidates, Muslim lawyer, Ali Sabry, who has appeared in court cases for the government has gone viral.
In his inaugural speech, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa noted that he had obtained his electoral victory from the votes of the Sinhala people. But he pledged to be the president of all Sri Lankans, which heartened those who were ethnic and religious minorities and felt insecure in the face of a president elected on a Sinhala nationalist platform. The president and government have more to do to make this come true. Hate speech and false propaganda against ethnic and religious minorities needs to be countered. The government’s inexplicable decision to deny Muslims the right to burial of Covid victims, which the rest of the world is permitting and the World Health Organisation has approved, has pained the Muslim community to an extreme degree. Lawyer Ali Sabry’s interview to an international news channel where he mentioned this very serious grievance of Muslims is what has invoked the wrath of the Sinhala nationalists.
The problem is that the forces of nationalism have no limit. Once unleashed primordial ethnic and religious passions cannot be controlled. This was seen in an extreme manner in Rwanda in 1994 and in Bosnia in 1995. With the onset of the general election campaign the voices of ethnic and religious polarization are rising in the country. Instead of trying to ride the wave of nationalism to win the next general election in a big way, the government needs to clamp down on hate speech and counter the false propaganda that makes people hate other people because they are ethnically and religiously different. We cannot be complacent that the barbarous and impossible will not happen in Sri Lanka, as it once did in 1983.