17 April, 2024


A Political Party Isn’t A Bastion Of Open Democracy – Reply To Eran Wickramaratne

By Shyamon Jayasinghe

Shyamon Jayasinghe

“The fundamental fact is that in a given political party all members aren’t equal.”

Demand for Open Vote

Minister Eran Wickramaratne, the other day bemoaned that his own party, the United National Party lacks democracy in its internal operations. This theme is doubtless going to be repeated by the Sajith Premadasa faction while pursuing its various gyrations and gymnastics to seek nomination for President from the Grand Old Party. The leader would be slandered direct and by innuendo by Sajith backers and the lack of democracy would be the main line of criticism. Assuming they have majority power, the Sajith faction, to which  Eran also presumably belongs, now demands an open vote among the parliamentary group and the Working Committee to decide the candidate. On the face of it, that sounds reasonable. The practical situation on ground is, however different from theoretical considerations.

Demolishing the Theoretical Justification

In this piece, I shall endeavour to demolish the theoretical justification for equality, and therefore, for an equal vote on this issue.

The fundamental fact is that in a given political party all members aren’t equal. A vote for a critical decision like this cannot be the mechanism used to name a candidate. 

Take any party and tell me if all members are equal- in Sri Lanka or anywhere else in the world. Every party wittingly or unwittingly develops a leadership caucus, whcih may be inside the formal institutions of that party or outside. These few numbers outnumber others. In the case of Mahinda Rajapakse, it is the family. Can you blame Mahinda for that? No. because Mahinda is the author of his party. He and the caucus of his family navigated the party into government and while in government. Most others were mainly ‘also rans,’ or bread recipients in  the race headed by Mahinda. Mahinda used both legitimate and illegitimate influence to keep his side winning. He and his caucus carried the great risks that follow in defeat. Most of that caucus have now been indicted in court and they are trying their best to play hide and seek with justice. 

In such circumstance, how can another MP like SB Dissnayake or Gammanpila or Shantha Bandara enjoy equal status with Mahinda’s decison-making vote? Sounds senseless isn’t it?

United National Party

The same line of argument applies to the UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe and his caucus-whoever that may be. The leader went through a hard time through over 20 years in Opposition and through the Rajapakse regime era to keep fighting to save the UNP. In an era of white vans, the close caucus had to take dangerous risks. Seventeen of Ranil’s ministers switched over to Mahinda for portfolios. The euphemism is that these persons had gone to ‘strengthen the hand of Mahinda during the war.’ Some of them went over shamefully alleging that ‘the leader wasn’t good.’ Johnston Fernando was one. Twice during this dark era, Ranil Wickremesinghe was challenged for leadership by Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya. Ranil went through all these roadblocks. During the dark period, the UNP didn’t have funds flowing to its treasury. Business sides only the winner and Ranil wasn’t one. Until he did become one.

Keep Power

It is not only to win power. The leader had the challenging and creative task to keep and sustain power through the weird decisions of the President  himself and the selfish interests of the factions.

 Ranil Wickremesinghe’s handling of President Sirisena deserves our highest plaudit. He seems able to manage him so deftly and to go ahead with the government’s program at the same time. Had he adopted Bull-in-the China Shop tactics during the infamous 52 days, that would have been blunder after another. No, it was his innate emotional management skills that got Ranil Wickremesinghe on top of the situation. There are those who say Ranil Wickremesinghe lacks a spine or ‘pitakonda.  The assumption of such accusation is that a leader should employ muscle strength to get over a crisis. The UNP leader is not the muscle type but the brainy type.  One doesn’t need to waste one’s muscle when one can, more effectively, use one’s brain. This is the theme of the late Somalatha Subasinghe’s play,”Thoppi Welenda.

Over to Eran

Now tell me, Eran, is your vote equal to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s or to any other of Ranil’s caucus who stood by him through thick and thin? You were not even elected, if I am right. You, Mallik, Harsha De Silva and some others got into the party elite via nomination by the leader. How many of the other parliamentarians can claim they went through the same arduous struggle to win power? I can identify persons like Rajitha Senaratne who precisely shared the sweat and risk of the struggle of competing with the Rajapaksa regime that had been known to be brutal. It is good to make a list. 

Nominated MPs

Nominated MPs should be low down in such a list since they did not even have the task of spending large sums of money and wooing voters for power. Were it not for the leader, these gentlemen would  have been sulking in their old positions in society

Robert Michels and The Iron Law of Oligarchy

The theoretical claim for equality among members is, therefore, false. It follows that the wisdom of  a great researcher in political theory who wrote his classic’ Political Parties,’ was dead right even during his time in 1911. That man’s name was  Robert Michels-a British sociologist. Michel’sbook is a classic even to this day. He pointed out with evidence that there is ‘an iron law of oligarchy,’ that drives the behaviour of political parties-wherever. 

I cite the following summary of the argument presented by Michels:

“According to Michels, all organisations eventually come to be run by a ‘leadership class’, who often function as paid administrators, executives, spokespersons or political strategists for the organization. Far from being “servants of the masses,” Michels argues this “leadership class,” rather than the organization’s membership, will inevitably grow to dominate the organisation power structures. By controlling who has access to information, those in power can centralise their power successfully, often with little accountability, due to the apathy, indifference and non-participation most rank and file members have in relation to their organisation’s decision-making processes. Michels argues that democratic attempts to hold leadership positions accountable are prone to fail, since with power comes the ability to reward loyalty, the ability to control information about the organisation, and the ability to control what procedures the organisation follows when making decisions. All of these mechanisms can be used to strongly influence the outcome of any decisions made ‘democratically’ by members.

Michels stated that the official goal of representative democracy of eliminating elite rule was impossible, that representative democracy is a facade legitimising the rule of a particular elite, and that elite rule, which he refers to as oligarchy, is inevitable.”

It asserts that rule by an elite, or oligarchy is inevitable as an “iron law” within any democratic organisation as part of the “tactical and technical necessities” of organization.

Further, Michels’s theory states that “all complex organizations, regardless of how democratic they are when started, eventually develop into oligarchies. Michels observed that since no sufficiently large and complex organisation can function purely as a direct democracy, power within an organisation will always get delegated to individuals within that group, elected or otherwise.”

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Latest comments

  • 2

    It was Ranil Wickremasinghe who brought Eran Wickramaratne into the UNP inspite the objections of many who were against it.

    Eran should be grateful to his leader for that and not act like he is the most important person who needs to be heard. He must talk to his boss in private about his concerns.

    If not for Ranil, Eran would not have stood a chance to be part of the United National Party.

  • 0

    Dear Sir

    Sri Lankans should start voting for parities with no Language/Religious tags as a first step.

    This is a phase we need to go through without the divisive politics spoken openly as a nation in elections????? be it huge hurdles we will encounter in this journey. Other successful Nations had to go through this critical stage too and we are not exempted.

    We pool around National parties and share our brains for a better tomorrow….be it newly formed.

    All parties should have town hall meetings at local level explaining their candidate selection, manifesto for the public evaluation. Not big party political meetings where no interaction exist with the votes vs potential elect need to be stopped.

    We should ban all gutter divisive politics and parties from this election and from our nation for good. Infect all parties should have this in their manifesto even for this elections.

    Parties that openly invited death to their opponenets on political stages (this is my Jaffna historical fact/journey) should be banned immediately and taken to task……….being a Bastian of Democracy starts here for us.

    Parliament is not a court room drama for a bunch of lawyers. They need not apply for this job in the future.

    • 0

      Dear Venugopal,
      I accept some of the things that you say, but if the suggestion implicit in your opening sentence is that the Tamil National Alliance be banned, I disagree.
      In many senses, the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party are really Sinhalese parties. Some of the Marxist parties may not be, but I’m no Marxist. What most Sinhalese mean by “Sri Lankan” means having a Sinhalese identity and ethos. Given all the ideas that get exchanged owing to the electronic media, this has now become much clearer to me than it used to be when I was in a school that had students from all social groups.
      Ah, such a school was fine – but we were the privileged; so prepare to find us snobbish! So, there, I can be self-critical, how nicely philosophical. And so we can continue. An hour ago, I said in a comment that I’d vote Imtiaz Bakeer Markar for President – and I meant it. But all this is too hypothetical.
      Until we Sinhalese start getting more reasonable within this country, I don’t expect Tamil and Muslim parties to change totally. What I think that you can start doing is to stop denigrating the Sinhalese all the time. Most of us are conscious of this being the only country where our language is used. I hesitate to say “flourishes” because it is being destroyed from within. Few young Sinhalese use the language properly, it is deliberately hybridized – not your fault! But, too many of you are rubbing it in all the time, that we too have castes, some of which came quite recently from South India, and were “low”, etc.

  • 6


    Further to what i wrote before, i must say Eran is far better respected in the world of commerce than Ranil could ever aspire to be.

    No self respecting Prime minister or leader of a party would have accepted such a dressing down as what he received from the President, without a whimper, upon reappointment late last year.

    He has lost the respect he once had.

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