By Laksiri Fernando –
Although the forthcoming local government elections are considered a ‘referendum’ on the Yahapalana administration, it is not clear cut because the SLFP is contesting against the UNP. As the local issues are ‘also’ involved and it is for the first time that the new electoral system is experimented, it is difficult to predict the results.
The most likely scenario however would be for the UNP to prevail in the urban constituencies, the SLFP/UPF and the SLPP to dominate in the rural sector, while the TNA obviously predominating in the North and the East. There will be pockets that the JVP also might win. The overall turnout might be quite low, possibly below 70 percent.
However in terms of total voting, it is quite unlikely that those who have called for a ‘referendum on the government,’ completely distorting the whole purpose of local government elections, and that means the SLPP/JO, would win a majority of votes. Would the referendum advocates be ready to concede such a result as an endorsement of the Yahapalana administration?
As the SLFP/UPFA is contesting almost all the 341 local government institutions, it is also likely that they would come neck to neck with the UNP and surpass the SLPP total votes. In terms of local government institutions, the majority might go to the UNP. Therefore, the overall ‘referendum’ result might not be totally different to August 2015. It would come closer to January 2015.
There are of course so many misgivings about the Yahapalana administration. It can also be called a failure in the ‘model of governance.’ It is at least half empty. While it has initiated a number of political reforms reinstating ‘liberal democracy,’ it has terribly failed in addressing the socio-economic issues of the poor and the majority of the people i.e. social democracy. It has also not progressed much on the reconciliation front.
The latest statistics reveal that over the last decade or so, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. This period includes the second term of the Rajapaksa administration. The bottom 20 percent is left with only 4.8 percent of the national income while the top 20 percent entertaining 50.8 percent of the whole. This also means the middle 60 percent earning roughly 44 percent only. This ‘lower middle class’ is also below its reasonable share.
There is no point in arguing that the absolute poverty is reduced. The poor are only marginally above, just receiving little over $ 2 per day. The claim is utter hypocrisy. Does this mean that the ‘poor’ have no rights to be well off or live with comforts? Only the rich has the right to do so? It is reported that now there are hotels where Rs. 3.8 million worth desserts are served!
Social democracy does not mean that all should be equal and earn the same income. However, the vast gaps should be reduced. If we use the human rights terminology, in a liberal democratic system, only civil and political rights, and at best the cultural rights, are promoted, but not the economic and social rights of the people and the poor. This is also what is primarily lacking in the Yahapalana glass. That is also why social democracy is necessary instead of liberal democracy or as an alternative to the failures in the liberal democratic system. An authoritarian rule again is not the solution.
The main reason that I attribute to the present predicament is not the fact that the present administration is a ‘national unity’ government, but it is dominated by the UNP and its neoliberal ideology. This is what has to be changed and not necessarily the alliance between the two main parties. At least there should be equal participation and contribution in terms of economic policy making and administration.
When the national unity government was first unveiled after August 2015 parliamentary elections, the UNP declared its policy as the ‘social market economy’ without much explanation. Nevertheless, this was a welcome development given its traditional pro-rich policies and anti-welfare orientation, in addition to ‘comprador’ leanings neglecting the national economic development.
However, the social market economy has not been put into practice. Instead, the close advisors of the Prime Minister has interpreted or rather misinterpreted the social market economy in terms of neoliberalism. Razeen Sally has been the main culprit in this endeavour. Neoliberalism here mainly means the liquidation of the national economy on the basis of the Washington Consensus. This is what is clearly expressed in the Vision 2025 in addition to its wishful thinking.
If there is any strength in the UNP economic policies, that is in the sphere of international economics and modernization. But when it comes to strengthening the national economy and the rural sector, or more particularly in addressing the economic issues of the poor and the majority of the people, its policies are conservative, regressive and quite politically suicidal. That is why there has been no apparent progress in the economy during the last three years irrespective of much boast and promises.
This does not mean that the past economic policies of the SLFP were completely correct. Too much nationalism, lack of understanding of international economics, closed or narrow perceptions on national development and the reluctance in modernization traditionally marked the SLFP policies.
Although some of the advisors and policy makers in the Rajapaksa administration managed to breakaway from these traditional policies, the family hierarchy used these opportunities for their own powers schemes and benefits, finally people ousting that regime for a number of political reasons, ‘good governance and anti-corruption’ being some of the main. Many of those progressive people with modern economic policies are now with President Sirisena and the SLFP.
Why a National Unity Government?
In most liberal democratic countries ‘national unity’ governments are formed only during war times and the usual practice is acrimonious confrontational politics. This is the legacy that Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan people have inherited primarily from the West and the colonial heritage. Perhaps there were local roots as well. This is what I am experiencing even in Australia, and some of the political confrontations between the two main parties are quite unproductive. This is affordable in a way given that Australia is a developed country.
However, Sri Lanka is still a poor country and for particularly developmental purposes, at least broad national consensus are necessary. Acrimonious confrontational politics are suicidal.
There is no doubt that the freedom to form political parties are part and parcel of democracy (liberal or social) and this gives the opportunity for the people to look for alternatives. Therefore, in the case of Sri Lanka, the formation of the SLFP in 1952 was a landmark development and the competition between the two main parties have contributed to the country’s general political development while adverse confrontations have been retarding the country, dividing the people and even promoting political violence. It is also this competition that prevented the country looking for proper solutions to the minority question.
If I were to admire our Eastern traditions, my first pick would be ‘the tradition of consensus building and nonconfrontation.’ This is also about social peace and harmony. This is perhaps what Ranil Wickremesinghe initially meant by Lichchavi tradition, although he was practicing it in the negative most of the time, and recently during the bond debate in Parliament. Although Japan has now largely lost this tradition in politics, during my living in that excellent country as an academic (2005/2006), I have experienced this tradition in society and among the academia.
China is also resurrecting this tradition in a different manner as ‘dialogical’ and ‘deliberative’ democracy, at present focusing on intra-party democracy and peoples’ participation at local government and municipal levels. In China, there is no place for family hierarchies or single leader authoritarian models. The party and the policies are the most important.
Among Western countries, it is no surprise why a country like Germany has at times preferred a national unity and consensual government. The war devastation of the country and development needs were some initial reasons. The socio-political policies of the country have also been more towards ‘social democracy’ and ‘social market economy’ than neoliberalism. Even at present, there are initiatives to form a ‘grand coalition’ between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic Party.
Therefore, Sri Lanka is not an exception. Sri Lanka also has a tradition of forming broad based governments through coalitions (MEP, PA, UPFA, UNF etc.) and minority parties joining the majority partners. What has to be avoided is opportunism in forming such coalitions or unity governments for ministerial positions and other perks, and the inefficiency incumbent in such coalition administrations.
Role of Sirisena and the SLFP
It is natural that some UNPers might feel that Maithripala Sirisena ‘pickpocketed’ the Presidency when he came forward at the last moment as the common candidate of the opposition forces. But in my view, this was the most important element in the whole political change in the country which was attributed even as a ‘democratic revolution.’ The ‘hopper story’ is also important as symbolic of Sirisena’s tact, determination and also showing he was acting without personal acrimony. Was he cunning? He must have been.
There are various pronouncements that he has made that I hardly can agree. Some of these are about the capital punishment and apparently women’s issues. These show obviously his conservative side. He also occasionally takes a ‘highhanded moral authority’ giving different signals to different people. Most damaging however has been his referral to the Supreme Court asking for a ‘sixer’ perhaps under ill advice. Apart from those weaknesses, comparatively speaking, he at present is the most trustworthy leader in the country. More important is his reforming party, the SLFP.
Unfortunately, Ranil Wickremesinghe never had such a favourable image and it is irreparably damaged because of the central bank ‘bond scam’ under his official purview and he still goes on defending or shielding the wrong doers. He himself is accountable. If we go by the standards of liberal democracy, he should have resigned by now. At least he should make a frank admission (if not an apology) of his ‘oversights.’
There were/are idealists in the Yahapalana camp, particularly among the civil society groups, who were accusing Sirisena for taking over the leadership of the SLFP and not playing the ‘lame duck’ role (The Economist), largely prescribed in the 19th Amendment. But in my opinion, he did the right thing and the most important thing by taking over the SLFP. If not, the Yahapalana ‘revolution’ would have been completely over by now.
There is still a lot to do reforming the SLFP and cleaning the membership and the party representatives in various official positions. Uva Chief Minister’s outrageous behaviour has been one case in point. If I may use the Chinese President, Xi Jinping’s vocabulary, there are still corrupt ‘Foxes’ and ‘Flies’ in the party, although all the ‘Tigers’ have apparently rallied around the Professor’s LPP.
Such a reform unfortunately has not taken place within the UNP. Ravi Karunanayake is still the Senior Vice President of the UNP!
The SLFP is not merely about Maithripala Sirisena. Chandrika Kumaratunga’s backing to the party and her leadership to national reconciliation are also important whatever her past or present weaknesses. There are a host of, comparatively credible, other leaders like Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Nimal Siripala De Silva, Dilan Perera etc. The role of Sarath Amunugama and Mahinda Samarasighe is immensely important in economic policies and management with little more dynamism. Of course some of them can be accused of keeping silent under Rajapaksa regime or complicity in some of the misdeeds of the past.
Most importantly, the role of new/young leaders like Mahinda Amaraweera, Duminda Dissanayake or even Dayasiri Jayasekara is crucial in party building, if they don’t deviate from the principles. There can be many other emerging young leaders unknown to me.
Sri Lanka terribly needs a strong and a mass party on ‘social democratic’ and/or ‘socialist’ lines and not merely a ‘technocratic’ and/or a ‘populist’ leader. Most important in the future would be the development of policies, practices and discipline further in addressing the economic development and democratic needs of the country and the people.
As an academic, if I were to be too ‘idealistic’ or ‘puritan,’ either I could keep quiet or extend support to the JVP. Unfortunately, the JVP has not matured or strong enough to undertake some of the national tasks of the country at present. In certain areas they perhaps could manage the local government institutions like in the past in Mahiyangana. The best they could do is to join the UPFA in the future, in alliance with the SLFP for a national cause.
Given the prevailing circumstances, largely explained in this article, the best option for the country would be to support the SLFP. If their candidates are elected to local government institutions, in alliance with the UNP, the JVP or the TNA, as the case may be after the elections, there is a possibility of beginning a series of reforms and development programmes from bottom upwards. The time will show whether this is just wishful thinking or not.