17 June, 2019

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Don’t Ignore The Role Of Minor Opposition Parties

By Thrishantha Nanayakkara

Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara

Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara

I am not a political analyst of any sort nor an academic with expert knowledge in politics. However, this is the time all Sri Lankans try to make sense out of the country’s political history to take informed decisions. I just thought of sharing my specific thoughts about the role of the minor political parties. The glare of main political parties often makes us overlook the role of minor opposition parties in the Sri Lankan parliament. We often forget that their composition and principles indicate major concerns limited to certain groups of citizens, which if neglected, can lead to social catastrophes even the majorities have to face.

I start with 1977 – 1989 parliament shown in figure 1, because it was based on a new constitution that introduced an executive presidency while maintaining the republic introduced n 1972. In this parliament, United National Party (UNP) had 5/6 power in the parliament and the opposition was Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) with 18 seats from the North and East. The major league Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was reduced to 8 seats. President JR Jayewardene simply ignored the opposition and did whatever possible to intimidate them. For instance, the leader of SLFP lost her civil rights, and rule of law was humiliated. When some judges were publicly stoned by goons, the president simply said – “oh, it is people enjoying their democratic rights!”. TULF could not stop the parliament from passing laws to standardize education that introduced a quota for each district to send students to universities, worsening the Sinhala/Tamil media based standardization introduced in 1972. This benefited most parts of the South, but it was a massive blow to students in the North that had a good education system capable of sending larger numbers to National universities. This standardization started strong sentiments among Tamil students and professionals living across the World to intensify the demand for a separate state where Tamils can take care of their own affairs centered on a good education system.

Muslim-Hakeem-Anura-TamilWhen I look back at this era, I find it hard to believe that JR Jayawardane administration chose a socialist approach of introducing quotas for education, when he represented a more capitalistic party that should have instead developed the school system in the South and broadened opportunities in universities. However, the relevance to the topic is that the opposition led by TULF was too weak to resist these moves. It only led to a loss of trust in democratic politics among the emerging radical Tamil youth.

1977 Sri Lankan parliament

1989 Sri Lankan parliamentJR Jayewardene administration skipped the General election to be held in 1983. He knew that an election would cost him the 5/6 powers in the parliament. Therefore, he went for a referendum asking whether the public was willing to extend the same parliament for another 6 years. Apart from this power hunger, his government had managed to intensify tribalistic politics both in the South and the North by cleverly instilling a sense of insecurity and paranoia in both communities. A little trigger was all that was needed for a massive racist civil blood bath. It happened on 23rd July 1983 triggered by an ambush by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on an army troop. Sinhalese mobs killed Tamil civilians and burned their properties in Colombo at will. Not a single culprit was arrested, and it took JR Jayewardene administration one week to impose a curfew under pressure mainly from Margaret Thatcher administration in UK. State media was high in bashing the undue interference from the International Community. UK and India were often singled out. This introduced a new dimension to Sri Lankan politics – a threat of dividing the country backed by the international community! A large majority of Sri Lankans gobbled up this version strongly coined by state media that was under the iron fist of clever lawyer, JR Jayewardene. I am sure JR Jayewardene knew that the pressure from UK came due to lobbying of Tamil professionals in UK who were disgruntled by his policies to limit Tamil students from getting into universities, and that from India came due to their own perceived threat from unrests in Tamil Nadu due to refugee Tamils from Sri Lanka.

Figure-2 shows the 10th Sri Lankan parliament elected in 1989 – 1994. We often ignore the fact that the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) got 13 seats, and that they represented a key Tamil concern about standardization of education and ideologies of power sharing as a solution to many problems with Colombo. It is also important to note that another 10 seats were shared by TULF, ENDLF, EPRLF, and TELO due to mushrooming of Tamil radical parties proposing alternative views to bring in reforms. Obsessed with a clear majority power, popular UNP led by president Ranasinghe Premadasa proved that the representation of the above Tamil parties in the parliament was in vein. This gave a clear legitimacy to LTTE to assassinate the leaders of the above parties in quick succession to emerge as the sole visible force representing Tamils. We all know what befell on Sri Lanka as a consequence.

The scenario in the 1994 – 2000 parliament is shown in figure-3. Note that the opposition re-organized under People’s Alliance (PA) to confront UNP, and EPDP overtook EROS in Tamil politics, which was later understood to be a shrewd but short-sighted political maneuver of the two main political parties to counter anti-Government Tamil politics. SLMC continued to use their block of 4-7 votes to bargain with both main parties. In this case, the main attention of major parties was to win SLMC and use EPDP to ignore the concerns put forward by all other Tamil parties who refused to form coalitions with them or be proxies for them. LTTE continued to nourish on this dishonest management of the minor political parties.

1994 Sri Lankan parliamentThe PA continued to hold power in the 11th parliament elected in year 2000 shown in figure-4. Emergence of JVP as the 3rd force (10 seats) with fragmented Tamil vote share among 4-parties (with 16 seats in total), and Sinhala Heritage with 1-seat introduced new dynamics in the minor party politics in the parliament. Though Sinhala-Heritage won only 1 seat, it signified the solidification of Southern Nationalistic politics. JVP too was more aligned with Southern Nationalistic politics. This made fragmented Tamil parties more vulnerable to LTTE.

2000 Sri Lankan parliamentThe result was a clear polarization of Nationalistic politics in the North and the South attracting an unprecedented level of International sympathy to LTTE led Tamil struggle. This, compounded by the economic crisis in 2000, forced another election in 2001 with a ceasefire agreement on the cards. This time UNP contested as a coalition like SLFP did in 1994. UNF got a clear mandate with 109 seats and PA was reduced to 77 seats as shown in figure-5. However, the president of the country, Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga (CBK) was from PA. Note that the landscape of minor political parties changed significantly too. JVP gained from 10 seats in 2000 to 16 in 2001. All Tamil parties except EPDP got together to form Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and kept their collective total at 15. EPDP was reduced to 2 from 9 in 1994.

What is noteworthy here was that president CBK fought back, but she was left with the only option of dissolving the parliament rather than buying a big chunk of MPs from the ruling party, because the wedge formed by JVP and TNA with 31 seats among them made it unviable to go for the second option. However, she made the Government less attractive to top politicians in the Government buy taking over three important ministries – defense, interior, and media. She also declared a state of emergency and used state media, now under her control, to convince the public that the country is in danger under the UNF government. When time was ripe, she dissolved the parliament in 2003.

2001 Sri Lankan parliamentThe resulting 13th Sri Lankan parliament from 2004 – 2010 is shown in figure-6. Quite dramatically, this time PA absorbed JVP to form UPFA, further unifying southern Nationalistic leftist politics. Note that this was accompanied by the growth of Sinhala-Heritage (1-seat in 2000) to a significant Southern nationalistic political force called Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) with 9-seats in 2004. It further consolidated the polarization of Northern and Southern Nationalistic politics into two clear foci – one growing while feeding the other. It is signified by a clear rise of TNA that was often accused of representing LTTE in the parliament to 22 seats. This polarization inevitably created breeding grounds for a full-scale war between the LTTE and the Government.

2004-Sri-Lankan-parliamentFigure-7 shows the 2010 – 2015 parliament. This reflects the mentality of the country after the war came to an end in 2009. We notice that EPDP was now openly a part of UPFA. JHU too was openly absorbed to UPFA. TNA dropped from 22 in 2004 to 14 in 2010 forcing them to re-think about their character and identity in the post-war era. Often EPDP was credited for achieving this by empowering UPFA in the North. JVP that contested seperately was dropped to 7, mainly due to a lack of clarity about the distiction from UPFA in their post-war politics. Though UNF won 60 seats, a mass cross-over (often said to be a mass buy-over) brought president Mahinda Rajapaksa 2/3 power in the parliament. The result was a jumbo cabinet of ministers (Prime Minister + 10 Senior Ministers + 54 Ministers + 2 Project Ministers + 38 Deputy Ministers). This was made possible by the weak wedge formed by the minor political parties (just 21 seats between JVP and TNA with none from other minor parties).

2010 Sri Lankan parliamentFigure -7: 2010 Sri Lankan parliament (source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/14th_Sri_Lankan_Parliament).

Again, the country spiraled down the path of Nationalistic polarization. TNA grew in popularity in the North and the East, while UPFA led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa continued to thrive on Nationalistic politics with an iron fist on state media. A number of independent media personnel lost their lives, and ultra-Nationalistic groups like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) enjoyed total impunity in harassing Muslims. Another ethnic catastrophe was in the formation.

Due to some magical turn of events, upbeat President Rajapaksa decided to go for the next presidential election two years in advance of schedule in January 2015. A number of senior ministers in the UPFA led by party secretary Maithripala Sirisena defected. The whole opposition united under the presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena to contest against Mahinda Rajapaksa. Perhaps, this was the riskiest political decision taken by Maithripala Sirisena in his whole life that ended in a success. What is important to note here is that what was expected to end up in an ethnic blood bath ended up in a radical shift in the politics of minor political parties. JVP openly stressed upon the need for National reconciliation. TNA that grew in power in the North and East showed more flexibility to negotiate with the Central Government. In response, the Central Government appointed a civilian as the Governor of the North and East and solved several issues like releasing 425 acres of army-occupied lands back to civilians through a process of dialog. Nationalistic JHU split into two with a hard-core Nationalistic section remaining supportive to Mahinda Rajapaksa. The other section showed improved flexibility towards reconciliation efforts.

This is the backdrop on which we are going for the general election in August 2015. Again, I want to stress on the significance of the minor party politics in the parliament. Whenever, a major party secured undue power, they chose to do divisive and Nationalistic politics brewing a polarization between North and the South. The antidote seems to be a strong minor party block that appreciates the need for good governance, rule of law, democracy, and National reconciliation. Traditionally, minor conventional leftist parties and the Muslim Congress have settled down to conform with the ruling party in exchange of ministerial positions. Therefore, that block should come from minor parties that have traditionally stood by their principles. Due to this reason, I would dream of that block to come from TNA and JVP with a strong will to defend above National priorities and to hold the major parties accountable for it, so that they will do more of that politics to win over the vote base of minor parties than doing more of Nationalistic and divisive politics. Having said that, I would strongly urge JVP to abandon their traditional tactics of waiting till a disaster happens to make their point, and to be a more active driving force in the opposition with determination to engage positively.

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Latest comments

  • 6
    1

    Dr. T N

    What is written in the last para, is extremely perceptive and well balanced. Advice to the two principled minor parties is worthy to be responded to.

    • 0
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      You re not a PA. But yours is thousand times impartial that that of most abusive political analyst of the day – DJ.. Pseudo Dr. Dayan Silva Jayathilaka.

      • 0
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        Leelagemalli,

        I was upfront in my note by saying – “I am not a political analyst of any sort nor an academic with expert knowledge in politics”. So, one should not expect much political depth in it. But this is the frank feeling of a lay-voter. I presented it for politicians and learned political analysts to know what normal public like us think and feel.

  • 1
    6

    Big Yawn! this must be silly season – what has happened to the fine contributors this forum had. Just another senseless (and boring) analysis.

  • 3
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    A well written document. But Sri Lankan politics will go on as ever without the will of the minor parties. Until such time racial hatred and division exist in Sri Lanka, minor parties play their own agenda not for the benefit of Sri Lanka but for themselves. The TNA has become a dependent party without backbone. JVP is gaining grounds in Southern politics but they too have become racially biased. SWRD is gone likewise JR and Dudley. The same way Rajapaksa and Ranil will go for good. The time will tell about Sri Lankan Politics.

  • 2
    2

    I am not a political analyst of any sort nor an academic with expert knowledge in politics.

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • 1
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    No doubt minority parties who represent “National Interests” must be given a place in the Parliament; but not the parties formed on the basis of “Racial” or “Religious” concepts.

    The trouble for Sri Lanka started when the “court decision” was given, in that, any member elected to Parliament could “cross over” and still retain his/her seat. This “decision” by no lesser person than the than CJ led to the “BUYING” of Parliament members to strengthen the hands of any political leader to survive his/her administration. It was very clearly demonstrated during the last regime and it was no SECRET that such “cross overs” fetched “millions” and other “benefits”. This had got embedded in the body politics.

    An attempt was made by the JVP to do away with this “system” with their proposal at the time of the 19A during the “100 Day” Government. That proposal was voted until the second reading, but got “Voted Out” during the third reading. Who “Objected” to it – no lesser person than Mr. Dinesh Gunawardane of the UPFA and who “Agreed” to it, no lesser person than the Minister of Justice Mr. Wijedasa Rajapakse of the “Yahapalanaya”. So we see here more than the “Small Parties” with two three members, it is the “Bigger Parties” who bring disaster to the country. Shouldn’t we CLOSE this “DOOR”?

  • 2
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    While a lot of historical facts are presented, I am not sure whether it provides any useful insights on whether voting for smaller parties is any better than voting for the two main parties. I think this article provides a very superficial analysis on that aspect – a lot of hard work has gone into preparing this even though it has ended up as a low quality analysis

    • 2
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      Most of the historical facts are wrong, and they also show a complete lack of knowledge of the internal politics within the Tamil society.
      fOR EXAMPLE, This writer says
      “TULF could not stop the parliament from passing laws to standardize education that introduced a quota for each district to send students to universities, worsening the Sinhala/Tamil media based standardization introduced in 1972. This benefited most parts of the South, but it was a massive blow to students in the North that had a good education system capable of sending larger numbers to National universities. This standardization started strong sentiments among Tamil students and professionals living across the World to intensify the demand for a separate state where Tamils can take care of their own affairs centered on a good education system”.
      The “standardization” was introduced by the earlier sirima government, probably with Bad-ud-deen as Minister of Education and Paskaralingam as Perm. secy. It was an attempt to “correct” the high ratio of Tamil intake to University compared to the Sinhala intake (similar to the affirmative action for Blacks in the US), Esp to the Science, Med and Eng streams.

      But this was also a clever racists political action by the Sirima government. So when JRJ converted the language-based standardization to district based standardization he did the right thing. Prof. Hoole has explained in one of his articles how this benefited the Tamil students from depressed areas like Mullaitive etc, breaking the monopoly of the “Top Tamil schools” that catered to the Tamil upper classes (effectively, caste). What this writer (and EROS) condemned as bad was one of the few affirmative prgressive steps taken by the JRJ government.

      The other thing this writer does not seem to know is that the EROS student politicians were using standardization merely as a political tool. Most low caste Tamil students couldn’t get even a secondary school education, let alone university. They had a slightly better chance if they were Christians. Mr. Shanamugadasan’s battles (Communist party- China wing) in the late 1970s and early 1980s were about that, where he accused the TULF of being the dynamo of caste discrimination and in PREVENTING low-caste students getting a reasonable education, or preventing low caste people from entering temples, or using drinking wells. The issue of University entrance was a matter relevant to a very SMALL privileged class (in fact caste), and the Tamil leadership cleverly used this as another canon in their Eelam battle rather than because of their interest in the democratic rights of the people, or ending gross discrimination which was internal to our Tamil society in a way non-existent in the south.

      Furthermore, ALL the splinter Tamil parties of the time (mentioned by this writer) had no real political power on the ground, and what ever power they had in the north was, by then, completely the power of the gun. The internecine battles that were going on at the time have been documented by the UTHR(Jaffna).

      I can go on, discussing the short-comings of each paragraph, but it would take too long and I am afraid the facts are NOT right, although many of the sentiments are right.

      Should the “small parties be taken seriously”? They will automatically become important if the two big parties come neck and neck. So, the main issue raised by the writer will happen in the right circumstances. BUt in practice these “small-party types”, based on purely racists groupings, will join one of the big parties to enjoy the perks of power.

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    A very nice collection of stats, Thrishantha. – lousy but honest analysis. But a sharper mind would have been able to derive better insights from them.

    • 0
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      Now do you see why Sri Lanka Telecom should not block free speech? When we are allowed to express freely, the wise and the sharp-minded get to see what blunt minds like ours have to say. Then the sharp minds can descend down to earth from the ivory towers and treat us with a bliss of wisdom. Whether you like it or not, what I wrote is how normal Gamiya (ගැමිය) like us think and make sense out of the political history.

  • 0
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    By Reading this article, I thought of commenting about an Article written long ago by thrisantha Or Chrisantha,
    [Edited out]

  • 2
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    I completely agree with Dr. Nanayakkara, particularly what he has said in his concluding paragraph. This is irrespective of some of my disagreements with what the Manifestos of both the TNA and the JVP have pronounced particularly in respect of reconciliation and/or as a solution to the ethnic/ national question. What applies here is what Voltaire said about freedom of speech: “I don’t agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Many of those who criticize the TNA manifesto in fact deny and denounce their right to say so. What Sri Lanka should try to transcend at the next elections are the ‘ethnic domination in the democratic system’ and also ‘ethnic particularism.’ What is proposed as a ‘strong block of minor parties’ can be an antidote towards democratic rejuvenation with appreciation for ‘good governance, rule of law and national reconciliation.’ As Dr. Nanayakkara says, the role of the JVP might be pivotal.

  • 2
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    The problem is the qualitative degradation of contributions from smaller parties in Sri Lanka. During the days of Dr. N.M.Perera and Colvin R de Silva, smaller parties made healthy contributions to the political discourse. However with better and more lucrative opportunities available for people of high calibre within and outside of Sri Lanka, such people do not seek academic jobs or political roles. We can see the impact when you see who are in politics in Sri Lanka or writing in forums like this.

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