By Ameer Ali –
It has become almost an unwritten convention in Sri Lankan party politics since the introduction of the Jayawardena constitution that the national parties like the SLFP and UNP enter into pre-election pact with minor ethnic parties in order to enhance their chances of forming governments. Such marriage of convenience inherently weakens the functioning of the government because of the ‘hold-up’ problem. It is risible to see in the current campaign that the SLMC is contesting under the UNP party symbol in certain electorates and in their own party symbol in others. How can a national party rationalise such behaviour of its ally? It is one thing to have an understanding with independent and minor party members in the parliament after the election when a government faces tough opposition to pass its legislative measures. Such dialogues and compromises are normal in all democracies which only make democracy more transparent and strong in action; but it is entirely a different ball game to come to a pact before the election with minor parties who are driven by narrow ethnic interests and ministerial positions. This will only aggravate the hold-up problem.
Ethnic parties will not disappear on their own because they have seen the advantages of politics of bargaining. Ministerial positions with benevolent and sometimes unaccountable perks are too enticing to sacrifice. Therefore, it is the national parties, if they are really national in outlook that can marginalise ethnic parties. To do that first of all the national parties should reflect in their choice of candidates and programs of action the plurality of the society. They should promote candidates from various ethnic communities to become members of the party and work for a national agenda which should include programs of affirmative action to benefit disadvantaged communities. Such programs of action would enhance the legitimacy of the party while broadenings its electoral reach and avoiding the need to enter marriages of convenience with ethnic parties.
Different ethnic members in the national party must also find accommodation in the cabinet. Such practices are not new to Sri Lankan politics. In fact, they were adopted under the Westminster model in the 1950s to 1970s. With the Gaullist model however, ethnic parties are having a field day. Religious leaders of the country, particularly the Mahanayakas, should bring pressure on the national parties to avoid pre-election pacts with parties like SLMC. Even if ethnic party candidates succeed in the election and enter the parliament let them sit in the opposition and warm up the seats. Their supporters will soon come to realise the futility of electing them and will switch their allegiance automatically to one of the major parties. An enlightened national party can make the ethnic parties redundant. That will be a healthy outcome to a plural democracy.