One healthy sign we can observe in the depleted democratic polity of Sri Lanka at present is that many of the opposition political parties, and even some in the ruling alliance, have begun to think and act beyond the self-interests of their respective parties. They have begun to show more interests in fighting to change the suppressive political conditions that more or less affect the life in a functioning democracy. Meanwhile the civil society initiatives such as the Movement for Social Justice also created forums for such political parties and civil society elements to come together and discuss ‘what is to be done?’ in order to create a possible change. Obviously, the existing conditions of political oppression and the degradation in the socio-economic life of the ordinary people have provided much necessary objective grounds for the intellectuals and the civil society to think of the importance of democratic social movements in reshaping the political and social future of the country today.
The emerging shifts in the thinking of the political parties, civil society elements and oppressed masses have tended to create foundations for larger social movements against anti-democratic tendencies and economic exploitation of the poor under lawless conditions and rampant corruption. Some of such notable movements which have dedicated their efforts for redefining the democratic system in the country include the Movement for Social Justice, People’s Movement for Democracy and Pivithuru Hetak (Pleasant Tomorrow). Previously the University lecturers under FUTA and the lawyers also led a huge campaign against the lawlessness and deteriorating welfare conditions of the people and now they also have joined one or many of these movements to fight the tyranny.
Some might argue that these movements were initiated by a certain individual or a political party and do not look like ‘movements’ of larger scale participation of masses. But, such arguments certainly would miss to identify the most valuable feature of them, ‘the objective’; that in their objectives these movements have a common, social and political goal which takes them beyond the narrow party interests and strategies of ‘securing power by any means’. More or less under the existing political and economic conditions, it is increasingly understandable that the political parties have only a very limited role to play in re-defining the conditions in the economy and the political system, unless they contribute for larger social movements representing larger social aspirations for better life, democracy and justice. Therefore there is a larger scope for the social movements for democracy which penetrates class, caste, party, race and ethnicity to do more for the society under the current conditions.
All these movements which have more or less the backing of political parties, civil society organizations, intellectuals, professionals and working class elements share a common ‘consciousness’ that the concentration of political and military power largely in one institution has severely caused for the collapse of democracy resulting in social injustice for many. One single term that we can propose to describe the existing conditions in the political system could be ‘tribalism’. The idea of tribalism explains that a particular social system serves only one particular tribe. The disastrous consequences that the Executive Presidency has brought to the polity since its inception in 1978 have remained fearful for ever; for instance, today, largely the idea of citizenship has been eliminated from the polity and replaced by the practice of the ‘loyalty to the regime’. On the other hand the norms such as the rule of law or constitutional government could be applied negatively and only on those who go against the will of the tyrannical ruling class. The tribal nature in the regime politics is so high and many more examples can be brought to explain it, but it is not the major purpose here. The movements we are talking about here have mainly stressed that the ‘Executive Presidency’ has become the major obstacle for implementing a more democratic constitution in the country, and we can realise the validity of their realization in today’s context. Therefore the main attempt on which these movements have focussed much of their energy is to abolish or reform the institution of the ‘Executive Presidency’ created under the 1978 Constitution, which was later on given more ‘remorseless’ powers to it through the 18th Amendment.
The rise of the movements for better democracy occurs at a time when the opposition parties have been routed in Parliament to an insignificant force while the ruling alliance enjoy and undemocratically exploit a two third majority earned with the help of political crossovers. Meanwhile, the people, ending a long observed silence, have begun to send warning messages to the ruling alliance or the ‘regime’ that unless it improves the economic and political conditions affecting their lives, they are ready to bring back the opposition into power in future elections. The recently concluded provincial council elections in Uva clearly gave that message to the President of the country and he has now hurried to bridge the gap by giving so many ‘sahana’ (concessions) for ordinary people and the workers through the budget approved for the next financial year. As the regime has been warned that its power is ‘not for ever’ and it has to leave office or gets its numbers reduced in Parliament soon, in a sudden move, the President has wanted to hold Presidential elections in advance, which should in fact be held in 2016. As the People’s Movement for Democracy argues this sudden announcement for Presidential Elections is a violation of the Constitution.
The 18th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution was brought with the sole aim of extending the number of terms the current President can contest whereas the Constitution had limited such attempts that one can hold power as the Executive President in Sri Lanka only in two terms of six years. However, while pointing out the drawbacks in the 18th Amendements, recently the JVP and the former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva started a campaign against the current President contesting for a third time and they argue for the unconstitutional nature of the President’s action. As the Peoples Movement for Democracy could create considerable awareness among what they think as an undemocratic and lawless situation the regime and its supporters also started to contest the argument that ‘the President can’t contest for a third time’, and now the President has been forced to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on whether ‘He can’. So the debate which arose on the ‘Executive Presidency’ has led to new developments in the political situation of Sri Lanka; and the political parties and civil society leaders have created a formidable force against the authoritarian powers vested in the ‘Executive Presidency,’ and they want it abolished and would field a ‘Common Opposition’ candidate in a future Presidential Election for that purpose.
The idea of Common Candidate came first from the Movement for Social Justice led by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha who was first proposed as the Common Candidate too; somehow the person for the common candidate has not yet been decided. As the UNP is very much likely to suffer another election defeat if it fields its own candidate, and it is true that the JVP and other parties cannot make a significant gain in Presidential elections, and since there are likely elements in the ruling alliance who would cross over to the opposition if a common candidate is to be fielded, the realistic and pragmatist move for a united opposition is to fight the upcoming election under a common slogan ‘to abolish the Executive Presidency’.
If the opposition political parties and the other elements who want to create a ‘significant change’ in the system by abolishing the ‘Executive Presidency’ and bringing several other democratic reforms to various other institutions can come together creating unity among themselves for a ‘sacred purpose’ while leaving aside their narrow political interests, such a move will hopefully cause for a healthy democracy in Sri Lanka. A healthy democracy will be a significant gain for all; the people, the opposition, the left parties, and the minorities and for all other civil society elements who would genuinely like to share the sprit of democracy and want to broaden the horizons of the idea of democracy.