By Laksiri Fernando –
65th Anniversary of the SLFP this week is marked by a deep crisis within the party, its local organizations and policies. Crisis according to the Chinese tradition is not necessarily a bad thing. The Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is composed of two separate characters meaning ‘problems’ and ‘prospects.’ Therefore, a crisis is a turning point for better or worse. In the case of the SLFP, while there are considerable problems, if these problems can be properly resolved, the situation can be turned into a better situation. This means, in my view, making the party stronger, more democratic and ethnically inclusive; with its policies more appealing to the masses and particularly the modern youth, both rural and urban.
The SLFP was formed, initiated by SWRD Bandaranaike, breaking away from the UNP in 1951. Within five years in 1956, it managed to form a coalition government. Therefore, its first contribution was to break the monopoly of political power held by an urban elite and create a situation where people could select an alternative party/policies. It was because of this contribution that Sri Lanka became a two party (or two coalition) system which is considered a necessary ingredient for a proper parliamentary democracy.
Previously, when Bandaranaike joined to form the UNP in 1946, as a necessary broad front, his organization was Sinhala Maha Sabha (Grand Council of Sinhalese). He maintained this unity/coalition at a crucial juncture and for five years (1946-51). Therefore, the present SLFP unity government with the UNP is not unusual from this perspective.
The vision of Bandaranaike, as he often said, was to unite the Sinhalese first and then the other communities which was never actually happened during his time or after. The SLFP always had a Sinhala bias and orientation with fluctuating magnitudes. At times, these nationalist forces were uncontrollable. As a predicament of this situation, Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959. As a national party, no party can ignore the interests of the majority. However, to ignore the interests of the minorities, or other communities, could lend enormous consequences to the party or the country. This was a major reason for the ethnic conflict beginning the Sinhala only policy in 1956.
When the SLFP was formed, as the name signified (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), the objective was to extend the independence of the country and to assert its cultural heritage. This was absolutely correct particularly in the context of submissive Western orientation of that time, or even today. However, it should not have been at the expense of communal harmony in the country or healthy relations with the West or any other camp. SWRD Bandaranaike was one who had thoroughly studied ‘nationalism’ in the world. His writings vouch for this knowledge. He perfectly understood the ‘merits’ and ‘dangers’ of nationalism, let alone communalism. However, he and the party blundered in its practices again and again.
Middle Path and Policies
Bandaranaike and the SLFP espoused a Middle Path. This is the major strength of the SLFP even today, although a difficult path to tread. It would be the history that would judge the success or the failure. A middle path did not and does not mean indifference or neutrality on justice issues. An active middle path is about social justice. For example, in the case of international relations, the policy was not indifference, but to align with the poor and developing countries of the non-align movement (NAM) on economic and social issues. This is exactly the policy which became abused by the past regime by even aligning with the dictatorial regimes against democracy and human rights.
The middle path of the SLFP has been more prominent nationally on issues of capitalism vs. socialism or the private sector vs. the public sector. This is one reason how the party acquired a reputation as a socialist or a socialist oriented party, apart from aligning with the Left parties (i.e. LSSP and CP). This in a way was correct. If one believes socialism as a goal, but not possible or advisable to achieve through revolutionary means, then some kind of evolutionary policy might be the best. But in the case of the SLFP, it always had a bourgeois character at the leadership level, of the nature of a rising rural bourgeoisie. There were times that this trend became more prominent than the other. As a result, certain political regimes of the SLFP allowed quite blatantly for its hierarchy to acquire wealth and capital, obviously through dubious and corrupt political means.
It has been a historical fact, however, that the public sector always expanded under SLFP regimes compared to the UNP, with both strengths and weaknesses. Under a particular international context, nationalization policies of the SLFP became very much popular and even imperative. But under changed international and national circumstances, some of these nationalized enterprises proved to be a liability than an asset. While these circumstances have narrowed the differences of economic policies of the SLFP and the UNP, now for some time, the promotion of a middle path appears to be in the advancement of public-private partnership (PPP) in a pragmatic manner.
Then the question remains how to promote ‘socialist oriented’ or ‘pro-poor’ economic policies under such circumstance. This is undoubtedly a challenge for the SLFP today. It is in this context that new economic models (perhaps social market), income redistribution policies and modern tax regimes have to be innovated while promoting entrepreneurship, small businesses and perhaps advocating non-profit or reasonable profit making businesses. There are emerging literature and debates on these matters in the international scene.
Socially progressive policies of the SLFP have never been limited to nationalizations in the past. It was the SLFP which initiated the employment provident fund (EPF). It was the SLFP which reduced the voting age from 21 to 18 for the benefit of the politically awakening youth. There was a firm commitment on the part of the SLFP to preserve and promote the welfare system in the country (pension schemes, free education and health etc.) although this determination appear to wane under the pressures of the neo-liberal policies internally and internationally. This is still a challenge.
The major failures of the middle path undoubtedly came in respect of nationalism and on the national question. It is on record that Bandaranaike was quite remorse when the communal riots took place in 1958. But his capitulation to extremist pressures was responsible for the situation. There were major strides that Mrs Bandaranaike made in foreign policy and on some social issues. However, her policies were more flawed considering the opportunities presented during her leadership. One example was the missed-opportunity of the 1972 constitution to rectify the situation. This is one reason why the opportunity for a new constitution today should not be missed by the SLFP.
The crisis in the SLFP is not recent. It is a crisis created over several years. One merit of the SLFP was its strong concerns on territorial integrity and national security. However, it should have been proportional to the threats posed. The thrust against terrorism should not have been a thrust against the Tamils or an excuse for human rights violations. The present crisis within the SLFP brewed particularly after the defeat of the LTTE. Taking the opportunity, the power became blatantly abused for family, political or financial reasons, not by one leader but several of them. This is a trend in many political parties or politics in general, but the magnitude was overwhelming.
Political parties in Sri Lanka are still not fully democratic. The leaders have undue authority and the members or other leaders are usually subservient to the Leader almost by nature. A major crisis point in the SLFP was the 18th Amendment. Although many second ranking leaders wanted to oppose, they didn’t for the fear of reprisal. Therefore, the early call for the presidential elections in January 2015 was the opportunity to rebel by the bravest. It was a blessing in disguise. When the rebellion worked, the former leadership crumbled and the others joined the fray. It is only after sometime that the old leadership has managed to regroup and pose a threat to the new leadership. The difference between the two leaderships or the factions in my view is about ‘democracy and authoritarianism’ within the party and the country. This is why the new leadership should be supported but critically because of the inbuilt weaknesses.
This is the crisis today and the old leaders and their followers are in a counter-rebellion mood. The main rallying point of the opposition is the present SLFP alliance with the UNP. Added reason is the extension of that alliance from two years to now five years. Although the SLFP emerged initially from the UNP, throughout years there had been bitterness between the two parties particularly at the ground levels. In addition, there are still substantial policy differences between the two. One accusation of the opposition is that the present SLFP leadership has capitulated to the UNP and through which to an international conspiracy. The purpose of that conspiracy is pictured as to divide the country eventually through a new constitution.
Opportunities for Change
The personalities, policies and the practices of the opposition are those that became largely defeated at the last two elections in 2015. It is not clear whether the electors would again go back to those old policies and conditions. One can reasonably argue that the new government is not fundamentally different. There are some ‘old guard’ in the new formation. A coalition government by nature is a weak government. A relatively democratic government also may appear as an inefficient government than an authoritarian one. Therefore, there are some natural advantages for the opposition. However, the next parliamentary elections will be in 2020, and the presidential in 2021 (unless something dramatically happens), while there can be local government (LG) elections in early next year.
There are moves for the Joint Opposition to contest independently at the LG polls. There are also moves for the opposition to form a new political party. This must be something that the SLFP leaders are waiting, like the ‘handing over of the leadership’ in January 2015! Party splits, purges or reorganizations are not ideologically alien to a person like Maithripala Sirisena. His political upbringing is equal or tougher than Mahinda Rajapaksa. The spilt in the party and any new formation would favour the UNP. It is unfortunate for the country creating volatility. The SLFP is in a crisis, but not the UNP. It is a crisis generated by the ‘old guard.’ If at all, the formation of a new party would be premature, geared by emotions than any hard calculations.
It is not my intention here to speculate or predict electoral fortunes for anyone at LG polls or beyond. The concern is about the SLFP as one of the necessary pillars of the democratic system in the country. In this context, in my opinion, there is nothing wrong for the SLFP to work with the UNP at this juncture of democratic transformation. If the mission of the ‘January revolution’ is to be carried forward, the SLFP has to be reformed and reorganized. For a proper functioning of the democratic system in the country, there are several conditions necessary. The following can be the minimum.
- A more democratic constitution and an effective legal system with rational laws.
- A well trained and enlightened bureaucracy in all state institutions including the armed forces.
- A fully democratic party system with rational and modern policies and leaders.
- A vibrant civil society with trade unions, voluntary organizations and professional associations.
- A well-educated citizenry with mutual respect for rights and duties of all.
The January 2015 political change can be attributed to the alliance between the new leaders of the SLFP and the UNP, and the effective contributions by the civil society. There has been reluctance on the part of the civil society activists and intellectuals to join political parties in the past, given the dubious circumstances of those parties and the leaders. As a result, the SLFP and even the UNP have been in a dearth of competent and capable leaders and members. Low educational standards of the parliamentarians and low level of debates in Parliament have been some results.
Professionals, academics and artists also have ‘ivory tower’ conceptions and reluctance to be bound by party discipline or intricate party procedures. These are largely valid. They are also maximalists in general. However, the crisis within the SLFP at present opens up ample opportunities for them and others to join the party and make useful contributions not only for that party, but also for the country at large. This may be equally valid for the UNP. A person who comes to my mind who made such a contribution is late Professor Wiswa Warnapala. This is a tribute to him as well. I express this opinion not on behalf of that party, but for the sake of the country and its democratic future. If joining the SLFP by new blood can be done at a large scale, then the crisis within the SLFP can be turned into a great opportunity.