By Kamal Nissanka –
The Liberal Party (Sri Lanka) was formed on 19.01.1987 in Colombo. It was a period of great unrest both in Southern and Northern Sri Lanka owing to two insurrections. Both these insurrections though had peculiar characteristics were a challenge to the decaying liberal democratic political tradition which we inherited from the British colonial masters. Yet in fact, the challenge to the liberal democratic tradition was fuelled by both 1972 and 1978 constitutions and then political leadership of the country. 1972 constitution created a supreme parliament with powers vested to the prime minister and 1978 constitution devalued the parliament and created an executive president directly elected from the people’s choice. Both these constitutions had some negative identical characteristics such as abolition of second chamber, acceptance of unitary state, acceptance of a foremost place for one religion and many such similarities.In forming the Liberal Party we had two objectives namely introducing “Liberalism “to the political discourse which was dominated by Nationalism and Socialism and secondly the protection of inherited “Liberal Democratic Tradition.’
A person who is not a “Liberal”, may be a” Liberal Democrat”. In that sense United National Party, Sri Lanka Freedom Party , Lanka Sama Samaja Party , Communist Party of Sri Lanka , All Ceylon Tamil Congress, Tamil Arasu Katchchi before Wadukoddai Conference , Mahajana Eksath Peramuna are and were all liberal democratic political parties. In short these parties believed that political power is captured by popular votes through regular elections. For that state should have universal franchise, a competitive political party system, a unified administrative system, a coherent legal system and a strong media.
Being a developing country in the third world Sri Lanka lacked a developed party system and two major parties were dominated by political families who decided the leadership issue and mostly not the real cabinet but the kitchen cabinet ruled the country.
In the ideological sphere nationalism developed spontaneously since the British period and this nationalism was mixed with Sri Lankan Buddhist views. They claimed the superiority of Sinhala Buddhism and their language. On the other hand ‘Socialists of all hues’ though not revolutionary in the beginning agitated against the existing bourgeoisie. In the seventies socialism in Sri Lanka took the violent revolutionary option with mixed nationalism and in North Tamil nationalism resorted to violent politics.
The intellectuals behind the formation of Liberal Party (Sri Lanka) thought to introduce liberalism to the political discourse of the country which is not a popular political ideology in Sri Lanka. In the western political tradition, nationalism, socialism, social democracy and liberalism are main political ideologies and most of the political parties in Europe are armed with a certain ideology.
Basic idea of liberalism is to enhance the capacity of individual in economic, social, educational and cultural spheres. Liberals believe in the free market economy and sees market economy as an answer to alleviate poverty. Poverty is not always a result of capitalism and even before capitalism rooted in the world economic system poverty had been there.As individual is given his/her due respect by liberals inevitably “human rights and rule of law concepts “have become corner stone’s of liberalism. Liberals believe in separation of powers, equal opportunities to every citizen. They oppose conservative views in politics as well as in social life. Liberals believe that the individual is superior to state and other groups in society. Liberals stand for a secular state and more fully believe in scientific thinking and ethics rather than myths surrounding religions. Therefore liberalism is a progressive political philosophy.
Yet after looking back the last 29 years the party cannot be satisfied about its achievement in politics but with many obstacles party has survived. The biggest challenge the party faced during the last 29 years was to take the party to grass roots levels and this challenge is still there.
Founder leader of the party Dr Chanaka Amaratunga was a visionary in politics but lacked the ability to take the party from the cosmopolitan limited base to rural Sri Lanka. With his demise party had no choice but to elect Dr Rajiva Wijesinha as its leader in 1996-1997 and he was there up to 2006. Rajiva also lacked the mental stamina to take the party to the wider audience as a result of alliance politics he engaged with.
In 2007, I was elected as the leader of the party unanimously. I was also the Secretary General of the party. We had supported Mahinda Rajapaksa unconditionally in 2005 but 2010 was different. We had determined to get a national list seat from UPFA and on that line I started a dialogue with the UPFA authorities and at political level I was instrumental in making an alliance with Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010. Considering all factors, we promoted Dr Rajiva Wijesinha as our candidate from the UPFA national list and we succeeded in electing him as a member of parliament. The first test for Dr Rajiva Wijesinha was the 18th amendment where as the leader of the party he maintained silence on that issue and voted for the 18th amendment in parliament. It was the day, I started my criticism against Dr Rajiva Wijesinha and I thought he was opportunistic. I started my campaign within the party against the 18th amendment. The next important policy decision had to be taken against the impeachment process of the then CJ, Ms. Shirani Bandaranayake. Being a lawyer I was not alone on this issue as majority of the legal fraternity was highly determined to work against this process, so I had impetus to write articles (Colombo Telegraph published all eight articles written by me), and I think I was able to checkmate Dr Rajiva and finally he had no option but to abstain from voting.
In fact since 2010 Liberal Party was deviating from Mahinda Rajapaksa camp and the ideological differences were surfaced within the party. Three party seniors, Ms Swarna Amaratunga, Ms Shalini Senanayake and Mr. Ananda Stephen joined with me and collaborated with the civil society groups in search of a common candidate and later fully supported the Maithripala Sirisena candidacy in 2014/2015.
During the years party was able to widen its base and after 29 years most of the 21 members of the national committee are from local backgrounds and with intense debate in last December party congress elected Dr Newton Pieris as its current leader.
The Liberal Party was able to maintain it links with Liberal International in which over 80 political parties are members and Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats in which 12 political parties are members.
*Kamal Nssanka is the Secretary General of the Liberal Party