4 June, 2023


The Opposition’s Identity Crisis

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

Ruwan Jayakody

With each passing day, the Government seems to be, through its exceedingly consistent capacity for committing political suicide, though not of the honourable harakiri kind (and dragging the hapless country, kicking and screaming, along with it), thanks to its blunderbuss brand of political folly – the latest being the persistent delusion of the efficacy of purchasing more nano nitrogen liquid fertilizer in the face of contrary scientific facts – digging itself into a deep and early grave as far as its political future is concerned. Yet, all is not lost as there is still hope for the Government. It is a fact that voters tend to suffer from cyclical, five yearly bouts of both collective and selective (of political bygones) amnesia when it comes time to cast their Hobson’s choice or exercise their herd insanity by doing the same thing repeatedly in the expectation of different results, in the game of Russian roulette popularly known as the Presidential and General/Parliamentary Elections. While the Government has taken the bull in a China shop route on matters of grave national importance, one is left questioning, whither the de facto alternative Government – the Parliamentary Opposition, and what is the state of affairs of the people’s bulwark against Governmental ineptitude and excess?

Even though American journalist and essayist H.L. Mencken observed that under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule and both commonly succeed, and are right, deconstructing the phenomenon of party politics, Nazi German political theorist Carl Schmitt noted that the equation that politics equals party politics is possible only when antagonisms among domestic political parties succeed in weakening the all embracing political unit which is the State. There is more than a grain of truth in both the views when applied to Sri Lanka. In the context of the commonly held view of Mencken, it can be noted that the policies of both the main Government Parties [(the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)] and the main Opposition Party (the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the rank and file of which has arisen from the apoptosis of the United National Party (UNP) in the wake of the latter’s festering state of necrosis), constitute, as seen over the years with little variation, a panoply of decrepitude, some of which have gone the way of all flesh, yet are being repackaged as solutions to pressing socio-political-economic concerns. Per Schmitt’s analysis, it can be seen that fissures and fault lines are developing within the ruling nexus of the SLPP-SLFP and also intra-Party within the Opposition (SJB, and the Tamil National Alliance {TNA}), and also in the eyes of the electors, concerning the eternal bride status of the much loved, least voted for Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led National People’s Power (NPP), and the make hay while the sun shines, traditional lack of permanent policies of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).

The present day Opposition, composed as it is of the SJB, the TNA, the JVP led NPP, the Tamil National People’s Front, the lone pachyderm of the UNP, the Our Power of People’s Party, the ACMC, the SLMC, and a few other minority (ethnic and religious) parties and alliances, is a ragtag band of rag-and-bone men and women, suffering for the most part from an (im)potent admixture of being ideologically challenged and being ideologically possessed, touting a ragbag of lost causes, insincere and vacuous rhetoric, bankrupt objectives, and a farrago of half baked resolutions, and far-fetched or anachronistic solutions. As a Government in waiting, the current Opposition, both as a collective and as individual parties and alliances, occupies even within the wasteland of political detritus, a political demi-monde of sorts.

The factors that have contributed to this state of political dereliction are twofold. The first has to do with the fractious nature of political factionism that is seen within the incumbent Opposition, specifically in the cases of the internecine rivalries within the SJB and the UNP, a situation that is exacerbated in equal measure by pettiness and cattiness, myopia and desultoriness, illusions and delusions, and on the other, the TNA and other Tamil political parties wrestling with the axioms of political moderation and extremity, and the JVP being stuck in an image crisis. The second has to do with the Opposition’s understanding of their democratic function in the context of the political discourse.

With regard to the first issue, whether the Opposition, collective and individually (as parties/alliances), has done enough to find intra and inter party commonality on issues of national interest remains to be seen.

The role of a responsible and formidable Opposition, which constitutes the second problem, apart from seeking eventual role reversal by ousting the Government at Polls and taking over, is among others, to act as a continuous and timely democratic and legislative check and balance on the Government, to eschew both servility and sycophancy, and anti-Government zealotry, but strike a middle ground through the constructive criticism of Government actions and policy through astute and acerbic questioning, the principled and pragmatic advocacy of alternate policies and laws (including through the tabling of private member motions and bills and challenging excessive Government legislation in courts through petitioning), and as much as is politically and humanely possible, for the purpose of being effective in terms of positively influencing the policy making and legislation forming process including the Constitutional agenda, strategically maintain sound relations with the Government and seek collaboration in reform exercises to steer such in the right direction including when the Government coalition experiences intra party opposition to certain policies, and more vitally, to hold the Government accountable through its capacity as an anti corruption watchdog. In addition to whether they have been able to fulfill such duties, has the incumbent Opposition been able to canvass and galvanize public opinion by shaping perception and harnessing dissent via effective communication through the media and engagement with the scientific academe, mobilize the society including political forces, lobby groups, trade unions and social movements, and align itself with the civil society on a cause by cause basis? In addition to being a counter point to the Government, the Opposition also has to be a voice for the marginalized and oppressed groups in the society and raise their concerns to the authorities, and in the process, take to salt of the earth, grassroots level activism, in the streets, through protests, demonstrations, and other strategic actions of civil disobedience. Such actions have been few and far between.

The roles and functions of the Government and the Opposition, and the survival of the former and the ascension of the latter, entail a parasitic symbiosis. Though the roles and functions of the Government and the Opposition are entrusted by the public to be exercised under public trust, the goals and objectives of the Government and the Opposition which revolve around power, both gaining it and keeping it, are not mutually independent but interdependent, and rarely in keeping with the doctrine of public trust. The nature of this Machiavellian pas de deux is dictated by the rules of the game. It is time therefore, as the clock ticks for the Government, for the Opposition to stop being neophytes at the game, and keep to and keep up its end of the bargain by being proactive instead of merely reactive. As French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville notes in the “The Old Regime and the Revolution”, the most critical moment for bad Governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform. With many reforms including a new Constitution in the offing, the Opposition therefore has an opportunity to radically reconfigure the political landscape and in the process course correct the present dire circumstances, by staking its own aspirations of power and yoking such with its political dreams by being a vanguard, paragon and bastion of the people, for the people. If only.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    What is a strong opposition in the Westminster model ?
    Can a opposition be stronger than the number of seats it represents in the Parliament
    whearas government in Sri Lanka is stronger than the share of power for the government side in democracies in the West with a all powerful President to boot ?
    What can the people do until the next election?
    Do the opinions of our representatives matter even if they have one?


  • 6

    Today yet another BS from now dead SLFP, stating ” now on party will stand elections alone and not in alliance with SLPP. Remember last time Rajapaksas did the same as common opposition until eleventh hour and now it’s SLFP turn to change roles. If true why don’t they get out of alliance, ministries and other self serving ventures. To me this appears like the married couple staging separation, just to get extra welfare dole.

  • 2

    Thanks, Ruwan Laknath for your principled analysis, and for letting readers know the peril the country is in.
    You are one writer about whose honesty and commitment we need have no reservations. The warnings that you give are clear; too few are heeding them. Reasons?
    1. Too few have got into the habit of reading your articles; many automatically (and fortunately!) look at all that Tisaranee Gunasekera, Kumar David, etc write. That they don’t look at all that you write is their (and the country’s) loss.
    2. Many who have looked at your writing (and make an effort to understand them) find that your sentences are long and convoluted, and there’s an overload of difficult words. Nevertheless, it is better that you are yourself, and don’t conform to what others try to tell you that you should be.
    3. The photograph that is displayed, wit your long hair, may also drive away many who allow irrelevancies of this sort to come between what you have written and themselves. Do I offend by even mentioning these things that don’t really matter.
    Thanks for the article. All the messages that are incorporated are significant and rational. Thanks for stating all that you have.
    Panini Edirisinhe of Bandarawela

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