By Rajan Philips –
It really does not matter who is in the middle of whom: whether the government is in the middle of the UNP crisis or whether the UNP is in the middle of the government. Beneath the all-powerful presidency the two major parties are seamlessly meaningless in parliament. For party differences and loyalties you have to go out of town. There you will find differences not only between parties but also within parties. At the last PC elections, the UPFA contestants were at war with themselves for the coveted Chief Minister position and the six crumbs (four Ministers, Chair and Deputy Chair) of the PC system. The UPFA battles are not over even after winning the elections, but a new battle has erupted within the UNP after losing yet another two elections. The Matara mayhem, as it has been alliteratively called, has exposed not only the seething discontents within the UNP, but also the two timing enthusiasm of the UPFA government over the internal affairs of the UNP.
The Matara mayhem is also a microcosm of the national malaise, to keep extending the alliteration. The bazar fracas showed many things, or everything endemic about our current politics. It showed the provincial turf wars and caste loyalties that are now among the drivers of national politics. One politically migratory bird (Mangala) took on another geographically migratory bird (Sajith). There was father-son solidarity that is as old as Lanka’s modern politics, but demonstrated now with the burst of gunfire. The usually missing-in-action national police were to ready to arrest even before a crime was committed. The UPFA – in parliament and elsewhere – has been gleefully sending out mixed messages. The beleaguered Ranil Wickremasingh is still the official Presidential favourite to lead the opposition. But some of the UPFA Ministers are cheering the disgruntled challenger, Sajith Premadasa. On whose side are these Ministers in the UPFA infighting in Kandy, where even the Prime Minister joined a street protest for his son who had been denied the Chief Minister position in the Central Province?
Ranil, Rajapaksas and the UNP’s DNA
A Sunday political commentary, known for annihilating facts and floating fantasies, saw the Matara mayhem as a blow to the inter-party ‘political peace’ that has apparently been smiling on Sri Lanka ever since the presidential sun set on Chandrika Kumaratunga. By allegedly being implicated in the intra-party Matara fight, Ranil Wickremasinghe has somehow broken the inter-party peace compact he has had with Mahinda Rajapaksa since 2005. This is so bad for the country that the only remedy now is to make sure that Mahinda Rajapaksa stays on as President for life. This is laughable political syllogism, but discerning readers may contrast it with the more serious proposition often made by a number of critical loyalists of President Rajapaksa (but not of the regime itself): that Ranil Wickremasinghe, by his sheer inability to provide oppositional leadership and offer a viable alternative to the government, has made the Rajapaksa regime to be virtually irremovable from power. There is much truth in this assertion, but its principal purpose is to deflect criticism from Mahinda Rajapaksa for bad government, and blame Ranil Wickremasinghe for weak opposition. It’s all Ranil’s fault, Mahinda is not to blame.
Ranil’s weaknesses as an opposition politician are legendary, and so are Mahinda’s political skills as President. But politics is not a game of cricket, even though politics is best practiced by following the unwritten rules of cricket. Not to mention, thanks to money and the BCCI international cricket is now following the rules of Indian politics. My point is that a critique of Sri Lankan politics should be more than an accusation of Ranil Wickremasinghe. While Mr. Wickremasinghe’s weaknesses have certainly contributed to the desideratum of an alternative, the desperate need for such an alternative is partly the result of the inappropriateness of Mahnida Rajapaksa’s political skills, or their abuse. At the same time, our current state of affairs goes beyond the personal and political abilities and disabilities of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremasinghe. The fact that they complement each other so well, and find their roles mutually reinforcing, if not politically consummating, is also a huge part of our presidential political system. The parliamentary system, on the other hand, may have created a better Leader of the Opposition out of even Ranil Wickremasinghe. He is now comfortable being the President’s Minister of the Opposition, as someone deadlier has remarked. The parliamentary system would also have kept the whole government constantly answerable to parliament between elections and to the people at the elections. The presidential system has dispensed with accountability and has been contrived to make the people captive to unlimited terms of a single incumbent.
To look at it another way, the roots of the current UNP crisis are also part of the United National Party’s DNA. The party that was dubbed the Uncle Nephew Party no sooner than it was founded began as a party of interconnected families and feuds at the top. The seeds for fighting over succession were planted at the very birth of the Party and the fighting never ceased, although after its first electoral debacle in 1956 family feuds gave way to political fights. To wit, the Dudley-JR stand-off following the 1970 electoral defeat, the struggles to succeed JRJ as President after the Party’s great victory in 1977, and the current fighting over leadership in what is now a serially losing party.
Interestingly, the political formation that defeated the UNP in 1956 was led by SWRD Bandaranaike, the scion of an even older family than the new rich families of the UNP, but one who steadfastly kept his family out of his politics. Ironically, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, that SWRD founded, was turned into the Sri Lanka Family Party after his death by his widow successor. In contrast to the UNP, however, the SLFP has not been plagued by incessant succession squabbles. The Bandaranaikes of the Horagolla heartland reigned supreme for more than fifty years and over two generations. The Rajapaksas from the Hambantota hinterland are now firmly in the saddle riding not only the SLFP but also Sri Lanka. The grand old party, the UNP, meanwhile is fighting the losers’ fight in distant Matara.
Parliamentary and Presidential systems
The story of politics is never entirely the story of political families for other political forces always find a way to thrust themselves into the cut and thrust of politics. Thus in their heydays the UNP and the SLFP became vehicles for broader social and political forces, primarily among the Sinhalese, pushing for change or fighting for the status quo. The Left Parties provided an alternative platform based on the “toiling masses”, while Tamil and Muslim political parties came into being to look after the interests of the ethnic minorities. The universal franchise and the parliamentary system enabled and facilitated the participation of all the political parties in the political processes, even though the processes were neither faultless nor equitable. Their inadequacies provoked extra-parliamentary labour protests, ethnic riots, military coups, and bloody insurgencies separately involving Sinhalese and Tamil youths. In the midst of it all the parliamentary system trudged along with all its faults and frustrations. Its merits were hardly appreciated then, but they are sadly missed now after it has been cast aside by the presidential system.
The old electoral system nurtured lasting links between MPs and their constituents. The qualifications and attributes of candidates did matter in an election, albeit to different degrees in different locations. MPs were party members, but they also had a strong individual identity and a local base. Individually and collectively, they were the Party and they were not pushed around by party bureaucrats. They carried their weight in parliament and in caucuses even if they were not Cabinet Ministers. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and other Party leaders depended on their respective MPs to take their messages to the people and to bring back feedback from the ridings.
The presidential system has invalidated the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and Party leaders in parliament, while the system of proportional representation has destroyed the identity of MPs and made them pawns in the hands of party bureaucrats. The old nexus between the elected and the electors has been broken. Candidates are now on a list for an entire District and mostly determined by Party leadership and bureaucrats. The preferential voting has led to competition and fighting among candidates of the same party. Caste, which was not a dominant factor in campaign organization in the old single-electorate system, is now a crucial basis for organization at the district level as candidates try to maximize their preferential vote tallies by mobilizing caste support. And the vote tallies invariably rank the MPs in each district. The parliamentarians of old were not differentiated on the basis of the votes they garnered, but were recognized for their individual abilities and experience. Now the MPs can flaunt their vote tally to throw their weight around and secure presidential favours. And favours are never enough, short of making every government MP a Minister. Now there are two thirds of them and the President’s cheerleaders can boast of having a historic two-third ministerial majority in parliament.
Devolution and Power sharing in the UNP
The main criticism against the old electoral system and first-past-the-post election is that the winning party usually gets disproportionately higher number of seats in relation to the votes it polls nationwide. By the same token, the opposition parties get fewer seats in comparison to their votes. But the old system did not prevent the Left Parties with fewer seats virtually taking over parliament from the Opposition. Now, the Left Parties are nowhere and JRJ saw to it that they would be in electoral doldrums forever by raising the minimum cutoff point in the minimum vote total required for representation. The UNP as the Opposition Party now has more seats than it would have had under the old system but its numbers are meaningless even as parliament itself has become nothing more than a politically meaningless architectural monument to JRJ’s vanity and Geoffrey Bawa’s creativity.
The second criticism against the old electoral system arose from the post-election violence that marked the 1970 and 1977 elections, when the winner took it all and the loser was crushed in the election and after. The two elections became notorious for creating parliamentary tyrannies, and while we have rid parliament of its power tyranny has found a new sanctuary in the presidency. And the proportional representation system did not do away with violence, for when power changed hands from the UNP to the SLFP (spearheading the People’s Alliance) in 1994, inter-party violence came back with a vengeance. Not that political violence had disappeared during the 17 year UNP rule, or that political peace returned to the land after Chandrika Kumaratunga left office in 2005. Those who write otherwise are convenient day dreamers.
Clashes between the UPFA and the UNP have subsided primarily because there was no power shift between them in 2005. Rather than beating up the UNP on the streets, Mahinda Rajapaksa has been poaching its MPs in parliament, with or without Ranil’s agreement – God only knows. The President’s last catch in parliament is now the Chief Minister in the North Western Province, more to the chagrin of the UPFA locals than that of the UNP leadership. The Provincial Council system that was supposedly created for devolving power from the centre to the regions is now a national chess board with the President playing from both sides. Only in the northern corner, the TNA has got a chance to see if it can move some pieces around.
The UNP and JRJ in particular, are constantly blamed for creating the Provincial Council system, and of course the 1978 Constitution. But the bigger beneficiaries of both have been the SLFP-led governments, first tentatively under Chandrika Kumaratunga and now at full throttle under Mahinda Rajapaksa. The UNP, on the other hand, seems to be adding insult to injury in its efforts to reform the Party. The two words that are being used to express the reform demands are: devolution and power sharing! The reformists want Ranil Wickremasinghe to devolve functions and share power with his competitors. Even the United Bhikhu Front that is ‘mediating’ between the Ranil and Sajith factions is not averse to using the two words that are usually frowned upon by commentators at the national level.
Add the word mediation to power sharing and devolution, and the three words that are anathema to the UPFA government nationally have become the ingredients of intended reform inside the UNP. It would not be too cynical to pose the question to the UPFA pundits as they take sides in the UNP crisis, if they are supportive of effecting internal reforms in the UNP through power devolution and power sharing. And if so, will they also advocate similar reforms within the UPFA? Taking it further, will they become more receptive to devolution and power sharing at the natioand nal level? Put another way, is there any hope in hell that the two words: devolution and power sharing will one day become Sri Lanka’s perestroika and glasnost?