Monday, September 20, 2010

Until the ‘South’ learns what democratic rule is…

By Kusal Perera | The Sunday Leader

This is all about politics in the Sinhala South. Sinhala politics that decide the country’s future. Tamil-Muslim aspirations may live in the periphery, at the mercy of the Sinhalese. That does not necessarily mean the majority of the Sinhala people could live a contented, democratic life. How could they? Where are their political instruments that could prevail on governance that’s restricted to Colombo ?

Imagine a Sinhala leader of a “Sinhala thinking” political party who has to live with an ultimatum issued by a group of his own party members? Imagine also the plight of the political party that gets relentlessly dragged on in apolitical conflicts, with the leader too manipulating his own party constitution and decision making committees? Imagine also a political party that has no political programme to adopt and implement as the alternate party, staking claim for power at every election?

That being the opposition, in government, what relevance has all those UPFA member parties in decision making, as a responsible collective? There are 11 political parties excluding the latest cross overs from the opposition. They do play a noisy role in defending the government at every turn. But do they actually have any role in decision making?

Just one important reference on their relevance. No elected MP to parliament was provided with even a copy of the 18th Amendment in advance. It took a Tamil National List MP from the Opposition to raise the issue with the Speaker. MPs are there to vote and not to deliberate and discuss nationally important issues. Their political parties weren’t important either. Who then decided the necessity of the 18th Amendment? Neither the government parliamentary group, nor the member parties of the ruling UPFA that includes the SLFP too.

This is now history. It wasn’t so with the SLFP that led the coalition government in 1970. It is said, the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation would not have come about in 1971, though recommended by the Bibile – Wickramasinghe Commission, if the SLFP Central Committee did not decide on it and the two constituent parties in government, the LSSP and the SL Communist Party did not stand firm. Madam Bandaranaike as PM was said to have been under tremendous pressure from drug cartels and is said to have asked Minister T.B. Subasinghe to drop or delay the project. It was not possible. The political parties in power had decided to go ahead.

That was then. What’s happening to these political parties now? How relevant are they in Sri Lankan politics? Over the past decade or two, political parties have turned out to be mere tokens in handing over nominations for elections with a low deposit, that otherwise would be too high for independents. Thereafter, it is the leader and not the party that decides on political stands on all issues the country is faced with and needs answers for.

It is to their advantage, that this society does not behave politically. Whatever the party label, no Member of Parliament was voted in on principles and on a political programme at the last 2010 April elections. The calibre of people now in parliament who sit on either side of the Speaker, is ample proof of the responsibility, or rather the irresponsibility, this society holds at such elections.

It is in such context that Sri Lanka is being ruled by a regime that keeps accumulating power. This regime under the 1978 Constitution has thus discarded party politics in governing the country. The two previous Constitutions that kept the head of state as prime minister responsible to the parliament, could not in any way discard party politics in ruling the country. The constitutions then had the systems arranged so, in establishing a democratic tradition, to first have issues discussed within the party, even before sitting at the Cabinet meetings.

That democracy and political party facilitation was one aspect in governance that Jayewardene wanted curtailed, when he assumed the post of Executive President in 1978. He made certain, his hand will not be held by party decisions. Yet it was his matured political stature and seniority in the party that weighed heavily in towing his own path.

This being a complete change from the previous democracy that held collective responsibility in governance, not only in the Cabinet, but also in extending it to the party that governs, Madam B. hastened to state in the National State Assembly on 4 October, 1977 [quote] “We oppose this Bill firmly and unequivocally. It will set our country on the road to dictatorship and there will be no turning back” [unquote] when JRJ moved the amendment that established him as the first Executive President of Sri Lanka.

Today, 33 years after Madam B’s prophetic statement, she is being proved right by her own SLFP leader as Executive President. Her SLFP that firmly and unequivocally opposed this presidency, for it would set the country on the road to dictatorship, has turned the same SLFP along with other partners in government, into rubber stamps, providing approval and legitimacy to all that is done under the hand of President Rajapaksa. He stands unopposed by any in the SLFP.

This Constitutional arrangement of state power does not allow for two centres to check on each other for excesses. Not even as the elected parliament and the elected president. Therefore it cannot afford to allow a party as in the past to have political authority over its constitutionally established governing systems. This arrangement makes the President the almighty power in the party by default, making the political party a petty, backyard collective.

For the first time after the 1978 Constitution, it was Chandrika as SLFP leader who tried to keep her political authority over the presidency, with Rajapaksa as their SLFP candidate. Once elected, President Rajapaksa proved it does not work that way with the 1978 Constitution. He took over the party with ease and Chandrika had to leave not only its leadership, but the party as well. The take over was so complete and politically ruthless, Chandrika was even removed from the backdrop at the SLFP anniversary held recently. He is so ruthless that as President, Rajapaksa has simply left the SLFP to grow wild as its foundations laid for the new party head quarters are and the members to follow his dictates.

This leaves local and provincial party members and sympathisers wholly alienated from party leadership. They don’t have any say any more in the party. The irony is that such leaders promise democracy and transparency in governance and the Sinhala South believes, it would happen. Worst is, when the South smells that foul, it sits back to argue, “dictators” can be “benevolent”. Their biggest icon in proof of “benevolent dictators” is Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who was lucky running a commercial city with four million people, instead of a country.

There is a fundamental error here in the South. It does not have a political leadership grown within a democratic party system. UNP is a party that was structured by JRJ to go along with his 1978 Constitution and for 32 years, had no democratic functioning. The Athulathmudali-Dissanayake led revolt against Premadasa in 1991 was precisely due to Premadasa the “party dictator”. It is therefore logical that it is being ruled and is being challenged within, by those who resort to scheming and manipulations and have no political programme.

This Sinhala society in addition, is fashioned by majoritarian extremism that leaves out minorities as equals. That thus completes the sectarian life in the South. A life, that would have to think in terms of democratic alternatives outside the two mainstream parties, for a progressive change. But that does not leave the JVP as an alternative. That again is a vertically structured dictatorial entity struggling to find a future with a blood stained General. So, an intellectual dialogue to search for democratic answers for Sri Lanka’s diversity, is now on the cards.

© The Sunday Leader

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