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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Is an “opposition” with no political alternative a democratic necessity ?

Street fights for the UNP leadership ended with the “Reformist” leader Sajith Premadasa once again compromising with party leader Wickramasinghe, despite public statements to the contrary. The media had plenty of “bites” to go round the whole week, with accusations and counter accusations thrown from both sides to the conflict.
There were “sathyagrahas”, court orders, shifting of venues, wasps in bags, Maharajas in the ring, suspected government manipulations, all aired through voice cuts given to media, that filled a good whole week. The conflict ended with Wickramasinghe tightening his grip on the leadership and 04 in Sajith group noticed by the Working Committee (WC) to explain their anti party behaviour. “Reformists” were firmly told, “no more public banter about party leadership”.

Yet this conflict does not seem to end there. Those who rallied round Sajith expecting him to carry the fight to an end at least this second time, now seem left in a lurch. The young and the new Turks with Sajith don’t seem to be in a mood to compromise and have already challenged the WC publicly, sans Sajith, Madduma Bandara and Dayasiri.
Fight for leadership change by “reformists”, an internal party affair the public can not intervene in, was brought to the streets led by Sajith Premadasa, to prove they have enough muscle to force a change. What essentially should have been within party forums and organisations, were laundered in public, obviously providing the Rajapaksa regime the space and opportunity to meddle in the conflict, for its own advantage.

Thus the whole crisis within the UNP, if not for the necessity of having a democratic form of governance, became wholly irrelevant to the people. It simply was not about people and what this society would eventually stand to gain, even if the in-fighting was finally resolved, one way or the other.

The social necessity in discussing this infighting for leadership change, is related to democratic governance, that ought to have an intelligent and articulate opposition. Democratic governance in modern day societies is not just about electing a political party to power. It is also about having an intelligent, articulate opposition that could represent the “alternate voice” in society. An option to choose an alternate government at elections. In Sri Lanka, this alternate social voice that people expect the UNP leadership to provide, is being punched into a “frustrated demand of a party faction” by the “reformists”.

Despite Sajith’s generosity in using words to justify a party “leadership change”, there is no indication given in how the UNP would thereafter challenge this Rajapaksa regime, politically. It isn’t enough to talk about party “unity, reorganising, regenerating, re-energising” to win elections, if they can not provide a political alternative to this regime.

This leads to a very important political question, “what is the responsibility and the role of a ‘political party leadership’ in a democracy” ? “Leadership” is not about riding a popular rhetorical wave created by another. Leadership is about creating a social change. Creating an alternate social thinking and making it the dominant, popular mindset. That becomes the most vital responsibility of a leadership, when the ruling party is all about corruption, waste, inefficiency, arrogance and unethical rule, with family power entrenched in the system. Its all about intellect in the first place and charisma thereafter.

Intellect in understanding that this democratic decay caused by this Rajapaksa rule, tied to heavy corruption and fraud, has also managed to retain a popular base on a Sinhala Buddhist platform. It needs to be understood that the Sinhala popularity of the Rajapaksas is not because the UNP is in the hands of Wickramasinghe, a “proved failure”. It is because the Rajapaksa regime is fortunate in having an opposition, which includes the JVP too, that does not challenge its Sinhala politics with an alternate political programme.

The strength, the political justification for this Rajapaksa regime, comes from defeating “Tamil separatism” with Sinhala “patriotism” projected as the social force. Sinhala social thinking nurtured by this regime, is what allows everything from corruption to arrogance, from family rule to militarising of society to be accepted as rightful Rajapaksa rule. In voting Rajapaksa to power. This is what the Tamil society defied at the last LG elections.
It is therefore necessary for the UNP in opposition to break this ideological hold the Rajapaksas have on the Sinhala society, to win elections. What past elections have continuously proved is that both the UNP and the JVP have failed to prove they are an alternate political choice, a political leadership different to the Rajapaksas. Thus there was no reason for the people to vote UNP or JVP.

The latest claim of the “reformists” led by Sajith was to say they found in Karu Jayasuriya a better “leader” with a Sinhala Buddhist appeal that Wickramasinghe lacks, to compete against Rajapaksa. By default they mean, the Tamil vote is not important. How much clout they have on the Muslim vote is also a doubt. Putting the party on a “winning track” with such racist bias, is also a tested and proved failure, when pitted against a “rightful heir” to Sinhala politics like Rajapaksa.

The renewed call for “change in the leadership” by “Reformists” on last July LG election results, is also fake. LG elections usually give the ruling party an advantage, in our political culture. This was never so clearly proved as in the defeat of the SLFP led PA at the Attanagalla PS elections in 2002 March. The UNP had by then formed the government, winning the 2001 December elections. LG elections don’t rely solely on the party leadership. They have a strong village or locality influence on voter affinities.

The “reformist” argument that the minimum UNP vote can not drop below 30%, if not for the leadership failure, thus has no base. When in Moneragala district, the UNP percentage drops to 14.8% at the Moneragala PS election, the fault is squarely with the Moneragala district leader. At the Kuliyapitiya PS elections when the UNP vote droped to 18.8%, its Kurunegala UNP leaders who have to be taken to task for their abysmal performance. So is it, when at Baddegama the UNP drops to 20.6% and at Akuressa, when the percentage drops to 18.8%. That pathetic crash in districts can not avoid the responsibility of district leaderships.

We thus come back to talk of a political leadership with a political purpose at national politics, that LG election results don’t provide an answer to. We also come back to the issue of “leadership” that could hopefully lead this society for a change. One that could not only talk against corruption, waste, arrogance and family rule of the Rajapaksas, but also propose a political change for democracy, development and dignity of life, totally different to Rajapaksa politics.

That requires answers to all the issues this Rajapaksa regime has been avoiding and have been unable to provide answers for, while maintaining their Sinhala Buddhist image in the South. The “Reformists” with Sajith, if they maintain they can put the UNP on a winning saddle, would have to say where they differ from Rajapaksa politics and how they differ, on political priorities. They should therefore say,

  1. whether they would replace the whole 18th Amendment to the Constitution, with the provisions of the previous 17th Amendment further strengthened and then present in parliament, a rightly drafted RTI Act, within 03 months from being voted to power.
  2. how different their economic policy is from the Rajapaksas who have taken advantage of the Jayawardne initiated free economy for easy money laundering and plunder, that has over the years made Colombo and its suburbs hoard the major share of the national wealth, leaving the rural society still more poor and triggering worker protests.
  3. how they differ from this Rajapaksa regime on power sharing and thus on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Would they, as opposed to the Rajapaksa regime, respect the Constitution and devolve all powers to the PCs, including police and land powers ?
  4. how they differ from the Rajapaksa regime on the issue of “war crimes and crimes against humanity” and how differently they would respond to international requests for independent investigations, now that Sajith can not say its only the LTTE that committed war crimes, with this regime accepting, “civilian casualties” were unavoidable giving up on the “zero civilian casualty” claim.
  5. whether they oppose this Rajapaksa government’s military approach in State affairs and if they would remove all ex-service men from civil administrative positions, including the Governors appointed to North and East provinces.
  6. different to the Rajapaksa regime, whether they would do away with Emergency rule and the PTA, as one means of democratising this society
  7. how they would, different to the Rajapaksas, effect resettlement and rehabilitation in war affected North-East provinces that would revive new life with dignity and confidence in the Tamil society.

Democracy in governance is not limited to multi party elections and a good Constitution. Its also about having a politically alternate opposition to the governing party, with a tough confidence it could create space for people’s aspirations and convince the people to accept its political thinking.
That was how Chandrika Kumaratunge led the parliamentary elections in August 1994, standing firm for a negotiated solution to the conflict based on power sharing, while the UNP led by Wijetunge government maintained it is fighting a “ Tamil terrorist war” and had militarily cleared the Eastern province to hold elections. She led the PA to victory while the UNP went around sticking an “Eelam pottu” on her forehead in every public photo of hers.

This was also how the UNP won the 2001 December elections led by Wickramasinghe, despite the PA calling him an “Eelamist” with an “Ali – Koti” (UNP – LTTE) agreement. That was also Wickramasinghe’s strength at the 2005 November elections, when he ran against the most rabidly racist Sinhala campaign put together by Rajapaksa and the PA leaders. He polled 4.7 million, with only 186,000 votes less than the Sinhala Rajapaksa. That result could have been easily over turned, if UNP electoral organisers threw their weight a wee bit more to collect 500 votes each, in every electoral seat.

Democracy in countries like Sri Lanka has lost its functional role with the opposition giving up on challenging the ruling party on real politics and taking to ancestral leadership rights and public charity, instead. The reformists in the UNP have only contributed to such further degrading of functional democracy, getting under Rajapaksa politics. Its the necessity of social dialogue on functional democracy that makes this otherwise plain, personal infighting something relevant, to people.


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