28 August 2014

The party is over

There are parties and there are coalitions.  We’ve seen both rise and fall, falter and prosper.  There are party candidates and there are common candidates. We’ve seen both types and both have tasted success and failure. 

Common fronts were not uncommon in the period before J R Jayewardene came up with the Second Republican Constitution in 1978 with proportional representation, executive presidency and a lot of other things that are part and parcel of what’s now called ‘the democracy deficit’ in the country.  The UNP itself was a coalition, as was the MEP that ousted it in 1956.  There were no-contest pacts. There were official ‘fronts’ too.  The UNP and SLFP of course remained key factors in electoral politics after the 1978 constitution ‘kicked-in’, electorally, but both parties have needed props be it a general or presidential election.  

The last ‘pure’ party candidate of any consequence was Ranasinghe Premadasa, but even he needed the convoluted support of the JVP in that the destabilization and vote-and-die threats mouthed by that party affected Premadasa less than it did his principal opponent.  He even had Ossie Abeygoonesekera ripping off a fair number of opposition votes – Ossie would join the UNP soon after the presidential election of 1988. 

Since then, be in parliamentary or presidential, winning elections have been about getting the coalition right.  In the case of parliamentary elections, the proportional representation system has made coalitions logical.  In presidential elections, given the obvious benefits enjoyed by an incumbent who contests, it is the opposition that has to think of candidate-suitability in terms of cobbling together a coalition.  Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2005, didn’t have the open endorsement of his party leader.  He obtained the support of the nationalists and the left parties.  Wickremesinghe had minority parties on his side, as did Sarath Fonseka in 2010. 

We are in 2014 and this political moment is full of coalition talk.  The focus is on fielding ‘a common candidate’ against Mahinda Rajapaksa.  It is in this context that the validity of ‘party’ (as opposed to coalition) has to be examined.   More specifically, the suitability of particular candidates in particular coalitions, have to be assessed. 

There’s talk that the Bodu Bala Sena might field a candidate.  As of now it seems more rhetoric than anything else. As in the case of single (and small) political entities winning is not the issue – robbing votes is.  In the case of the BBS, one would say ‘insignificant’ at this point. Of greater interest are the moves by Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, the insistence on common program first rather than candidate name, whether or not the JVP would support a UNPer posing as ‘common candidate’ etc. 

In 2010 it was easy.  The incumbent was strong and losing face was the priority for both the UNP and JVP.  They played Sarath Fonseka for a sucker quite successfully. Today, many in the opposition believe that the right candidate is in with more than an outside chance.  Ranil Wickremesinghe cannot be faulted for believing that his time has come, finally.  The JVP, however, has stated that it would not back him.  If the opposition is really keen on winning then this is hardly the time to harden positions.  The focus on program is positive but announcing candidacy is unhealthy. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa was as common a candidate as one could get on the other side of the political equation.  He was a member of the SLFP but we haven’t heard that party’s name much in the past 20 years.  That coalition was about program and personality, but not about party name or symbol.  There’s a lesson to be learned there, obviously.  Fixations on either make for fissure and not unity.  Rajapaksa was fresh. So was Chandrika Kumaratunga.  Wickremesinghe has a handicap in that area. 

Thus, even though it makes sense for the common candidate to be from the UNP in the event that the opposition cannot come up with a credible name outside of ‘party circles’, others in the party have to be considered too while keeping in mind that the supporting cast can have reasonable reservations about name and symbol.   Fonseka’s failure showed up the immense disadvantages of a party-less person when taking on an incumbent who still has considerable mass appeal despite regime-fatigue, lawlessness, unpardonable wastage and perceptions of dynastic preoccupations. 

As things stand, the familiar bickering, reiteration of preferred position, too many people and groups pulling in too many directions do not produce a positive picture of the process.  It is not a knot that is easily untangled admittedly.   As pointed out, the wiser thing at this stage would be to focus on program.  Dropping fixations about party name and symbols would help.  Stating the non-negotiable has to come much later if at all.