04 September 2014

The UNP must bridge the democracy-deficit

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his celebrated novel ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ describes the signing of an agreement between two warring parties, the liberals and conservatives.  Colonel Aureliano Buendia, rebel leader, is surrounded by his lawyers.  The draft document is not a give-and-take agreement, but an absolute surrender. The fact is pointed out to him: ‘But Colonel, if we agree to all this, it means that all these years we have been fighting against the general sentiments of the people!’ 

The Colonel’s response is a classic that holds for all politics, everywhere and across history.  ‘No, what it means is that from now on we will be fighting for power’. 

This is the truth.  Politics is about power. Rhetoric is frill.  Objection on grounds of morality, unconstitutionality, illegality etc., with chest-beating words such as good governance, democracy, accountability and transparency, amounts to ‘necessary drivel’.  Typically and for understandable reasons the shrill voices are to be found in opposition ranks.  Given a constitution that was deliberately and heavily skewed in favor of the party in power (a document authored by persons who never thought the UNP would be defeated), which provides ample space for power-abuse and which has a scripted and debilitating effect on the opposition, that’s where dismay tends to take up residence.

Looking back at the history of party politics, it’s a well known truism that the opposition whines about systems and system-abuse but if and when tables are turned revel in the very same anomalies they once objected to.  This, however, does not automatically disqualify critique.  Even if it is about power, the opposition has the burden of articulating objections.  That alone will not win elections given the very system-anomalies that constitute a massive handicap, but it is something that has to be done.  To go with the Buendia quote, what happened was an acknowledgment of reality.  The ‘liberals’ didn’t tell their followers, ‘drop illusions, this is about power and nothing else.’ 

But if you want power this side of a revolution even in the context of a draconian constitution where democracy is the larger frame then those words are important.  Sure, one can win elections without mentioning once terms such as accountability and transparency or terms such as rule of law and good governance; ‘we won the war for you’ after all was a slogan that worked simply because it articulated an acknowledged fact and played on a population ready to reward.  However, when fighting a track record which is at worst a mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ there are no ready taglines that can swing an electorate, even if ‘bad’ is generally seen as tending towards ‘worse’.    You can and must point out the transgressions one by one but in doing so you will be promising better.  That’s where believability can end and worse sink the opposition. 

It is naturally for those in power to manufacture divisions where there are none and exaggerate enmities that do exist.  The problem for the UNP right now is that no one has to manufacture such divisions for they are out in the public.  The pettiness, more than anything else, gives the proverbial ‘known devil’ a massive edge in elections.   But let’s assume that this is not the case.  Let’s assume that what actually exists in the UNP is ideological disagreement or contention about strategy.  Let’s assume that the likes of Sajith Premadasa and Ravi Karunanayake are not looking for personal gain. 

Even if all this is assumed there is a massive believability deficit on account of several realities. First, there is the UNP constitution, which makes the ‘draconian’ JRJ constitution the entire country is saddled with look quite democratic.  Then there is the issue of transparency.  Today we have a member of the UNP’s ‘Leadership Council’, Tissa Attanayake, powwowing with Sajith Premadasa to negotiate the latter’s re-entry into the higher echelons of power within the party.  Premadasa wants the No 2 slot.  Premadasa also wants the Leadership Council abolished. 

Now Attanayake is essentially negotiating away the very Council he is a member of without any by-your-leave and this with a man who did everything possible to prevent the party from establishing this very council.  That’s reneging of the worst kind.  And it’s all hush-hush.  One can concede that certain moves have to be low-key affairs for practical reasons, but this is the party’s General Secretary we are talking about.  Where is the answerability here? Where is the notion of collective responsibility?  What of solidarity?  What worth should one attach in these circumstances to the rhetoric of accountability and transparency?   How can the UNP fault the Government for its many ‘lacks’ in this regard if within its limited scope of operation the party doesn’t appear to take such notions seriously?

Ideally, what one wants to implement for the larger polity one must establish in one’s own party.  Democracy is as much about rehearsing the ideal as about correct flaws and establishing the building blocks.  We don’t see that in the UNP right now.  It all adds to the handicap. 

We could negate all that in terms of the Buendia Principle, if one may call it that.  What is damning though is the fact that it is this very flippancy that is working against the UNP in all efforts to develop a common front.  First, it stands to reason, one must have party unity.  A united UNP can make a better pitch for a common opposition front.  The preference for cloak-dagger politicking within the party is therefore a distraction the UNP can ill afford. 

For practical reasons, it is too much to expect the UNP’s leader and/or the party rank and file to move and move quickly to democratize the organization starting with a revamping of the constitution.  Obtaining transparency and accountability in a limited manner, however, is not asking for the moon. It is asking for the little something that party loyalists can chew on and would-be voters can cling to when it comes to the moment of picking lesser-evil.  Right now, the UNP is not giving itself a ghost of a chance and it is futile in blaming the Government for this state of affairs. 
It is better, all things considered, to just say ‘we are in this for power,’ with a prayer to Garcia Marquez.