21 January 2020

Is the party really over?

Truth be told, the better question would be, ‘didn’t the party end a long time ago?’ The ending was scripted in the Second Republican Constitution of 1978 and the proportional representation system that replace the first-past-the-post method of electing representatives to Parliament. It ensured that we won’t see the kind of electoral routs such as the ones in 1970 and 1977. It also meant that parties would struggle to secure a clear majority in parliamentary elections. 

J.R. Jayewardene, the architect of that constitution, probably regretted that decision for he went dead against the spirit of that logic in 1982 when a referendum was held whereby a ‘yes’ vote of 50%+1 allowed the United National Party (UNP) to continue to enjoy the five-sixths edge obtained in 1978. The party-fixated nature of the UNP’s legislating ethic was also apparent when several amendments were passed just before the 1989 Parliamentary Elections, i.e. when the loss of the all important two-thirds majority was imminent. They were all partisan pieces of law.  

Since then, apart from the Parliamentary Elections in 2010 and the violence-ridden one in 1989, no group was able to get a clear majority. In 2010,  United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) rode the immense popularity following operations to deliver a comprehensive defeat to terrorism. That alliance (yes, not a ‘party’) returned 144 to Parliament.  In 1989, the UNP got 125, but this was with the Ceylon Workers’ Congress. Even in 2010, the UPFA, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), was made of no less than 14 registered political parties. 

The coalition-necessity is obvious, but equally obvious was that the two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, called the shots. The others tagged along and reaped the benefits or suffered the pain of general popularity or disenchantment of the incumbent regimes. 

The classic example is that of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 2004. This party, which needed a proxy (Sri Lanka Pragathisheelee Peramuna) to secure just a single seat in 1994, increased its parliamentary slice to 10 in 2000, 17 in 2001 and a relatively whopping 41 in 2004. It’s fortunes plummeted thereafter. In 2010, the JVP used the Sarath Fonseka tag to get 7 elected and in 2015, going it alone, returned just 6 members to Parliament.  

In incredible hike in political fortunes was simply because the JVP contested under the betel leaf symbol of the UPFA. Under the prevalent system, people vote first for party and then for candidate. We can only speculate as to how the JVP would have fared had that party contested independent of the UPFA. The 2010 and 2015 results as well as the results of local government elections indicate, however, that the slice would have been thinner if they had done so.

So we have coalition. Coalitions led by the UNP or the SLFP. We had, to be more accurate. In 2019 November, the winner didn’t belong to either of these parties. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). True, the SLFP officially supported him, but its leader, Maithripala Sirisena, then the president of the Republic, was at best wishy-washy. Key aides openly backed the UNP candidate, Sajith Premadasa. The SLFP, as indicated by the results of the 2018 local government elections (securing just 15% of the overall vote), had by then declined politically to being an entity that could, at best, best the JVP.

However, it has to be remembered that the SLPP was forged by former SLFPers. Whereas, typically, breakaway groups make a small and insignificant dent in the fortunes of the ‘Mother Party,’ this phenomenon was reversed in 2018 and 2019. Essentially then, what we have as the SLPP is something like a name-change. Something akin to an aggressive corporate take-over preceded and not followed by brand-name change.   

What of the UNP? That party has had its share of internal problems, but never as intense as right now. The leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe was forced to step aside to allow the wannabe leader, Sajith Premadasa to run for President. It might come to be seen as a strategic move to let the storm winds pass. We can’t tell for sure. 

Right now, Sajith Premadasa is fighting for a consolation prize: the party leadership. In the event that the party constitution proves to be too robust and therefore would protect Wickremesinghe, Sajith and his loyalists may opt to break away. 

Keeping in mind that Sajith’s father, facing similar situations vis-à-vis Wickremesinghe’s uncle, J.R. Jayawardena, opted to remain in the party (‘I would be nothing outside the UNP,’ he had observed, apparently) and that Sajith is by no means the UNP equivalent of Mahind Rajapaksa (who, even in defeat was clearly the most popular and loved leader in the country and therefore excellently positioned to bounce back in a few years), it is unlikely that such a breakaway party could do to the UNP what the SLPP did to the SLFP.   

Nevertheless, it is clear that the two old parties are infirm, diseased and at death’s door. The SLFP has all but taken up residence in its new avatar, the SLPP. The corporeal transformations of the UNP are as of now unclear.

Now it is quite possible that the SLPP (an alliance or ‘a front’ if we go just by the name) and the UNP (or a breakaway faction that grows up and eventually dwarfs the parent party) could toss power-keys from one to another well into the future. It is possible that the proportional representation system is reviewed and amended or done away with altogether. 

The amendment tabled by Wijedasa Rajapaksa (22nd) to revert to the original 12.5% minimum of the total votes poled for a candidate to be elected from a recognized party or independent group from the 5% set by an Amendment in 1989, would certainly force almost all ‘small parties’ to cling to one of the two ‘big parties’ for political survival. While this would make for political stability and certainly limit the ability of political tails to wag political dogs, the invariable result of a two-party system (where both are essentially two factions of a single and right-wing political agenda separated simply by the degree of nationalist sentiment) could become a ‘democratic’ headache has bad as what we have right now without the proposed 22nd amendment.

What we need to come to terms with is not that the ‘old parties’ are gone or on their way out. What we need to ascertain is the degree of difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’. Old wine in new bottles, is that what we have and are likely to live with into the foreseeable future? That wouldn’t be something we could wholeheartedly cheer, surely? 

The challenge, then, is for ‘breakaways’ to demonstrate difference in terms of development paradigm, understanding of sovereignty, recognition of all threats, local and international, on all fronts, be it threat to territorial integrity, servility to foreign powers, tyranny of the arms industry, human smuggling, citizenship anomalies, invasive nature of Big Pharma, climate change, poisoned soils, polluted oceans, deforestation, generations deranged by drugs etc., etc. 

That’s where the true discussion should head towards. Not names. Not even histories. In other words, is Gotabaya Rajapaksa a ‘Rajapaksa’ in terms of all that is associated with that name? Is he a different kind of Rajapaksa. Is he an SLFPer wearing SLPP clothes? Is he a UNPer sans colonial baggage but willing to ‘go along’ with the Washington agenda? 

Even more importantly, we must ask, ‘what kind of citizen are we?’ We must ask, ‘what is our nation now?’ And ‘what kind of nation do we desire our children to be citizens of?’ Indeed, ‘what kind of citizens do we want to be?’ 

We are in that kind of party. The music is loud. The food is bad. We are not among friends or if even if we are, the friendships are cursory and little more than acquaintanceships. I would want to go to different kind of party or else get a different DJ, a different caterer and invite a different kind of crowd. There’s work to be done and not just by the newly elected president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

This article was first published in the SUNDAY OBSERVER (January 19, 2020)