Sri Lanka, like many other ex-colonial countries in the developing world, was a hotbed of ideological debate around the time of decolonisation. Newly-formed political parties thrived on the sharpness of their ideological contestation against each other. In this country, political parties around the time of political independence followed three broad ideological positions, namely, liberal, socialist and ethno-nationalist. While the United National Party displayed a broadly pro-market, liberal ideological orientation, the leftist parties naturally advocated a socialist path to development and public welfare. The SLFP, newly formed by a group that broke away from the UNP emerged as an ethno-nationalist party representing the interests of the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community, though ideologically, it also embraced broadly socialist orientation. Political parties that arose out of the main minority ethnic community, namely the Sri Lankan Tamils were largely confined to Tamil-dominated regions of the country and had an ethno-nationalist orientation as well.
"What we observe in politics and in the wider society around us today is a manifestation of various actions on the part of self- seeking politicians and their supporters to attain their diverse personal goals. While powerful politicians distribute public resources in return for either material benefits"
The ideological orientations of the major political parties mentioned above did not undergo any significant change until 1977. The UNP’s pro-market ideological position became even more pronounced in the run-up to the general elections in that year partly in response to the state-dominated economy that had emerged in the country from the late 1950s onwards. The SLFP remained wedded to its state-led development strategy though the serious social and economic problems that emerged in the early 1970s persuaded the party leaders to become more flexible with their economic policy stance. On the other hand, the leftist parties continued to display their unwavering commitment to socialist ideology.
There were several regime changes from the time of independence up to 1977, yet, the major political parties did not move away from their long standing ideological positions. On the other hand, the change of regimes did not lead to drastic policy shifts during the above period. For instance, economic and social policies adopted by theSLFP-led government in the mid 1950s more or less remained intact until 1977. But the situation changed drastically after 1977.
The pro-market, UNP regime that came to power in 1977 lasted for 17 years with minimal change in the policy mix introduced in that year. Some significant criticisms emerged during this period, particularly from the socialist left but these were dismissed as irrelevant. Though a few minor changes with respect to state interventions took place between 1988 and 1993, a significant attempt to change policy was made in the mid 1990s under the leadership of Chandrika Kumaratunga as the President of the country. Yet, her promise to give a human face to the open economy did not materialise, at least partly due to the worsening security situation in the country during her tenure. During this period, an attempt was made to mobilise experts in diverse fields to formulate evidence-based public policies though the same keenness was not shown to implement them.
Issues of economic and social policy did not figure prominently in the political debates from the late 1990’s as the main focus was on the worsening conflict in the North. Political parties were naturally divided on their approach to dealing with the conflict, some advocating a more conciliatory approach, while others urging for a hardline military solution. On the economic policy front, the two main political parties did not see any real alternative to the open economic policy that had guided the country’s from 1977 onwards. Do, despite intermittent populist, political rhetoric against the open economy, all the regimes from 1977 to this day have managed the country’s economy within a broadly market economy framework. In other words, during this period, it is largely the market forces that have determined the life chances of the people, both the rich as well as the poor.
It is against the above background that we need to understand the new pragmatism that characterizes the political culture of the country today. This new pragmatism is pervasive and has been embraced not only by most of the political leaders but by a large section of the electorate as well. So much so that leading politicians belonging to all major political parties do not think twice before crossing the party lines, usually to join the ruling party. So, it is not surprising that many of the leading Cabinet Ministers of the present regime were elected to parliament by the opposition voters. They have had no shame or guilt to retain their seats and join the government.
"The SLFP, newly formed by a group that broke away from the UNP emerged as an ethno-nationalist party representing the interests of the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community, though ideologically, it also embraced broadly socialist orientation."
The new pragmatism displayed by many leading politicians today is largely a product of the post 1977, open economic policy and its consequences. The two main political parties can no longer be distinguished from each other in terms of their economic policies. This is understandable because the economy of the country has been transformed in keeping with the demands of both global and local capital and no regime can effectively resist such forces without risking major economic and social dislocations. So, only a few minor Leftist political parties talk about the need to adopt an alternative model of economic management and resource allocation.
If the main political parties and their leaders are not divided on economic policy lines, how can they prevent the blurring of the lines that are supposed to keep the political parties apart? In fact, this has been a major challenge for the leaders of the major political parties in recent years. Since the leaders and the members of political parties do not necessarily see a connection between the party and a distinct and exclusive set of policies, they could easily switch their allegiance depending on their personal aspirations.
The result is a pathological form of political pragmatism that renders conventional forms of party politics irrelevant. In this highly volatile political environment, credibility of political leaders becomes the biggest casualty. Yet, it is not a major issue for an itinerant politician because an increasing proportion of the voters rally round winning candidates expecting personal favours rather than a more favourable policy change.
In other words, both the political leaders as well as voters put their personal rather than party or collective interest first and, for them, switching party loyalties to maximise private gain is not an issue. However, what is noteworthy here is that this tendency that has already become an integral part of the political culture has led to a significant change in the way political and state institutions function in the country.
When more and more people consider politics as a way of making personal gains, it is natural for them to do everything possible to subvert institutions and procedures in such a way as to help them achieve their personal goals. What we observe in politics and in the wider society around us today is a manifestation of various actions on the part of self- seeking politicians and their supporters to attain their diverse personal goals. While powerful politicians distribute public resources in return for either material benefits or political loyalty, their retinue would extend political support to their political patrons in return for private gain.