How many times have we heard that there’s no room for any third party in Sri Lankan politics? ‘Third party’ as in an entity other than the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party or else coalitions led by one of both. True, parties with extremely modest strength have on many an occasion effected change, played king-maker and even been part of governments; but always, always, it has been either the UNP or the SLFP that has dominated. Withdrawal of support or threats of support-withdrawal have often made the particular ‘big party’ in power jittery but invariably the dominant partner has prevailed or else the bringing down of the particular government has resulted in the other ‘big party’ moving in.
These parties are resilient, no doubt. Both have on occasion been condemned to the dustbin of history. Interestingly, the United National Party which has not captured absolute power (Kumaratunge was President when the UNP ruled from 2001-2004 and Maithripala Sirisena is the Chief Executive now, both individuals leading the SLFP) in 23 years and having been associated with this ‘dustbin,’ making a veiled reference to the joint opposition talked about ‘political forces relegated to the dustbin of history’ just the other day. They are resilient; this has to be acknowledged.
Are they invincible, though? First of all the notion of invincibility rebels against the well-known dictum, ‘all things are transient’. All things (people, collectives, geographical boundaries and even ideas) are born, suffer decay and perish. Sooner or later. The UNP and SLFP are old. They were formed before most people in Sri Lanka were born. It is natural then to mistake longevity for immortality.
We must not forget, however, that the SLFP of Bandaranaike was not the SLFP of his daughter and certainly not the SLFP of Mahinda Rajapaksa or Maithripala Sirisena. The same goes for the UNP. Ranil Wickremesinghe is certainly not a D.S. Senanayake. And of course the country has changed. The economy has changed. We have less forest cover. Development priorities have changed as also the thinking on development. Even the name has changed. And yet, we have these two parties. The older left made its run and one might say squandered excellent chances. The not-so-young-anymore left tried armed insurrection and thereafter electoral politics but is still nowhere near capturing power. As Chiranjaya Nanayakkara observed at a rally supporting the United Socialist Alliance presidential candidate in 1988, Ossie Abeygunasekara, ‘the left has helped these two parties into power and helped them out of power’. The wish, at the time, was for a Left that could stand on its own. Well, that has not happened and one could attribute this to being out of touch with reality, ideological and political errors or something else. The fact remains that ‘The Left’ has always been a weak factor in the political equation, at best a wrecker (the JVP in 1971 and 1988-89 for example) or a prop to one of the two major parties. Communal parties have played roles similar to those played by the JVP and it’s fellow old-left parties such as the CP and the LSSP — critical in presidential elections and in general elections where the major parties don’t get clear majorities. They are less amenable to inclusion in the ‘possible alternative’ category for sheer demographic reasons.
So on the face of it, regardless of transience-truisms, on the face of it we have this phenomenon of the major political parties as permanent fixtures with one or the other always in power. Given their track records it is legitimate for anyone to feel despondent. However, despondency is a close relative of ‘disillusionment’. There’s where there’s hope. The gut reaction could be (and has been) to look to a different party. This is why other parties get some votes. However, we cannot escape the sobering fact that even at its best showing even the JVP got only 5% or thereabouts of the total votes. There were more votes spoiled than the amount the JVP secured. The non-voters also outnumbered the JVP vote.
What happens, then, is what has been described as the default-option factor. People are voted out of power rather than being voted into power, typically. The proponents of this method use the easy (and erroneous) line ‘first things first, we have to get this lot out!’ But politics is not something that begins when Parliament is dissolved or a presidential election called. It does not end when the Elections Commissioner announces the result. In the understanding of the political that is longer, i.e. goes beyond ‘elections,’ political parties have failed the people and more worryingly, the people have failed themselves. If, for example, people abandon political parties, they sink. More importantly, if the idea of political parties was dropped, people win. They recover some semblance of self respect and dignity. Since representation is a myth and since what transpires in parliamentary politics is less representation than misrepresentation, such an eventuality can only enhance the worth of the citizen.
So how does this work or rather how can it be made to work? First, we need to draw a lesson from the fact that exchanging a sooty pot for a sooty kettle still leaves us defaced with soot. We have as a voting population dirtied our hands by raising them to vote one set of incompetent rogues into power to defeat another set of incompetent rogues. We have to therefore to get political parties out of our heads because ‘political parties’ is like pet parrot, a pet rabbit, a pet puppy or kitten that we love and feed in our minds. Unless we stop cuddling and taking care of the notion of ‘political parties’ we really don’t have a moral right to take issue with the dominant mode of politics.
There is a lesson to be learned from France too. A coalition led by President Emmanuel Macron’s one-year-old party ‘La République en Marche (Republic on the Move, or REM)’, won the parliamentary elections. A 42% voter-turn-out prompted the leader of the party ‘France Unbowed,’ Jean-Luc Mélenchon to observe that the French had ‘entered a form of civil general strike.’ Of course REM is a party but perhaps we can see that tendency as a positive development against the tyranny of ‘big parties’ (and of course their small-party enablers). What Mélenchon has missed is that when you add the number of those who did not vote to those who did vote for REM, the rejection of the ‘here forever’ political parties is astounding.
Invincibility of a single political party is a lie and is recognized as such. The invincibility of ‘political PARTIES’ is a myth that is yet to be acknowledged. That’s not the fault of the political parties. We can be a ‘republic on the march’ and certainly not one that sees Macron and REM as heroes for anything other than debunking the French version of invincibility. We can be a republic on the march only if we recognize that recovering the republic has to happen first and that nothing inhibits such recovery than the stubborn refusal to evict ‘political parties’ from our minds.
The UNP and SLFP are old. They were formed before most people in Sri Lanka were born. It is natural then to mistake longevity for immortality
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: malindasene. Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com