What Choice Do The People Have?
By Ravi Perera
Save for those who are utterly anesthetized to the daily increasing coarseness of our public life, to most citizens of this country the news that the United National Party, our main opposition has basically done away with internal democracy, would bring a sense of hopeless despair. It seems there is no other purpose in public life in this country except for various individuals to make a grab for power. Nothing else matters in that naked quest. The least important are the sensibilities of millions of humble Sri Lankans in whose name the whole game is played. It also matters little that for all their power grabs since independence, the country is still relatively a poor performer economically, socially and politically. Whether one or the other is at the helm should not make much of a difference.
It is true that the absolute power bestowed on the UNP leader, he is actually referred to such in party circles, is only for a period of six years. During that period, the leader will appoint the party’s President, Secretary and the Treasurer at his sole discretion. Apparently one of the arguments against the idea of electing of these office bearers by popular choice is the violence that was witnessed at the party head office when such a process was tried out last.
Of course in this day and age how a political party which is unable to hold a simple election of office bearers without all that ugliness, proposes to advance the cause of democracy of twenty million people, is a question that goes a begging. If a few miscreants turned such an election into a violent confrontation on that day, does that justify the denial of the right to choose their office bearers to thousands of other members?
On 27 February 1933 an unemployed bricklayer, one Marinus van der Lubbe, allegedly set fire to the German Reichstag. Later investigations by independent researches throw doubt about the prosecution case of the Third Reich concerning this crime, including the guilt of the hapless Lubbe who was later guillotined. He was only twenty five years old at the time. But the Nazis were waiting for an excuse to do away with all challenges to their iron rule and to stamp out even a semblance of opposition to their policies. That Reichstag fire allowed them to unleash a hysterical attack, on all political enemies, particularly that of the Left. The day after the fire Hitler obtained from a senile Hindenberg who was President of the Republic, a Reichstag Fire Decree which suspended most civil liberties in Germany.
The ensuing atmosphere of intolerance enabled the Nazi party to campaign for and eventually obtain the required votes to push through the Enabling Act which gave Adolf Hitler the right to rule by decree, the consequences of which the whole world was to suffer in the ensuing years.
Comparisons are odorous and historical ones across racial lines even more so. Germans, a people with such stupendous achievements in nearly all human endeavour, when taking to sinning also out-do the rest by its sheer scope and horror. In no way is Ranil Wickremasinghe a Hitler who dreamt of bringing most of the world under the German heel, nor the UNP anything like the Nazi Party with their aggressive theories of racial superiority and ambitions such as conquest and the colonizing of the vast Slavic lands. The UNP is constituted of men of much humbler outlook and skills. But however effete, historical methods sometimes get repeated across racial and cultural barriers. Those that proposed the ‘enabling act’ of the UNP leader were declaring in other words that they are not fit enough to select office bearers of their own party in a simple democratic process. Such ideas like the equality of persons, collective responsibility or an organizational purpose which is larger than its individual members have been ignored. No, it is much smaller, almost puny ideas, schemes and ambitions that are at play here. Maybe, a diplomatic appointment from a future UNP government, an opportunity to earn a commission, an invitation to a cocktail party or even one of those rare waves from the leader as a mark of recognition, would more than suffice.
In their defence one might argue that most political parties in this country are undemocratic in the running of their internal affairs. It will be pointed out that in the glory days of the UNP the levers of power were held firmly by leaders like J. R. Jayewardene, hardly a democrat in party matters. With such examples to go by, the present leadership seems to argue that the UNP’s folly today is the loosening of the leaders iron grip and not its dictatorial tendency. One must not forget that J. R. Jayewardene thrived in another era. Besides being another era, J. R. Jayewardene had both personal as well as leadership qualities which we hope for only in vain in the present dispensation.
The UNP success 1977 onwards was by no means solely due to the autocratic nature of its then septuagenarian leader. The SLFP government prior to that had run the economy down to such levels that a change in whatever form was a social necessity. It is easy to look good when your predecessor from 1970-77 was a very poor performer. One cannot give various incidental happenings during a period of time as the prime cause of the relative success, particularly in an altogether unrelated area such as the economy.
In the UNP’s long winter of discontent which began with the 1994 victory of Chandrika Bandaranaike, it seems to have got further away from the mainstream. During this period at least two generations of voters have emerged to whom the moth eaten methods and philosophies of the party are alien. It matters not to them whether some state sector institutions are to be sporadically privatized. Nor can we expect the new voters to be impressed by some old boys union or a coterie of ambitious businessmen/professionals (all committed to making as much money as possible) who are made decision makers. A few quotes from the British Parliament or an occasional reference to long forgotten leaders leave the new voters cold. One cannot blame the voter as they perceive that the UNP, despite all the lip service, is hardly going by British traditions and that the selective references to the old leaders are just self serving ruses. Ultimately the voter knows it is a choice between Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum.
After nearly seven years in power, the Rajapaksa rule is gradually losing their grip on the hearts and minds of the people. As always the change comes mainly from economic failure. It seems that the required structural reforms and the fundamental loosening of the dead weight of the state which those structural reforms demand are intellectually as well as emotionally alien to the present rulers. Slowly but surely the economy is slowing down. The narrowness of their vision, the vulgarity of their exercise of power and the personality driven agenda of the government sooner or later will be the undoing of the regime. But if it is to be defeated electorally, the voter must see a clear democratic, transparent and selfless leadership in the opposition which stands in stark contrast to the Rajapaksa government. But the UNP seems to be determined to become a mirror image of the government in all their failings!
The UNP only differs from the government in its organizational weakness, disunity and the unrepresentative nature of its policies. On these matters the Rajapaksa government is very strong.
In democracies a sure barometer of the acceptability of any policy are the elections. In Sri Lanka with a Constitution which requires so many elections, we do not have long to wait for its verdict.