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The UPFA as UMNO


Flyovers appearing around Colombo seem to Indicate the government is genuinely committed to Infrastructure development (inset) UMNO has ruled Malaysia since Independence and One party rule or one family rule?

Towards a one party state

By Raknesh Wijewardene

For the first time in a quarter of a century the country has changed. Changed, obviously not in the sense that we now enjoy free incoming mobile phone calls where we didn't five years ago, but in terms of the first profound shift in the island's power dynamics since the beginning the ethnic conflict.

For the last 25 years power in the island has been shared by the UNP and SLFP in the political mainstream, the LTTE in the north and the JVP, which remained a credible political force in the south.

Today however all the these groups with the exception of the SLFP have been effectively broken - eliminated from the political equation.

The power dynamics on the island therefore have been radically altered. Where once there were various competing interests, today one party (or is it one family?), has emerged as the only effective source of political power in the island.

Once party rules         

Sri Lanka has become by default a one party state. Not only because of the government's military victories, its ruthless suppression of the media, and its (mis)use of nationalist propaganda but also because of the effective implosion of established democratic sources of opposition (the UNP and JVP).

With the elimination of the LTTE as a political and military force apparently imminent the UPFA will be left the principle - to an extent the only viable political force on the island.

The emergence, in the aftermath of a successful military campaign, of the UPFA as a political colossus was the outcome dreaded by a range of liberal groups, civil society movements, and NGOs.

But perhaps the end or at least the truncation of democracy on the island should come as something of a relief. The simple truth is that 'multi party democracy' has been a catastrophic failure in this country.

Sri Lanka's post independence history has seen one of the wealthiest and best educated societies in Asia degenerate to a point where it hovers inches away from being classified as a definitively failed state.

In many respects democracy has been more of a burden than a blessing to this nation and looking back its hard to find much to mourn in the passing of the status quo ante.

What is important to understand however are the dynamics of the current situation.

Sri Lanka stands on the verge of becoming a one party state. With effective political power in the hands of a single ruling coalition that enjoys the support of the military, the majority religious/ ethnic group and a hugely effective propaganda machine.

In the face of relentless state sponsored harassment and intimidation the 'free' media has been compelled to resort to self censorship in order to survive.

Parties representing ethnic minority groups have been left with no option but to support the ruling party as opposition would leave them entirely voiceless - TULF, TMVP, the up country parties have all thrown their weight behind the ruling UPFA. The situation bears some resemblance to Malaysia where the Barisan Nasional dominated by UMNO has held power since independence with the support of smaller Chinese and Indian parties

While those committed to democracy and devolution will find this transition to authoritarian, centralised rule truly horrifying the simple reality is that every nation in Asia that has made the transition from developing to developed world status - Korea under Park Chung Hee, Taiwan under the KMT, has done so, partly or largely under dictatorships and/or a broadly one party state system.

Even the UK and Western European nations only made the transition to the universal franchise in early 21st century at which point they where already industrialised and the institutions of the state were already well developed.

 The problem of democracy

 The problem of democracy is that it is essentially conservative, relying as it does on a balance of power. This division of power tends to preserve the status quo and prevents any one party or individual from becoming sufficiently powerful to radically alter the status quo. In countries where administrative and economic systems already function effectively this is generally a sound policy, however in the third world where systems are often undeveloped and radical change is absolutely necessary the democratic system can be an encumbrance. At least where development is concerned.

 Witness China's regeneration of its cities for the Olympics - tearing down urban slums, commissioning extraordinary stadiums, ruthlessly regulating traffic and pollution - its amazing what you can do when you don't have to worry about elections, law suits, and a critical press.

In Sri Lanka the result of imposing democracy on a third world society with no history of self rule, let alone democracy was that the island's central government remained fundamentally weak without the power to drive reforms and establish the institutional framework that is the basis of a stable nation state. The combination of a weak state mechanism and democracy also led to massive corruption and a political system built on opportunism rather than principles and policies.

Perhaps the best example of the extraordinary weakness of the nation's central government is the simple fact that a Tamil fisherman with an 8th grade education was able to seize and hold one third of the country, as his own de facto fiefdom for almost two decades. 

 Today however with the imminent demise of said fisherman Sri Lanka's problem of democracy appears to be heading towards a sudden and unexpected solution; victory.

Absolute power

Should the government succeed, as seems increasingly inevitable, in crushing the Tigers then the UPFA will become by some margin the most powerful government in the nation's history simultaneously solving both the country's ethnic conflict and its problem of democracy.

Buoyed by enormous popular support as well as the support of the army the present government already enjoys unprecedented power and, in contrast to every previous government, its writ will run in every town and village in the country.

The media, an important check on the power of government has been effectively muzzled and the independence of that other bulwark of democracy, the judiciary will come to an end when the President appoints a compliant successor to the intransigent incumbent - Sarath Silva.

In the current climate elections will only see the government become more powerful - witness the recent Wayamba and Central Province polls. In fact the government's present strategy which appears to be to call a general election once it has control of all the island's provincial councils , will quite possibly see the UPFA build a coalition that commands a two thirds majority in parliament.

At which point the power of the administration will be essentially absolute.

A whole new world?

We have entered what is effectively a whole new world. A world where the media can be silenced and the government can use emergency regulations to expel citizens from the capital, and detain individuals essentially without trial. In fact with a two thirds majority a compliant judiciary, and no dissenting voices in the media the government will be free to do anything it wants.

But while these are worrying developments we simultaneously find ourselves in a world where long term development initiatives and the prospect of stability have suddenly become more of a reality.

A secure government has more incentive to pursue long term policies rather than short term goals. So far the government has used its overwhelming power to unify what has been a partitioned nation - the prospect of being able to travel by car or bus to Jaffna without having to cross a border at 'Eelam' is undeniably progress.

One need only look at the Hambantota port project, the Upper Kotmale Dam, and the various flyovers now appearing around Colombo to see the government is making a concerted effort to carry out the sort of infrastructure projects pursued in the past by other authoritarian regimes in Asia. Road and port building programmes were central to government economic strategies in China, Korea and Malaysia.

Across Asia the sacrifice of democratic freedoms has been compensated for by economic development, a price that many Sri Lanka would be willing to pay.

However the danger inherent in a one party system is of course that there are no guarantees. Once established an authoritarian regime is much more difficult to displace than a standard elected administration - and while they can bring development, dictatorships can also precipitate disaster.

Malaysia or Myanmar?

There is a chance therefore that the current administration will use the power its has amassed to chart the country on a course somewhat analogous to that plotted by Malaysia 30 years ago.

 Alternatively however we could find the government's militaristic tendencies, its corruption and contempt for human rights, lead the country towards increasing isolation and a future as a budding Myanmar.

The government's huge expenditure on infrastructure projects and the fact that the business community has been allowed to function relatively freely suggests a more Malaysian approach - nationalist/capitalist /authoritarianism. Of course as in Malaysia, businesses are free only so long as they remain apolitical and supportive of government policies. And of course allies of the government are rewarded with lucrative contracts - but this is little different to the situation that existed in Thailand and Malaysia during their tiger economy periods.

Given power's innate tendency to corrupt the amount of power this government has amassed virtually guarantees massive corruption. But the reality is that the political system in the island was corrupt long before the emergence of the current regime. And as has been demonstrated in East Asia development can occur in spite of corruption. So long as politicians content themselves with creaming off a reasonable percentage of the economy .

In fact as long as the ruling elite can suppress utterly kleptomaniac tendencies (Mugabe, Marcos) dictatorships have proved to be the best model for economic growth - Korea for example enjoyed its best economic performance under the repressive Park in the '70s.

A regime's greed can even be a motivating factor, the more infrastructure projects there are and the more economic growth there is the more money is available for politicians to cream off.

Those who are dreading Sri Lanka's transformation from dysfunctional dictatorship to an incipient dictatorship/ guided democracy can therefore take heart in the fact that dictatorship has arguably the best record of poverty alleviation and economic development of all systems of government.

Of course however the picture isn't entirely rosy - while Malaysia, Singapore and China made enormous progress under one party rule Sri Lanka's current system seems to be less one party rule and more one family rule. historically a very dangerous path.

Also corruption is sustainable so long as it is limited - and while they certainly indulged in some corruption cronyism and nepotism Mahathir & Co. did not waste billions on egoistic projects to found their own airlines.

Some of this government's more draconian tendencies, its obsession with citizen registration, mobile phone registration, the use emergency of powers, and militaristic propaganda is genuinely worrying. Its flirtation with thugs and thuggery also call into question the extent of its commitment to development.

Again what's crucial is intention - the government has the power to implement radical change but what path the country ultimately follows will depend on how it chooses to use this power.

That is the danger of a powerful government unfettered by checks and balances - our future rests entirely in its hands.


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