Are SL political parties withering away?
The focus of everyone seems to be on the leaked voice clips containing telephone conversations between former State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake, MP, and various other including high ranking police officers, judges, public officials, politicians and actresses. A new phone recording is released almost on a daily basis and it distracts the public from their problems, especially the soaring cost of living.
While everyone is agog for the next voice clip, there has been a disturbing development on the political front. Fear is being expressed in some quarters that the very existence of the smaller political parties will be threatened and democracy will suffer immensely if the electoral reforms the current leaders are mulling over, ever get implemented. The incumbent government has reportedly indicated its desire to raise the cut-off point under the Proportional Representation (PR) system. Parties are the political version of Higgs boson or the God particle, which acts like a cosmic treacle and gives particles their mass. They hold the polity together and anchor democracy. Hence the need to ensure their wellbeing!
The current cut-off point is 5%. Originally, it was as high as 12.5% and later reduced to the present level in response to appeals from minority political parties, when the late President Ranasinghe Preamdasa, introduced the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in the run-up to the 1989 general election to enlist the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which made a demand to that effect, to form a government.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has gone on record as saying that some political parties will go out of existence in time to come as they have ceased to be politically relevant. This fate will befall the JVP, he has said, because it has got too close to the UNP. He is not alone in peddling this argument, but it is not only smaller parties that are in this predicament, the major ones are no exception.
There are 70 recognized political parties in Sri Lanka according to the Election Commission of Sri Lanka:
(Source: The Election Commission of Sri Lanka)
Most of these outfits are popularly known as three-wheeler parties. Cynics say all members of each of these parties can travel in a trishaw!
The JVP’s predicament
We will first discuss the plight of the JVP. It has become clear from the results of the last presidential election that the JVP has faced the biggest ever electoral setback. The percentage of its votes had never dropped below 4.00% at a presidential election until last year. It polled 4.19% of the votes, in 1982, 4.00% in 1999 and 3.16% in 2019. Its critics, including PM Rajapaksa, have attributed this setback to the fact that it is seen to be having some deals with the UNP. It refrained from contesting the 2015 presidential election and backed the common candidate of the UNP-led yahapalana camp, Maithripala Sirisena, for all practical purposes, while claiming to remain neutral. Following that year’s regime change, the JVP had representation on the National Executive Council and its leaders were accused of being in and out of Temple Trees.
Former Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath has publicly claimed JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, was among the MPs present at a Temple Trees meeting, where he was pressured to institute legal action against some prominent members of the then Opposition. The manner in which the JVP acted in Parliament as well as elsewhere during the 52-day government, in 2018, also gave the impression to the public that it was trying to save the UNP-led government under siege, though it claimed that it was only trying to defeat an illegal power grab. Perceptions do matter in politics as much as reality. The JVP’s was seen to be backing the UNP.
Moreover, during the last government the JVP was also accused of raising, in Parliament, questions it had previously discussed with the UNP, which provided prompt answers to them. In the late 1970s, too, the JVP drew heavy flak for its close associations with the J. R. Jayewardene government, which released its leaders including Rohana Wijeweera from prison. Its critics said it was party to a conspiracy against the SLFP during that period. Its last-minute pullout from the trade union collective that launched the 1980 general strike is also cited as proof of its links to the Jayewardene government.
Another reason for the erosion of JVP’s power base
The erosion of the JVP’s support base is attributable to some factors other than its close ties with the UNP. This is the fate that befalls any ideologically-driven, cadre-based revolutionary outfit in the process of evolving into a mainstream political entity. The JVP’s main attraction to the youth was its revolutionary character, which has got washed-up in democratic politics, over the years. This may explain why the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CP), too, have become mere appendages of the SLFP or the SLPP, today. The JVP emerged as an alternative to both the LSSP and the CP, in the late 1960s, and made itself attractive to the rural youth with the help of its Marxist outlook besides its covertness in political activity. There was a certain mystique to the outfit and its cadres cherished the thrill of its politico-military adventurism. The outfit retained these attributes even after its first abortive rebellion in 1971, as evident from the fact that it succeeded in mobilising the youth and inciting them to violence, again, in the late 1980s.
JVP’s policy inconsistencies
If the JVP is to remain a political force to be reckoned with in democratic politics it has to expand its vote base considerably by winning over many more electors. Most of all, it has to ensure the consistency of its policies on vital national issues. It has earned notoriety for policy inconsistences and political expediency. It has a history of getting too close to either the SLFP or the UNP alternately and then attacking the latter when it considers the time is opportune to do so. In the late 1960s, it helped the SLFP form a government in 1970 and took up arms against the newly elected administration, the following year.
The JVP got close to the UNP government, in the late 1970s, and staged a bloody insurrection against the latter about nine years later. Thereafter, it backed the SLFP again in 1994 by withdrawing from the presidential contest in support of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) in the fray. Five years later it fielded a presidential candidate, having turned against CBK; it closed ranks with the SLFP again in 2004. It sided with the UNP a few years later and tried to bring down the SLFP-led government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Having backed the UNP-led alliance, which came into power in 2015, it is again attacking the UNP.
The biggest of the JVP’s U-turns is the one on the Provincial Councils. It plunged the country into a bloodbath in an abortive bid to prevent the devolution of power under the 13th Amendment. Its reign of terror lasted from 1987 to 89, when it was brutally suppressed. Tens of thousands of lives were lost including that of its founder leader Wijeweera. Later, it got representation in the very PCs, which it had gone all out to sabotage, and it no longer demands the abolition of these institutions though they have become white elephants and failed to be a solution to the ethnic problem.
Windfall and missed opportunities
The JVP’s biggest achievement in democratic politics was in 2014. But it proved to be a flash in the pan. The JVP performed superbly at the general election in that year; contesting as part of the SLFP-led United People’s Front Alliance (UPFA) alliance, it fielded 42 candidates and 39 of them were elected, some of its leaders topped the district lists in Colombo, Gampaha and Kurunegala. It also granted the SLFP two of its National List slots as the latter was desperate to appoint two of its seniors to Parliament. The JVP members became popular as ministers, leading simple lifestyles and keeping their hands clean. But before it had won enough public trust and support to better its electoral performance, it pulled out of the Chandrika Kumaratnga government, which sought to handle the management of tsunami relief together with the LTTE. It was a political miscalculation on the part of the JVP, which should have exercised state power for long enough to make a difference in politics and offer an alternative to the public fed up with the two main political parties.
Following the JVP’s stellar performance at the 2014 parliamentary polls, many may have thought it was about to achieve the goal its founder leader Wijeweera had set for it. He wanted the JVP to ‘swallow’ the SLFP and emerge as the second force in national politics before taking on the UNP to capture state power. In fact, one of the JVP’s five lectures is on this goal. Hence, the then Opposition Leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, vehemently opposed any alliance with the JVP, which he said would pose an existential threat to the SLFP, but President Kumaratunga, desperate to topple the UNP-led UNF government, had the JVP as an coalition partner. Riled by Rajapaksa’s hostility, the JVP pressured President Kumaratunga not to appoint him the Prime Minister after the SLFP-led UPFA’s victory at the 2004 general election; its choice was Lakshman Kadirgamar. But the SLFP wanted Mahinda in that position and Chandirka had to give in, a decision she would regret later on.
One year later, the JVP, which had gone all out to prevent Mahinda from becoming the PM, made another U-turn; it backed him in the presidential race and ensured his victory. This, it did while the SLFP refrained from throwing its full weight behind him, at the behest of President Kumaratunga, who did not want Rajapaksa to win. (We have discussed this in detail in our profile on Maithripala Sirisena available in the Counterpoint archives at http://counterpoint.lk/maithripala-sirisena-the-man-who-outfoxes-foxes-has-he-got-into-a-hole/)
It may be seen that the JVP was able to win so many seats at the 2004 general election, as a constituent of an SLFP-led alliance and not under its own steam. It has squandered many opportunities which presented themselves for it to improve its electoral performance. Its current leaders don’t seem keen to do so and are behaving like their counterparts in the traditional left, which has become a political cripple.
The JVP’s support base is shrinking rapidly, but it seems to be at a loss as to how the situation could be remedied. In 2008, it suffered a debilitating split with a group led by its MP Wimal Weerawansa crossing over to the Rajapaksa government at the height of the state’s war against the LTTE. One need not be surprised if a similar fate befalls the outfit sooner or later.
(Next: The fate of the other smaller parties and what future holds for their major counterparts.)