Body politic with a weak skeletal structure
A political party system is the skeletal structure of the body politic and its health is a prerequisite for the wellbeing of democracy. It helps hold a polity in place, enables democratic governance and countervails fissiparous tendencies resulting from group dynamics and other such factors therein. Concerns have been expressed in some quarters about the weakening of the political parties in this country. The deterioration of political parties is fraught with the danger of predisposing a country to anarchy.
Smaller political parties in this country are struggling for survival, as we argued in a previous column. The JVP is not a shadow of its former self, having lost a sizeable chunk of its support base to the SLFP and the SLPP over the years. Its vote bank is rapidly shrinking owing to its failure to retain its appeal to the youth. The same goes for others.
The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) came into being following the sudden demise of a popular monk, Ven. Gangodawila Soa Thera, overseas in Dec. 2003 and the attendant politico-social upheavals and had a meteoric rise in national politics winning as many as nine seats, at the 2004 general election. But it had to coalesce with the SLFP, thereafter, and suffered a debilitating split in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election; it has become a mere appendage of the UNP and its offshoot, the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, has closed ranks with the SLPP.
The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), which once dominated the plantation sector and used to ensure the UNP’s victory in the central hills, is fast losing its vote base, which the UNP, the National Union of Workers (NUW), etc., have eaten into, over the years. At the last presidential election, the SLPP backed by the CWC could poll only 176,000 votes in the Nuwara Eliya District whereas the UNP-led National democratic Front, supported by the NUW and others, secured 278,000 votes.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress has failed to expand its reach, and its electoral and political strength remains limited to some pockets, especially in the Eastern Province. It is currently riding the UNP piggyback. If the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa had not brought down the cut-off point from 12.5% to 5%, in 1988, to enlist its support, it would have failed to gain representation in Parliament. The same is, more or less, true of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress, which remains a regional political party. These two political entities have not evolved as full-fledged political parties owing to their ethno-religious agendas. The late SLMC leader M. H. M. Ashraff sought to overcome this limitation by forming the National Unity Alliance (NUA) with a broader political agenda, but his tragic death in 2000 caused it to wither on the vine.
The Eelam Democratic Party (EPDP) has also become a regional political party with some pockets of support in the North. Initially, it worked with the UNP during the Premadasa presidency, but it is currently an ally of the incumbent ruling party. A similar fate has befallen all other smaller Tamil political parties formed by former militants; the prominent among them are constituents of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
Major parties and vicissitudes of fortune
Are the smaller political parties alone in this predicament? They are not. The main political parties, too, have undergone vicissitudes of fortune over the years so much so that they have become the main constituents of coalitions, which have become the order of the day. The Proportional Representation (PR) system is one of the main reasons why the main parties cannot win election under their own steam and are dependent on smaller parties.
The SLFP used to be one of the two main political parties and the leading constituent of the anti-UNP coalitions such as the United Front, the People’s Alliance and the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). But following the 2015 presidential election, it began to wither away under the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena, whose alliance with the UNP caused a rift in it with a large number of its dissidents led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa voting with their feet, and forming the SLPP. Today, it is left with no alternative but to ride the SLPP’s coattails, having broken ranks with the UNP. The SLFP-led UPFA is also in total disarray. Unless the SLFP agrees to coalesce with the SLPP on the latter’s terms, it is likely to suffer another split.
The SLFP has come to such a pass that it cannot even win the Attanagalla electorate, which used to be its traditional stronghold. Ironically, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the last of the Bandaranaikes in politics, has recently been removed as the SLFP organizer for Attanagalla for defying the party’s decision to back Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential race. She is sure to fight back with might and main, and former President Sirisena, who is the leader of the SLFP, is bound to have sleepless nights.
The UNP is also in an unprecedented crisis. It is no stranger to leadership struggles, which it has had to contend with, since its early days, when an ambitious S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike broke ranks with it to form the SLFP. But it managed to retain its vitality until the death of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. There seems to be no end in sight to the UNP’s internecine conflict with its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe refusing to step down and the rival faction demanding that Sajith Premadasa be made the party leader. Unless the UNP puts its internal crisis behind it in time for the upcoming general election, it is very likely to suffer another crushing defeat.
If the results of the last presidential election are anything to go by, then the UNP has lost a sizeable section of its traditional support base; it is not attractive to the youth. Its leaders have admitted that it has lost its appeal to the majority community, as never before. The main reason why the late President J. R. Jayewardene introduced the Proportional Representation system was that the UNP had polled more than the SLFP countrywide under the first-past-the-post system even when it failed to win general elections. JRJ would turn in his grave if he knew the current plight of his beloved party.
The SLFP and the UNP remained vibrant political parties when they competed with each other and gave the people a choice between them. It is what may be called their yin-and-yang relationship that made them politically relevant and helped them retain their traditional support bases even when they suffered electoral defeats and one’s loss became the other’s gain; they captured power alternately. This prevented the emergence of a third force for decades. But as partners of the national government (2015-2018) the UNP and the SLFP bungled, on all fronts, and both of them became unpopular together for the first time, leaving room for an alternative political force to emerge in the form of the SLPP, which remains the strongest political party, at present.
The UNP and the SLFP were dependent on charismatic, strong leaders to retain their appeal to the electorate and it is doubtful whether they currently have that kind of leadership.
The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which once dominated the North and the East, is today a spent force, to all intents and purposes. It obtained 18 seats at the 1977 general election whereas the SLFP got only 8, and its leader A. Amirthalingam became the Opposition Leader. But the rise of the LTTE and a string of political assassinations including that of Amirthalingam took their toll on the TULF, which suffered another crippling blow in late 2001, when the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was formed at the behest of the LTTE, with the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) as constituents.
Former MP and bitter critic of the LTTE, V. Anandasangaree, has been fighting hard against the TNA to make the TULF relevant in Tamil politics. His efforts do not seem to have reached fruition, but his efforts are commendable.
The TNA has also experienced dissention within its ranks. It polled 6.8% of the valid votes at the 2004 general election and won 22 seats in the 225-member Parliament. The LTTE threw its weight behind it, at that time, and prevented the other parties from campaigning in most parts of the North and the East. The TNA could poll only 4.6% of votes, at the 2015 parliamentary polls, and secure only 16 seats. Its popularity is apparently on the wane, and whether it has been able to regain lost ground on will be seen at the upcoming general election.
The phenomenal rise of the SLPP has been due to the collective failure of the SLFP and the UNP and the popularity of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. There are, of course, other factors such as the deterioration of national security, which led to the Easter Sunday attacks in 2018. Founded in 2015, it grew rapidly and went on to score a stunning win at the last local government polls with 3,369 of its candidates being returned. The UNP came a poor second with 2,385 members, while the SLFP-led alliance was pushed to the third place with only 674 members. The SLFP, which went it alone is some areas, won 358 seats. The outcome of that election sealed the fate of both the UNP and the SLFP.
The SLPP made a colossal blunder by being party to the October 2018 constitutional coup, but it recovered from that setback thanks to the unpopularity of the SLFP and the UNP and, most of all, the Easter carnage, which caused national security to take precedence over all other issues. Its candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, won the last presidential election by polling 6,924,255 votes (52.5%) with his main rival, Sajith Premadasa, managing to secure only 5,564,239 votes (41.9%).
The growth of the SLPP has been at the expense of the SLFP and the UNP. It has also attracted a large number of floating votes. It has so far had a smooth ride and the biggest challenge before it is to retain its support base. The people’s expectations are very high and the SLPP has to live up to them. The SLFP and the UNP will regain the lost ground to some extent but it is unlikely that they will be able to bounce back soon.
A possible worst case scenario
The SLPP cannot remain popular forever and is bound to suffer a gradual loss of its popularity in time to come. If its loss becomes the gain of either the UNP or the SLFP or any other mainstream political party, there won’t be any cause for concern. But what if there occurs a situation where the SLPP loses its popularity without other parties gaining from its loss. This is a possibility, given the severe erosion of public faith in the political parties, which have let them down badly.
Pressure build-ups in a polity without finding expression through democratic means at election through established political parties with democratic agenda can have an unsettling effect on a country, for that can be tapped by an extra-parliamentary opposition. This, we experienced in the late 1980s, when we had an extremely weak Opposition led by the SLFP and a highly unpopular UNP government. Thankfully, the JVP has parliamentary representation, today. But we should not lose sight of the fact that we are living in an era of leaderless popular uprisings, which are the political version of a tsunami; people, especially the youth can be mobilized through social networking platforms. The Arab Spring is a case in point.