Dr. N M Perera, the first Leader of the Opposition, seen here with J. R Jayewardene, the country’s first Executive President. JRJ had no love for the office of Leader of the Opposition, and as Finance Minister, when NM was Leader of the Opposition refused to release funds for the functioning of the Opposition Leaders office.( Pic. Courtesy, Parliament of Sri Lanka, Asia’s Oldest Democracy.)

The public focus has shifted from the government to the Opposition. The sudden change of government on 26 Oct. gave rise to a public debate on the legitimacy or otherwise of the new government. The issue has now been sorted out.

However, as we have argued in this space previously, the political crisis has a multifactorial etiology and a judicial remedy alone won’t help resolve it. The Executive President and the Prime Minister are still at loggerheads and the new government has got off to a bumpy start. Now, the TNA, backed by the UNF, and the UPFA have locked horns over the post of the Opposition Leader.

The purpose of this column, however, is not to analyse current issues pertaining to the government but to discuss the pivotal role the Opposition is expected to play in a parliamentary democracy.

In parliamentary democracies in the developing world, the Opposition is not widely considered a feature of government as such, and its functions are not properly recognized. Even in Britain, not all political leaders and thinkers were well-disposed towards the Opposition in the past. Harold Laski has said in his ‘Parliament Government in England’: “We pay a large number of members of the House of Commons to obstruct public business as much as they can to take the maximum advantage of the government’s mistakes, to insist that it is ruining the country, to extract from it, if possible, information by which it can be proved, and to flood the electorate with propaganda intended to show that government, however good its motives, is in fact dong the worst possible things in the worst possible way.” Sri Lankan leaders echo these sentiments upon being ensconced in power; they consider the Opposition a nuisance and do their utmost to suppress it.

Laski’s view of the Opposition was, however, not subscribed to by many other prominent scholars. David Apter had this to say about the parliamentary Opposition and its functions: “… the Opposition. In representing interests, providing information, criticizing and offering alternative policies, can aid the government in three critical spheres of a democratic system namely, preserving beliefs in and acceptance of democratic values, helping to control the acts of the executive by control and advice, and giving coherence and meaning to the representative system.”

The Opposition in Sri Lanka

There is a stark difference between political Opposition and parliamentary Opposition though one tends to ignore it. The former can take any form, but the latter has to function within the constitutional and legislative confines.

Political parties are the be-all and end-all of a representative democracy and how essential they are for the working of a parliamentary democracy cannot be overemphasized. They, depending on their strength in Parliament, either exercise power or function as a countervailing force against the party or coalition in power. The government and the Opposition may be considered yin and yang in parliamentary politics.

The Opposition as part of the parliamentary system in this country can be traced to the implementation of the Soulbury Constitution, which unlike the Donoughmore Constitution, encouraged the development of political parties.

The introduction of the Westminster system to this country, which was without a political party system, at that time, was like putting the cart before the horse. Sir Ivor Jennings, stressed the need for political parties for the parliamentary system to work, but was sceptical that a party system would get established here, given the fissiparous nature of the polity. He thought the country would be able to make do with coalitions. He also opined that it would be at least two decades before the parliamentary system was fully functional, but, to the surprise of him and many others who shared his view, the government began to work smoothly.

Ironically, 70 years on, the two-party system has given way to coalitions which have become the order of the day. The proportional representation (PR) system is mainly responsible for this situation.

Marxists at daggers drawn

In the early days of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy, the Marxist parties functioned as the Opposition. The country, however, was without an organised Opposition as such, from 1947 to 1950, because the parties opposed to the UNP were divided along ideological lines and they could not put up a united front. They functioned more as a political opposition than a constitutional opposition or a cohesive political force capable of functioning as a counterweight to the government. It was only natural that they could not agree on who should lead them in the House.

The Communist Party considered the parliamentary Opposition as being part of what it called a reactionary British convention. There was no Opposition Leader during that period. The then Speaker Sir Francis Mollamure called for the appointment of an Opposition Leader for the House to function properly. Dr. N. M. Perera was elected the Leader of the Opposition in June 1950. He declared that the Opposition had a right to be consulted by the government.

Speaker Mollamure, who was averse to ‘too many long-winded speeches’ in the House, and even introduced guidelines for speakers, heaved a sigh of relief. He said that thereafter the Chief Government Whip and the Leader of the Opposition had to get together to make arrangements for debates without too many speeches.

Both Mollamure and Dr. Perera had their work cut out to establish the institution of the Leader of the Opposition. The government continued to frustrate their efforts to develop it and Dr. Perera had to overcome issues arising from his party’s revolutionary ideology and the resultant antipathy towards parliamentarianism.  The Marxist parties, however, would later make a tremendous contribution towards strengthening the position of the Leader of the Opposition. The LSSP was commended by Sir Ivor for the role it played as the main Opposition in spite of resource constraints etc.

Dr. Perera launched a frontal attack on the UNP government, which was blocking the setting up of an office for the Opposition Leader and assigning staff to it. He famously declared in the House, “I can think of no government of a democratic country that has treated the Opposition with such scant respect as the present UNP government. It will not doubt in the due course reap the fruits of its political shortsightedness.” His words proved prophetic. It was not only the UNP which undermined the role of the Opposition; the SLFP, too, would follow suit later on. Democracy has suffered under governments formed by both parties and their allies.

S W R D Bandaranaike, a former Prime Minister, too was initially opposed to the post of Leader of the Opposition, stating that an opposition does not believe in democracy. He did soften his stand on the issue later. (Pic. Courtesy parliament.lk)
S W R D Bandaranaike, a former Prime Minister, too was initially opposed to the post of Leader of the Opposition, stating that an opposition does not believe in democracy. He did soften his stand on the issue later. (Pic. Courtesy parliament.lk)

Both J. R. Jayewardene and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike made no bones about their antipathy towards the Opposition. JRJ, as the Finance Minister in 1951, refused to release funds for the provision of facilities to the Opposition Leader. He accused the CP and the LSSP of ‘utilizing the functions of an Opposition … to destroy the democratic state’. SWRD as the PM said the Opposition did not believe in democracy and, therefore, did not deserve recognition’. A disappointed NM happened to remark that he was no better than a peon. SWRD, however, softened his stand later on and helped the Opposition gain due recognition. He argued that the absence of a proper parliamentary Opposition would lead the government to disregard public opinion.

Emergence of the mainstream Opposition

The formation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led to an erosion of the support base of the Marxist parties and loosened their grip on the Opposition. Writing about the birth of the SLFP, Jennings said it would cause a split in the Opposition with two leaders.

Ironically, the western powers, which feared the rise of communism in former British colonies may have been relieved to find that it was the Marxist parties which strengthened the Opposition Leader’s post and adhered to Westminster traditions more than others, though they remained not so organised. The role played by Sarath Muttetuwegama in the post-1977 parliament without holding the post of the Opposition Leader is a case in point. He effectively held out against the UNP with five-sixths majority almost singlehanded so much so that the public suspected foul play when he died in a car crash in 1986. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), led by veteran leader A. Amirthalingam, was compelled to leave Parliament in 1983 following the anti-Tamil pogrom and the introduction of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, creating a vacuum in the Opposition and it was a few MPs of the calibre of Muttetuwegama who rose to the occasion. All Marxists save him had been defeated at the 1977 general election.

Impact of the debilitation of Opposition on democracy

As a reliable brake system is to a powerful vehicle, so is a parliamentary opposition to a government. Power without control is disaster. Steamroller majorities for governments and the debilitation of the mainstream parliamentary Opposition have inflicted irreparable damage on democracy in this country. The first post-Independence violent uprising occurred under the SLFP-led United Front government, which obtained a two-thirds majority in Parliament at the 1970 general election. The JVP took up arms and plunged the country into a bloodbath, thus paving the way for the emergence of a culture of political violence.

The main Opposition, the UNP was too weak and the UF government extended the term of Parliament by two years in 1975 in the most undemocratic manner. That administration also introduced the first republican Constitution. Its commitment to dirigisme, the attendant economic woes of the public etc., created conditions for the UNP’s return to power with a five-sixths majority, which the J. R. Jayewardene government abused in every conceivable manner in a bid to perpetuate its rule after introducing the present Constitution, which established the executive presidency.

In 1966, more than two decades before realizing his presidential dream Jayewardene said in his address at the Ceylon Society for the Advancement of Science, that the country should have a strong executive which was not subject to the whims and fancies of an elected legislature. Such was the contempt he had for Parliament while being part of it.

President Jayewardene kept Parliament under his thumb through his party, the UNP so much so that President Ranasinghe once lamented that he was no better than a government peon. The debilitation of the SLFP-led Opposition and the ousting of the TULF, made a contribution to the armed uprisings in the South and the North. The infamous referendum (1982), which allowed Jayewardene to retain his five-sixth majority in Parliament until 1988 made the situation far worse. Political violence became the new normal in Sri Lanka under his rule.

The only government to secure a mammoth majority under the PR was that of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The war victory helped him not only win a second term but also muster a two-thirds majority in Parliament through crossovers. His UPFA won 144 seats at the 2010 general election. The Opposition was further weakened. The despicable 18th Amendment which did away the presidential term limit and concentrated more powers in the executive presidency came into being. Corruption and the abuse of power reached an unprecedented level as the rulers thought they would never lose power. But it collapsed under its own weight in 2015.

R Sambanthan (below) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (above) are both staking their claim to the post of Leader of the Opposition. Sambanthan held the position at the time President Sirisena dissolved Parliament a few months ago. With the reinstating of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, Rajapaksa has claimed the post of Opposition Leader. Rajapaksa made an unsuccessful attempt to be the Prime Minister in October this year.
R Sambanthan (below) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (above) are both staking their claim to the post of Leader of the Opposition. Sambanthan held the position at the time President Sirisena dissolved Parliament a few months ago. With the reinstating of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, Rajapaksa has claimed the post of Opposition Leader. Rajapaksa made an unsuccessful attempt to be the Prime Minister in October this year.



A parliament sans an Opposition

The parliamentary Opposition’s sole purpose of being is to act as a countervailing force against the government in power and to keep the ruler on their toes. It must not oppose everything that the government does for the sake of opposing, and there are situations where it has to cooperate with the ruling party. But never must it be part of the government. The 2015 regime change which saw the installation of the yahapalana government led to a situation where the official Opposition became a handmaiden of the ruling coalition while the role of the Opposition was played by a dissident group of the UPFA, which was sharing power with the UNP-led UNF.

Currently, the parliamentary Opposition is not functional as Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who first recognized the UPFA as the Opposition and Mahinda Rajapaksa the Opposition Leader, has asked for time to announce his decision on the claim the TNA has staked for the post of the Opposition Leader. The Oct. 26 constitutional coup and subsequent court rulings rendered the country without a government. Now, there is no recognized parliamentary Opposition.

Unless this situation is brought under control posthaste, the political Opposition which does not hesitate to resort to extra-parliamentary methods to achieve its goals may emerge stronger as we have seen in the past.


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