Rajpal's Column

16th July 2000

Twinning, winning or the story of the third force.

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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The Rajpal AbeynayaThe two major political parties are twins. This was felt when the PA began to mimic the economic policies of the UNP, and when the PA began to privatize as if there was no tomorrow left.

Now, in the sphere of conflict resolution, the two major political parties have twinned again. A political consensus has been reached between the UNP and the PA on a constitutional package. But, the package seems to be one of the stillborn kind.

On the one hand , there is no enthusiasm for it at all from any quarter that has any respectable following. The Tamil moderates have rejected it; the Sinhala lobby has turned against both main political parties. (Pertaining to economic policy, the PA mimicking of the UNP is probably best felt by the broad sweep of economic policy adopted by the PA. With reference to the ramifications, please read the column Biz Broadsides in the Business section (p 6) today by this writer.)

Pertaining to the issue of conflict resolution a Tamil publication published this list of aborted packages offered by successive Sri Lankan governments. It reads like this:

. 1928 Donoughmore Commission proposal for Provincial Councils...

1957 Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact for direct election to Regional Councils...

1965 Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Agreement for District Councils...

1970 Proposals by the Tamil Federal Party rejected by Sri Lanka...

1979 Presidential Commission to report on creation of District Development Councils...

1983 Annexure C Proposals...

1985 Thimpu Talks...

1986 "19 December" Proposals...

1987 Indo Sri Lanka Peace Agreement..

1989/90 Premadasa Talks...

1992/93 Parliamentary Select Committee Reports...

1994 Peace Trap by Chandrika Government...

1995 Devolution Package...

The golden thread...

The makers of the list say the document contains a list of broken promises on constitutional reform.

Obviously that's not a correct reading of what the list constitutes. But, all of these are peace initiatives taken by the two major Sri Lankan parties. If they are not broken promises, they certainly fall into the category of efforts and overtures that have not worked. (Caution: The writer is not in agreement on the minutiae of the list. It's just a rough guide to initiatives that have failed.)

The brand new consensus forged in the comfort of Temple Trees threatens to add to the list of failed initiatives, for the reason that it has already been rejected by almost every quarter that has anything to do with conflict resolution issues.

But, for the two mainstream political parties that have twinned, the issue is whether it is a question of twinning and winning, or twinning and losing in the process?

By far , the consensus between the UNP and the PA seemed at least up to this point, to have propelled the (fading ) political fortunes of the PA and not the UNP.. It's the PA that is seen to have neutralized the enemy and not the other way around.

But, as Vausdeva Nanayakkara mused, meeting the press in the cosy ambience of the Capri Club last week , the two parties have identical economic approaches. But also, the PA seems to have lost its following among the democratic and progressive forces. (Vasudeva has formed a new Left alliance, which hopes to corral the democrats and the real progressives, he says, into a coalition that will challenge the ruling elite.)

The future of Vasudeva's party aside, the sudden upsurge of alternate parties indicates that there is feeling among the political conveners ( as opposed to the masses ) at least, that there is a vast middle ground that has been created by the twinning of the UNP and the PA identities.

But, if the working class can accept this argument, will the large swathe of the non- working class political middle-stream accept it? In other words though the UNP and the PA may have twinned, will the elections merely decide which twin will have greater power in parliament?.

"People understood the power of the vote and they used it to vote out practically every government in power since independence. There was also no attempt to tamper with the electoral process itself. Moreover, it was doubtful whether Sri Lanka ever had a Westminster-type government, except on paper. They had, through the long years of British rule and after, adapted the Westminster model to suit their own character and institutions. The one key institution they held in high regard was the free vote and free elections. The overthrow of this institution and the mass violence and impersonation of voters that followed have led to serious public disillusionment and demoralisation to be seen and felt everywhere. People, both in villages and cities, have told me on several recent occasions, that they will not vote hereafter because it is "useless" This to me heralds the impending death of the democratic process."

That was Professor Gananath Obeysekera, the Head of the Department of Anthropology of Princeton University, writing on the J. R. Jayewardene referendum, after the referendum gambit had been delivered and implemented by Jayewardene in the early eighties.

That level of disillusionment with the democratic process seems to have had two peaks.. One was with the referendum that Prof. Obeysekera talks about. The other is not a peak really it's a plateau.

But, when the progressive forces in power rig the democratic process, matters become worse. The people who felt the Referendum of 82 was repugnant, and that the rigging of it was even more outrageous, are now by and large in government and are engaged in rigging for themselves.

This long plateau of disillusionment with the democratic process, coupled with the twinning of the two mainstream political giants, should theoretically create a political space for a moderate third force. It's the space that the Purevesi Peramuna, the National Left Alliance, the Sihala Urumaya party and the JVP are all trying to occupy in one frenetic rush.

In that sense , the kissing and the making up between the PA and the UNP is a new fetter in the way of the progressive and the democratic forces of the country. Come elections, the UNP is going to fight the PA but, how effectively, now? How authentic will its opposing voice sound? And more importantly, what clout will it have in the task of trying to retain the sanctity of the electoral process?

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