The Guest Column by Victor Ivon

5th November 2000

Reforms should precede consensus politics

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President Kumarathunga meeting UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe: Consensus politics amidst mutual suspicionThe TULF has expressed concern over the proposed PA-UNP deal, saying that it is limited to an agenda for democracy but does not include any moves to solve the ethnic crisis. If the Tamil people or Tamil parties think that a solution to the ethnic problem is more important than everything else, it is quite understandable.

An urgent and permanent solution to the ethnic issue is essential for the survival not only of the Tamil people but also of the country. However this solution cannot be found with just two main parties entering into a pact while harbouring mutual suspicion and hatred for each other a trait found among all political parties in competition for power. Unless there is a change in this state of affairs, it will not be possible to have a consensus among these political parties on any vital issue.

The nature of the relations among rival political parties in Sri Lanka is different from what it should have been in a real democratic set up. The main reason that is attributed to this sad scenario is the perpetuation of an unhealthy tradition by which the ruling party follows a policy of oppressing and weakening the opposition parties. 

When the UNP was in office it used state power to the utmost to deprive the leader of the SLFP of her civic rights and to fragment and weaken the opposition party by creating internal disputes. 

The conduct of the PA which succeeded the UNP was no different. Although the PA government did not deprive the leader of the UNP of his civic rights it insulted him with all sorts of allegations and promoted disputes within the UNP, leading to a division and a crossover. 

The policies followed by both these parties while in power as regards the JVP were more or less similar. The UNP utilised to the utmost the hatred the JVP had for the SLFP over the suppression of the 1971 insurrection for its advantage. Later when the JVP became a challenge to its own survival, it proscribed the party and drove them to the jungle. 

The PA too made use of the hatred that the JVP had towards the UNP over the suppression of the 1988-89 rebellion. Though the PA harassment of the JVP warranted another rebellion, the leftist party did not go underground largely due to the lessons it learnt from the 1988-89 experience.

In a democratic political system, a ruling party does not use state power as an instrument to weaken opposition parties and elections are won not misusing it or malpractices. If the people voted for a party, the incumbent party allows the winner to take over and gives up power. In this way, no enmity is entertained though they compete for power. In such a scenario, there is always the possibility of acting on the basis of a consensus. 

However in our country the relationship between the two parties is different. As though it is an established tradition, every ruling party uses state power as an instrument to weaken the opposition parties and to intimidate its members and supporters. 

Therefore, there is little room for opposition parties to extend support to a government even on matters of national importance. The very fact of being in the opposition becomes a reason to suffer harassment and oppression. The opposition parties believe that the only way to escape harassment and oppression is to oppose the government on its every action and to come to office as early as possible.

This explains why the SLFP (or the PA) and the UNP in opposition opposed every attempt made by the government to find a solution to the ethnic problem. Thus consensus politics is only possible within a framework which allows opposition parties to come to office without undue hindrance and with people's support.

For this purpose, it is necessary to bring in reforms to make a level field where every party will have equal opportunity to come to office if people give their consent.

One of the reforms should be aimed at checking the executive control over the judiciary, because it is this institution which is resorted to when disputes arise in relations to new measures taken to revive democracy. Therefore the first priority is to bring the judiciary to a position of independence. Had there been a judiciary free from executive control, much of the malpractice at the last election would not have occurred.

The provision of President appointing judges to superior courts should be abolished, because it provides an opportunity for the executive to appoint judges not on merits, but on political reasons. Provision must also be made to make the Supreme Court an institution which would consciously act to defend and refine democratic freedom as happens in the United States and India. 

It is very important for a country like ours to have institutions which would entertain complaints against high government officials who do not act according to the law due to political pressures or other reasons. It is also important to enact laws to prevent the parties that come to power from oppressing opposition parties or their followers. 

It is also of great importance not only to establish the four commissions proposed by the UNP but also to disarm political parties which have entered the democratic mainstream but continue to carry arms. They use the weapons not only in self-defence but also to intimidate rival parties. If they need protection that has to be provided by official institutions such as the police and the army . 

If these reforms are introduced in a manner that will bring a revival of democracy, it will be possible to change the present unhealthy trend and promote mutual respect and trust among all political parties. 

It will be possible to achieve through consensus politics a just solution to the ethnic problem. 

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