Crisis of traditional political parties and the future of state-building discourse

Sampath Deshapriya

The two major political parties that ruled Sri Lanka from time to time, United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are reduuced to name boards and party headquarters. The main reasons for their plight are the decay of internal democracy, deviating from the party’s original aim and issues of the party persons. Both Sinhala nationalist SLFP, as well as multi-ethnic UNP, collapsed and new parties were formed. In this backdrop, we must enquire the shock felt by democracy. The citizens who want to build a progressive nation are concerned about the impact of the new developments on the participatory democracy, and therefore, it is time to discuss it. When UNP was formed on 6 September 1946, the party was considered a symbol of national unity. The proposal to unite Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim ethnicities under one flag was mooted by the then member of parliament S. Nadesan. The proposal was seconded by T.B. Jaya. Sinhala Maha Sabha, Tamil Union, Muslim Front and other associations representing Moor, Malay, Burger and European communities participated in this inauguration.  

Sri Lanka Freedom Party was formed based on the Sinhala nationalism and came to power promising to make Sinhala the only official language. The revolution in 1956 can be analyzed in multiple ways. The educated youth of Sri Lanka revolted in 1971 and 1989 against unemployment and caste based suppression. Thousands of youthful lives were lost, as a result of them. The war against racism, caste system and poverty in the Tamil dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces dragged for three decades. The number of lives taken by that conflict was umpteenth. The false promises given by the rulers of the south to the political leaders of the north created the conflict. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga tried to correct this historical error committed by the SLFP, but that attempt was also foiled. Sinhala nationalist theoretician Gunadasa Amarasekara defined the attempts to give a progressive outlook to the SLFP via campaigns like Sudu Neluma (White Lotus) as a measure that shattered the nationalist foundations of the party. These nationalist elements viewed the regime change in 2015 a disaster. He stated that the two major parties of Sri Lanka had set their hands to building a separate Ealam state for Tamils. Many people wanted to see a radical change in SLFP under Maithripala Sirisena, but their hopes were crunched. 

Prof. Gunadasa Amarasekara analyzed the fall of SLFP at a commemoration of late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike about 15 years ago. “As I see, SLFP is a torso now and it has no head. Instead of creating a head for this massive body, the leaders have tried so far to fix Marxist horse heads or liberal donkey heads. The torso of SLFP will soon be rotten unless they create a genuine leadership instead of the mimicking.” According to Amarasekara, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the leader who can avoid the liquidation of that force. 

After the group led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa formed Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP), the Sinhala Buddhist vote base of the SLFP withdrew from it and rallied around SLPP. The ultimate result is Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s advent to the presidency through a landslide victory of the presidential. The minority communities in the country voted UNP in that election. A rational foundation did not back their traditional move. They did not have a concrete basis to ally with the UNP. By now, the UNP has reduced to a single seat in the parliament via the national list. National Unity Power (SJB) was formed under the leadership of Sajith Premadasa. Both SLPP and SJB have no concrete programmes to win the support of the minorities. Instead, they engage in petite deals with the political leaders of the minority communities.  A few Tamil and Muslim leaders represent the present government also. These communities have formed political movements that represent their nationalist interests. Do they actually represent the needs of the people whom they claim to represent?

Some of the statements made by the Northern and Eastern Provinces’ leaders to gain votes appears to go against the ethnic peace. The racist remarks by the power-hungry leaders have created a wrong picture about the entire communities of minorities in the southern polity’s minds. It is common in the south that false definitions on the minority communities are provided based on an erroneous Tamil or Muslim politician’s statements. The main reason behind the situation is that both major parties do not possess any clear plan to mobilize the minority communities in the political mainstream. The problem ultimately leads to the repetition of history. 

SLPP evolved from the SLFP, and the SJB developed from the UNP as alternatives to the mother party, do not function as programme based political parties. The result is the people getting frustrated about the organizations. Both multi-ethnic UNP and its alternate SJP must look back at the party objectives and the programmes. Present President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appears to have stopped the culture of petite deals with the minority politicians. In this backdrop, the country’s future will not be bad if he thinks afresh of the ways for engaging the minority communities in the political mainstream.  

We need to study the errors that caused the traditional political parties to collapse. Also, we need to think beyond conventional views. The hegemonic control of the ruling system perpetuated the discrimination of minority communities for the sake of strengthening the state. It has proved an obstacle to successful state-building. We must remember the lesson we can learn from our neighbour India, i.e. we must base on diversity, democracy and development.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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