by Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka
He who says A, must say B”. Those who, with good reason, lament the prospect of a new constitution reflective of the dominant ideology and power relations, must also admit and criticise the factor that makes this possible.
No government is able to change the basic law, if it does not enjoy a two thirds majority in the house. Such a majority is possible to obtain, only in highly specific circumstances, which is why such constitutions are termed ‘rigid’. These circumstances are the cooperation of the opposition, or its utter and absolute debility.
A rigid constitution assumes that no party or governing coalition is able to muster the necessary two thirds majority without the support of the opposition, thereby making the process of constitutional change, a broad based and inclusive affair, reflective of a national consensus. In the event that a government succeeds in mustering a two thirds majority in the legislature, the conclusion is derived that such a government is sufficiently reflective of national opinion. The exceptional situation, in which a government is able to muster a two thirds majority without a bipartisan consensus, is possible only if the opposition is dreadfully weak.
This too is seen to be unlikely under the system of proportional representation. To put it differently, a politician as astute as J.R. Jayewardene never expected either of Sri Lanka’s two major parties to be able, under a system of proportional representation, to be either dominant enough or weak enough for a two thirds majority to be achievable other than by dialogue, compromise and bi-partisan consensus. He also assumed that his party, the UNP, had an irreducible voter base that would never permit the other side to obtain a two-thirds majority so long as the electoral system of PR was in place.
The rich irony is that the scenario he thought impossible actually came into being thanks to his nephew, who has taken his party to a point below what was always thought to be its floor. The current UNP leadership crashed the party through the floorboards and it now lives in a basement.
Sumanasiri Liyanage of Peradeniya University’s Department of Economics has proffered the opinion that the UNP’s failure is attributable to its conversion into a large NGO. In this he is correct, but he has erred in failing to understand that the change in the UNP leadership, though not a sufficient condition for reconversion into a mass party, is a necessary condition for it.
A recent defence of the UNP status quo mounted in a Sinhala newspaper of some quality with the hypothesis that the UNP’s failure is not due to its leadership but to the intrinsic power of incumbency of Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidency.
This is pathetic sophistry. This explanation fails to account for (i) the decline in the UNP’s votes (unless it is claimed that the intrinsic power of the executive presidency increases by the day like an inflatable balloon) and (ii) the fact that the UNP fared worse at the parliamentary election than it did at the presidential one.
The factor of Sinhala nationalism cannot be wheeled out as an excuse without damaging the Wickremesinghe case. The Sinhalese thanked the President for securing victory in war by voting handsomely for him at the January 2010 presidential election. That should have been the zenith of Rajapaksa hegemony and the nadir of the UNP’s loss.
However, in a striking anomaly, that wasn’t the case. The understandable and justifiable popularity of President Rajapaksa did not fetch him a vote at his own re-election which would enable him to enjoy two thirds support. However, it was at the parliamentary election that followed, that the UPFA – which had been in office was many years longer than President Rajapaksa, was able to arrive at striking distance of the two thirds majority.
The conclusion is inevitable that while the plenitude of presidential power remained a constant, the variable was the leadership of the opposition. When the opposition contested under leadership that was not that of Ranil, it fared significantly better. When Ranil reassumed his leading role, the vote dropped sharply at the parliamentary election.
It is that performance that has given the incumbent the numbers necessary to attempt a two thirds majority. Dismal as it was, and historic in its own way, the UNP’s 29.34% vote under Ranil, is no anomaly but in keeping with the long range trend of decline in the UNP vote.
Today there is a drawn game in UNP affairs. The leadership remains unchanged but the party is to have a new constitution which will enshrine the reform package, which includes a de-facto ‘electoral college’ and elective principle which kicks in, when a consensus cannot be reached for the key posts.
The inadequacy of the compromise will soon be evident. Without a change in the leadership and a de-Ranilisation of the party, it will obtain less than it did at the parliamentary election, scoring probably in the low-mid 20s.
The replacement of the leadership following such an outcome could conceivably revive the UNP but this is unlikely since electoral and constitutional change will be then upon us, and the hegemony of the UPFA and the ‘subalternity’ or marginality of the UNP will be codified, rendered structural.
Today’s UNP has proved itself incapable of a sufficiency of positive change and therefore incapable of effecting constructive change in the country. It is revealing itself to be far more the party of a sclerotic Colombo Establishment which is itself incapable of countervailing a vigorous, energetic young ‘regime’, with a historic military victory under its belt.
The entrenched Old Guard of the UNP, like the proverbial dog in the manger, is neither capable of positive change nor of making way for the younger leaders who can. Once again, the UNP is far more a party of the Colombo elite than of the people, urban and rural.
If the process of leadership change remains deadlocked, the UNP will decay at its centre and disintegrate at its base. If it continues to show itself as a party in irreversible decay and decline, the centre of gravity of dissent, opposition and alternatives will shift to someone who has demonstrated the guts to survive. Freud warned of the return of the repressed.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If the UNP is incapable of internal ‘regime change’, that which has been repressed will return, with considerable consequences for the country including a much rougher political endgame. As Ho Chi Minh said in a poem penned while a political prisoner: “when the prison doors open/the real dragon will fly out.”