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THE TRAGEDY OF LANKA’S OPPOSITION

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Sunday, 23 October 2011 09:13 No Comment]

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on Wednesday, advised newly elected members of the UPFA to the Colombo Municipal Council that the role of an Opposition was not to oppose everything but that today’s Opposition (parliamentary) knew ‘no other role than opposing everything, even betraying the country and nation’.

However, the grouse of the supporters of the main Opposition party, the UNP, has been that the Opposition has not effectively opposed anything of the Rajapaksa government ever since Mahinda Rajapaksa became the president.

There are two sides to the story.

Rajapaksa when elected the first time as president had only a wafer thin majority and found the going difficult with the JVP making impossible revolutionary demands, the UNP opposing his government albeit  not too strongly and Tamil parties in a cocky mood with  the LTTE’s stars on the ascendant. Rajapaksa then deployed canny Machiavellism (or call it (Kautilyan cunning) and brought or bought over the JVP which had a strong line up in parliament at that time. He then executed a master stroke by “buying” up 19 UNP MPs with offers of cabinet ministerial posts with all perks attached. It is believed that some of the UNPers had skeletons in their closets, which, Rajapaksa was likely to drag out.

Meanwhile, UNPers had also locked horns with their leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, whom they wanted out because of the party’s poor performances at the polls under his leadership.

Teachers of Civics in the days gone by would have approved of Rajapaksa’s exhortation to the municipal councillors: Opposing everything is not the role of the opposition; Constructive criticism and support for moves that are for the benefit of the people is the done thing. But British parliamentary niceties as propounded by Erskine May, Ivor Jennings and the like are not in vogue these days in Sri Lanka. Horrendous indigenous traditions of parliamentary practice have been set up by those like Mervyn Silva.

Whatever the current thinking of the president is, he has not shown any love for any Opposition and whether there will be a change of heart when his municipal councillors are in the Opposition in the Colombo Town Hall will be seen soon.

With the UNP having the largest number of seats in the Council but not a clear majority, Rajapaksa may be tempted to repeat history. There is speculation in some quarters that some of the UNPers who emerged victorious may do what nineteen of their fellow party members did in parliament during Rajapaksa’s first  presidential term. That would of course be an utter betrayal of UNP voters of the Colombo Municipality who braved political pressure and thuggery to make their party win in Colombo.

Those representatives of the UNP who did jump on the government bandwagon do not give two hoots for the wishes of those who elected them. They are enjoying the good life – la dolce vita – provided, by Rajapaksa in appreciation of their betrayal.

Rajapaksa also does not appear to admit the reality of a Tamil Opposition. Whether he likes it or not it has to be conceded that the demands made by Tamil parties led to the 30-year conflagration and that the demands are still on the table. The root cause for leading Western nations to take issue with the Rajapaksa regime is the sheer insouciant attitude shown towards this issue. Cudgels are being picked up against him in world capitals but he plays it cool.

While Mahinda Rajapaksa has broken the back of the opposition with his political manoeuvres and legislation such as the scrapping of the 17th Amendment and replacing it with the 18th Amendment, the Leader of the Opposition Wickremasinghe too has contributed mightily to wrecking the main Opposition party, the UNP, by losing elections and refusing to budge from the leadership. No party can survive if successive elections are lost and the same person remains at the helm. The impotence of those who want to succeed him is demonstrated in that they have now tried for years but cannot throw him out.

The tragedy of today’s  Sri Lankan democracy is that the backbone of the Opposition has been cracked by the  Executive President using his executive powers as well as his control of parliament with the 2/3rd majority his party has.  The Leader of the Opposition has helped to decimate his party by refusing to give up leadership while many members are demanding that he quit. The third dimension to this tragedy is that those trying to throw out as their leader are further accelerating the destruction of the party by their repeatedly unsuccessful efforts. The number of attempts made to throw out Wickremasinghe from leadership may even exceed the number of elections lost under him.

All this is hurting Sri Lankan democracy immensely. Any democracy whether it be a parliamentary or the presidential form requires an effective Opposition. The absence of an effective Opposition leads to contorted forms of democracy. The country is at a stage where an effective Opposition emanates from the foreign missions in Colombo. The invitation extended to Tamil parties to meet American politicians and diplomats in Washington is the most recent example. Running to foreign embassies in Colombo became a feature of Sri Lankan politics during UNP rule where even the present president made representations to foreign missions during the crackdown on the JVP insurrection in the late eighties. Now the UNP and TNA and other Tamil parties are accused of betraying the nation by representations made to foreign powers and international institutions. Politicians when in the Opposition seek assistance of foreign powers but while in the seats of powers accuse those going to embassies of betraying the country’s sovereignty.

President Rajapaksa has no reason to fear a parliamentary Opposition. His executive presidential powers, the two-third majority in parliament, his family members and trusted friends being ensconced in key positions of the state and the Constitution being amended to ensure untrammelled presidential power, eliminate any threat from a parliamentary Opposition.

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