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Parliamentary election & the Crisis of the Opposition

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Parliamentary election & the Crisis of the Opposition
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Independence Day thoughts 2010

Sri Lanka celebrates Independence Day this year with the State in a better state than it has been for three decades. The country is a single united territory; unquestionably a single political entity. The borders of the state are coextensive with our natural borders, the sea. The writ of the state runs from North to South, East to West. The state’s monopoly of organized violence has been restored. The travesty of an armed proto-state within the state has been excised. A Thirty Years war has been won and a hideous, powerful challenger, accurately described by The Economist (Jan 28, 2010) as "a textbook fascist", put down. National independence and sovereignty have asserted themselves against attempts at interference and intervention. Electoral democracy survived both terrorism and the war against it. Truly an Independence Day to celebrate, but the challenge that remains after these triumphs is no less important than the ones that have been overcome. Dominique Moisi, the founder of the French Institute of International affairs (IFRI) and respected geostrategic thinker writes of The Geopolitics of Emotion, arguing that the "cultures of fear, humiliation and hope" are reshaping the world. In the light of this idea, reinforced by the starkly asymmetrical results of the recently concluded Presidential election, we can discern that Sri Lanka, while once again a single political or politico-military entity, it is not yet a single emotional entity, a single psychological community. The domestic ‘geopolitics of emotion’ are marked by unevenness of development.

The parliamentary election looks different now, after the Presidential and takes place against this canvas. While on the one hand, a number of significant factors lead me to expect and welcome a strong showing by the Opposition, on the other, a new factor has intruded (or an old factor re-introduced) which I expect will impinge on voter conduct and militate against a healthy balance between executive and legislature.

In favor of a strong and deserved Opposition showing are the facts that the ruling coalition has been in office for a shade over 15 years, there are legitimate grievances of relating to income inequity and style of governance and well-founded reasons to be wary of a new Constitution, flawed as the old one is.

The country is caught in a paradox. The conclusion of a period of History, the long civil war of secession, warrants crowning with a new Constitution— but we have not evolved a healthy reconciliatory ethos, nor have we accumulated the wisdom, required to make such a Constitution a success. Besides, who knows which aspect of reality will wind up crowned?

These are reasons enough to expect and hope for a legislature that is so comprised and constituted as to function as an adequate check on the executive branch and furthermore, embolden the judiciary into a greater degree of independence.

There is however, a problem which manifests itself in two forms. The problem is one that is common to many other parts of the global South and was evidenced even in the global North at an earlier stage of its development and political history. This is the factor and the perception, of external pressure and externally driven or aided internal enmity towards the state and nation. Such factors and mass perceptions of such often result in a protective reinforcement of continuity and an impediment to change.

The lifting or relaxation of external pressure and the abatement of internal threat usually catalyses internal change. It even proves a prerequisite for such transformation. The Wall was not brought down during the coldest days of the Cold war but precisely after decades of détente, the Helsinki agreements and Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Cuba has made it clear that there will be no consideration of internal liberalization so long as the blockade remains.

Less than year after a Thirty years war, the main opposition is still led by one who triggers negative emotions stemming from that war. The analogy is if post-Liberation France had a major political party led by Marshal Petain or if Britain in 1945 had Chamberlain as an important electoral player. Ranil has turned the party into the country’s largest NGO, far more responsive to so-called civil society than to its old social bases among the rural people. Rid of the millstone of Wickremesinghe around its neck, and with Karu Jayasuriya or Rukman Senanayake as leader, the UNP could do quite well at the parliamentary election; with him at the helm it will return to, and at best only modestly improve upon the dismal performance it put up at the recently held provincial council elections.

The Wickremesinghe factor works with two other factors which threaten to trigger the perception of threat among the majority of Sri Lankan voters. One is the distinct possibility that the Tamil voters will preponderantly opt, not for the moderate EPDP, but for the TNA. The TNA has still not undergone a visible process of abjuring its past as fellow traveler of the Tigers and exhibits a current profile of being Diaspora-driven by the Tamil Tigers’ political wing. The other is the pressure and propaganda from the West; from certain politicians and officials, the media and human rights groups. Their stance is felt to be anti-Sinhala and pro-Tamil; certainly pro-Tamil Diaspora and even pro-Tiger.


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