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43rd commemoration lecture of Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike
Political parties and governance

By R. K. W. Gunasekera
The S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike Commemoration Lecture is an important event. There have been many distinguished persons who have stood here before me and I am deeply honoured by the request made to me deliver this year’s lecture. I did not have occasion to meet Mr. Bandaranaike but I remember the time that he left one party to build another. No one can also forget the pivotal role that he and the party he formed, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, have played in the history of this country. Mr. Bandaranaike, unfortunately, was denied the opportunity of leading the country for long and the mantle fell on his widow, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike to take leadership of the party. I met the gracious lady, a widely respected international personality many times. On one of the last occasions when her daughter, now Her Excellency the President, was Prime Minister, we talked of her party. She made a remark that I still remember. She said that she was staying on as leader of the party not for power, but because she did not wish to see the party that she cherished and nurtured for more than 25 years disintegrate. It is a recollection of this meeting that made me think of the topic for this lecture - Political Parties and Governance.

The people of a country have a responsibility for the way in which the country is governed. Government, after all, is the business of finding the best persons at any given time who can be entrusted with governmental power to take the right decisions and act wisely so that the country prospers and peoples live without fear, without want and with the opportunities to better their lives. In a democracy, such persons are chosen from different territorial units or electorates covering the entire country. In the beginning it was the standing of the persons in the community that mattered - his family background, learning, wealth, occupation and good reputation were matters that were taken into account. So also in a country like ours, there were other factors to be considered - race or ethnicity, religion and caste. When it was proposed that governmental functions or most of the should be entrusted to the people, the British rulers influenced by their own experience back home could only of a system of election by the people from territorial carved out electorate to the governing body, the State Council. What is surprising is that they attached no qualifications like gender, property - owning or education as requirements for the representative or the voter. The Census at that time concentrated on classifying people according to race (of which there were 9 categories) and religion (5 categories) and it was indeed a common exercise to keep a tally of the figures under these heads in the old Legislative Council or in the State Council. The emergence of leaders at the national level was facilitated when they were seen as belonging to groups, whether with political, social, class or communal aims. The media, especially newspapers, assisted by building up persons into personalities who had the capacity to be trustworthy leaders.

The Donoughmore Commissioners had some interesting observations to make on how the few chosen representatives to the Legislative Council acted: "It is true that an elected member is forced frequently to conceive of himself as the champion of his own community or race, for while democrat government exists and human nature remains what it is, that is quite inevitable. In so doing he would have found himself side by side with other like minded unofficial members in a communal or racial group. The Donoughmore Commissioners also noted, and this was in the early 20th century was the absence of political parties whose representatives agree on a common policy, work together in support of the party’s aims, are loyal to each other and to their party’s decisions and preserve on all major issues a united front in parliament". This, to Commissioners was the traditional parliamentary government. Much as they wished the British model to find its way here, they detected "few signs in the political life of the island to make us confident that parties, if and when formed would owe their origin to economic or political difference in national policy rather than to racial or caste differences and added", "The reverse is rather the case". They conducted that an ‘formation of parties on racial or class lines would be fatal to the best interests of the country". It is true that representation in the State Council was fundamentally communal but the Donoughmore Commissioners should not so lightly have dismissed the political maturity of our people.

The pessimism of the Donoughmore Commissioners however is supported by the Soulbury Commissioners who said, "the principal of communalism is so strong that there was no prospect of the emergency (sic) of political parties". The Commissioners were wrong even as they wrote these words. There were political parties like the Labour Party and left-wing parties that were not communal.

There are good reasons for having political parties even if the people can find good men or government. As the Donoughmore Commissioners said, "it is the party system which reduces to a minimum the intrigues, bargaining and understandings, which in a House of petty groups or independents are apt to become as essential preliminary to every parliamentary decision".

The election law that accompanied the Soulbury Constitution made no reference to political parties. The Elections Order-in-Council contained the essential provisions for the conduct of fair elections - the registration of voters and preparations of voters and preparation of electoral registers, nominations of candidates, conduct of the poll on the appointed date, declaration of the result, election offences, invalidation of an election by election petition.

The first elections held to Parliament in 1947 was under this law. A candidate had to be proposed and seconded by two registered voters of the electorate and the nomination paper was handed to the returning officer by the candidate himself. There could be more than one nomination paper (up to 6 reduced to 3 in 1970) and the sponsors of the candidate were carefully chosen because the average voter for influenced by the names appearing on the nomination papers. The candidate appointed polling agents, his counting agent and an electron agent. By this time eight had been formed in the country to contest elections but officially there could be no party candidates. It was the same in the 1952 elections. After two general elections the Commissioner of Elections decided to allot symbols to candidates which would appear on the ballot paper and assist the voter. In 1956 the election law was amended to make it possible for the secretary of a political party to request the commissioner to the party’s candidates one approved symbol. This was not inconsistent with the choice remaining with the electorate as to who would best represent their interests. After this political parties become more visible in times of elections and some candidates, at least came to be identified with a party. But there was no change in the system of nomination. Three elections later (1956, March 1960 and July 1960) and political parties came to be viewed not only for their leaders and main supporters but also for the policies they advocated. This was a situation that the Donoughmore Commissioners and Soulbury Commissioners had hoped for, but communal politics did nor disappear easily.

The significant change came in 1964 with the concept of "Recognized political parties" for purpose of elections. The elder political parties had little difficulty in gaining official recognition but a new party could gain recognition from the commissioner only by showing that it had engaged in political activity for a continuous period of five years. The direct advantage for a candidate to contest from a party was that he was entitled to the party symbol and paid a deposit of Rs. 250 as against Rs. 1000 for other candidates. For him to contest as an official candidate of a party the secretary of the party had to inform the commissioner of the party’s intention to contest the election and issue to the candidate a certificate of official candidature. There is little doubt that elections were becoming a question of which party was going to govern or play the major role in government. These changes giving prominence to parties stopped short of making party nomination a requirement in law. The link with the electorate remained because the nomination process was not changed. Official party candidature did not mean that the electorate did not vote for you or that party affiliation was decisive. For the Commissioner it was only the receipt of the certificate that mattered. It was none of his business to see how genuinely the official candidate was a party man or what he did after the election. It was a dedicate three-way balance between the candidate, the party and the voter.

True to the goal of not making political participation a matter for the affluent only and to maintain a level playing field, a limit was placed on election expenses. It was Rs. 7500 or 30 cents per voter, reduced in 1970 to Rs. 5000/— or 20 cents. All candidates were required to submit a return of election campaign but it was a salutary policy against wasteful expenses.

As I see it there incremental changes in the election law has its effect on the governance of the country. With the rise of political parties and the campaigns carried out by them, the voter came to accept that for his the choice was between parties, and if individuals mattered it was those who held leadership positions in the party structure. Persons with political ambitions gravitated to political parties and there was the birth of political careers. The two- party system envisaged by the Donoughmore Commissioners however was not achieved and perhaps it was a good thing.

Recent history has raised many questions on the power of political parties. The new constitution embodied a political philosophy that has a profound impact on the government. The system gives pride of place to the party and rubs out the individual who wants to serve his people. What is more, even semblance of the link with the electorate is not there. The system of proportional representation of parties in Parliament could not accommodate the people’s choice of representatives. We tend to forget the new election law that was enacted in 1981 because it never applied to any election after 1977. It made the selection of candidate and the election of members solely a matter for the parties. The vote give to the people was to vote for a party. He had no choice as to the candidate he was voting for because the party had already decided for him who was the better or more suitable representative in the nomination paper. Those who thought if this idea or thought this was democracy should feel ashamed of themselves. A change was made before the first elections under P.R. in 1984- a voter while voting for a party could give his vote to three candidate of the party who were identified in the ballet paper not by name numbers. This was P.R. with preferential voting and we had sufficient elections to assess the value of the system.

The electorate which chose a single candidate from a party was abandoned in favour of a district sending several candidate from different parties. Political parties could be formed overnight because the requirements for official recognition now is that a party should be organised to contest an election, a test sometimes decided by the courts. The curious concession given to independent candidates in this scheme cannot conceal the fact that without openly identifying yourself with a party you could not seek election. There were other benefits for political parties. A party did not pay a deposit to contest expenses is now required. It opens the door for business magnates to peddle campaigns donations in exchange for influence. A check on expenses incurred by a candidate is desirable for the reasons stated earlier unless we accept that the freedom to spend to spend as much as to spend as a party or its candidate wants is a fundamental right. What is more, financial assistance from the state by way of grants can be claimed by parties depending on their performance at the previous election.

Even for official party candidates the nomination process on the date fixed was taken from their bands and given to the party secretary, and on election day is was not they who selected polling agents and counting agents. It is the party secretary who deposits copy of the party constitution and the list of office bearers with the Commissioner and notifies him of any changes. It could else no longer be said that the Commissioner was not interested in what candidates did after election. A party constitution will always provide for a member ceasing to be a member or being expelled from the party. When previously a change of party affiliation or expulsion did not affect the member’s right to remain in Parliament, now the constitution declare that he loses his seat. The grip of the party which began with a candidate’s efforts to get his name into the nomination paper of the party has been tightened by requiring continued loyalty to the party those who control the party at all times.

It has been left to the Supreme court to strike a proper balance between the party’s rights and when an expulsion comes for judicial review. Whatever faults there were in the present system it is by the exercise of the franchise that a member is elected to Parliament. It is therefore as much a safeguard of the people’s right and of the individual member’s right that should not be made to lose his seat by the capricious act of the party. In an early case where a member was expelled from the party because he violated a party directive to vote on a Bill in a particular way, the Supreme Court said" thanks to the evolution of the party system, democracy has assigned the individual member to role of a leg in the party wheel and it is the party that has become spokesman of the country’s interests. The party system has scarcely an opportunity of finding independent expression". This discouraging conclusion has not without its dissentients on the Bench, one of whom remarked that the MP is "not a lifeless cog liable to be subject to unlawful or capricious orders or directions without remedy’’. With the constitution merely giving the Supreme court power to decide whether the expulsion is value or not, the Court is wary of going beyond looking at procedural fairness in the decision according to the party’s constitution and going into the merits of the decision to expel. In the several cases that have come before the court one discerns an approach against unduly featuring the rights of a party members quay MP. But this does not complete the party take-over of choosing those who shall govern. In the invalid this will not restore his rights as MP to the fullest extent as long as the party hierarchy does not have confidence in him and denies him the whip.

I read somewhere that Rs. 6600 million of public funds goes to holding a general election. When you add to this the amount spent by parties and by candidates, unlimited and undisclosed new, the total cost of an election can be enormous. And the result is to produce lifeless cogs with some oxygen given by the Supreme Court. And this is not all perks and when he leaves Parliament, a MP receive allowances and considerable perks and when he leave Parliament, a person .Can we consider this hoe can we describe his relationship to the people whose sovereignty is inalienable?

My lack of enthusiasm for what the constitution and the election law ordains might be criticised for over-dramatising the negative features if the dominance of political parties in government in Sri Lanka and that I have not taken into account the contribution of political parties. This has to be corrected. Political parties have succeeded through their organizations at local authority level, electorate level, district and provincial levels, and national level in bringing issues facing the country to the attention of the people and enlisting their support for particular programme. These are significant developments in democratic governance and a continuation of like process begun before independence by the left-wing parties in particular.

What find distressing is that today the entire governmental apparatus appears to have been handed ever to political parties and there is a distancing of the people from these who exercise governmental power. It is the party that has the last word in selection of representatives of the people and it is the party that comes first in allegiance. The amorphous entity, the party, that has such powers to command may not always act in a transparent fashion and is not accountable to the people. It is a lacuna which the media and organs and civil society try to fill. It is not the best solution because all this means is that party has a few persons to please for the elector the important time is the period immediately before nomination and the polls date. No longer can be with other electors nominate a person whom they consider to be a suitable candidate to stand for election. At most, if he is a party supporter he can influence the inclusion of a candidate in the party list. The average elector may not know any of these persons, and since new candidates and even members of their family are prohibited from visiting the unknown candidate. Intrinsically there is nothing wrong in a candidate canvassing for votes - it keeps him/her touch with the propel even to answer their questions. Public meetings do not serve this purpose because a political meeting is listening to endless bombastic speeches. An elector cannot from an opinion on a candidate from these large events. The elector also faces another difficulty. He may fancy three candidates from different party rests as often happens, but he cannot vote for all of them.

The views that I have expressed are personal to me, based on my recollections of parties and governments from the time of the State Council. Politicians do not find the time to look back too often and someone has to do this for them and hope that it will be some little use. We have passed from the stage of putting a vote into a coloured box to marking a cross against a symbol and a number. Meeting the people was considered important to candidate because they wanted to appear as their representative but this has gone. The sudden ban on candidates canvassing for votes had a rationale when the election law and elector only a vote for a party, but when that was changed no one thought if this prohibition should remain. So we have a situation when we are denied the opportunity of meeting those who seek our vote. The election law sets the stage only for political parties and their leaders. There is the new medium, the TV that people turn to in an attempt to know more of the contestants but it is not the same thing.

We heed to re-think our system of democratic governance giving political parties a proper place but without glorifying them.


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