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Needed: A strong Opposition

The hurly-burly's done at Sirikotha and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has scored a Pyrrhic victory in a party mutiny. He looks the worse for wear and is nursing his wounds. Posters have appeared all over Colombo with the mug of a smiling Ranil giving the impression that everything is hunky dory. But, there is a cloud on the horizon. All the signs are that he will have to face another bout sooner or later. Even the man who was credited with helping scuttle the mutiny on Monday––MP Sajith Premadasa––has said much more needs to be done by way of party reforms. It is being read as an indication that the reformists have not yet given up; they are awaiting an opportunity to stage a comeback.

It is natural that when a party finds itself in the Opposition far too long with no prospects of forming a government in the foreseeable future, everybody begins to think he or she can be the leader and factionalism tears the party apart. In such a situation, the legitimate leader tends to put his foot down and his opponents grow aggressive. The latter's frustration gets the better of reason and their wrath is directed towards the leader. Instead of adopting a holistic approach to the party's ills, which alone can revitalise it, out of desperation they go all out to smoke out the leader in the hope that his or her ouster would serve as a panacea.

Finding a solution to the UNP's problem is best left to the stalwarts of that party. However, it is not only the UNP that has been affected by its failure to put its internal strife behind it. The debilitation of the main opposition party has left the government without democratic fetters. Power without control, as is our experience, is nothing but disaster. It is a strong Opposition that counterbalances the dictatorial tendencies of an executive president placed above the law of the land.

The executive presidency is a crucible where leaders are turned into dictators. The crushing defeat the SLFP suffered at the 1977 general election and its enervation enabled President J. R. Jayewardene to reign supreme with a steamroller majority smashing as he did his way through all democratic institutions including the judiciary. He, in fact, began his rule by throwing Supreme Court judges out of jobs and reducing them to paupers. Parliament was turned into a mere appendage of the Executive and MPs were coerced into submitting undated resignation letters. He went out of his way to unsettle the Opposition. The suppression of the democratic Opposition paved the way for the emergence of extra parliamentary forces which plunged the southern parts of the country into a bloodbath in the late 1980s.

President Ranasinghe Premadasa adopted the same strategy. He, too, made it a point to devitalise and cripple the SLFP-led Opposition to clear his path to a dictatorship. He succeeded in his endeavour to a considerable extent thanks to the SLFP's internal war with the members of the Bandaranaike family at daggers drawn and putting the knife in every so often.

Opposition to President Premadasa came from within. But for a breakaway of several prominent UNP ministers and the subsequent assassinations of President Premadasa and DUNF leader Lalith Athulathmudali, the SLFP would never have revived even under a different leader in the person of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

How President Kumaratunga suppressed the Opposition is only too well known to merit elaboration. Suffice it to mention how she won the 1999 North-western PC polls, which became the worst ever election held in this country. SLFP goons unleashed hell and looted votes with the police looking the other way.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a demolition expert. He seems to be specialising in breaking up the Opposition parties. He has eviscerated the UNP by triggering a spate of defections. A wag says there are more UNP MPs in the government than in the UNP! He boasts that he can lure some more UNP MPs into the government.

The JVP is in tatters. If its performance at the recent elections is any indication, it is going to end up in the political wilderness after the next parliamentary polls. President Rajapaksa has not spared even the TMVP. The former LTTE commander turned founder TMVP leader Karuna Amman has ended up in the SLFP together with thousands of his loyalists. The other coalition partners of the UPFA like the JHU are lucky as they are too tiny to be split. Or, the President is not worried about them, as they are only a pack of slipper-licking kukkas (puppies) not capable of posing any threat to him.

The executive presidency is without any effective countervailing force at present. This is a worrisome proposition.

Smiling presidents become smiling assassins either in their second term or when their political survival is threatened. That is why they must always be put in the straitjacket of democratic opposition. It is being argued in some quarters that the President's wings could be clipped by appointing the Constitutional Council. But, that is no effective counter as it too consists of people with partisan interests, as could be seen from the way they are appointed. A formidable opposition strong enough to keep the executive president reminded of his or her constitutional limits, which are otherwise taken for granted, is the need of the hour.

The Jumbos by fighting among themselves, oblivious to the consequences of the debilitation of the main Opposition party, are doing a disservice not only to themselves but also the country's democracy.

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