Changing nature of the party system in Sri Lanka


BY Prof. Wiswa Warnapala

Continued from yesterday

Minor party traffic has now become much more significant and their movement in and out of the existing system is by far the most important component of the system. Compared to what exactly happened in the past, there is the likelihood of individual voters changing their voting choices between elections; even their established party loyalties are changed overnight and it is this kind of political opportunism for some quick political benefits has completely transformed the very basis of political party loyalty and it is the new kind of clientelism which has enhanced it at the electoral level. In between elections, leading office bearers of a political party change their loyalties with a view toobtaining political benefits in the form of a position or Ministerial office.

There are numerous examples to prove this assertion and this kind of malaise has made the political party system in the country too fluid and organisationally weak,and no party activist of today could be relied upon. Party competition, which of course,was very healthy development has been transformed to such an extent that political parties,in the process, have become loose organisations with no constituency party to make a major impact.

In Britain, the form since 1950 was to establish a clearer relationship between voters and the Member of Parliament,making the Members more accountable to their constituents and this led to changes in the way MPs go about their duties. As a result of this development his work for the constituency and for his individual constituents has grown in volume,variety and complexity, a trend accelerated by the growth in the influence of government in modern society. Similar role has been accorded to the Member of Parliament in Sri Lanka under the single member constituency system and all conscientious Members of Parliament became busier on behalf of their constituents and a unique kind of constituency politics developed in the countryand the MP’s primary duty was to serve his constituents. Whatever other activities he may undertake in Parliament or in government,he is much more likely to be taken to task if he neglects his first duty to his constituents. Unfortunately, the nature and extent of that duty,however, are often misunderstood in Sri Lanka because the culture of the country is still guided by certain traditional considerations.

Tough competition

In between elections,there is a marked tendency in the levels of electoral participation because of the apathy of political parties to engage in tough party competition. There is a regular decline in the proportion of voters votingthe same political party at different elections. It means that there is individual changes in voting behaviour,and one could also say that there is a change in their preferences. This has been a marked feature after the introduction of the PR scheme of representation.

Under the simple majority or plurality,there was an identifiable MP representing the respective parliamentary constituency, and it was he who, through his party constituency organisation tied to him, mobilised the voters.

This naturally increased the voter participation. The decline in voter participation is now seen at all elections as most elections do not generate stiff political party competition. One can say that the party system has declined,though there is a multiplicity of political parties and the present decay and decline of the party system is integrally associated with the decline in the nature of the party competition.

The activities of political parties are part of the theory of political domination as illustrated by Max Weber who saw the development of political parties as the third dimension of social development. According to Weber, political parties are oriented to the acquisition of power and to the influence of the actions of others for political purposes and for acquiring the right to rule over others in a system of political domination. Weber further believed that modern political parties alter the class structure of society by absorbing element of the class struggle within the party system by their tendency to represent all groups and classes in society.

Therefore the Weberian definition has been expanded by theorists as Michels, Duverger, Ostrogorski Mackenzie and Giovanni Sartori and their position was that political parties were primarily oriented to the acquisition of political power through electoral legitimacy. Max Weber’s contention that the modern political party in the modern State would alter the class structure of society by absorbing the class differences within the political party system was partly true of the political parties in the third world countries. Political parties of Sri Lanka, as Calvin Woodward argued, played a similar role since the displacement of political notables of the Donoughmore period.

Woodward wrote that the heyday of the political notable in Sri Lanka dates from the introduction of universal adult suffrage and the institution of the State Council in 1931, to the granting of independence in 1947. During this period, political notables were completely self-sufficient political units. Their personal influence and local reputation served to secure their election as people voted for men whom they knew and trusted. The arrival of political parties led to the displacement of the notables and people from different social classes came to the forefront.

Rational behaviour

The rational behaviour of the Sri Lankan political parties in the first three decades after independence was due to the emergence of a network of party constituency organisations which played a significant role in the decision making of the party and in the selection of candidates for election. Election material came to be distributed and the, whole system of electioneering underwent a change; party programmes came to be placed before the electorate and it was the Marxist parties which took the lead.

With the appearance of organised political parties, the process of election came to be transformed. Parliamentary Reform of 1867 in Britain gave an impetus to the rise of the two party system and the party system developed as a major requirement of parliamentary government. With the establishment of a system of parliamentary government and with the arrival of the simple majority plurality system, parties began to develop as national as well as constituency level political parties.

It was during this period that the constituency organisations played a prominent role and the elected MP was made accountable to the constituency from which he had been elected and the boundaries of his accountability came to extended and enlarged.

Decline in effectiveness

The constituency organisations of the parties have declined in their effectiveness with the introduction of the PR system of representation under which the candidate who has the ability to collect ‘’manapes’’ or the preferential votes to dominate the politics of the electorate. All the evils of a PR system of representation are found on the Sri Lankan system of proportional representation.One significant deficiency,which has been recognised as a major flaw of the system,was that the voter could not maintain a personal contact with the candidate and it, above all,placed enormous power in the hands of the party leadership. All experts differ about its accuracy and effectiveness. Sri Lankan experience shows that it has produced an inaccurate system of representation. Kenneth Wheare, in fact, argued that it should not be adopted in Britain. Harold Laski,giving a multitude of reasons against the adoption of this system of representation, wrote that ‘’the evils it is sought by this method to cure lie far deeper than any electoral machinery can remedy. All evils of the PR system of representation in Sri Lanka have been ignored by the politicians who, during elections, have converted them into instruments of political advantage. Since the introduction of this system of representation, the number of political parties have been increased and a virtual multi-party system has been created. Yet the stability of the political system is largely due to the existing two major parties which still dominate the electoral politics of the country.

The country, as expected by all political scientist who study the consequences of a PR systems,experienced difficulties in forming stable governments and the system produced frequently a situation where no party could obtain a clear working majority except the unique situation in April, 2010 where a party was able to obtain a two third majority. Yet another argument is that theoretically, the coalitions are inferior forms of government where the people are not overwhelmingly in favour of a single party.

Selection of candidates

In the past, the selection of candidates was done on the basis of a number of consideration. In the early phase of party government in the country it was the leader of the party,making use of his own connections and associations,who chose the candidates on the basis of a search conducted by the leader himself. For instance, the late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike personally searched for suitable candidates while Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike appointed special search committees for the purpose.

In Sri Lanka,the experience shows that no party follows any one procedure in the selection of candidates for elections at all levels. A study undertaken in respect of South Asia demonstrated that despite differences in procedures, parties in South Asia have some common features when it comes to candidate selection. Candidates are usually selected by consensus among the top leadership.

In most parties, the party chiefs have the final say, but they take decisions only after consultations with other party leaders at the relevant level. Today party alignments are unimportant and substantial de-alignment takes place during elections,and this could be attributed to the absence of strong constituency organisations with strong party loyalties and well demarcated party lines.

Therefore the organiser of the electorate - the candidate in waiting - or the MP of a given electoral division is the one who selects the candidates for the provincial or Pradeshiya Sabha elections. His nominees or recommendations are readily endorsed by the party leadershipand this,in effect, meant that all decisions are taken in consultation with the MP or the Organiser of the electorate.

Under the existing PR system of representation, the administrative district is the electorate and the parties, for purely party political advantages, organisers have been appointed to each of the Polling divisions which,in fact, are coterminous with the old single member constituency.

It is this type of candidate selection which has now produced a "PIYA-PUTHU" syndrome, according to which the kith and kin of the MP are promoted as candidates. This is a fundamental aspect of the party system in South Asia where the power of the party has been concentrated in the hands of one individual leader.

Most political parties of the South Asian region are leader-centred and the charismatic qualities of leadership play an important role. Though the constituency organisations and the BalaMandalaya are consulted,it is the word of the leader which prevails. In the same way,it is the decision of the MP or the organiser which prevails at the electorate level.

To be continued tomorrow

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