Changing nature of the party system in Sri Lanka


BY Prof. Wiswa Warnapala

Continued from yesterday

The processes of both re-alignment and de-alignment takes place at this level as the ordinary elector seeks to obtain usual political benefits and gains. The so-called ‘Piya-Puthu’ syndrome is certain to accrue political advantages in the short run but in the long term it is certain to have a major impact on the process of party building at the local level. This concept of party building has been developed in the context of the Congress Party of India by both Myron Weiner and Stanley Kochanek. The familial dynastic project has been allowed to creep into local level politics by this "Piya-Puthu" syndrome in the parties,which,at one stage,was openly condemned as a political fact of dysfunctional political consequences.

At one stage, the UNP was bandied as a party of close relatives and the same badge is being promoted by a discreet method of familial rule at the local level. This, in terms of the thesis of Weiner, is going to have devastating effect on the ways and means of building the. Party at the local level as the organisational base of the party which, in the eyes of the local party activist, was a sure route to political office-holding at the level of the political-office holding hierarchy. In such apolitical context,party loyalties and party alignments naturally change and the support base of the party becomes vulnerable to changes in party alignments.

Such a form of candidate selection, based on the relatives and siblings of the sitting Member of Parliament, penalise the voter and the constituency organisation to such an extent that the choice of the elector is restricted to those siblings in the list of candidates. The election campaign is totally attuned to the needs of those candidates and the activation of the political base of the party gets diluted.

Yet another thing is that at the electoral level, issues and policies,including the grievances of the people in the locality disappear as personalities begin to dominate the election. In such a context, no one can exploit the policy market.

Threat to popular foundations

The ‘Piya-Puthu’ syndrome,which has now become the official nomination policy of certain political parties in this country, would threaten the popular political foundations of these parties as the parties are primarily democratic political organisations led by popularly elected party representatives. Herman Finer, for instance, wrote in 1932 that the legislators believed that greater maturity was desirable in the persons who actively govern, than in those who merely choose representatives.

The view was that if people are to be truly represented they must be able to judge of alternative policies and the respective capacity of candidates. Finer made another important remark which,in my view,is adequately relevant to the Sri Lankan situation. He stated that centralisation has triumphed, though this does not mean that local liberty has ceased to exist. In all party systems,the central organisation watch over the quality of the local candidate and the party central office has acquired a good deal of power in the matter of the selection of candidates. The selection of candidates on the basis of the "Piya-Puthu", syndrome has been converted into a prerogative right of a few families whose familial interests make the political party into an appendage of a few local families with influence. This was partly an aspect of the Donoughmore tradition as succinctly explained by Woodward. This kind of development is an anti-thesis of the popular concept of the modern political party which is primarily a social action instrument. The major consequence of this development is that the social profiles of voters to produce very blurred results,from which one cannot truly assess the real base of the party. In other words, the question can be rightly posed whether the party’s success at the election is representative of the support level of the party in the given electorate. Even this slightly fuzzy picture tell us more about the fluid, opportunistic social groups and supporters of individuals than the generation of new ideas about the existence of a solid base for the party. A political, party has to build a solid base around ideas and organisations which, in the long term,is sustainable.

By adopting the techniques described above, the political party is not riding on the waves of social cleavage in the electorate,and such cleavages are conveniently side lined and personality preferences are articulated. The adoption of opportunistic strategies cannot mobilise support of the people in large numbers. In the Sri Lankan electoral history,such social and economic cleavages were exploited to the fullest at,the 1956 general election, and it was this election,in the form of a milestone in Sri Lankan electoral history,which taught the way in which social and economic issues could be articulated to bring about a dramatic electoral change.


Political parties should not encourage the de-alignment of its main forces for the political advantage of few individuals as it would assist in the rapid erosion of the party’s traditional political base, which, in fact,is the mainstay of the party. All these factors have contributed to the long term decay of the party system in Sri Lanka.Parties must learn to remain loyal to its traditional base of support which consists of a network of party activists and its established network of supporters. In other words, the argument is that a political party,with a comparatively strong base, should not remain loyal to fellow-travellers who could not be trusted at a crucial time of a crisis. All supporters of a political party do not obtain a profound insight into the body politic.

The class structure has been the basis of the British party system,and the party system has changed with the changes in the class structure. In Sri Lanka, the political parties developed largely as institutions necessary for the working of the parliamentary system of government.Jennings stated that a large group leaders of the State Council realised that ‘Cabinet government required a party organisation’. Therefore one has to look for a logical explanation for the present decay of the party system in Sri Lanka. Was it due to the naked opportunism of the present day political activist? From a sociological point of view one can argue that the nature of the political conflict among political parties has been diluted. As Bernard Crick had stated,politics is always so intimately aligned with tradition. Tradition, though necessary a condition for politics,is very far from being a sufficient condition. In Sri Lanka politics is intimately connected with the country’s electoral tradition which, since 1931, evolved into a profoundly dynamic one, and this electoral experience based on adult suffrage enriched politics in Sri Lanka.

As politics, electoral activity of the country, since 1931, assumed the character of a predominant social activity, through which people were passionately galvanised into competitive political action. It was the nascent political party system which accelerated the enthusiastic development of this process in the form of a highly volatile democratic activity. In politics,there should be a dominant tradition and in the case of Sri Lanka it was the electoral tradition which became the dominant political tradition,credit for which must essentially go to both political parties and their foundations of popular support.

Electoral dynamism

It is this powerful base, through which a unique kind of electoral dynamism was created, is now under attack by promoting oligarchical tendencies within the parties at the national and local level. According to Robert Michele theory of the Iron Law of Oligarchy, all political parties, in the service of democracy, are oligarchical,and real power in them belonged to leaders, which particular trend is now very prominent among the established Sri Lankan political parties. The ordinary member of the party had nothing to do but to obey and applaud. Political ,recruitment ‘through political parties has been transformed and the limited opportunities for office holding have now been given to the kith and kin of the leaders, including those elected as district and provincial leaders. The elector is a hapless spectator of this process and the voter has no other alternative except to toe the line. This kind of political recruitment affects the popular foundations of the party. It cannot produce a lasting re-alignment of political forces, and the type of support derived is only a temporary phenomenon in a highly dynamic electorate.In other words, such a political base is very fragile, and it cannot sustain support for a long period of time. Today the voters, due entirely to the nature of the PR system of representation,are widely dispersed geographically,with a few peak areas commanding a relatively large proportions of solid support. The very electoral system has been diluted and the voters, as in the past, are not ideologically divided on traditional left-right issues or generally on social issues affecting a large proportion of the voters. No electorate in the country can say that it represents a particular social class as the social profile of the electorate had undergone a fundamental change. This profound transformation is due to a variety of factors.Party alignments and party loyalties change often before and after elections and the elected representatives change parties overnight to gain political benefits in the form of Ministerial office.

Such developments have contributed to the erosion of confidence in the political parties, and it,above all,has contributed to the erosion of the relative strength of political parties, and this can be judged only at a major election. The ‘popular attachment to political parties could not be viewed from the point, of view of policy; the underlying class loyalties of parties have disappeared and the re-alignment of support between the major parties and the regional parties is on both regional and parochial issues. This has been largely due to the constantly changing policy preferences of parties.

Traditional socialist policies have disappeared from the electoral landscape,despite the efforts of the JVP to re-articulate them, and this was due to the comparable decline of the traditional Left in the country because they make no much of an electoral impact as in the past. The whole problem is the failure on the part of the parties to generate a discussion on major policy issues. Today the voter does not look at the party in policy terms. This is a major inadequacy in the present day political parties of the country; they only specialise on traditional revivalist, ideas. In this context,the parties have declined as major secular institutions and their main concern is with casual relationships with groups and individuals. In any country, electoral behaviour operates in a social context, which influences the behaviour of voters, and this behaviour, to a large extent,depends on policy preferences. If the policies are not found in the electoral market place, what can the voters do?

The youth

Such a development is not in the interest of the Sri Lankan electoral system which had been dynamic. It is here that the question of electoral reforms assume importance. Young people are less firmly committed to the main parties than the earlier generations of the same age group, because social issues of the day do not dominate their discussion. The electorate is no more instrumental and responsive to the burning issues of the day as the marginal issues have been allowed to dominate the discussion. Today the demagogue has, taken over the electorate from the astute politician and State patronage makes them great heroes in the Sri Lankan polity.

Under the single constituency system which the country experienced for more than fifty years, the legislature had a comparatively effective opposition whereas under the multi-party system that came into existence as a result of the PR system the Opposition had failed to play an effective role. Laski once remarked that if the government in office has a big majority,the opposition is thereby condemned to several years of futile sterility’.Harold Laski made yet another perceptive statement in respect of governments consisting of coalitions of parties. He stated that ‘ if the government is a coalition of parties, the necessity of sinking of differences in order to attain the appearance of unity breeds a dishonesty of temper,an accommodation in principle,which saps the moral character of the parliamentary system. It is this which has happened to the system in Sri Lanka.

Multi-party character

It was the multi-party character of the Sri Lankan party system that has successfully sapped the intrinsic strength of the parliamentary system and it was this, as explained above, which has transformed the national electorate of the country. Politics and parliamentary politics have been misunderstood by the people as well as the leaders produced by the system since the introduction of the PR system of representation. Issac D’ Israeli once wrote that ‘Politics, ill understood, have been defined as the art of governing mankind by deceiving them’.

Yet another statement of Harold Laski which is relevant to the current political situation in Sri Lanka needs to be quoted; Laski stated that ‘Governments that are wise can always learn from the criticism of their opponents than they can hope to discover in the eulogies of their friends. When they stifle that criticisms, they prepare the way for their own destruction’.

It is true that the present state of the Sri Lankan national electorate is so unsatisfactory for good governance in the country. There is some truth in what Rousseau said in respect of the electorate; it was his view that the electorate is free only at elections.But this again is subject to question in the Sri Lankan context. It is universally accepted that the legislatures of the modern State are in an unsatisfactory condition because of the numerous deficiencies in the national electorate. This,in general terms, is an indictment on every electoral system. Herman Finer once declared that ‘descriptions of representative government are very general,and reveal few or none of the difficulties inherent nature, nor,consequently,the wide gulf which actually separates people when the term ‘representative’ is to be put into practice’ Does it mean that the national electorate is at fault ?


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