Did people vote for ‘National Unity Government’? - I

By Fr. Vimal Tirimanna, CSsR

Recently, my attention was drawn to the thought-provoking weekly column of Jehan Perera published in The Island on 8th December 2015 entitled "Strengthening UNP-SLFP unity is of paramount national importance"(p.8). I fully agree with his main point of the article as is indicative in the title of that article itself, namely, the crucial importance of the unity of the two main political parties of our country, the UNP and the SLFP.This is vitally important in promoting the common good of our country. Anyone who conscientiously scrutinizes our post-Independent political history would come to the inevitable conclusion that most of the woes of our nation are mainly due to the lack of such a basic understanding between the two main political parties with regard to the issues of national interest. Of course, this surely should not amount to concluding that in the process of being united on matters of national interest for the common good, these two traditionally rival parties of our country should also lose their basic political identities or allow themselves to be merged into one political party. As the well-known Medieval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas used to insist some eight centuries ago, virtue of any human activity lies in the middle, and never in the extremes. That applies also to any discussion on the unity of the two main political parties of our country. On the one hand, the two main political parties can cling on selfishly to their basic identities and oppose the other in anything and everything even when it is to do with the common good, simply to gain political mileage as it has been happening in our political history thus far. This is one extreme. As Dr.Perera himself cites, the historical illustrations of each of our main parties opposing the other with regard to all proposed solutions to do with the ethnic issue in our country right from the 1950’s is a case in point in this regard. On the other hand, these two main parties can also agree on anything and everything as long as they are secure with regard to being in office and wielding power. This is the other extreme. Contrary to what Dr.Perera holds in his articles, the writer of the present article is of the firm belief that this is precisely what is happening right now in our ever-changing bizarre political scene. That is to say that the two main parties (at least those who happen to be the present leaders of those two parties) are now slowly but surely drifting towards this dangerous extreme since the two elections held this year. Their very political survival in office seems to heavily depend on this sort of a stand that would keep their arch-political rival the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) out of office.As already mentioned above, the sane virtue lies in the middle even with regard to our two main parties, (namely, not to oppose anything and everything that is proposed and implemented by one party for the common good of the country, by the other party for the mere sake of opposing and bringing the other party down politically). At the same time, the two main parties also have to have their respective identities based on their respective different political ideologies and principles for which the respective parties exist and for which the voters vote them into office.

The Importance of a Strong, Healthy Opposition

Of course, in Sri Lanka, the two main parties have been either in the centre-right of our political spectrum (the UNP) or in the centre-left (the SLFP), and this is to be perceived as a positive point of our democratic system which has succeeded in avoiding politically extreme governments. As in many healthy contemporary democracies in the world (such as in the USA, Britain, France, India,….etc.) we need a sane two-party system not for the sake of opposing each other always and everywhere, but for the sake of keeping each other in check. For example, it is vitally important to have a vibrant Opposition. Our own post-Independent political history tells us convincingly that whenever any ruling party had a huge, overwhelming majority in parliament, that government had tended to be dictatorial. The ULF government between 1970 and 1975, the UNP governments between 1977 and 1991, and the recent UPFA government between 2005 and 2015 are clear examples of this. Unfortunately, the way things are moving today on the political stage (since 8th January 2015) clearly sound alarm bells in this very regard.

Is the "Keeping MR out" the Yardstick of Measuring our Democracy today?

Since the August 2015 general elections, the way the two main political parties seem to be almost merging into each other in the so-called "National Unity government" is unprecedented. The passing of the second and third readings of the recent budget by a two-thirds majority is a good example of this.While the budget mustered a two-thirds majority in parliament, outside parliament it has received unprecedented opposition, criticism and protests, indicating that there is a wide gap between how the elected MP’s look at the budget and how their very electors see it. The amendments that have been proposed and their acceptance even after the passage of the second reading of the budget are clear evidence that even the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe(S-W) government is well aware of this widening gap between what the present MP’s think of the budget and how the ordinary citizen perceives it. That is to say that all is not well in reality with the so-called "National Unity government" even though it could harness two-thirds of the votes in parliament.

However, not only Jehan Perera but also the media (both local and international) are harping about the never-ending virtues of this so-called "National Unity government". They seem to take it for granted that those who have come together to form the present government are genuinely interested in the common good of our country. If this presumption of theirs comes true as time passes by, well and good for our nation! But in view of our recent political history, we also need to be discreetly weary.A good number of those in power today are also the very ones who were accomplices in the previous government of Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR), too, though today they have changed their colours and sides. The Sinhalese adage that just because the leopard changes his forest (habitat) he does not change his spots needs to be kept in mind when we scrutinize our politicians today.Moreover, as already mentioned above, every time the ruling party had a bulldozing majority in parliament in our country in recent decades, they have dared to be dictatorial. What had been lacking in each of those historical occasions is a basic tenet of democracy, namely, a healthy, vibrant Opposition. Strangely, all those who spoke of the need for a vibrant Opposition during the reign of MR not so long ago, seem to be observing a deafening silence today! The Friday Forum, the innumerable movements for democracy of various colours and ideologies, the NGO’s, and even writers like Jehan Perera himself, seem to be in deep slumber in this regard, today. Apparently, for most of them, as long as their common enemy, namely MR is kept out (whom they portray also as the ‘national enemy’!), everything is alright and Sri Lanka is already on her path towards a blooming democracy, thanks to the very upright, moral and righteous people who are in office today! This strange and apparently indispensable need to keep MR out of office at any cost seems to have become today the only yard stick for democracy in our country. This, unfortunately, is a dangerous relativizing of democracy, namely, the exclusive consideration of keeping away of MR at any cost, as the ideal form of democracy for our country! [One may also interpret it as MR’s apparently never-ending influence on Sri Lankan politics though he was convincingly defeated in two national elections within one year!]

One is reminded of the parallel example of the Allied Forces led by the USA who branded themselves as the "international community" and invaded Iraq unjustly in 2004, with the strong assistance of their own media cronies. The professed single goal of the Allies was to keep the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of office. To achieve that singular goal, with the help of the media, the West painted Saddam completely black; he was portrayed as the evil-personified or the Absolute Evil that needed to be got rid of at any cost. The unique role played by the West in creating Saddam as a buffer to the rising threat of the Ayatollahs in Iran and other political factors that came into play were conveniently ignored. When someone or some reality is perceived or made to perceive as absolute evil or a monster, then, automatically any means (moral or immoral) to get rid of that perceived absolute evil, becomes not only necessary but moral. That is how even the UN Charter was openly violated by the self-appointed Western guardians of democracy led by President George W. Bush. Moreover, in order to achieve that all-important end of removing the Absolute Evil (Saddam Hussein)various flimsy, unsubstantiated reasons were given as ‘just causes’. In the process, even a blatant violation of a sacred tenet of international law, namely the unjust invasion of Iraq, a sovereign member of the same UN, was perceived by the wider world as an absolute necessity and as absolutely moral. The shameless fraudulent effort at the UN General Assembly by the then US Secretary of State Collin Powell even to bring a spurious cap of a piece of an alleged nuclear weapon as evidence to demonstrate that Iraq was indeed making nuclear weapons, is a case in point. At the end of the invasion, neither such weapons nor the other alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were found, and even to this day they are not found! Only political instability and never-ending misery for the ordinary peace-loving Iraqi citizens were left behind by the US-led Ally forces. But their one and only target, namely, the removal of the Absolute Evil called Saddam Hussein was achieved. This is precisely what happens when either a person or a situation is made to appear absolutely evil.

A similar episode has been unfolding here in Sri Lanka ever since the last Presidential elections were called more than a year ago, namely, the portrayal of the absolute evilness of MR. In our case, the popular argument runs as follows: Since MR is the absolute evil, any means to get rid of him, and any means to make sure that he or his loyalists may never come back to power become not only legitimate/moral, but absolutely necessary. This is how the many glaring aberrations of democracy by the S-W governments since last January are not only tolerated but even portrayed as virtuous acts by a good number of our media agencies and groups of civil society, i.e., just by pointing out that the absolute evil of MR is to be kept away by any means, moral or immoral, democratic or non-democratic. The appointment of Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister immediately after an election that was meant to elect a President and not a Prime Minister, even when he had only 41 UNP MP’s then to support him in a Parliament of 225 members;the same appointment being made while there was an incumbent Prime Minister in the person of D. M. Jayaratne who had neither been officially removed from Office nor had resigned himself; …..etc. were justified as necessary simply to keep out MR. As if that were not enough,at the end of the general elections in August, the appointment of some 90 plus ministers in total contradiction to what was promised at both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections, the appointment of candidates (who were rejected by the voters) to Parliament through the National List and rewarding them with ministerial posts (simply because they were anti-MR),….etc. are all tolerated and defended, ironically in the name of democracy or the need to keep MR out! These are eloquent examples that substantiate the above thesis that the yardstick of contemporary Sri Lankan democracy is to be anti-MR!

Moreover, in the process,any body and/or any means that are opposed to MR has been perceived as absolutely good, and so, necessary and moral! That is how even the very cronies of the same MR who were hand in glove with him in his heyday are now gleefully exonerated and even honoured with various perks such as ministries by the S-W government,whenever they are willing to cross over to their side of the political divide. Again, we see that keeping MR out is the standard of democracy today in our country!

In no way does the present writer intend to justify MR and his atrocities during the latter part of his rule. The toleration of the gross violations of the rule of law by his cronies, the shameless extension of the term of office of the President to any number of times, the immoral (though legal) removal of Shirani Bandaranayake from the office of Chief Justice, the total disinterest to make a genuine effort to build national reconciliation even ignoring the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC, the luxurious lifestyle of the ruling elite under MR,….etc. can never be justified morally. However, whether the "keeping out" of MR at any cost should be the decisive measure of our democracy is another issue, and the aim of this article is precisely to highlight that issue.

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