What has happened to Political Parties?


Peradeniya Notes
By Sumanasiri Liyanage

While the deputy leader of the UNP is campaigning for a grand opposition including the United National Front (UNF) and the Democratic National Front headed by Gen. Sarath Fonseka, one of the constituent parties of the UNF, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) that contested under elephant symbol in the last Parliamentary election, has taken a step to move away gradually from the UNF towards the UPFA government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Hakeem came out openly expressing his party’s support for the government on the specific issue of constitutional reforms. Hakeem and his party campaigned at the last Presidential election and Parliamentary election for the abolition of the executive presidency and implementation of the 17th Amendment. Hakeem has not yet revealed what the next step of his party would be, though one can guess what it is. What are the constitutional reforms that Hakeem and his party are promising to support? Do they include clauses that are specifically referring to the rights of numerically small communities like Muslims? According to his statement to the press, these things are not on the agenda, at least in the first (may be the last) round of constitutional change. It appears that the first round of constitutional amendments include two main items, namely, (1) the amendment to the constitution to remove Article 31 (2) that states "no person who has been twice elected to the office of President by the people shall be qualified thereafter to be elected to such office by the people"; and (2) to repeal of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. Although Hakeem’s 180 degree turn from his previous position is not uncommon to a politician of that kind, one would naturally ask how the SLMC could compromise itself so easily. It seems there was no difference of opinion in the party and the decision was taken after a short discussion.

My objective here is not to discuss the pros and cons of the SLMC decision or how it could affect the proposed grand oppositional front, but to grapple with a fundamental question, namely, whether there has been a radical change in the Sri Lankan political party system? Has political parties in Sri Lanka transformed themselves into some kind of private companies run by small number of ‘party directors’ who are concerned only with their immediate interests? Sometime ago, I raised a similar issue with reference to UNP and its political programme. Here, I am referring not to the programme of the party, but to the structure, the mechanism and its decision making process.

The theory says that a party should take into account the interests of its constituency when it takes decisions. How would the decisions of the party affect its base? How would its constituency respond to the actions and decisions of the party? Hence there is a continuous interaction through multiple avenues between party hierarchy and the rank and file. Let me give an example. In 1964, when the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) decided to join the SLFP-led coalition, there was a long process of back and forth debate that, in fact, led to the division of the party as a substantial group thought that such a decision would be damaging to party’s main objectives. The process was quite different in main political parties like the UNP and the SLFP, but when the LSSP took decisions due consideration was given to the feelings of its rank and file. Now, political parties are concerned not about the interests of their constituencies but about the interests of small groups that run their day to day activities and finances. This may be tantamount to the process of bureaucratization that Max Weber talked about in a broader context. Party bureaucracy, oftentimes its central leader, takes decisions and at the election time the party, like business ventures, invests money in order to get votes. Of course, parties have to pay some attention to needs of the people. But, like in the market, it is not the needs that matter, but the power of advertising. How could it happen?

I think two main processes have promoted the bureaucratization of political parties. First and foremost is the process unleashed by the electoral system which was introduced by the Second Republican Constitution. The Proportional Representation (PR) system has weakened the voter-representative link substantially and the ‘tributionist’ character of the member of the Parliament has almost disappeared. Party bureaucracy at the election time gives a contract to a group of individuals with promised benefits to get the largest number of votes possible so that the party can form a government. The contractors invest money and resources of their own or their potential benefactors in order for them to get elected. This contract system as it evolved through the operation of the PR system has nothing to do with democracy. It is oligarchic. The second process that led to weakening of the representative system is linked to a broader process of commodification. Politics is now overdetermined by this process of commodification under which vote in general has become a commodity. Hence the voter has a price tag; so does the MP. Parties can no longer hold them and there is no way to stop crossovers when the correct price signal is sent by the rival party in the form of either money or position or both.

These changes have introduced new in-built rigidities into party structure. One may argue that those rigidities are, in fact, much stronger than the rigid structure of business organisations. CEO and the directorate of a business organisation have to perform in order to get reelected and therefore in that sense they are accountable. In the case of current party structure in Sri Lanka, in-built rigidities are so strong that even the poor performance of the party CEO does not provide a sufficient ground for her/ his removal.

The current problem with Sri Lankan democracy is systemic. In my opinion, two future developments are possible. If the country can achieve a high rate of economic growth with substantial increase in living standards in general, the people would become more and more apathetic vis-à-vis the political system. This is what happened in developed capitalistic countries like Singapore and South Korea with population showing general apathy towards politics. (I checked out randomly the Facebook and the majority says they are not at all interested in politics.) The second path would be an explosive one if the government fails to honour its promise of economic development and if the economic benefits are confined to a small section of population thus increasing both the vertical and horizontal inequalities.


The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya.

E-mail: sumane_l@yahoo.com

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