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Sunday, 12 April 2015

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Competitive politics vs 'National Government'

Competition between political parties is the hallmark of capitalist democracy. Sometimes there are moments of history when spontaneous political movements have emerged that have transcended the normal protocols and practices of the prevailing political system in response to perceived severe threats to the very system itself. Such a new tendency emerged in Sri Lanka last year.

It began with the growth of the National Movement for Social Justice founded by the Ven. Maduluvave Sobhitha and ended with the broad coalition of political parties and social movements that led the nation to a historic triumph over a complex of forces that had dragged the country into a morass of authoritarian misrule, nepotism, distorted economy and polity and, hugely debilitating corruption.

Sri Lanka's much-battered polity has withstood successive constitutional changes, ethnic pogroms, protracted insurgencies, bouts of authoritarianism and, most recently, the diseases of nepotism, crony capitalism and massive scale corruption.

It was this last complex of 'diseases' that pushed Sri Lankans of almost the entire range of ideologies, ethnic interests and class interests to come together behind the 'Common Candidate' to overthrow these malignant forces.

If Maithripala Sirisena gave up governmental power and privilege to risk his life in a contest with perhaps the most brutish government we have had yet, Ranil Wickremesinghe and his party nobly subsumed long-suppressed desires for power in order to collaborate in a nationally collective endeavour to save society and State. The national 'rescue' endeavour is yet under way. According to the transformative program to which the Sirisena and Wickremesinghe-led coalition has committed itself, the new government and president must take the country through multiple processes of political and economic recovery and the re-building of an efficient public administration. The rescue endeavour necessitates drastic constitutional reform and electoral changes.

Unlike the wayward governance of the plunder-drunk previous regime, the current coalition, has carefully crafted not only a '100-day Program' for immediate administrative 'fixes', but also a configuration of stable government in the form of a two-year 'national government' for the bigger systemic repairs that need to be accomplished in the long term.

This style of pragmatic and intelligent governance is in stark contrast to the previous era of a veneer of pretentious ethnic 'heroism' that overlaid the frantic and crude (and un-patriotic) plundering of national resources.

The 100-day program period is almost over. The score card of achievements is not necessarily complete but, the nation does have a sense of intensely planned activity yet under way, though un-finished. The country is yet waking up to the sheer scale of the damage suffered in the recent decade and, the hugely difficult task of investigating and redressing the wrongs.

The promise of a 'national government' in the aftermath of a parliamentary election, then, is a vital assurance to the nation that this difficult and un-finished task will continue to be tackled in a systematic manner.

The transcending of divisive politics that occurred with the rainbow coalition brought about by Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe with facilitation of Chandrika Kumaratunga, can only bear fruit with the birth of a genuinely electorally supported national coalition via a parliamentary election - that is, a continued transcendence of divisive politics.

A 'national government' implies that most, if not all, of the nation's main political forces that represent the broadest mainstream of social and political interests, have come together for a joint effort to achieve common goals that are of prime importance to the nation as a whole.

Thus, it is not simply a spontaneous transcending of divisive politics, but a conscious side-stepping of the norms of competitive party politics which generally frame various 'divisions' in terms of ideological difference and inter-group rivalry.

It is crucial that such an approach remains as the guiding principle for the parliamentary hustings to which the country now looks forward. In times of normal competitive politics, each party is locked in rivalry and the weakening or, perhaps, even the disintegration of one's political foes is a logical part of the electoral battle.

Not so in the case of a national crisis when the national leaders themselves have already set the example of enlightened collaboration and unified government. It is this same national leadership that now sets out to conduct and contest parliamentary elections.

As already mandated in its presidential electoral victory, the new regime is committed to the conduct of parliamentary elections in a manner that will sustain that same commitment to a high level of collaborative governance - i.e. for the election and formation of a 'national government' for the next two years.

The overall dynamics in the run up to the intended general elections, as well as in the period of the election campaign itself, must ensure that all the parties exercise some restraint in their political practice so that there is no simplistic resort to traditional competitive politics.

A 'national government' after all, is about a continued collaboration and joint government between all major parties irrespective of whether any single party wins an outright majority in Parliament. Thus, the inter-party dynamics prior to the general elections, has no room for any 'absolute defeat' of rivals. The post electoral 'national government' cannot be 'national' unless the main political forces remain intact and are able to viably function as party-led forces that willingly collaborate with each other in government. A 'national government' cannot be one that is top heavy with the strength of any single party.

Then it is not 'national' and will not have that same credibility - a credibility that gives a vital legitimacy to all the various major changes that the country needs and to which these parties are publicly committed. This lesson we have already learnt in the success of the collaboration that we see in government right now.

The on-going politics of today, then, must take care to ensure that all current partners in power remain as viable political formations. If any single party is riven by the residue of the corruption, favouritism and nepotism of the past, that party, then, must be supported in its effort to cleanse itself of the malignancy.

Voters who have been recently preached to on 'good governance' and collaborative and non-divisive governmental politics, will not be happy to see those same preachers now engineering the disintegration of key coalition partners - indeed those same parties who are held up as 'equal partners' in government.

The spirit of unity celebrated in the 'Common Candidacy', is echoed richly in our daily lives this week as we celebrate another great Sri Lankan 'unfier' - the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Let this spirit of co-existence be lived in our political practice in the new year and the forthcoming general elections.

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