Many political observers, both local and foreign, have congratulated Sri Lanka for successfully developing a stable two party democracy like in England and USA. The bi polar contest of two major parties, UNP and SLFP, with smaller parties attaching themselves to one or the other, is considered as an ideal framework for a functioning democracy.
Dominant one party democracies tend to produce authoritarian temptations (Vladimir Putin Russia) and multi party democracies lead to instability (Israel). Two party democracies ostensibly deter both ends and find moderation and stability. Further, in the category of developing countries, only India and Sri Lanka had maintained an uninterrupted democratic track record without being susceptible to sporadic military takeovers. It was an outstanding achievement when both countries were not well equipped economically for successful parliamentary government but had worked the Westminster model satisfactorily.
Some observers further believe that both our major parties over the course of years have exhibited maturity by meeting the standard criteria of party institutionalization (adaptability, stability, complexity, durability). When confronted with a variety of challenges, may it be economic debacles, terrorism, uprisings, natural disasters, epidemics, dissent of major party personnels, these two parties have consistently exhibited their resilience and steadfastness in surmounting such challenges without conceding their bases to a third party. As one party falters over any given issue, the public opinion only alternates with the other party in the two party arena but not beyond. The public faith invested upon the two party system remained unchanged and, as a result, power continues to circulate within a two party frontier. Such features presumably reflect the stability of a two party system.
Since 1977, this stable two party system further evolved to be a dominant two party system, as hardly a third party polled over 5 percent in any major election. This growing monopoly of the two party system left little option for the rest of the parties rather than to gravitate around them and form coalitions.
Back in mid 2020, my young and insightful friend Maleesh Kamburugamuwe and I had a discussion about the trends in the evolutionary process of our political parties. During that discussion Maleesh raised an important point. He said, “In that case, how is the stable two party theory going to explain the recent splinter of Pohottuva from SLFP, followed by their overwhelming outperformance of the mother party, SLFP, in the 2018 local government election?” In the course of SLFP’s 70 year old party history, this was the first time SLFP was overpowered by a group of splinters and reduced to single digit percentage in an island wide election. Pohottuva defection didn’t give rise to a highly charged atmosphere of political turbulence. As for the most part, it went unnoticed because immediately after their convincing victory, Pohottuva took over the control of SLFP .
Within a matter of a few months came the second episode further challenging the dominant two party theory and further validating Maleesh’s remark. Splinter group, Samagi Jana Balavegaya from UNP. repeated aforementioned Pohottuva outcome in the 2020 general election. The UNP base failed to win a single seat. (I believe sooner or later Samagi Jana will take over the UNP base.) These back to back occurrences within a very short time span of two years had challenged the long held two party theory and begged a new explanation about the nature of our party system. I am thankful to Maleesh for bringing that up.
In retrospect, such defections intermittently had taken place in both parties, but the defectors never outshined the mother party until now. Always splinter groups performed poorly and, in most cases, eventually made peace with the mother party and returned or become a force to be un-reckon with. The highly charged episode that took place in the SLFP camp immediately after the assasination of SWRD Bandaranayake in 1959 had vividly demonstrated this point. On the eve of the March 1960 general election, several key leaders defected from the SLFP believing that the party had suffered a shipwreck and was in a crisis. At this point, SLFP was only a 9 year old infant. Each defector became a nationalist contender believing that in the absence of the commanding figure SWRD, the nationalist field became wide open and up for grabs. Forces that had coalesced behind the 1956 MEP victory split. Nationalists parties mushroomed.
Meanwhile, the left camp saw the instability in the nationalist camp as an opportunity and rushed to pick up scraps. Hence, in the March 1960 general election both nationalist and left contenders made their strongest bids. All such bids failed. Most splinter group candidates had to forfeit their deposits. Without their charismatic leader, the SLFP base prevailed with 46 seats when UNP had 50. Among the SLFP splinters, the most notable one was the exit of prime minister Wijayananda Dahanayake and formation of his own party Lanka Prajathantjravadi party (LPP). LPP contested 101 seats and won only 4. Dahanayake himself lost the seat. The March 1960 election was a compelling sign that SLFP even at that infant stage still could win elections in the absence of their key leaders. C. P. de Silva who led the SLFP at this critical interregnum period wasn’t a leader endowed with a national appeal. Sirima Bandaranayake was yet to appear in the political scene.
A somewhat parallel was seen in the 1965 Israel general election. The iconic figure of Israel politics and the first prime minister, Ben Gurion, left governing Mapai party and formed his own party believing his charisma would carry the election. In the 1965 general election, contrary to the expectation, the new Ben Gurion party polled only 7.9 percent when Mapai polled 42 percent and formed the government. Then there was a minor second split in the SLFP during the mid 1980s when SLFP was in a very weak state. Vijaya Kumaranatunga, Chandrika Bandaranayake, T. B. Illangaratne left SLFP and formed Mahajana party. Later they formed a united left front with four other left parties including eastern province based K. Pathmanabha’s EPRLF. In the 1988 presidential election, their candidate Ossie Abeygunesekara polled less than 5 percent and the majority of the votes Ossie received came from the east, thanks to the EPRLF. Coalition fell and Chandrika rejoined SLFP.
In the UNP, camp major defection took place in 1991 when Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Disanayake left UNP and formed their own party, but the act didn’t hurt the UNP base. Provincial council elections were held immediately after the split and the UNP base won the elections convincingly. Later the splinter party dissolved and Gamini Disanayake returned to the base and became UNP’s 1994 presidential nominee. Prior to the 1991 split, in the late 1980s amid the most intense phase of the two front civil war (JVP / Ealam separatist) when UNP was struggling, Dudley Senanayake’s nephew Rukman Senanayake founded center right Eksath Lanka party (ELJP). In the 1988 general election they nationally polled less than 2 percent and failed to secure a single seat. UNP won the general election and later Rukman returned to UNP. Some of my family members were involved in ELJP. Uncle Nath Amarakone as a candidate and juvenile cousin Aloka Amarakone as part of the campaign crew.
Although such cases cater in favor of the two party stability theory, Maleesh still could challenge it on the grounds that the exit of charismatic personalities may not effect the party base as long as the mother party still retains some important figures who could counterpoise such exits. When in 1951, SWRD departed UNP and formed SLFP, Dudley Sennanayake remained as counterweight. In the 1952 general election when UNP won 54 seats, SLFP won 9. When Vijaya-Chandrika left, SLFP had Sirima and other credible ones. When Lalith-Gamini left, UNP had president Premadasa. But the absence of such credible counterweights to Mahinda and Sajith exits left both party bases in a helpless status. Those shoes were too big for Mithree and Ranil to fill in.
Maleesh was somewhat skeptical about the validity of party institutionalization theory and his preferred explanation may be ‘political order by charismatic personnels’. This is a popular view circulated in whispers among some urban middle class intelligentsia. Such order they resent but unable to change. Now if this view is more applicable to the current Sri Lankan political order, in that case our political party development process is drifting back to the incipient stages where the congregation of dominant personalities, cliques, families define the political order.
Such groupings were in fact pre party factions of feudal vestiges which dominated 18th century politics of Europe and USA. William N. Chambers in his ‘Political Parties in a New Nation (1962) describes American politics in the 1780’s, “…A clique was a factional group whose relationships depended upon a family, a commanding individual or a close coterie of personnel associates; generally the retirement of the focal person led to the collapse of the clique. Such parties depended heavily on personalities and personnel ties…”
Prevalence of a large number of independent members in the chambers is considered as a feature of the pre- party era. In 1948, in the first Sri Lankan parliament, there were 29 independent members. They constituted almost one third of the membership in a 95 member parliament. Minority UNP government had 42 members. LSSP, the second largest party, had 10. Those 29 independents came from non party sources, elected by virtue of their family status and personnel appeal. The grouping of independents in such a minority government setting produces a powerful block of legislative power brokers, although their alliances have no durability and no structure because they don’t have a common agenda. But they could still filibuster and complicate the procedures. At times, prime minister D. S. Senanayake had to threaten to dissolve the parliament to get the independents support for the bills. In the 1952 second parliament, still the independents were the second largest group with 12 members. The UNP government this time had 54 majority. SLFP and LSSP had 9 seats apiece. Prevalence of such a large number of independents in chambers signify pre-party factions typical of the early phases of democratization. Gradually, as the system evolved and party politics gained strength, the number of independents receded. Since 1977, we hardly find independent MPs in the parliament.
Although the party system has been strengthened, it may not necessarily say much about political development. The two major parties still display archaic hereditary criteria of leadership patterns. Such practices, although camouflaged by democratic window dressing, drift adverse spillover effects into the public policy sphere. In their 70 year old history, SLFP is basically controlled by three families. Bandaranayakes, Rattwattes and Rajapakses. UNP only recently held their very first party office bearers election. SLFP never held one up to date. Ranil Wickramasinghe managed to hang onto UNP leadership over a quarter of a century despite the series of electoral defeats UNP suffered under his watch. In a way are we reproducing our indigenized behavior patterns within the Westminster framework ? Sri Jayawardenapura university political science lecturer Anuruddha Pradeep Karnasuriya recently told me during a conversation that it is such an anomaly in our system that when in multiple fields we make considerable strides (education, economy, civil service, military, sports, art, etc.) and those fields are mostly showing professionalized, meritocratic and modernized demeanor, still the highest level of political strata is plagued by nepotism, corruption, and unprofessionalism. In that sense, community in general is ahead of their leaders. Creative leaders are not patriarchs but pioneers. They attract a following through merit not tradition.
The Soulbury commission had hoped when they drafted the 1947 constitution that the appointed 30 honorary senators of the second chamber would make a valuable contribution in governance with professional advice because they were coming from professionalized civil service field and not directly involved with electoral politics. But contrary to the framers expectations, the senatorial body mostly became a dumping ground for the party pakkalis and defeated candidates. The Senate was dissolved in 1972 due to different reasons and in 1978 under proportional representation re-emerged as a 29 member national list vested with full MP powers this time. National list faced the same fate of the senate.
No wonder in most decolonized countries this Wesminister model decayed and were substituted mostly by military governments. Some went communist, theocratic, and dictatorships.
Despite all the democratic talk, during the Cold War era, almost three fourth of the world was under some form of dictatorship. Later when the 20th century came to an end, most gradually evolved to be democracies.