By Dhammika Amarakoon
Former JVP MP Lal Kantha has a second theory about the dominance of the two party system. Lal believes that the abuse of state resources in the form of distributing welfare handouts and rural infrastructure development projects are targeted around elections so as to create the false impression required to make the public believe that there is a surge of development during their tenure. As a result, this kept the two party system rolling. ‘Welfare as Politics’ binds the electorate with the incumbent. Lal expressed these views when he visited Harispatuwa electorate in the 2020 general election campaign trail.
No doubt the cumulative effect of welfare as politics had given the successive governments a clear and unfair advantage over their competitors. However, I believe that there are other important factors other than welfare, playing a more important role to keep renewing the two party system and the competitors at bay. Before embarking on examining those factors let’s briefly focus on JVP’s post revolutionary electoral positioning. Because since 1977, JVP was the only credible alternative which has demonstrated the capacity to challenge the dominance of the two party system up to date.
Since the early 1990s, JVP started recouping and rejoining the democratic process. I can recall the moment when the post revolutionaries entered the democratic process. Not like men on horseback, but like fearful children exploring an empty house, not sure that it is empty. Their electoral gains during this period wasn’t very significant, but started picking up as the 20th century ended. During the first decade of the 21st century, JVP demonstrated a steady surge in polls. They steadily increased their parliamentary representation from 10 members to 16 to 38 between 2000 and 2004.
And from around 2005, all signs were there that they were on the way to become a serious third force contender capable of challenging the two party dominance. For the first time since the 1970 general election, after 30 some years, a third party polled 9.1 percent in the 2001 general election. This surge took place despite the background being unfavorable for the communists in the post Soviet era.
But in the 2010 general election JVP voter base abruptly deteriorated from 38 MPs to 7. And since then, always in single digits. As of now only 3 seats. Lal Kantha’s Welfare as Politics theory doesn’t explain JVP’s rapid rise and fall in polls because with 38 MPs and three ministries, JVP themselves were placed on equal footing in terms of access to state resources. On the other hand, when they were rising in polls they were lacking state resources but it didn’t stall their rise. What abruptly stalled JVP’s surge as a third force and what caused their reversal allowing the renewal of the two party dominance? Beyond Welfare as Politics there can be multiple explanations.
When the JVP was in the coalition with SLFP (2005- 2010) during a TV debate, then opposition MP Rajitha Senaratne challenged the JVP participant MP by pressing the JVPers to continue to stay with the government and show their true colors and capacities rather than going to the opposition and carry out smear campaigns and torment the society. Since their origin in 1965, JVP remained as a group of revolutionary protagonists for 4 decades. It was in 2005 for the first time JVP took part in governance with 3 portfolios and 38 MPs.
At that time, it seemed like a segment of the public was toying with the idea of a third party option. JVP seized the moment. It was the JVP candidates who topped the preferential votes in most districts in SLFP lists. In Colombo both no:1 and no:2 were JVP candidates (Weerawansa & Hadunetti). However, in 2010, the JVP was down to 7 seats in the parliament. History repeated here. Same happened to the old left (LSSP/ CP) in 1977 after the coalition with the SLFP. Their combined strength was 4 ministries and 25 MPs in a 151 member 1970 parliament. After the coalition politics in the 1977 parliament they were down to zero representatives. “Coalitioning with the petty bourgeoisie SLFP was the root cause of the decline of the left” was the orthodox Marxist interpretation then. If the aforementioned Rajitha Senaratne’s charge is commonly applicable to both occasions, in that case it was the exposure of the capacity during the coalition that caused the decline of the left.
Now, is that argument a convincing one? Did both mom (Sirima Bandaranayake) and daughter (Chandrika Bandaranayake) destroy both old left and new left by taking them in when JR Jayawardane emboldened the JVP by proscribing that party in 1983? I believe there is a semblance of truth in it but there is a lot more to it. We all know on both occasions the left came out of the coalition badly scathed. The old left never recovered. JVP is still struggling to recover.
Hardly anyone calls out JVP or the old left as corrupt outfits. Their abstinence of avarice, incorruptibility, ideological purity are well known and universally admired. But those virtues were not excusable substitutes if they demonstrate incapacity in delivering. I don’t believe JVP performed during the coalition politics. The challenge they faced itself was so massive for them to convince the masses in the short run that they were worthy representatives. Two points:
- The bar set too high.
Anxious voters go overboard and set the bar a little too high for the new incumbents at times expecting miracles. And the new incumbents themselves were responsible for raising the bar too high as they were highly critical of the establishment all the way through when they were in the opposition. (The aforementioned point emphasized by Rajitha Senaratne). In the case of JVP this matter was even worse because they were not only in the opposition for 4 decades, but also the type of opposition they were in wasn’t a formal Westminster opposition either. JVP passed several agonizing and mixed periods. Underground politics, prison time, recovery period after state crack down, democratic politics. JVP was caught up in a rash and head on power struggle with the establishment and hardly get the leisure and respite to study the rapidly changing high tech world around them and were total aliens to parliamentary proceedings as well. And after 4 decades of agony, when finally they were given a chance to govern in 2005, this worn out outfit was basically under prepared for the task and had to improvise out of scratch.
- Short time span.
Democratic governments, in and of itself, are not equipped to perform miracles in the short run. Command NIC economies in this high tech era had moved much faster than their democratic counterparts. And to make matters worse, when authoritarian command economies had longer timespan to produce results, the democratic timespan is shorter and the parties have to pay attention to the public opinion regardless. Authoritarians are not answerable to the electorate, but democracies are. In such a context, even the most efficient democratic government may not get the credit they deserve during their limited tenure. Because the growth process requires time to generate results and often don’t come to fruition during the incumbent’s tenure. Future governments, with sheer luck, may reap the benefits of their predecessors’ handy work. And this process works the other way around as well. This is the nature of the democratic.system. Over anxious public easily get demoralized when the high expectations are not met. Often is inclined to go back with the old order. Perhaps this is one reason why some leftists denounce democratic politics. And they have a point. In that sense right wing junta authoritarians command economies and the leftist dictatorship of the proletarians share similar sentiment.
‘Welfare as Politics’ no longer enthuse the masses for political action. Over the years, Sri Lanka has gradually moved away from welfare driven politics. Political parties ought to update and regularize their political appeals accordingly. ‘Bath dun piya’ (father who delivered rice) – Dudley Senanayake, ‘Banis mama’ (uncle donut) – Wijayananada Dahanayake, ‘Ape amma maga eneva hal seru deka denava’ (Our mother is on the way to deliver two bushels of rice) – Sirima Bandaranayake. Such politicized welfare related slogans we don’t hear anymore. No longer a galaxy of welfare delivering heroes in the vicinity. When Sri Lanka gained independence, two thirds of the population was under the poverty line. Despite all the shortcomings, as of now, Sri Lanka is a middle income country ranked 58 among the world of nations. For the past decade, unemployment has consistently been below 5 percent. Youth unemployment 2 percent. Inflation around 5 percent. These numbers speak volumes. They, in fact, are on a par or better when compared to developed countries. Such a nation doesn’t beg for welfare. Such a middle class society doesn’t view their representatives as heroes, liberators, or patriarchs worthy of veneration. They are only voted in public representatives. Even in authoritarian regimes people don’t venerate their leaders like the way they used to. Most of the political leaders’ names are unheard of nowadays. No one cares. In middle class societies, only under special circumstances a heroic act in a particular field be transferred into a political bonanza (i. e. Gotabaya Rahaoakse’s war triumph).
Heroism in modernity is often found avenues in non political realms. Adventure, sports, academic research, entrepreneurship, art, etc. Avenues of social heroism is being altered, broadened, and democratized. Scholars believe modernization is associated with a marked redistribution of power in the system, thinning the traditional sources of power and introducing new sources of power. Inversely, heroism in the political sphere exhibits signs of aging as modernization advances. It’s the idiotic media in Sri Lanka who amplify politicians images free of charge. Please check daily newspapers and find out how much space each edition has generously allocated for politicians profile pictures.
Attached to the post heroic age comes a growing complacent attitude towards politics among some segments of the polity. Less interested in politics as countries develop. There is a growing apathy among our youth towards politics in general. During the 1980s when the unemployment around 15 percent frustrated young generation seemed highly politicized. This youth base became JVP’s vanguard force in both uprisings. Numerically, JVP may not have commanded the allegiance of the majority of young generation but their minority youth base was strong and broad enough to be a force to be reckon with. During 1980s there was a wave of youth agitation in most developing countries. As of now, the radical youth wing of the former JVP the ‘Peratugameen’ is basically a three wheeler party and is increasingly becoming a public nuisance because they block traffic during rush hours to hold Satyagraha.
In 2019, I spoke to several university level youngsters and according to them, student politicization is no longer a concern. Further I found out during our conversation that these students frown upon government sector employment and prefer the private sector instead. This dynamic; cosmopolitan offspring, when faced with the diverse array of options to choose from, tend to view the government as increasingly becoming an old house requiring some serious renovation. In such a background, it is intrinsic to the post heroic age that the government, even if it is a very efficient one, to become a non recipient of public applause. Such change of social attitude demands new measures and methods to engage in politics. This is part of the JVP’s challenge today. Once societies move away from state subservient condition, the monopolistic state takes the shape of a gigantic dinosaur lacking strength to commensurate to their size in the new age, if they continue to stay unreformed. ( i. e. Soviet state in the 1980s )
According to the inland revenue department sources, 72 percent of our income taxes are paid by private sector companies although haven’t been given due recognition for it. I visited Ambewela dairy farms in 2019. Found out the owner Harry Jayawardane hardly visits the farm. Perhaps once a year. But his dairy products reach all corners of the island at an affordable prize. Some 30 employees carry out the massive operation at the Ambewela farm base. There was a small office and few vehicles parked next to it. A technocrat from New Zealand plays a major role in the operation. I was amazed to see how neatly and efficiently the operation is carried out. Energetic and restless people have a virgin land to exploit! Compare this if a government cooperation runs the same operation. Instead of 30 , they will have 300 employees, put up an office bigger than the farm, officials running around in super luxury vehicles beating patriotic drums of ‘jathika nishpadanaya’, often take so called official foreign trips at the operations expense. In the end, the cost of production outweigh the market affordability. So the production has to be government subsidized to match the market affordability. Operation is a white elephant. This was the hallmark of 1956-1977 legacy.
Third, above all the immediate reason that directly affected JVP’s electoral fortunes and the chances of challenging two party dominance, perhaps the tactical blunder they had committed during the final stages of the Ealam war. 2008 critical budget vote. The stakes were so high. LTTE was cornered and the final stages of the battle was approaching. Minority SLFP government desperately needed all their coalition partners votes in order to pass the budget. JVP, while sharing the coalition, went against the budget and back stabbed the government with their numerically decisive block of 38 MPs. JVP became the Trojan horse of the LTTE in the chambers. They unintentionally played into LTTE hands when LTTE desperately wanted the government to fall at the budget and relax the military pressure mounted against them. JVP’s decision to go against the budget caused an immediate schism in their own ranks. Wimal Weerawansa with 10 JVP MPs broke ranks and supported the budget and helped rescuing the government from falling.
Via electoral pact with the SLFP, JVP secured 38 MPs in 2005. It seems JVP had forgotten the true source of their electoral support base and unwittingly had offended them and as a result, electorally penalized at the 2010 general election. Hypothetically, there is I believe 5 to 10 percent, center left, pro third force floating vote constantly oscillate between JVP and SLFP and up for grab for either party. During the 1988 uprising, this block had extended their sympathy and tacit approval of JVP’s violent cause and were happy someone was putting up a fight against UNP dominance when the SLFP was in a long political coma. Since around year 2000, this floating block again started backing JVP and, as a result, JVP surged in the polls. Perhaps since 2010 they fell out with JVP due to the corresponding effect of unforgivable betrayal committed at the 2008 budget.
On the heels of all of this, JVP once again drifted back to their natural base of 3 to 4 percent, which they have entertained consistently since the early 1980s; equivalent to some 3 to 6 seats. They have 3 seats in the present parliament. Have they exhausted their time in the limelight? Have they rebuffed by the very groups whose interests they wish to further? Can they make a come back? Once again, in the absence of a credible alternative, the two party system renewed.