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 Post subject: Politicians
 Post Posted: Wed Aug 03, 2005 12:07 am 

January 16th 2000
@ Sunday Leader

As necessary an evil as they are, politicians have never, alas, been at the forefront of the broad progress of mankind. Historically, after all, political leadership evolved out of the 'dominant male' of the clan calling the shots. The fact that it was this male that led the clan into battle with neighbouring clans, and thereby exposed himself to greatest risk, conferred on him a few of the perks and excesses that go hand in hand with power. From there to regency was but a short step, and everyone knows how regency developed into democracy.


Nevertheless, there is a tendency, even in this heyday of democracy as a global phenomenon, to treat politicians with greater awe than is due to them merely as representatives of the popular mood. The French treat their president with deference bordering on deification. For all practical purposes, Jacques Chirac is not a lot different from Louis XV: he lives in the same palaces, is surrounded by much the same panoply of pompous pageantry, replete with bodyguards in fancy dress - and, like Louis, he is not answerable to parliament. In the United States, the president is treated likewise, which probably explains the widespread disillusionment with Bill Clinton following the exposure of his infidelity.

In the post-independence era, the Sri Lankans' situation has been somewhat different. Paradoxically, for all their pomposity, the British system of government, upon which our own was modelled, is much lower-key than that of the USA and France. The prime minister is advertised as being primus inter pares (first among equals)- a prospect that would make Chirac or Clinton shudder. The British Prime Minister lives in a small, two-bedroom apartment high above his office, where he must answer his own telephone and do his own cooking (servants are permitted, but not paid for by the state: neither are the groceries 'on the house', save for official entertaining). For the most part, the British PM conducts business from the cabinet long-table, for his private office is cramped and dark (which is why, unlike the Oval Office of the White House, it never features in photographs). And- despite everything the IRA has done to prevent it -Mr Blair has to get about London unaccompanied by the sirens, bells, whistles and road-closures that accompany the travels of Third-World despots. His wife travels by public transport (and is fined for not buying a ticket, just like you and me) and indeed even he almost never gets to use a helicopter to get about Britain: he is required to ride the train- first class.

In fashioning the political complexion of Sri Lanka, we had only the British example to emulate. Added to this were the trappings of excess foisted on the system by our feudal past: betel leaves, garlands and a certain amount of genuflecting before politicians- especially those in office. Nevertheless, in the early days of independence, the Thomian brand of prime ministers- D.S., Sir John, Dudley and S.W.R.D.- true to the traditions of their alma mater, set about their business with remarkably little fuss. What sent the system off the rails was crisis. In 1956, the race riots enabled the governor general, Oliver Goonetilleke, to usurp a lot more power than was rightly his due. The 1971 JVP insurgency set the tone for Mrs Bandaranaike's six-year United Front Government, which, for the first time, saw all manner of extremism: nationalisation, emigration controls, foreign exchange controls, demonetisation, ceilings on incomes, media repression, business acquisition, house confiscation. The works.

All too much, it was, for J.R. Jayewardene, waiting in the wings, to forgo. By raising the presidency above the law and the clutches of parliament, and assuming despotic powers, Jayewardene set the tone for governments to come. By removing the checks and balances offered by the parliamentary system (and converting MPs from being 'representatives of the people' to mere 'delegates of the party' by outlawing crossovers), Jayewardene assured his own stability but mortally wounded an important system of limits to his authority.

It is to this that Chandrika Kumaratunga is now both heir and victim. Having seen, when in opposition, the danger to democracy that the presidency posed, she is now unable to let go. A return to parliament is not even being talked about now, and whatever anyone might say, will not occur in the next five years. Kumaratunga's strategy has now to be to circumvent the parliamentary election due next August, an event that will gravely imperil the lives of her cabinet colleagues. Having had his dastardly plan once again to manipulate a presidential election by assassinating the candidate it did not like thwarted, Prabhakaran is now on the prowl for lesser victims. As much as Kumaratunga wishes for a parliamentary majority independent of the Tamil and Muslim parties, she has no obvious route to that happy goal right now. The imminent crossover of UNP MPs- whether demoralised by the recent rout or disillusioned with the party's leadership- will no doubt help her towards that crowning reward of power: a two-thirds majority.

The problem is, Kumaratunga needs a route whereby she can justify to the people why democracy should temporarily be curtailed. Heaven knows she can think of enough reasons. "The country cannot be put through the trauma of another campaign in which the LTTE will bomb candidates; the South must unite to liberate the North; this is not a time for 'divisive' party politics¬" Notwithstanding that, the primary ingredient for usurping power is instability. And just as J.R. Jayewardene needed to invent instability by concocting a plot to overthrow his 'democratically-elected' government by imaginary Naxalites, Kumaratunga too, has now come up with her own- albeit rather less elegant- plan.

Alleging a link between the main opposition party and the Tigers, and a plot to overthrow-nay, assassinate-her, she is setting the stage for a 'crisis' that will enable her to clamp down on democracy. And, in order to do this, Kumaratunga has thrown into the conspiracy hotpot an incongruous assortment of ingredients: the LTTE, the UNP, the UNP's perceived financers and the independent media. In one fell swoop, all her adversaries are now targets, leaving what she hopes will be a playing field with only one team on it.

The tragedy is, that given the state of the opposition right now, she stands a credible chance of getting her way. Numbed by its recent trouncing at the hustings, the UNP is behaving even more pusillanimously than usual. There is barely a word uttered even in its own defence and, as a political opposition, it is rapidly ceasing to have much significance. If, as it was since the time of its founding fathers, the UNP is to be the flag-bearer of democracy in Sri Lanka, it had better get its act together, and right rapidly, too. Ranil Wickremesinghe has a duty by the 42% of Sri Lankans who voted for him, and his party. The good men have come to the aid of the party, only to find the guests leaving and the host indisposed. The tragedy of our nation is not only that it lacks good government, but also that it lacks an effective opposition. And which country deserves a sadder lot than that?

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