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The curse of unprincipled oppositions

by Milinda Rajasekera

(August 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) British parliamentary system and traditions hold that the opposition is the “government-in-waiting” and that its main task is to oppose whatever government moves that run counter to the national interest. British political parties have followed this tradition, but the opposition parties in that country have been patriotic enough to sink their differences and support or join the ruling party at times of national crises. However, countries such as ours that transplanted the British parliamentary system, lock, stock and barrel in their administrative schemes, have failed to follow the good examples set in British politics.

British parliamentary system requires that the opposition should be strong enough to hold the government to account. And for this it has to have free access to the country’s resources and information about government activities. The right to full freedom of expression and unrestricted access to all media are also considered essential. Equipped with such attributes the opposition is required to conduct itself responsibly and effectively to ensure good governance.

Have our country’s oppositions lived up to these standards? A firm no, would be the answer if one were to judge from the record of the opposition’s role in this country. It is only after the 1956 election that the political party system came into active operation, although certain political parties and groups were active organizing campaigns, strikes and protests in the past. It was since then that sharp polarization of our citizenry on the basis of party interests and prejudices assumed serious proportions. The governments that assumed power since then became more concerned about remaining in power and weakening the opposition rather than solving the country’s burning problems and achieving steady economic progress. 

No concrete actions were taken to preserve unity among different communities by resolving the outstanding concerns of the Tamil-speaking people in the North and the East. Instead, the opportunistic attitudes adopted by successive governments caused the problem to aggravate. The periodic attempts made to rectify the damage caused as a result of certain lopsided administrative actions were thwarted by acute political party rivalry. It was this pattern of irrational political party rivalry that persistently obstructed the solution of the main national problem as well as other problems and hindered the country’s progress.

It is unnecessary to relate here the historical events that demonstrated the opportunistic, irresponsible, irrational and unpatriotic conduct of the opposition on occasions when the ruling party made attempts to solve problems. Unfortunately, the same pattern of politics continues to this day. The periodic upheavals, fierce terrorism and the final excruciating war that destroyed lives and property seem insufficient to teach our politicians the lesson of unity required in solving national problems.

The country has now returned to square one as regards the national problem after all the political, economic and social setbacks it suffered and ended the menace of terrorism. All the discussions, conferences and volumes of reports produced on the issue seem to have gone waste. The usual government-opposition tussle over what should be the solution to the North-East problem has now emerged. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and some sections in his government show keenness in solving this problem, but they nevertheless are hesitant in presenting their blueprint, obviously for fear that the opposition parties would use it for political gain. The government is sensitive to this possibility particularly at this time when a series of actions such as import of substandard oil, cement, medicine etc. and allegations of corruption have earned much public wrath and opposition criticism. The government, therefore, has decided to resort to Parliamentary Select Committee process to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, the opposition which is disparate and diffused, refuses to get actively involved in the PSC process. These parties, atrophied as they are by their parochial problems await government moves for them to take political advantage. They are unable to offer any alternative proposals - as they are required to do - to solve the national problem. The people of this country are thus placed in a quandary as their political parties play power games.

It would appear that the need for the opposition to play its role responsibly and effectively today is as important as the government’s duty to discharge its functions responsibly in the national interest. The main opposition party, the UNP has to solve its leadership problem as quickly as possible. It is indeed unfathomable that this party headed by a renowned democrat who claims to shun dictatorial politics is unable to solve its problems on the basis of democratic principles.

The contention of the UNP reformists is that it is Ranil Wickremesinghe’s weak leadership that is responsible for the setbacks the UNP suffered in recent times.Although there is no logical reasoning to lend substance to this contention, it has gained wide acceptance among party members and supporters as well as among outsiders. The reformists apparently have ignored other factors such as President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s diplomatic and pragmatic approach to policies and persons, the elimination of terrorism and distribution of favours and perquisites that have contributed to the UNP debacle. Party leader Wickremesinghe, however, cannot absolve himself from blame for paving the way for the exodus of a large number of active UNP members from the party among whom were eminent frontliners who had assiduously promoted the policies and interests of the party.

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