| by Laksiri Fernando

( July 9, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) After becoming again the leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd has now announced significant changes to the internal party structure which gives more say to the ordinary party members in selecting the party leader without completely depending on the parliamentary caucus. The main thrust is to democratise the internal party organization. In recent times, there had been some discussions on internal democracy of political parties in Sri Lanka and this short article speculates how far and in what ways Sri Lanka could take the example of the ALP if at all.

Of course there are some who would offhand reject taking any example from outside Sri Lanka particularly from ‘Western’ countries for misplaced nationalist reasons. There are others who would think that Sri Lanka is not developed (or good) enough to have meaningful democracy and therefore deviations from democracy might be acceptable or a fact of life. But there is a strong emerging segment particularly among the youth, I believe, who would yearn for democracy both inside political parties and in the country.    

Proposed Reforms

ALP started as a strong social democratic party in 1891 has now transformed itself as a ‘liberal socialist’ or ‘liberal social democratic’ party with the objective of achieving a “more just and equal society, and achieving of this aim by democratic means.” It is a broad political party “that includes reformers, radicals, progressives, social democrats and democratic socialists.” At the beginning of the party, the structure was simple and the central committee, elected from a party convention, selected the leader of the party.

However, as the time passed and the party became a parliamentary democratic party, the leader of the party was elected from the parliamentary caucus and that means the members who were elected to parliament by the voters. In this manner, the party democracy became aligned with the democratic elections in the country as a whole. This is the case by and large of other political parties like the Liberal Party of Australia.

The ALP organization remained both at the federal and the state levels and their role was mainly to preselect the candidates for parliamentary elections and influence policy. The membership of the party is composed of individual members and trade unions. The ALP also formally accepts factions within the party and two major factions are the ‘Labor Unity’ and the ‘Socialist Left’ with their own affiliated unions. However, the factional dynamics have not served well for the party or the country in recent times.

The new proposals by Kevin Rudd want to give the ordinary members a say in deciding who leads the ALP. Therefore the change would mean as he said “the leader would be elected jointly, with votes from party members given a 50 per cent weighting and the elected Labor Caucus making up the other 50 per cent.” Of course there are criticisms on Ruud’s proposals to say that the objective is to prevent what happened to him in June 2010 when the factions within the caucus decided to oust him for not so clear reasons. The new proposal while empowering the party members along with the elected MPs in deciding the party leader, also guarantees that if he is elected by the people as the PM at the next election due soon then the party factions cannot oust him unless by the opposition through a no-confidence motion.
"The reforms I announce today will give more power to everyday members of the Labor Party. They will ensure that power will never again rest in the hands of a factional few," Mr Rudd told reporters in Canberra. "Make no mistake, this is the most significant reform to the Australian Labor Party in recent history,” he added.
The first lesson to learn from the Kevin Rudd example is that a leader who espouses democratic reforms for a country or a party would receive the most acclaim among the voters and the people. The proposals are rational and democratic. As the newest opinion polls show the Labor is neck to neck or 50-50 with the Liberal Party on the two party preferred basis. It was just 30 per cent before he became the leader. Most importantly, Kevin Rudd’s rating as the preferred Prime Minister had risen to 53 per cent by this morning against Tony Abbot of the Liberal Party dragging behind with 31 per cent.        
Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says the change is also aimed at boosting party membership. "This is an opportunity to re-engage in Australian politics for all those who are Labor true-believers but have, up to this point, questioned the value of party membership," he added. Rudd has also announced “zero-tolerance on corruption within the party and a ban on property developers standing as Labor candidates unless they "divest themselves of any major property development interest".
Situation in Sri Lanka

Internal democracy of political parties is a less studied and less discussed topic in Sri Lanka. Two preliminary studies however are by IDEA/CPA in 2005 and FES in 2008. Late Chanaka Amaratunga, founder of the Liberal Party, was one who initiated the discussion on the importance of internal party democracy for democracy in general in Sri Lanka and Rajiva Wijesinghe also has continued the same. As the IDEA/CPA study stated “Perhaps the most prominent feature of political parties in Sri Lanka is that they are highly centralized, with power structures that can best be described as being ‘leader-centric.” This may be correct in the case of almost all parties whether left or right, north or south and small or big. However, the lack of internal democracy matters most for the people in the case of the two major parties, the SLFP and the UNP.

The importance of internal party democracy for democracy in a country should not be underestimated. The FES study reiterated the following:

“Without internal democracy, political parties have no legitimate basis for the important role they play. Internal democracy is essential for the strengthening of politically committed members within a party. More importantly, a democratic state cannot be governed efficiently and effectively by parties with undemocratic internal structures. For a functioning and effective democracy, political parties need to improve their performance and gain higher levels of public trust. Inner-party democracy is the only device through which they can achieve such status.”

In both the SLFP and the UNP there are party conventions and these are by and large like public meetings. Although the UNP conventions are more structured they can easily be manipulated from the top. It is believed that the initial UNP party constitution was more democratic than the present; J. R. Jayewardene changing it in 1977 before the election to move towards an authoritarian presidential system.

In the case of the SLFP, the need for manipulation does not arise particularly these days as the leadership apparently having a firm grip on the so-called members, making any potential leadership challenger impotent. Any leadership change may require a strong and concerted intervention. In both parties, the actual power is wielded through two intermediary bodies, through the Central Committee in the case of the SLFP and through the Executive Committee in the case of the UNP. Therefore any alternative leadership should have to emerge through these two institutions. In theory, the leader of the each party is selected by these two bodies although what happens in actual practice is the opposite.

In both parties, the leadership has rotated within certain families and in the case of the UNP more broadly than the SLFP. At present there are rumblings of leadership change in both parties for different reasons. In the case of the SLFP, a leadership change is mutely talked about or aspired given the Rajapaksa family grip and also the extremist deviations from the traditional middle path. In the case of the UNP, it is more of a question of personality believing that the present leadership is inane in making a forceful challenge to the Rajapaksa regime.

The major difficulty in allowing the members to elect the leader directly, similar to the case of the US, or allowing both members and parliamentary caucus to elect the leader as it is proposed now in Australia would be the uncertainly of party and membership structures. The memberships of these parties are more of ceremonial than organizational pillars with rights and obligations to the members. This is not to say, however, that there are hard core committed members in both parties. It would also be expensive to conduct voting for the leader encompassing all members throughout the country under the present circumstances.

Taking the Example

Therefore, what Sri Lanka has to take from the ALP example might be its spirit and not necessarily the letter. What is possible for both parties is to conduct a leadership ballot before the next presidential and parliamentary elections on the basis of the present system and the caucus system. This means in the case of the SLFP, a dual weightage of the Central Committee 50 per cent and the SLFP parliamentary caucus 50 per cent. In the case of the UNP it would mean, the Executive Committee 50 per cent and the UNP parliamentary caucus 50 per cent. Of course it would be better if a party could come up with its own internal democratic plan to involve the larger membership in the leadership selection. Equally important is for the leaders to behave like democrats and not like dictators.

Most important at present is to involve the local party members in preselection of candidates for local government, provincial council and parliamentary elections. This is not the case at present. The selections are done primarily in Colombo and at the Centre, of course out of the names from party organizers and organizations in the districts.  This could be broad based like in other democratic countries and parties.

The political parties also should involve the party members and local organizations in policy discussions. There is no evidence that this has ever happened in the case of formulating the Mahinda Chinthana or the recent UNP constitutional proposals. Party reforms also call for party cleansing. In the case of the ALP this is now going on in the New South Wales. An absolute necessity is the zero tolerance for corruption, violence and communalism within political parties in Sri Lanka.

Internal party reforms might be more important to the opposition parties than to the governing party, because it is the opposition that can become a catalyst for change under the given circumstances. The government has already exhausted its potential and become a fetter on social, economic and political development. Sri Lanka needs to talk more of policy than personality. A leader who brings a viable reformist agenda would possibly be the winner in the future. However, it should be more of a leadership team than a leader.

There is a pressing need to resurrect and strengthen all democratic political parties in the country in view of the extra-party extremist movements such as the BBS are gaining through xenophobia and chauvinism. Political party reforms might be the answer by broad basing party membership structures and organizations.