Is it the end of days for the United National Party (UNP)? And what does that mean for Sri Lanka’s democracy? These are two critical questions that will plague many people concerned about the health of one of Asia’s oldest democracies. The former question is likely to be answered within the next 10 days or so while the second will require a post-Parliamentary Elections analysis.
Sri Lanka’s democracy, despite being an old one, is not grounded in strong institutions. Many experts agree that over the decades institutions such as the Judiciary, which should have remained independent, have seen an erosion of their independence and as a result their effectiveness as well. At a practical level, a balance of power is usually fuelled by a strong Opposition. In Sri Lanka, the Opposition has a role to play both in and outside of Parliament and intelligentsia, academics, think tanks, civil society organisations and even the media tend to group themselves alongside the Opposition ranks though they may sometimes step out of line on certain issues.
At a fundamental level, a democracy requires and indeed depends on opposition, both political and otherwise, to thrive. Transparency and accountability are often possible only when there is a strong opposition with myriads of voices, even voices that do not always agree. This is not just about the survival of one political party but drives to the very bedrock of what constitutes a vibrant democracy that works for the benefit of people.
Sri Lanka has in the past seen its democracy and balance of power reduced when one party commands an overwhelming amount of power. In the last instance when a two-thirds majority was established, the 18th Amendment was passed, largely with no opposition, taking away term limits from the Executive Presidency and significantly reducing checks and balances on power. Whether the same happens once again is yet to be seen but if history is anything to go by, an Opposition is necessary to protect at least some level of public interest.
Unfortunately for many political moderates in Sri Lanka, there is little reason to think that the UNP in its present dilapidated and divided state can adequately fit the bill. Despite being the main Opposition in Parliament, it did very little if anything to actively stop the passage of the 18th Amendment and by all evaluations had a disappointing run in Government from 2015 onwards. It failed to deliver on key promises of fighting corruption, promoting reconciliation and improving governance. But they are sadly the only hope that democracy-loving Sri Lankans have.
Therefore, it is imperative that the UNP resolves, at least to some extent, the divisions that have plagued it for months, perhaps years. Loyalists of both UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa have indicated space remains for reconciliation. There is still time for either side to accommodate the other, provided a compromise is reached before 19 March. Sri Lanka’s two-party system is at a crossroads, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is under immense pressure to remain distinct from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the UNP is struggling to remain united. This could well be the last opportunity for the UNP to remain the Grand Old Party. In this power battle, the public should not emerge the loser.