The attempt to muzzle Dayasiri Jayasekera MP by the UNP leadership is another manifestation of the anti-democratic character of the UNP. Some, who crossed over from the UNP earlier, alleged that their party is run by a small coterie of hacks loyal to the leader. The party leader they said is too powerful and not accountable to the general membership. These seem to be valid criticisms. What is wrong in public criticism of the party if there are no internal mechanisms to reform from within the party. A democratic political party is not some body’s private property but a vital institution of a functioning democracy.
Are our so-called democratic parties really political parties or just caucuses such as existed in USA during the days of Theodore Roosevelt in the beginning of the last century? Neither the UNP nor the SLFP Parties have institutionalized democratic procedures for the election of the leader and the key office-bearers. So the leader’s wide power allows him to distribute party offices as if they were his private property. Contrast this with the practice in UK. Recently the Conservative Party of UK elected a new leader. All members of the party throughout the country who are members of the constituency parties voted for his election. It is also necessary that the local constituency party members elect the party candidates who will stand for the elections to Parliament, to the Provincial Councils and the Pradesiya Sabhas.
This lack of intra-party democracy produces adverse outcomes for democracy in the country, as pointed out for India by Pratap Bhanu Mehta the President Center for Policy Research in the Indian Tribune. He says â€œThe criteria for the basic decisions any party has to take, ranging from candidate selection to party platform, remain either unclear or are left to the discretion of one or a handful of leaders. The more the discretionary power vested with leaders, the more a political party will depend solely on its leaders for renewal’. Doesn’t this apply fully to the UNP and the SLFP?
One of the most important functions of democracy is to allow the free and uninhibited flow of relevant information. The less internally democratic is a party, the less likely it is that the relevant information will flow up the party hierarchy. The flow of correct information is of vital importance to any large organization.
Further, if the criteria for advancement within the party are unclear and whimsical, newly-mobilized social groups or leaders are less likely to work within existing party structures and will be more tempted to set up their own as happened to the UNP when SWRD left the party in 1952. There must be formal mechanisms to challenge entrenched party hierarchies and regulate conflict within parties. These seem to be totally absent in both the UNP and the SLFP. The attitudes of important party members to the fracas by Mervyn Siilva shows the lack of democracy in the SLFP .
Even from the viewpoint of the leadership it is not desirable or less desirable to restrict expression of dissent and the flow of information. The less internally democratic a party, the less likely it is that the relevant information will flow up party conduits from the bottom grassroots level to the top. The UNP’s disastrous policies during the last time it held office was due to the failure of Ranil Wickremasinghe to be attentive to local conditions which stemmed from the lack of freedom of expression within the party according to comments by some important ex-members of the UNP.
In most countries, groups which become politically active for some reason or other, often from perceived grievances not attended to by the existing parties; hesitate before forming their own political party. To become an important player in the political arena requires an ability to reach out to broader social constituencies other than their own group. Joining existing parties enables them to do so. But new groups will remain in parties only if there are clear and fair rules that allow their advancement and the articulation of their viewpoints. Intra-party elections are one such mechanism. But if these rules are not clear, and dependent upon the whim of the top leadership, new and ambitious entrants that carry a social base are more wary of entering parties.
Why social groups went outside the UNP in the past was due to the oligarchic leadership of the party. We know how SWRD quit because he was overlooked for the leadership. I have heard it said that the Karawe and Salagama castes had no place in the UNP in the 1930s, which led politically, mobilized intellectuals from such castes to set up their own parties of the Left. The country lost the services of some outstanding men because of this lack of internal party democracy within the democratic parties like the UNP and SLFP. Even the emergence of the JVP is due to the failure of the two traditional democratic parties to have internal democracy. The SLFP continued to be a family based party where the leadership was not democratically elected but based on feudal family dynasty.
(With acknowledgment to the article by Pratab Banu Mehtha in the Indian Tribune of 24 September 2005 Special Supplement)