Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Political Character of the UPFA Regime: Is Democracy Safe?

“One of the greatest dangers, therefore, of democracy as of any other form of government, lies in the sinister interest of the holders of power…And one of the most important questions demanding consideration, in determining the best constitution of representative government, is how to provide efficacious securities against this evil (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, Page, p.299)



The passing of the 18th Amendment in parliament has been greeted with alarm as a dangerous lurch towards increasing authoritarianism by the state. However the 18th Amendment received support from a wide range of the political spectrum, from the traditional left parties in the regime to the defected UNPers. The UNPers did so defying their party leadership. It is a telling sign of the Government’s inability to muster a convincing answer to its critics that despite the fact that it is the most powerful post-colonial regime Sri Lanka has seen, this bill was rushed through parliament without sufficient opportunity for   meaningful public debate.

Opposition to the amendment was hampered by the fact that it was led by the UNP and JVP, both parties with terrible human rights records. The UNP has had a record of anti-democratic actions whilst they held power, and the JVP who assassinated hundreds of political opponents during the period 1986-89 lacked the political credibility and organizational wherewithal to effectively challenge the Government. Those who opposed the Amendment demonstrated reckless despair announcing the “death of democracy”. Supporters of the Amendment demonstrated reckless optimism, entrusting the fragile democratic future of the country to the hands of a regime that has dared to remove vital checks and balances within the Constitution. The 18th Amendment removed the presidential term limits and has given the enhanced power to the President to appoint some of the key government officials to the Commissions such as Election, Public Services, Police, Bribary and Human Rights.

This essay attempts to make some reflections on the UPFA regime and its political character and how it will impact on Sri Lanka’s fragile democracy.

Decay of the party system

The UPFA remains the most formidable political alliance  so far in the history of post colonial politics in Sri Lanka, and it has had an unprecedented impact on the political and civil rights of the citizens. Its rise to power must be set in the context of a decaying political party system, where parties no longer aim to represent the interests of their core social classes.

Post colonial capitalist structures in Sri Lanka have been distorted by the long running ethnic war, undermining the class basis of the political parties. The chaotic and weak political party profiles, internal squabbles   and undemocratic party structures have been exposed to the public eye. This decay is more visible in the UNP than in any other party. The UNP is dominated by prolonged and divisive internal conflicts, resulting in a very negative impact on their confused and demoralized supportes.They have not laid out their policies on economic or political issues of the day and they have not made an effective attempt to consolidate their electoral support. The UNP’s lack of internal coherence clearly has shown when some of its MPs joined government to vote for the 18th Amendment. The JVP had been divided even before the victory of the war and was severely weakened   in the elections. Their numbers went down drastically in the elections. The JVP do not talk about the class struggle any longer. Their supporters had left them in huge numbers. Their democratic credentials are in doubt as they are fighting the regime for “genuine democracy” and this is deceptive as what they mean by “genuine democracy” is none other than a ruthless totalitarian one party state. The traditional left parties no longer enjoy their traditional working class basis and are no longer part of the opposition. Sarath Fonseka’s imprisonment had offered    the opposition some unity and purpose now. However, their decay will continue unless they return to their core social base and formulate a political program to win back their allies.  This decay has benefited the UPFA politically and the opposition leadership’s inability to mount a challenge to the government has been a sheer a lack of heightened courage and determination. Without a political program they are unable draw the battle lines. Without clearly demarcated lines defining their political objectives, the UNP is disintegrating fast.

Ideological and political block

The UPFA’s political hegemony is unprecedented in Sri Lankan politics. Ideologically and politically it synthesizes the Sinhalese exclusiveness of the   Southern political parties. This process has been underway since independence but intensified   during the three decades of ethnic war between the state and the Tamil rebels. Some these parties, such as the JHU and the NFF came into existence during the war years. This synthesis of Sinhalese exclusiveness at the expense of minority rights has been a unifying factor, hardening their resolve against granting minority rights and devolution of power.

The UPFA as a political alliance collectively or individually is no longer organized on strict class lines. They do not represent the class ideologies of any particular class or a social group. Who are they representing? They are representing the needs of the Sinhalese political classes that are animated by nationalist insecurities, driven in part by the presence of devolution of power on the political agenda.

These needs are not as same as the needs arising out of their social and economic circumstances. In uniting the country politically by extending state authority to North and East of the country the UPFA has also united the millions of the Sinhalese peasantry under its banner as its electoral and social base. This numerical strength has become its electoral success. There is no other period in our recent history where a political alliance   as strong as the UPFA is poised to decide the destiny of our nation. President Rajapaka’s political leadership in defeating the LTTE and uniting the whole country politically has reinforced the Sinhalese popular belief that he has repeated the historical role of King Dutugemunu politically uniting the country. This popular belief forms the seemingly monolithic ideological and political basis of the UPFA’s present existence. This popular belief has been the political life blood of the UPFA.The Sinhalese community had no any hesitation or anxiety in giving the UPFA a resounding victory in the election. In explaining the crucial significance  and strength of the popular belief as Gramsci points out that “it is worth recalling the frequent affirmation made by Marx on the solidity of popular belief as a necessary element of a specific situation…Another proposition of Marx is that a popular conviction often has the same energy as a material force or something of that kind which is extremely significant” (Prison Note Books p.377).As long as the UPFA is able to maintain this popular belief  in tact  their alliance will be ideologically and  politically strong.

As long as the popular belief is in tact the UPFA regime will be able to get away with any undemocratic action such as the recent 18th amendment which removed the Presidential term limits from two terms in the Constitution to an unlimited number and the power to appoint the key government officers   as   explained before. Its political strength is also   its weakness: it disregards the significance of people’s views about the issues that affect   democratic rights  in the long run  as   the 18th Amendment  was rushed through as an urgent bill. Its recent success of defeating the LTTE will also be   its long term political failure, enabling the UPFA to ignore the need to devolve power or resolve the underlying question of minority rights.

Future of democracy

The need for political stability for economic development is a poor argument for the implementation of the 18th Amendment, The UPFA is politically strong enough to provide a stable government .Secondly, there are enough historical and contemporary examples in other countries to prove that political stability alone would not lead to economic prosperity but can also lead to taking away the political rights of the masses. In order to protect democracy   it is necessary to make the citizens aware of any action by the government as to who would politically benefit from such constitutional changes and what would be the likely outcome of it in the long run. As Hannah Arendt observes “perhaps nothing in our history has been so far short lived as trust in power…nothing – finally in the modern age –more common than the conviction that “power corrupts.”(The Human Condition pp.204-205).This is why the 18th Amendment can be a tragic historical lesson for Sri Lankan democracy. When the opponents of the Amendment declared “the death of democracy” it indulged in a political despair that sent the wrong signals to the people, in effect arguing that the struggle for democracy is exhausted. This would give the opportunity for desperate elements to regain a foothold in Sri Lankan politics, rather than involving the people in a positive attempt to engage in democratic politics. Here it would be useful to  consider Salvoj Zizek’s contribution as he opines  that “it was noted long ago that democracy can be justified by either of two opposed stances, one involving trust, the other a radical distrust: (1)majority of people are ultimately good ,just, and rational enough to make the right decision;(2)people are generally so corrupt  that power can never be entrusted  to individuals  without keeping them under  constant check. But rather than seeing these two positions as opposed, one should grasp this unique combination of trust and distrust as lying the very heart of the democratic vision.”(Living in the End Times, p.391). The people should become live participants of the democratic vision combining the trust and distrust in the ardous, painful and long march to democracy. However, there is no organized political leadership to take the struggle for democracy forward as the UNP has not shown any resolution of its leadership dispute and their leaders have escalated the open catastrophic war. There is no realistic prospect of an emergence of a democratic force as the traditional Left continues to provide their uncritical support to the government. With this kind of view   they practice reckless optimism and they also believe that ultimately it would be the people who decide the fate of the incumbent President in the elections. It is interesting to note the validity what Fredrick Engels wrote in the last century, “these ideologists were gullible enough to accept on their face value all the illusions which an epoch maintains about itself, or which the ideologists of a certain period maintained about that period” (The Peasant War in Germany, 1984, p.51). We all need to reflect back and review our positions in order to strengthen the democratic change. In the absence of a viable political opposition which can take up the issues of political democracy the uncritical support received by the UPFA regime   in my view is misplaced. The critical support can restore political credibility, strengthen necessary democratic reforms and fulfill the aspirations of the people. This writer also wrote in support of the UPFA on this site just before the elections as he did not politically trust the opposition but this does not mean that support is open ended.


The decay in the political parties and their obscure class basis poses a particular danger to Sri Lanka’s fragile democracy   as they have no political strategy for democracy in line with their class ideologies. Millions of poor men and women and their families will make sense of their circumstances and gain their class consciousness only when the parties reconnect and respond to their core social base. The absence of class ideologies has also benefited the UPFA regime in attracting members from other parties particularly the UNP and further consolidating their political ambitions on the basis of Sinhalese exclusiveness which has cemented their alliance further. Their populist political endeavor is ideologically and politically hegemonic. However, in politics as in life the unexpected and unimaginable happens. The political leaders never wish to understand such scenarios. Any further constitutional amendments in order to consolidate the presidential authority can further damage an already fragile democracy. There is no guarantee that further amendments will not be introduced for the sake of ‘stability’. There is no doubt that the Sri Lankan democracy is going through its testing times after the long years of fighting and vanquishing three armed rebellions.