Dissent and democracy

The fifth executive President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka has spoken. He wants his former Campaign Manager Mangala Samaraweera brought to his knees politically – sans portfolio, sans security, and if possible, sans dignity. Over the last week, he has been harassed, subject to all manner of humiliation and kept virtually under house arrest. Now it seems that moves are afoot to remove Samaraweera from his district organiser post in his Matara electorate at the next SLFP executive committee meeting. Samaraweera’s colleague in adversity, Sripathi Sooriyarachchi looks destined to suffer the same ignominies.
Mangala Samaraweera himself no mean hand in the game of politics, committed what could only be called political suicide when he decided to dissent against certain government goings-on. The senior cabinet minister entered parliament back in 1988, when he gave up a career in fashion design to follow the footsteps of his father and has remained an SLFP stalwart throughout.
Having ushered in the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election of 2005, Samaraweera now stands upon the razor’s edge, walking a thin line between permanent political oblivion and emerging as a political rebel at a time when it has become a dangerous thing to speak one’s mind. If he opts to take the latter path, then all indications are that he had better have a good grasp of who he is taking on – the executive presidency is a formidable foe.
Dissent, it would seem is virtually impossible under an executive presidency system. It is for all intents and purposes, the be all and the end all of governance in the country. It is almost impossible to remove the President and to attempt to do so would effectively mean instant political death. If Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake paid a dear price for dissent against the executive, then Mangala Samaraweera seems destined to go the same way, unless saner counsel prevails.
This is unlikely however. This was made abundantly clear when a hotel in Colombo was informed that hosting the Samaraweera-Sooriyarachchi press conference last Thursday would not bode well for them, politically speaking. At the eleventh hour, the press conference was hastily moved to the parliamentary complex where the Speaker of Parliament holds sway, but the manipulation of this hidden hand only served to strengthen the dissidents’ argument – that here was regime that would certainly not brook dissent or deviation from the path dictated by the powers that be. The powers that be being to Sri Lanka’s great misfortune, only the executive president.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is not alone when it comes to adopting the “my way or the highway” attitude. It was quite apparent how UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe turned a deaf ear to repeated calls for reforms within his party which eventually resulted in a number of prominent members leaving the Grand Old Party. Disgruntlement is also rife in UNP circles because of the way the party’s Apex body, the Working Committee is filled with nominees of the Leader. Despite severe agitation within party ranks for a more democratic constitution instead of the current autocracy, the UNP still remains for all intents and purposes, a one man show. In that party too, the price of dissention against the leadership has been the same – political suicide.
All this said and done, Mangala Samaraweera is by no means a political saint and his ouster and consequent embarrassment and harassment may be viewed by his detractors as divine justice, given his vile verbal attacks and ability to exact political revenge from opponents when in the driving seat of power. The SLFP has been since its inception, a party ruled by family dynasties, a phenomenon Samaraweera appeared to take no issue with while he was in the inner stratum of the Bandaranaike dynasty. In which case, why does he choose to revolt now, when the Rajapaksas since their turn has come, have opted to keep it all in the family as well? In fact, none of us recall Samaraweera speaking up against human rights violations, corruption and suppression of media freedom when he was a key player in the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration – a regime that in no way upheld democratic norms and principles in the way Samaraweera is demanding they be upheld today. His dissension and noble statements on good governance would have perhaps held more water had he shown a tendency back in those dark days to stand up against the malpractices of the Kumaratunga administration. It is Sri Lanka’s greatest misfortune that her political leaders only speak of democracy and good governance when their own necks – in other words their portfolios – are on the line. Absolute power has only been good for politicians of this country when they themselves have wielded it. It may well be therefore, that the power struggle unfolding before us today amounts to no more than a case of sour grapes, because in this administration, the reins of power are in the hands of a different sent of individuals, a fact that is resulting in some bitterness for the likes of Samaraweera.
All this notwithstanding however, in the here and now, Sri Lanka is still a democracy. And so, while we may disapprove of his tactics and his political manoeuvring and expediency, we will, as Voltaire put it, defend to the death his right to engage democratically. And dissent is, whether the Rajapaksas like it or not, part and parcel of the democratic process. Samaraweera’s right was, as a responsible and senior member of the cabinet, to bring it to the government’s notice when it erred and to set it back on the correct path, within the confines of collective cabinet responsibility. We have said it before and we will say it again now, at a time when the political tide turns dangerous for one and all, if we do not speak now, we will find ourselves without a voice to speak for us when it is our turn to be oppressed. The Mangala Samaraweeras of today might be of no great consequence, but his ouster and the events that followed brought with it a grim forewarning that if opposition is going to be steadily and stealthily silenced, a whole a citizenry stands at risk of being oppressed tomorrow.