Jul 07 2005

Should one use raw political power or govern by consensus?

The second parallelism I saw between political developments in Sri Lanka and in the US has been the breakdown in the usual rules of behavior regarding building consensus.

To some extent, politics in both Sri Lanka and the US are insider’s games. The people in the leadership of the two main parties tend to be members of the same elites, representing two wings of the same political and social class, and the same interests. Hence they tend to adopt ‘rules of the game’ that are usually civil and polite. One benefit of this civility is that the interests of the minority party at any given time is not completely ignored because the ruling party understands that it might be in the minority after the next election. The disadvantage is that the two parties do not challenge the basic status quo and the ruling elites, since they are both members of that same class.

Looking only at the positive side, the protection of minority interests in consensus-style governance has the effect of providing some political continuity, especially in parliamentary systems, where the legislature is a collection of individuals, each elected to represent a given geographic area. Under such a system, it is possible for a political party with just a bare majority of voters to have an overwhelmingly large majority in the legislature. In multiparty systems, it is even possible for a party that does not have even a majority of the popular vote to have a majority in the legislature. This can lead to wide swings in legislative majorities after each election (without a corresponding swing in actual votes or voter sentiment), so having rules that enable people to function both in and out of power becomes important

In Sri Lanka, this sense of following unwritten rules that benefited both sides existed until around 1970 and then started falling apart as each of the major parties started using raw political power to ram through policies that tended to ignore the interests of the opposing party. In 1970, one party (the SLFP) got a huge (more than two-thirds) majority and used that majority to change the constitution using a device of somewhat dubious legality. They even used their majority to unilaterally extend the life of the parliament by two years, so that instead of elections falling due in 1975, they were next held in 1977.

But in 1977, there was another big swing of the political pendulum and the opposition party (UNP) came to power with a huge (also more than two-thirds) majority. They too enacted sweeping constitutional changes, a chief one being replacing the old system of individual seats by a proportional representation system. Since the proportional representation system tends to provide a parliament that reflects more accurately the percentage of votes a party receives, it also had the effect of ensuring that future parliaments would be unlikely to have the two-thirds parliamentary majorities needed for undoing the constitutional changes that the UNP had put in place.

But since the huge majority that the UNP obtained in 1977 was still in place until the next election, the UNP was free to make constitutional changes freely, and this they proceeded to do, sometimes in the most self-serving way, making a mockery of democratic principles. For example, the government extended the life of the parliament (with its huge majority) by using a simple-majority referendum.

Another example of using raw power was how political defections were handled. It used to be that governments could be toppled if enough members of parliament switched allegiance from the government party to the opposition. Members had done this in the past for a variety of reasons, for political principles, as a mark of protest, or merely for personal ambition or other similarly ignoble reasons.
The post-1977 constitution eliminated this threat to the government’s stability by saying that if a member switched parties, that person automatically lost his or her seat and was replaced by someone from the party being vacated, thus maintaining the party status quo. This was a huge disincentive for any member to switch, since nothing would be gained. But then some members of the opposition said they wanted to switch to the government side. Since the government wanted to encourage this defection for propaganda purposes, the government used its huge majority to make a constitutional change that said that people could switch sides without losing their seats provided parliament voted to approve each such switch. This guaranteed that only party switching that favored the government could place, since only the government side had the votes to approve the switch.

This kind of frequent and ad-hoc changes to the constitution to serve narrow partisan ends resulted in a devaluation of the respect that a constitution should have. At one time, a joke made the rounds in Sri Lanka that had someone entering a bookstore and asking to purchase a copy of the constitution and being told that “Sorry, we do not sell periodicals.”

While I have observed this trend in Sri Lanka politics over the last three decades or so, its parallel development in the US is much more recent. The fight over the use of the filibuster, the attempts to enshrine a flag-burning amendment in the constitution, the battles over judicial nominees, the attempt to breach the establishment clause of the first amendment, are signs that using raw political power to gain short-term goals is gaining ground here too. The argument seems to be that political power is there to be used in whatever way possible.

There are two views on this trend. Some disapprove, saying that achieving consensus government is preferable, since that avoids nasty partisan battles and wild swings in policies. They appeal for ‘bipartisanship.’ Others argue that the problem with consensus politics and bipartisanship is that the politics of the most reactionary elements wins out, since bipartisanship usually results in the most intransigent person or party getting his or her own way. Also bipartisanship can be a symptom that the two major parties are in fact colluding to protect their common interests at the expense of the excluded classes. Such people argue that at least with using raw political power, there is a chance that your side will someday be in the ascendant and able to use it to pursue politics that you like.

This is a tricky question to which there is no simple answer, at least one that I can see.

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