Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP on ‘Preparing for Power and Forming Governments’at the Council of Asian Liberal and Democrats seminar on  ‘Asian Liberal Parties in Power: Getting there, Remaining there’ . Manila, June 2010 on the occasion of the inauguration of President Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III.


I am not sure that I am quite the right person to speak at this session. Indeed, when the topic of the seminar was first proposed, I suggested that the word ‘power’ was inappropriate, and that we should instead discuss the idea of Asian Liberal Parties in government. The liberal ideal should, after all, be that governments divest themselves of power as much as possible, and allow individuals to get on with their lives and their businesses, subject only to rules, not to decisions by those in authority.

However it was pointed out that the concept of power was inextricably tied up with electoral practice in our societies – and perhaps in all societies – and so I accepted that the word ‘power’ was a magnet that attracted the sort of support that parties need if they are to take office. A consequence of this, unfortunate but inevitable, is that those who contribute to electoral success need not just recognition but also rewards. This often takes the form of positions in government, and indeed as Mr Rudd found to his cost just last week in Australia, it also requires constant attention to personal as well as political relationships.

My diffidence about all this, what might be termed the impractical analysis I employ about the exercise of power in government, may spring from the fact that the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka is not especially likely to win power and form a government. But I think it is also worth noting that power, from a liberal perspective, must always belong to the people. Even though it is necessary, given the representative nature of democracy, for parties to exercise that power on behalf of the people, they must be always aware that their power is limited, and its tenure must always be subject to the people’s will. Thus it is vital, even in dividing up the spoils of power, or of office, to ensure that the arrangements put in place will be conducive to the welfare of the people who have put us in government. And obviously the programmes to be implemented must respect the welfare as well as the will of the people, if only because the people will sooner or later give their verdict on performance.

At the same time this factor cannot remain constantly in mind to the exclusion of all else, because therein lies the road to populism. That word should not necessarily be used disparagingly, since it is both necessary and desirable that parties remain popular, but popularity should not be the sole goal of government.  There is need of hard decisions, that may often be unpopular, but governments must be prepared to take such decisions, and trust that the benefits of these will become clear in time, and make up for popularity that is sacrificed in the short term.

We have indeed many examples of this phenomenon in recent times, often involving liberal parties. You are all aware of the tough financial measures put in place by the coalition government in Britain, measures which the Liberal Party leader has taken pains to explain to colleagues all over the world. We know of cuts in public spending in Germany, while nearer home we are aware of the enormous difficulties faced by the Democrat Party in Thailand, and the manner in which the government there had to deal with an unashamedly populist insurrection.

Again we are grateful to our colleagues there for the constant flow of information they provided to enable us to explain actions that might superficially have seemed illiberal. In this regard indeed we see one of the greatest threats to governments that need to take decisions that may not be popular, namely the sound bite approach of modern media, which seems designed to exacerbate the negative aspects of all actions. Since unfortunately the actions of governments are subject to greater scrutiny, we have then the sad result that tough decisions are made tougher by the relentless criticism of short term ill effects in which the media indulges.

And we have to recognize that the media too often has an agenda, and that it is naïve to talk of an independent media. I am for instance fascinated by the manner in which the differences between Europe and America about how to deal with the current recession will be played out in the media, remembering too the very different perspectives we had on how to deal with the Asian crisis of a decade and more ago. I have not the expertise to offer advice on this and, perhaps even more pertinently, we know that the dogmas prescribed by different perspectives need constant adjustment according to circumstances. It has been proved over and over again over the last few years, not only with regard to the financial crises that assail us so regularly, that it is necessary for any government to deal with any crisis on an empirical basis, using principles but never letting these dominate at the expense of people.

What is vital however is constant communication, explanation of the decisions government makes and what results are expected, with regular monitoring of the impact of such decisions and flexibility of response to what transpires. All this of course sounds ideal, and we can see in countries in which liberals have been in government the various pitfalls that occur. But, as we have seen in both India and Sri Lanka over the last year, governments that had to take tough decisions but showed themselves in constant touch with the people, were able to win reelection, and with greater majorities, in spite of economic hardships.

If I might spend some time on the Sri Lankan example, we like Thailand in recent months suffered from excessive criticism in some international media outlets, which in fact influenced public and political opinion in some quarters. The result was continuous disbelief that the government would achieve what it had said it would do, namely rid the country of terrorism, and then resettle those who had been displaced as swiftly as possible. This has now been done and, even though we have faced considerable economic difficulties, voters have expressed themselves more than satisfied, in both Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

In this context what should the role of the Liberal Party be? I am currently a Member of Parliament through the National List of the governing coalition. This coalition includes nationalist elements as well as former Stalinists and Trotskyists, who are ironically the favourite elements of the West in the coalition because, until my own entry into Parliament, they were seen as the parties most pluralistic in their approach to the national question. Certainly they have achieved more through legislation in the last few years, to enforce language rights for instance, than was done in the preceding decade and a half after we finally enshrined two official languages, both Sinhala and Tamil, in our Constitution.

Given that the Liberal Party was initially a think tank, and is still seen as a party of ideas, it is important to continue to suggest coherent policies in a number of areas in which the government sees the need for reform. One cannot expect acceptance of all suggestions, especially inasmuch as the Party is still seen as somewhat impractical in its ideals, and not likely to command enough popular support to win elections. However it is significant that a couple of suggestions initially made by the Liberal Party alone – and scorned then by other parties – have already found mention in the government manifesto.  We have also re-established the Council for Liberal Democracy, a cross-party grouping that is concerned with reform, and have been able to provide suggestions to Ministers in areas of concern.

Let me then take a moment to attempt to answer direct, with reference to the Sri Lankan situation, the questions laid out in the concept paper for this Seminar with regard to this particular session. What are the immediate issues that confront the Government elected earlier this year, and what tasks must it immediately accomplish? To put it in a nutshell, our Government recognizes the paramount need now to move swiftly towards reconciliation and inclusivity. At the same time it remains aware of efforts to revive terrorism, not to any worrying extent in Sri Lanka, but in the form of expatriate influences that had grown used for years to the idea of violence and separation as the only solutions for political problems. We must then balance between political and social imperatives on the one hand, and security considerations on the other, in a context in which Sri Lanka was for too long the passive recipient of advice and exhortations that were not based on reality or any principles generally accepted in other conflict situations. In moving forward then we must be conscious of the need to communicate swiftly and effectively to make clear the rationale and the aims of actions taken.

What, to move on, are the political realities attending the formation of this government, what are the dynamics of coalition building and what will make the current coalition survive? Obviously one has to recognize the different perspectives of the different parties in the coalition, but one should concentrate on the commonalities rather than the differences, the commonalities that enabled the government before the election to destroy terrorism while ensuring acceptance by all parties to the coalition of the principles of devolution and pluralism that would help to eradicate the root causes of terrorism. What is vital is a spirit of respect, endeavours to understand the imperatives that underlie the approach of the different parties – including indeed those in opposition that are willing (and able now, without the threat of terrorism hanging over them) to enter into productive discussion. At the same time government needs to be firm on issues of principle, and not permit divisive and sectarian tendencies to step in through the back door now that the terrorist vehicle that conveyed them for so long has finally been defeated.

Finally, the question as to the balance between political expediency and a party’s commitment to a programme of government and public promises seems to me a non-question inasmuch as it obviously depends on the impact of any decision. Principles and commitments must be upheld, but clearly not at the cost of rendering them useless, a victim of subsequent electoral defeat. Governments have then to judge what actions that are unpopular can be effected with no lasting negative effects, if they are based on commitments and are judged necessary for future benefits, that it is hoped will also prove popular. Clearly, as noted above, these are matters for empirical decisions, with theory not providing any practical assistance – except only that governments should note that what does not appeal to the media is not necessarily unpopular with the people. Risks must be taken at times, but on the basis of the willingness and the ability to explain them, the belief that the people are often better judges of what will help them in the long run than political commentators and analysts who have their own perspectives however independent they might claim to be.

In the current context in Sri Lanka, where I believe the path ahead lies clear, even though efforts to shift us to one side or the other through misplaced enthusiasm or unthinking prejudice will occur, I believe liberal perspectives will prove useful. I trust that through my presence in Parliament I will be able to put these forward even more effectively than previously, not necessarily for wholesale adoption but for adaptation and inclusion as required.

I go back then to my original diffidence about the word ‘power’, but would add that I feel no diffidence whatsoever about being without power at all myself, or in terms of the party. Power seems to me a temporal entity, to be exercised by those with greater political skills and abilities, now for the much greater good of the people in Sri Lanka – and in the Philippines and Thailand and Malaysia and Britain and Germany and the Netherlands and the United States, given the involvement of liberals in government. But the power of liberal ideas is something that will continue I hope to pervade our societies, whoever the individuals – and these will include those not formally part of government too – who make crucial decisions.