A vibrant Opposition, the need of the hour | Sunday Observer

A vibrant Opposition, the need of the hour

2 October, 2022
Dr. N.M. Perera-S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike-Sirimavo Bandaranaike-J.R.Jayewardene
Dr. N.M. Perera-S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike-Sirimavo Bandaranaike-J.R.Jayewardene

The origin of parliamentary democracy goes back many centuries to Great Britain where it was founded. Eventually it had been adopted by sections of the global community as the most suitable form of Government.

Prior to the Second World War a large number of countries in the East and the West were under the British Empire and after gaining independence all of them observed parliamentary democracy and started governing their countries based on democratic policies and principles. At present most of the developed and developing countries have chosen democracy as their form of Government.


Democracy is not an English word but a combination of two Greek terms Demos and Crathos. In Greek Demos means People Crathos means rule. These two Greek terms formed the English word Democracy which means peoples rule.

For democracy to function effectively there should be two main components or integral parts – the ruling party and the Opposition. It has been observed in the recent past that some democratic parties formed coalitions with other parties to capture power at times with the support of even opposition members which results in weakening the Opposition which is not a good trend in parliamentary democracy.

Great Britain was the first country to practise parliamentary Democracy through the Magna Carta. Democracy was practised and strengthened in its purest form in the United Kingdom irrespective of the party in power.

Role of Opposition

The Opposition has a major role to play in the larger interest of the nation under a democratic form of Government.

The Opposition is expected to maintain a good rapport with the ruling party while keeping a close tab on all affairs.

The Opposition should always co-operate with the Government in settling national issues or finding solutions to the problems which threaten national security or the countries territorial integrity putting aside party policies temporarily in the larger interest of the nation.

This democratic character was quite evident in the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Clement Atlee as the Opposition Leader of the British Parliament extended his fullest support to Sir Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister to win the war for Britons.

The Opposition Leader of Sri Lanka during 1970-1977 J.R. Jayewardene also extended his unconditional support to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to crush the 1971 JVP insurrection against the Government.

There have been several instances in countries which have democratic form of Governments where the Opposition parties generously saved the ruling parties from political catastrophes.

The Opposition is also expected to actively take part in Select Committees on various vital issues and make contribution for cleaner administration.

Constructive criticism by the Opposition on important matters which affect the future of the country is always expected to prevent unhealthy measures being implemented by the ruling party. The Opposition should always scrutinise the activities of the ministries and departments and divulge the relevant and accurate information before the public to disallow the authorities to act in any arbitrary manner which might be detrimental to any section or segment of its stakeholders.

The Opposition has a greater responsibility to see that the Government maintains the cost-of-living in the country which directly affects the masses. Some of the main responsibilities of a vibrant Opposition have been highlighted and therefore, the Opposition party is logically termed as the watchdog of the Nation.

In the eyes of the political analysts there is a popular maxim that says ‘Today’s Opposition is Tomorrow’s ruling party’.

If pure democracy is found in any country, the transfer of power is always negotiated with the grace of an evening tea party.’

Illustrious Opposition leaders

Sri Lanka had been governed for over seven decades on parliamentary democracy and we have had some illustrious Opposition leaders of which five of them became the national leaders at the subsequent elections.

Dr. N.M.Perera was the first Opposition leader of Independent Ceylon when D.S.Senanayake was the Prime Minister.

Dr. Perera discharged his duties as the first Opposition leader quite admirably which was appreciated even by the ruling party at times.

When Sir John Kothalawala became the Prime Minister and S.W.R.D. dramatically marshalled all the progressive forces and defeated the ruling UNP at the subsequent election overwhelmingly and became the Prime Minister with his farsighted vision.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the Opposition leader in 1965 when Dudley Senanayake was elected Prime Minister and in the subsequent election in 1970 she became the Prime Minister with the support of her able lieutenant Felix Dias Bandaranaike defeating Dudley’s Government, reducing its strength to 16 members in the House.

Dudley Senanayake passed away in 1973 and J.R.Jayewardene, the undisputed deputy leader of the party, who was already the Opposition leader was appointed party leader unanimously. J.R.Jayewardene with his ocean of knowledge on democracy and party politics, discharged his duties admirably as the Opposition leader. When Sirima’s Government was threatened by 1971 JVP insurrection J.R. Jayewardene unconditionally gave the fullest co operation to Sirima Bandaranaike to defeat terrorism. But later on when she decided to extend the parliamentary term by two years, he vehemently opposed it and resigned from his parliamentary seat as a mark of protest and secured a resounding victory at the by election.

Whilst discharging his duties as the Opposition leader, he made sweeping developing changes in his party structure and consolidated the membership in an unprecedented manner to face the forthcoming election.

He crisscrossed every nook and corner of the country and mobilised the masses against the Government whose popularity was on the wane due to the rising cost of living and scarcity of essential foodstuff following the closed door economic policies.

With his farsighted vision and astute leadership qualities JRJ mustered a historic five-sixth majority at the 1977 general election. He formed a very effective Cabinet with his able lieutenants and ruled the country effecting constitutional changes according to his whims and fancies.

During R.Premadasa’s presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa became the Opposition Leader and he took various steps against the Government to safeguard the democratic rights of the people. He organised Pada Yathras, Janagoshas and various other protest campaigns islandwide against the dictatorial rule of Ranasinghe Premadasa where arbitrary arrests, physical torture and disappearance of people were rampant.

He effectively mobilised the masses to achieve the victory for the party at the subsequent election after so many years.

Debacle of Opposition

After 17 years of UNP rule there was a change of Government and the United National Party became the main Opposition in Parliament.

Since then the UNP had cut a sorry figure except for a short stint of two years when Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected Prime Minister at the 2001 general election. Then President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved the Government prematurely owing to the pressure excerted on her by the JVP and some opportunistic members of her alliance. The UNP was defeated at the polls and Ranil Wickremesinghe became the Opposition Leader.

Thereafter the UNP lost a large member of successive elections and political analysts may cite numerous reasons for the downfall of the main Opposition, the United National Party. Owing to the repeated losses suffered by the party Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership was challenged by his own party.

Deputy leader of the party Sajith Premadasa broke away from the UNP along with a substantial number of members and entered into an agreement with Diana Gamage the owner of Samagi Janabala Wegaya, to contest the upcoming elections under her party.

At the last General Election he managed to secure over fifty parliamentary seats for the Samagi Janabalawegaya and was elected as the Opposition leader when Mahinda Rajapaksa became the Prime Minister with a two third majority in the House.

It is the general belief of political analysts that the performance of the Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa during the recent past political tsunami was not very conducive to parliamentary democracy.

The flat refusal to accept the Premiership and the Government in this crisis proves beyond doubt that he is not confident enough to accept any formidable challenge, although he tries to justify his decision by various lame excuses.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe had made a very humble request to all political parties to accept portfolios and help him to pull the country out of this disastrous economic situation until he streamlines the economy and put the country back on track.

Opposition Leader, Sajith Premadasa’s response was negative once again as usual and two of his most prominent and vociferous young members who fought against his decision, broke away from him and joined the Government realising the necessity to help the President in his endeavour to salvage the economy from its dire straits.

Sri Lanka at present has faced the unprecedented economic crisis and it is the democratic duty of the main Opposition to support the Government temporarily to overcome the problem and them to engage in party politics.

In the recent past some front liners of the Samagi Janabalawegaya air different views on vital issues which is not very healthy for a united Opposition.

One prominent member of the Samagi Janabalawegaya has already left the party and became an independent member in Parliament as he holds different views on many issues. Non participation in the National Council by some members is another grave mistake the Opposition is making according to political analysts.

Unity vital

The unity of the Opposition is of paramount importance in organising the party to march forward. The ground work should be done within a scheduled timeframe on an electoral basis and enhance it to provincial and National level eventually to project an effective challenge at a future election. Alternative, viable and attractive programs on all issues should be formulated properly by the policymaking body of the party and unanimously approved by the membership at a National Convention

The Opposition leader and all other party stalwarts should sink petty differences and work as a single unit if they are to capture power at a future election.