The essential necessity of political consensus | Sunday Observer

The essential necessity of political consensus

6 August, 2023

Although the gruesome economic and political situation that prevailed a year ago has subsided to a reasonable extent and a favourable development is evident, the uncertainties and challenges facing the country remain.

Even though the vehement anti-Government protests across the country triggered political instability, the direly required mutual consent on national issues among the country’s main political parties still seems farfetched.

Despite the positive progress that can be seen on the surface, long-term recovery requires many more matters to be resolved amicably by politicians and society as well.

Particularly with the commencement of the restructured foreign and local loans, the economic situation might confront new challenges that can be successfully dealt with only with socio-political consensus.

However, the irony is that neither the political parties that are vying for power nor most of the general public seem to have realised the extreme importance of coming to mutual agreements on critical issues.

Most Opposition political parties oppose any proposals the Government brings about, even when they are positive actions and perhaps the best that can be taken in this crucial situation. Most politicians do not seem to have an understanding of the prevailing dangers the country is facing. When the leaders of Opposition parties oppose the actions suggested by the Government, their followers take cues and create havoc to disrupt the mindset of society.

William Dressler, the respected American anthropologist, says that consensus is a cooperative process in which all group members develop and agree to support a decision in the best interest of the whole.

In consensus, the input of every participant is carefully considered, and there is a good-faith effort to address all legitimate concerns. Isn’t this what the entire citizenry, except self-obsessed politicians, is counting on?

Multifaceted challenges

In this national crisis, the country is facing multifaceted challenges that demand swift, unified, and effective responses. Procrastination does not work anymore in this situation. Perhaps the most important determinant of success in navigating such turbulent waters currently is political consensus, at least to a reasonable degree. The country desperately needs agreement among different political parties, leaders, and stakeholders on critical decisions and actions required to address the crisis. It is the most powerful tool that can foster stability, enhance public trust, and facilitate the implementation of robust policies.

In the absence of political consensus, decision-making can become protracted and contentious, leading to policy paralysis. The formation of a broad-based consensus, on the other hand, can streamline the policymaking process, enabling the Government to tackle current pressing issues efficiently and implement meaningful reforms that benefit the entire population.

For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, almost the entire population came together to implement a swift and coordinated response to combat the virus. During that time, petty political differences were virtually nonexistent. Even the legislation enacted was accepted by the entire citizenry without resistance. As a result, Sri Lanka became one of the most successful countries to recover from the pandemic, overshadowing some of the richer countries.

On the other hand, almost every political party has its own internal conflicts. Let alone national issues, most of them cannot unanimously agree on even their internal matters.

The sole intention of all major political parties is to win elections, whether they are local, provincial, parliamentary, or presidential. Therefore, they concentrate more on the voters’ favourable reaction than the national interest. At a time of crisis, fear, uncertainty, and anxiety develops in society. During such times, citizens naturally expect reassurance from the Government.

Daunting task

However, in Sri Lanka, giving such reassurance is a daunting task because, customarily and traditionally, the Opposition parties vehemently criticise the proposals suggested by the Government, even when they are good for the country and society. This always creates doubt in society. In this context, political consensus can play a pivotal role in establishing public trust and confidence in the government’s ability to address the crisis. When politicians from diverse backgrounds present a united front and speak with a cohesive voice, citizens are more likely to believe that the government is genuinely committed to resolving the crisis rather than being swayed by biased interests.

On the other hand, when political leaders engage in public bickering and blame games, public confidence in the Government erodes, which can worsen the crisis in turn.

Sri Lankan politicians are aware that a lack of political consensus can lead to the perception that politicians prioritise their own interests over the well-being of the nation.

Political stability is a key demand of the IMF and the World Bank, and supportive, friendly countries are required to assist in this critical situation. The selfish political slogan that Sri Lanka should not give in to international pressure does not work anymore. Every Sri Lankan knows that they desperately need international financial assistance.

It is adequately clear that Sri Lanka’s standing in the international arena is influenced by its domestic political dynamics. A united and stable political landscape can enhance the country’s credibility and reputation on the global stage. This, in turn, can lead to increased cooperation with other nations, access to foreign aid and investment, and a stronger position in regional and international organisations. On the contrary, political divisions and instability can weaken Sri Lanka’s international footing, making it challenging to garner support for enormous and crucial economic issues.

The economy depends on consensus between all stakeholders, not merely on the continuation of democracy, but on its functioning through consensus and tolerance. Democracy should not be limited to electoral votes. Particularly during the ongoing economic downturn, political parties, both governing and Opposition, must come together if they are genuinely concerned about the future of the country.

Biggest offenders

Completely unwarranted social division in Sri Lanka is a key negative factor in restoring economic stability and reestablishing overall growth. The biggest offenders in damaging social cohesion are politicians. Sri Lankan politicians of all levels contribute to such social divisions by unjustifiably opposing each other even in good deeds, most often for cheap political gains with hidden agendas. The public is becoming more and more aware of this factor.

Instead of fostering cohesion, the true responsibility of politicians in a national crisis, Sri Lankan politicians instigate their followers to condemn, criticize, and complain about their political opponents, creating division and animosity among citizens.

It is time that both politicians and the general public realised that political consensus could serve as a unifying force that transcends these divisions and encourages cooperation in society. The current national crisis in the country extends beyond borders, necessitating international cooperation. Political consensus within the country is an extremely important factor in strengthening the country’s negotiating position and enhancing the country’s credibility in the international arena, particularly when it comes to financial assistance.

It is known that countries that demonstrate a united front are more likely to garner support from the international community in times of economic crisis. On the contrary, a lack of political consensus can lead to diplomatic isolation, weakening the country’s ability to obtain assistance that is desperately needed.

Regrettably, in Sri Lanka, in certain circumstances, there were political leaders who publicly threatened the international community and lending institutions that they would default on loans when they came to power. Such comments were evidently made purely to gain political mileage but not clearly for the safety of the nation.

Political agreements

Political consensus during the current national crisis is not merely a desirable trait but an essential element for survival. Unless underlying issues are tackled with mutual political agreements, the country will not be able to escape from the trap of slow growth, low savings and investment, high deficits, heavy borrowing, growing indebtedness, and soaring inflation. A band-aid approach is unsustainable. A political consensus is necessary for long-term economic sustainability and growth.