By Dayan Jayatilleka -
With the atrophy of intellectual activism and the dying out of an activist intelligentsia in Sri Lanka, it is not to be expected that anyone would engage intelligently and at length with what one writes. I am therefore thankful that Vishnuguptha has done so. I am all the more appreciative because I have been a regular reader of the column since it made its appearance on the website Lanka Standard and then in pages of Ceylon Today. I find it knowledgeable, thoughtful, passionately argumentative and unafraid to confront that which most columnists prefer to avoid: the chronic crisis of the UNP.
Let me respond in the same constructive spirit as he has and take it further in search of a solution. What are we discussing? It is either the reconstruction and renovation of the UNP to return it to electoral viability, for which a new leadership is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition, or the launch of a new Centrist project and formation.
To my mind a viable UNP or a politically serious spin-off must position itself between and therefore define itself against both the minoritarian deviation of Ranil Wickremesinghe as well as the earlier majoritarian deviation of DB Wijetunga whose “tree and creepers” perspective gave the minorities the creeps and lost the UNP some of its traditional support, enabling Chandrika Kumaratunga to pick up the slack with ease.
This, however, is not enough. A renovated UNP or a new-born Centrist formation must also pick up on the dormant disaffection in the SLFP caused by (a) the imposition of a glass ceiling beyond which a non-member of the ruling family may not proceed or realistically aspire to and (b) the neoconservative reversal of the modernisation of SLFP consciousness by Chandrika Kumaratunga. This decidedly does not mean a restoration of Chandrika-ism. What it does mean is an admixture of Mahinda’s tough-mindedness on sovereignty and security and Chandrika’s successful introduction of multiethnic pluralism into the SLFP.
Both these moves, not just the one, are imperative to retrieve the lost appeal and votes of the UNP, while attracting votes that have shifted to the SLFP under Ranil’s leadership of the UNP and Mahinda’s of the SLFP. These twin moves are also necessary to win over the young/new votes.
I strongly disagree with Vishnuguptha though, that a new centrist formation should not seek to contest a presidential election and should only enter a parliamentary one. In politics in general and in Sri Lanka in particular, no electoral opportunity or space should go uncontested. If one’s critique is of Ranil’s leadership rather than the UNP as a party, it is illogical not to contest the Presidential election while entering the parliamentary one. The presidential election also affords unmatched chances for heightening the profile of one’s project and getting one’s message across to the people. No party which ducks the high profile presidential contest and limits itself to the low profile, lower stakes parliamentary one, will or can be taken seriously.
What kind of Presidential candidate is needed? The incumbent regime’s very considerable legitimacy derives primarily but not solely from victory in war, but also from renewing the strength of the state and the status of the majority Sinhalese, both of which had been seriously diminished during the erosion of the state’s authority at the hands of the Tigers and external forces (e.g. Norway) during the Ranil-Chandrika years.
Therefore, no one who was and remains identified with that dark dismal age can be a serious contender. A viable candidate must be who fits one of three criteria: participation in the nation’s successful resistance to and fight-back against the LTTE; support for that resistance; or at the least non-opposition to the war. Credentials on this single issue will not suffice and has to be combined with a proven commitment to an open democracy and a fairer society. The centrist project that we speak of must be a progressive centrism on socioeconomic issues fused with a liberal, moderate nationalism.
What are the prospects of such a new centrist project? A brand new centrist party, outspoken on socioeconomic equity issues, broke through and carved out a significant space in the recently held Israeli elections, confounding the pundits who thought that the electorate had shifted so massively to the religious Right that Netanyahu’s coalition would sweep the polls. In the event he won narrowly.
As for the prospects of a progressive centrist Presidential candidate, he or she may not win the first time out, but then again, the man proclaimed by Barack Obama to be the most popular politician on the planet and by TIME magazine as “the most successful politician of his time”, Brazil’s Lula, contested the Presidential election three times, scoring an improvement in his vote and even losing narrowly, before he finally won. As for the ‘who’ of it, there are several new politicians who are sounding good. If not, surely 20 million Sri Lankans, or let’s be frank, 15 million Sinhalese, can surely provide one.