By Dayan Jayatilleka –
There are two huge reality checks coming up in seven weeks. The Geneva vote will be a reality check for the Government while the Western and Southern Provincial Council election results will be a reality check for the Opposition. Both votes will illustrate and exacerbate the crises of the policy paradigms of the respective players. The twin results will illuminate and add to the overall crisis of post-war Sri Lanka, in its external and internal dimensions.
The Geneva vote takes place in a setting that structurally favours the Sri Lankan state, because 72% of the votes are from the three regions of Asia-pacific, Africa and Latin America. Therefore a loss, especially by a margin as wide as those of 2012 and 2013, would reveal a huge inadequacy in the foreign policy of the current regime. A defeat at the UNHRC could be a microcosm and precursor of an eventual defeat in a vote in the UN General assembly in New York. Similarly, a loss by the main Opposition in the Western province, which is the most modern and pluralist, and the least rural of all the island’s provinces, would indicate the result that would prevail at a national election in the country in which almost 75% are Sinhalese, 67% Buddhist and over 60% rural.
As President Obama’s former chief of staff and currently the pre-eminent Chicago politician Rahm Emmanuel once said, a crisis must not be allowed to go to waste. It is imperative that the twin votes of March 2014 be utilised for purposes of course correction by Government and Opposition.
After Geneva, the Government would have one of two choices to make. It can (i) re-examine its external and ethnic relations in the spirit of Realism and punch the re-set button so as to prevent defeat in a Cold War which will result in dismemberment as a state, or (ii) it can circle the wagons still tighter. But are there that many wagons left to circle? How can you sustain a garrison state on an economic bubble and on the doorstep of a quasi-adversarial giant?
For its part the Opposition can gear up to face the Presidential and parliamentary elections in less than a year with a candidate and a team that can minimize the incumbent regime’s margin of victory or will it continue to act as the government does in the realm of external relations—burying its head in the sand and raising it only to whistle in the dark?
On the part of some in Government there seems to be a notion that Presidential elections should be advanced to 2014. This is a pretty silly idea. As Ronald Reagan so famously said, once you’ve played your last card, you no longer have it. It is far wiser for the President to play the card of an election just before things start getting bad economically, rather than to go in prematurely for pre-emption. It would also be bad to attempt to strong arm the Supreme Court to secure a date in 2014, just as it would be unwise for the Court to make waves by a ruling which appears customised.
So much for the regime; now for the Opposition— and I should preface this part of the discussion saying that I would like to be reminded by any reader of the last time (actually, decade) I got a public prediction regarding a Presidential election wrong.
Some truly weird ideas are in public circulation, which in compressed form amount to a project of a single issue candidate who calls for the abolition of the Executive Presidency and/or a Chandrika ‘common candidacy’. Anyone who thinks that an ethnic or ethno –religious community which forms almost three fourths of a country’s population, and feels existentially threatened by external and ethnic forces (Jayalalitha, the West, the Northern PC etc) will consent to weaken a strong centripetal centre by abolishing the Presidency and thereby be ruled by a parliament that could be manipulated by a bloc of minority MPs, is ignorant of politics, both Sri Lankan and global. The Sinhalese may be many things but they aren’t suicidal suckers to fall for that recommendation of biting a political cyanide capsule just when Tamil Nadu and radical Tamil nationalism in the Diaspora are on the march. Ven Madoluwawe Sobitha’s candidacy will not be taken seriously by the highly politicised national electorate and almost certainly cannot secure a million votes. It will probably net only a few hundred thousand, if that.
Then there is the argument for Chandrika as a common Opposition candidate. Successful comebacks are made by patriotic figures such as General Charles de Gaulle, who at a time of national crisis could credibly invoke ‘la patrie’, be seen as its embodiment — and therefore appear as a Bonapartist redeemer. It should be fun to watch how CBK’s ‘ common candidature’ will fare when State television repeatedly re-telecasts the second Channel 4 movie in which she is seen telling an audience that her son wept and proclaimed he was ashamed of being a Sinhalese— sentiments not contradicted and indeed approvingly disseminated in the public domain, by his mother. This is hardly a Vihara Maha Devi figure or a Sirimavo Bandaranaike i.e. a strong Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist matriarch.
General Fonseka would do much better than CBK —perhaps as UNP candidate rather than a ‘common’ one, but the incumbent is hardly likely to enable such a candidacy by generously restoring his civic rights.
Then there’s the scenario of either Karu Jayasuriya or CBK as candidate but with Gen Fonseka covering the patriotic front as a strong running mate as it were. This may make a mischievous Mahinda Rajapaksa actually re-enfranchise Gen Fonseka, thereby tempting him to run for Presidency himself. Even if that doesn’t happen, Mahinda Rajapaksa has still not peaked as perhaps the most formidable vote-getting machine the country has seen, and is therefore likely to beat a Karu-SF-CBK combo. Face the fact: a Presidential election is primarily a popularity contest and Mahinda Rajapaksa is liked, lots, by lots of (Sinhala) people.
Does that leave any options before the Opposition? Yes, and I’d call it the ‘AK effect’ or equivalent, by which I definitely don’t mean the AK -47, but Anura Kumara (Dissanayake). The wave of social and mass media enthusiasm that greeted the generational change in the JVP is indicative of the vast energies that would be unleashed and would carry over into a Presidential and parliamentary election if —and only if— the UNP and Opposition leadership were to switch to a similar figure: a young or early middle aged parliamentarian who is a good speaker, has a progressive patriotic-progressive populist profile, is from a Sinhala Buddhist background and whose appeal can resonate in the provinces and among the economically underprivileged. Who might the UNP’s equivalent of Anura Kumara Dissanayake be?
On two earlier occasions, when it was facing a strong Sinhala nationalist resurgence, the UNP had no doubt. In 1956 in Ruanwella (facing Dr NM Perera who was at the peak of his popularity) and in 1988 in the country as a whole, the UNP picked and promoted Ranasinghe Premadasa. The young UNP rebels Shiral Laktilleke and Maithri Gunaratne have no doubts as to who can revive he UNP’s fortunes in the aftermath of the upcoming defeat at the Western and Southern PC and in time to give the incumbent a run for his money at the Presidential elections: Premadasa’s only son. I have a rider: if Premadasa Jr is going to play Hamlet, then the UNP and Opposition will have to look for an Anura Kumara Dissanayake approximation. A progressive populist young man or woman may fare better than a disenfranchised and testy war hero, a single issue monk, a bitterly shrewish Marie Antoinette or a tired gentleman who chose unwisely.