By Dayan Jayatilleka –
There is needless confusion in the anti-government constituency; chiefly the opinion-making strata of the anti-Government zone.
It centers around seven issues: 1. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Re-entry and Role. 2. The Champika Ranawaka factor. 3. The abolition of the Executive Presidency. 4. Liberal Democracy.5. The Presidential candidacy. 6. The United Front of the Opposition. 7. The SJB’s political line, and its UNP past.
The cumulative confusion helps the incumbent regime and may even be fostered by it, but that’s a secondary matter. What matters is that the confusion must be eliminated.
That’s easy to do because the application of fact, logic and reason would dissipate most of the confusion, leaving only the reality.
1. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Re-entry & Role:
There should be no speculation as to his role, because a person who could not gain re-election from his hometown Colombo, led his party to zero elected seats in the legislatures—i.e., electoral extinction– and a smaller national percentage than the JVP, leaving it fourth place in the party tally, cannot have any positive, significant role.
Why would anyone in the Opposition follow him when he has led his party into electoral extinction? Who will vote for anyone who claims Wickremesinghe is his/her Leader?
If Wickremesinghe cared for his party, he would have allowed Ruwan or Navin to represent it in Parliament, stepped aside from the party leadership, and handed it over to Karu Jayasuriya.
2. The Champika Ranawaka Factor:
A very able politician who may be a credible candidate someday if he lives down his record of hawkish, divisive stands on minority issues, but certainly not any time soon. No one who came way down the list of preference votes in the Colombo District (which has what Kumar David calls ‘the Dharmapala Belt’ of suburban middle-class Sinhala Buddhist voters) can be considered a serious contender for the Presidency at the very next election, which requires securing 50.1 percent of the popular vote.
The reality is that the SJB will in the foreseeable future, always have a leader with a UNP lineage—a UNP backstory– just as the SLPP will always have one with an SLFP lineage—an SLFP backstory. Non-UNP candidates were an anomaly, which existed simply because Ranil Wickremesinghe was not a viable candidate after two successive defeats. Sajith Premadasa has the ultimate UNP backstory, of a heroic, patriotic-populist President as father. Memories of the latter’s people-friendly developmental record, enable breakthrough to the Sinhala heartland, without playing the ethnoreligious chauvinist card.
The network that wants Champika as the future candidate is the Opposition’s equivalent of those who pushed for Gotabaya Rajapaksa as candidate. They are the Opposition’s version of Viyathmaga.
One must have enough intellectual respect for the greats of the past, with their superb education, stellar achievements, international recognition, accumulated experience and wisdom, and long-range perspective, to accept that they know considerably better than you, especially in making choices and picking winners.
The most senior and the brainiest of Lanka’s ex-politicians, the only one of the front-line veterans of the UNP’s landslide of 1977 and the Open Economy growth miracle, Ronnie de Mel, publicly picked Sajith Premadasa as nothing less than “the only hope for Sri Lanka”:
“I think that the only hope for Sri Lanka to make a comeback is if you can get the whole thing going under your control and the control of policies that you represent. That’s the only hope for Sri Lanka. I will say that openly, and have said that to many people…Sri Lanka is in a dire situation…I am very fearful at times at what might happen…I hope you will be able to save Sri Lanka…I always feel that you are the only hope…” (TV News, April 11th 2021)
A famous line in one of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, Magnum Force, runs: “A good man always knows his limitations”. That’s good advice for politicians too.
3. The Executive Presidency:
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe wasted time and valuable political capital in the endeavor for a new Constitution, which not only proved a vain quest, but also weakened both political personalities while vastly strengthening their opponents.
Which future President will follow their footsteps and why? Which candidate will ask for a vote for the Presidency on the pledge to abolish it, and after the memory of Yahapalayana, who will vote for that slogan, instead of a Presidential program for a more caring, humane, efficient Sri Lanka?
When the most significant progressive-oriented victories of recent times have been those of Joe Biden, Pedro Castillo and Lopez Obrador’s party, i.e., every one of them in Presidential systems, why would anyone in Sri Lanka want to revive the eccentric slogan of abolishing the Presidency?
Where in the world, did any country last switch from an elected Presidency to the Westminster model?
4. Liberal Democracy:
The necessary defense of liberal democratic values should be rescued from the slogan of the abolition of the executive presidency, abandoning the unitary character of the state and supporting the Geneva 2015 resolution.
Are the USA and France not liberal democratic republics? Why should Sri Lanka’s liberal democracy be wedded to the colonial past of a Westminster model which exists in a non-Republican matrix and coexists with a monarchy? Is unitary France not a liberal democracy?
Can liberal-democracy succeed in Sri Lanka without incorporation into social democracy and without the legitimacy of an inclusive, pluralist, liberal, moderate nationalism?
Shouldn’t the effort of Lankan liberal-democratic civil society been to include Karu Jayasuriya in the SJB perhaps as Chairperson, instead of wasting time pushing the same old slogan of the abolition of the executive presidency, and vainly projecting him as an alternative to the social-democratic Sajith Premadasa?
5. The Candidacy:
Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka performed very creditably to notch 40% of the vote at the presidential election of January 2010. That was at the height of his popularity, having been war-winning Army Commander less than a year earlier, in May 2009. He would be a formidable Cabinet Minister and a symbolic guarantee of national security, sovereignty, territorial integrity and the unitary character of the state.
Sajith Premadasa, running against the Mahinda Rajapaksa-supported Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as candidate and former Cabinet Minister of a discredited UNP government, got 42% in November 2019. He is clearly the most popular single personality in terms of vote-gathering potential, in the anti-Government zone.
6. An Opposition United Front:
The Government is in trouble today because it has no enemy to point to as a threat to the nation; no Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP waiting in the wings whom the government can warn the people against and thereby solidify the Sinhala-Buddhist vote. If Ranil is given any role in the Opposition, the Government will be able to remind the public of all that happened before, and retard the swing against it.
Therefore, for any kind of united front between the SJB and the UNP to even be considered, a precondition must be that the UNP is led and represented by someone other than Ranil Wickremesinghe.
An Oppositional United Front should indeed be formed, but reflecting the actual representation in Parliament and setting aside the issue of the executive Presidency beyond a shared commitment to reforming it. It should concentrate on a progressive social program. It is illogical to say that the SJB cannot win without the UNP. What does the UNP bring to the table? The figure of Ranil Wickremesinghe which if seen on stage, with the SJB, would as in November 2019, only deprive the SJB of votes it is likely to attract! A new party doesn’t imperatively require an old one which can account for only 2% of the vote, to win an election. Fortunately for the Pohottuwa, its personalities never lacked the confidence that it could win with or without the SLFP.
Furthermore, the valuable project of an Opposition United Front should surely privilege the JVP rather than the UNP as the main partner of the SJB? The JVP has elected MPs and 3% of the vote, unlike the UNP. It also has mass organizations unlike the UNP.
7. The SJB’s line & the UNP’s line:
Why should the SJB and its leader be criticized for not sticking to the UNP’s position of the past 25 years, when those policies were utterly rejected by the electorate? Why should the SJB leader be criticized for attending the Victory Day parade? Isn’t the victory over the Tigers, the end of the war and the onset of peace – however cold that peace is—not something to be celebrated? Isn’t the victory of the Sri Lankan armed forces in a long war to prevent the division of this small country, not to be celebrated by the Leader of the SJB and the Opposition? Wouldn’t his non-participation and absence have signaled that the SJB was following the same unpatriotic, anti-armed forces attitude of the Wickremesinghe UNP which drove 75% of the Sinhala voters, who are almost 75% of the country, into the arms of the Rajapaksas?
Why shouldn’t the SJB retain and exercise the advantage of repositioning so as to draw votes from all quarters, transcending the traditional polarizations which reduced the UNP to zero elected representatives in Parliament?
Given the coming crisis of agriculture, the collapse of the peasantry and food supply, the SJB has the historic chance to break into the SLPP-SLFP rural heartland and win over Rajapaksa voters. The SJB can restore the peasant base that DS Senanayake built and bequeathed the party through his combination of patriotism, agrarianism and welfarism. The SJB cannot do so by programs, slogans and urban-cosmopolitan elitist mentality of the Ranilist UNP years — the “toiyya vs. baiyya” line—that led the UNP to electoral extinction. Nor can the SJB win the rural voter through a strategy that privileges winning over the UNP’s residual 2% vote by associating with its discredited, decrepit, “Walking Dead” Eternal Leader.
President Gotabaya’s and the Rajapaksa-led Pohottuwa’s last card will be a referendum for a new constitution that declares Sri Lanka a Sinhala-Buddhist state. That can be defeated by a call for a protest vote but that will not be enough. It will be necessary to breakthrough to and win over the rural SLFP voter. As Ranasinghe Premadasa proved when in 1988 he defeated the nationalist Sirimavo Bandaranaike, known as “The Heroic Mother of The Nation” (“Jathiye Veera Mathaawa”), that takes a patriotic, socioeconomic Populist project. Two recent ‘left Populist’ victories, that of President Lopez Obrador’s party in the midterm elections in Mexico, and of Presidential candidate Pedro Castillo in Peru, underscores that lesson.