By Dayan Jayatilleka –
A mainstream party, the UNP, was killed off and another, the SLFP, is buried alive, barely breathing. These parties were the pillars of Sri Lanka’s two-party democratic system. Relatedly, the most hawkish Sri Lankan administration since 1948 is in office. That administration, the GR Presidency, didn’t kill off the UNP or almost kill off the SLFP. The ascendancy of the GR Presidency is the result of the same process that did for the UNP and SLFP.
It is far more a current of ideas and ideology, generating states of consciousness, of mind—and a social agency that peddles these ideas.
It is a series of wrong strategic and tactical moves animated by wrong ideas that culminated in the wrecking of the UNP and SLFP and the triumph of Gotabaya Rajapaksa with his Hard-Right team such as Sarath Weerasekara.
An identifiable stratum is responsible for spreading these wildly erroneous ideas and lobbying for these disastrous political choices for three decades.
This social stratum has been the wellspring and ideological disease vector for the Covid-19 pandemic of bad political ideas that has placed Sri Lankan democracy in the ICU.
1. After the defeat at the local government election at the hands of the SLPP in February 2018, when the UNP found itself turfed out by President Sirisena, it should have realized that had it used the chance and remained in opposition, building itself up and going on the attack, it could have done better. It certainly wouldn’t have been in office during the Easter blast. This after all is what Mahinda Rajapaksa did when he lost the presidency in 2015. Instead of supporting the call for an election and facing the voters, the UNP strained every nerve and succeeded in being reinstated, only to be wiped out electorally.
2. When the UNP was reinstated in office after the 52-day interregnum, it should have focused on the inevitable Presidential election of 2019, in a context it had been defeated together with the SLFP by the newly founded SLPP in February 2018. It didn’t. Instead it counted on the project of a new Constitution, the content of which further strengthened the SLPP and the Gotabaya candidacy, and further eroded its own electoral base. One of the reasons for this miscalculation was that the UNP thought it had a win-win scenario. Either the new Constitution would abolish the presidency or the US would disallow Gotabaya’s relinquishment of his US citizenship and thereby forestall his candidacy. Both calculations went horribly and predictably wrong because they were no-brainers.
3. Sajith Premadasa was named candidate well after Gotabaya had done several laps around the track as candidate. Premadasa was not given the leadership of the party as his father had been, enabling the UNP to turn a new page. The Presidential election manifesto carried over some of the biggest electoral liabilities from the Ranil years. Ranil Wickremesinghe himself popped up on stage including at the massive Galle Face Rally and made speeches while his poster popped up where he didn’t and his proxies like Ravi Karunanayake never failed to mention him in his speeches. What right-minded person could have thought Ranil an asset rather than a liability? Despite all this deadweight, young Premadasa scored 42% to GR’s 52%. How much narrower would the UNP’s margin of defeat have been were it not for the Ranil millstone around Premadasa’s neck?
4. The relative importance of Sajith, Ranil and the UNP brand was evidenced at the parliamentary election of 2020. With Sajith, the UNP clocked 42%, but without Sajith and with Ranil at the parliamentary election, the UNP sank beneath the waves, with Ranil sinking the deepest, while Sajith and his band made it into parliament clocking a more impressive performance than SWRD did at his first election in 1952.
5. These monumental miscalculations were only the endgame of a chain of such blunders made by exactly the same set of people in both the UNP and the SLFP and outside by zealously pushing the same politically suicidal line from their civil society redoubts. The list includes the PTOMS that the Chandrika presidency pushed in its last phase, with a senior diplomat as its front person (running contrary to the views of Lakshman Kadirgamar), and the CFA and the prospect of acceptance of the LTTE’s ISGA during Ranil’s earlier premiership. It is these flagship ideas, the CFA, the ISGA and the PTOMS, that saw Sinhala ultranationalism surfing a tidal wave of Sinhala nationalism and populism. It is that tidal wave that turned tsunami which finally swept Gotabaya Rajapaksa to presidential office.
6. All these disastrous ideas were pushed by the same set of people, and the same ideas- factories, such as the Berghof Foundation, which Lakshman Kadirgamar disliked and distrusted. It is the Berghof Foundation’s so-called ‘security sector reform’ ideology that finally metastasized into the ethos of the neglect of security and degrading of the armed forces that opened the door for the Easter bombings.
7. The same personnel who were ensconced in Berghof during the first CFA of Ranil Wickremesinghe, were the ones who helped draft non-unitary, non-Presidential Constitutions decades later, when he returned as PM, for the very last time.
8. This same neoliberal mindset misled President Kumaratunga into pushing for her federalizing (‘union of regions’) non-unitary constitutional ‘package’, which was utterly needless as she could have fully implemented the 13th amendment. Worsening matters was the infamous Sudu Nelum movement, which Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte held responsible for the drop in recruitment to the military and the consequent horrific military losses of the 1990s. At the 10th anniversary seminar on the Indo-Lanka Accord held in Lucerne, Switzerland, the brilliant, pro-LTTE DP Sivaram (‘Taraki’) had the participants in stitches with the tale of how the civil society intellects sent by Chandrika to Jaffna in early 1995, returned and reported that the LTTE would not go back to war—only to be followed by the LTTE’s mini-‘Pearl Harbor’ attack on two Navy boats in April 1995. One of the same civil society luminaries, an academic, followed his 1995 prognostication ten years later by declaring in print that the ongoing war during the tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa could not be won by the Sri Lankan military. It is the “Package” and Sudu Nelum that generated the first wave of Sinhala ultra-nationalist agitation (which included Ven Sobitha). The second wave arose with Ranil’s CFA and radicalized the armed forces. These two waves led to the Gotabaya project and its victory.
9. By 1988 we had two civil wars, North and South, and an external military force on our soil. This was the result of a crisis and its mismanagement by the Jayewardene administration but dating back to the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration. By 1990, two of the three problems had been solved. One civil war had been over for a year and the foreign military force had left. The Sinhala ultranationalists were utterly marginalized and when Prof Nalin de Silva was removed from the university of Colombo there was scarcely a ripple and when the impeachment conspiracy came about, the clergy of all religions supported Premadasa.
10. However, when the UNP split and the DUNF rebelled, the civil society neoliberals supported the faction which contained the UNP elite which had been responsible for the two civil wars and the intervention which Premadasa as a powerless Prime Minister had little or nothing to do with as he was not in the highest decision-making loop. The Sinhala ultranationalists, including at least one personality who is among the most influential in the GR camp today (certainly the most influential civilian), resurrected from defeat and dormancy with the DUNF and triggering the rioting against President Premadasa government, driving him to the wall and providing the unwitting diversion for the LTTE to assassinate not only Premadasa but the whole UNP leadership barring Ranil. The UNP was never elected to lead the country again.
Lincoln was able to free the slaves because he was fiercely fighting a war against secessionism and for the unity of the country. Indeed, he was able to do so in the course of that war. The heroic John Brown and other Abolitionists were unable to do so by igniting rebellion, earlier. The great emancipatory reform took state power and “a genuine patriot” –as Vice-President elect Kamala Harris described President-elect Joe Biden on the first joint interview conducted by Jake Tapper on CNN today. If she had her head clear, and listened to Lakshman Kadirgamar and Anuruddha Ratwatte, President Kumaratunga could have achieved this. She didn’t and that was the last chance for Lankan liberal democracy–until now, with the birth of a new Opposition.
Sri Lanka’s political neoliberals stood against the war to defend the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, and impeded that historic task at every turn. Thereby they discredited the very ideas they stood for, including some good ones. By overshooting the mark, they have rendered devolution, autonomy, accountability, radioactive. Association with them, their neoliberal-reformist political slogans and program, has ruined the JVP as well. Sri Lankans neoliberalism has almost finished off Sri Lankan liberal democracy.
If the Sinhala ultranationalist autocratic regime, flecked with fascistic elements, is to be electorally defeated at the first possible opportunity, beginning with the Referendum for the new Constitution and culminating with the Presidential election in 2024, the democratic Opposition has to reverse the massive shift of the majority of the Sinhala majority to the ultranationalist-absolutist cause and camp.
To achieve this, moderate-centrist patriotic space has to be reconstituted as an alternative for the Sinhala voter. The democratic camp and especially the new democratic Opposition have to be vaccinated against this deadly neoliberal ideological coronavirus that has long corroded and well-nigh destroyed the moderate political center.
The leader of the SJB and new Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, must “people-ize” the Opposition (to adopt a term of his late father).