By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The democratic movement is facing so dangerous a regime that glaring mistakes in analysis and strategy will cost lives. One such blunder is the myth of 2015. The pro-Opposition intelligentsia hasn’t rid itself of the myths that the twin electoral victories of 2015, the presidential and parliamentary elections constitute a model of democratic success that recommends itself as warranting a replay.
This would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. The experiment that started in 2015 ended with the ruin of the two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, with the UNP being wiped out of parliament and its leader being electorally evicted from his home base and party stronghold of Colombo. How could anyone regard an experiment which ended with such a destructive outcome for its participants, as a source of nostalgia, high achievement and something to be repeated?
After Nazism issued from and overthrew the Weimar Republic, no sane mind recommended the Weimar Republic as a model for the anti-fascist struggle and the post-fascist future. Indeed, it was forever damned as an example of bourgeois weakness and decadence which should be avoided unless one wished to risk a fascist rebirth. So also, Sri Lanka’s 2015.
What is especially curious is that this nostalgia for a previous victory which had been superseded by a shattering defeat is something new and grotesque in Sri Lankan politics. After the UNP had been defeated in 1956, it never waxed lyrical about how it had won in 1952. After the UNP had been crushed by the United Front victory of 1970, it never sought refuge in the memory of its last victory in 1965 and the government it led in 1965-1970.
The UNP in Opposition was the model of a forward-looking formation which never once mentioned 1965-1970, and went on to seize the public imagination with its appealing reformat.
To press home the point, when Ranasinghe Premadasa came forward to save the UNP from the jaws of defeat and death in 1988, he never harked back to 1977, and indeed never did so throughout his presidential tenure.
Thus, the invocation of 2015, instead of being critiqued for the disaster it was, is a grotesque anomaly in Oppositional thinking.
When the US Democrats faced Trump in 2020, they had got themselves into shape by focusing on the reasons for the defeat of 2016, not the vanished glories of 2008 and 2011.
The Sri Lankan democratic movement should take as its starting point its most recent defeats, which are by definition closer in time than its precarious victory of 2015.
If indeed those of UNP provenance or sympathies wish to look back nostalgically at a victory, it surely not be that of 2015, but the far more conclusive ones of 1977 and 1988 which hardly figure in the discussion.
The other question is why the democratic Opposition should look back at only those victories of the UNP as models of success. Why not all the victories of democratic parties in Sri Lanka including those led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa? Why can’t those be taken as models or incorporated into a synthesis of success together with the UNP’s successes?
One weak answer proffered seems to be that the Rajapaksas were defeated in 2015 and therefore that year should be taken as a model. That reasoning is faulty on at least two counts.
Firstly, democracy is facing Gotabaya Rajapaksa while the man who lost in 2015 was Mahinda Rajapaksa. Except for a few holdouts, all objective analysts now recognize a firewall (at the least) between the two. The two models of governance are not on a continuum, let alone mere variations on a theme. What worked with MR won’t work with GR and in fact produced GR.
Secondly, MR lost in August 2015 simply because President Sirisena did to him what Ranil Wickremesinghe did to Sajith Premadasa in 2019; pulled the rug from under him. President Sirisena’s last moment statement that he would not make MR the Prime Minister, paralyzed a segment of the SLFP voter. That factor, which will never be repeated, makes August 2015 an anomaly; not a model of strategy and tactics for the democratic movement.
2015 had an external component as well, which some democratic Oppositionists still uphold, and that is the co-sponsorship of the 2015 Geneva UNHRC resolution. That is as much a “model’ as boasting about having signed up to the Treaty of Versailles – another contributing factor, together with the weak Weimar Republic, to the rise of Nazism–would have been.
The core of 2015 was composed of two halves: (i) the single-issue common candidacy and that single issue was the abolition of the executive presidency and a (ii) formula of winning the majority of the minorities and a minority of the majority. That platform and that strategic perspective, perceived and in actual practice experienced as, a formula for state-debilitation, was a powerful catalyst of the Sinhala Alt-right backlash, or rather, the inevitable statist-nationalist backlash taking an ultranationalist-militarist form, given that MR had been ruled-out as candidate by a Constitutional amendment.
The Sinhala voter will not return to a ‘2015’ platform, with its abolitionist plank, any more than the Russian voters will opt for another Yeltsin and return to anything that smacks of the 1990s.
Thus, the myth of 2015 as a Camelot of liberal democracy only makes probable that even if the democratic opposition wins, the predictable next backlash—either pre-emptive or reactive–would not take the form of a Gotabaya or Rajapaksa return but (a) an Egyptian (Army commander in civilian suit) outcome of the sort that resulted from the Arab Spring or (b) an outright Myanmar-model military takeover.