By Rajan Philips –
Electoral victories are not Pyrrhic victories in the historical sense of the ancient Sicilian war between the Roman Empire and King Pyrrhus of Epirus. Pyrrhus won the battles but at great cost to himself. “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, said Pyrrhus, “we shall be utterly ruined.” Hence, Pyrrhic victory. Modern electoral victories are different. The winning parties usually take everything before them, while the losing parties are often left with nothing. If at all, Pyrrhic outcomes arrive later, and often self-inflicted. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is perhaps unprecedented in Sri Lankan electoral history for winning a momentous victory and turning it into a grave digging operation on the very morrow of that victory. The infamous 18th Amendment turned out to be quite Pyrrhic for former President and current Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
It is still early days for the new President and former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and even his worst critics are wishing him well and are hoping that he would be able to break the country’s vicious political cycle even if he is not able to turn it into a fully virtuous cycle during his term in office. Even the President’s assertions that the problems of the Tamils and the Muslims can be readily solved through economic development without talking about devolution, could be well taken for their well-meaning intent regardless of their understandably ill-informed premises.
The Swiss Embassy fiasco of not of the government’s making, although the government’s overzealous supporters might be told to tone down their overkill rhetoric for the country’s sake. The Millennium hot potato has been safely handed for cooling to a Committee of officials. One would hope that the Committee would also consult with the Sri Lankan government officials and technical experts who were involved in the identification of the two MCC (Transport and Land) Projects and obtain their views on the intended benefits of the Projects that they had identified. It would also be helpful to quietly consult Sri Lankan technical experts familiar with traffic engineering, public transit, environmental assessment, land survey and digital mapping, who as active professionals would be reluctant to get into shouting matches with internet scholars making wild connections between traffic cameras and national security.
All in all, the presidential honeymoon seemed to be going quite well until a spot of old dung from nowhere landed in the new pot of fresh milk. The arrest of Champika Ranawaka, a rising new generation politician and one of the abler cabinet ministers over the last ten years under two different governments, is an unexpected grist for the political mill regardless of how much of a legal imperative it is to revisit an old acquittal and hold a popular politician in unbailable remand. Everything about this case is opaque and confusing. Was it a ‘hit and run’ by a car, as some sections of the media are still reporting? Or, as others keep reminding, was it the case of a slow-moving car being hit from behind by a speeding motorcycle? The difference between the two scenarios is huge, and it cannot be both.
Mr. Ranawaka himself could have done his ambitious political career a huge favour by forthrightly setting the record straight soon after the unfortunate incident. I have no idea about the legal remedies involved, whether there might be grounds for civil litigation for compensation by the party who was injured in the incident. According to some reports the matter was already settled with compensation, allegedly involving state funds. And no clear prosecutorial reason would appear to have been given for reopening an old case as a criminal matter after apparently choosing not to appeal the earlier original court ruling. The whole saga is a sad commentary on the police and the prosecutors and their predicaments when power changes hands above their heads. Former DIG Merril Gunaratne’s lively little book, “Cop in the Crossfire”, may need a somber sequel, “Cops under Own-fire.”
Politically, the oldies will see an ominous parallel to the arrest of the late Lalith Athulathmudali in 1976, when he was neither an MP nor a Minister, only an up and coming UNP lawyer-politician. That was at the tail end of the then broken United Front government, when, after six years in power, the government had become totally error-prone and not at all rule-effective. It is a completely different situation now for the new President, although in the context of the people’s sovereignty being constitutionally chopped up for periodical franchise testing in multiple interim (parliamentary, provincial, local) elections, no Sri Lankan President has the luxury of being the monarch of all he surveys for an entire term without electoral eruptions and interruptions.
Even so, President Rajapaksa is still a safe distance away from potential Pyrrhic outcomes similar to those that seem to have befallen Trump in America and Modi in India. Even Boris Johnson’s otherwise spectacular December 12th victory in the UK, is being seen by informed observers as pregnant with seeds of Pyrrhic outcomes.
United England, Divided Kingdom
The Pyrrhic forebodings of Johnson’s victory are in the sweeping scale of his victory in England leaving Wales to its historical insignificance, the equally sweeping rejection he was given in Scotland, and the precarious readjustment in the balance of electoral power between the Unionist and the Republican forces in Northern Ireland. The Tory victory has electorally united England, but more than electorally divided the United Kingdom. Many neutral observers expected Prime Minister Johnson to use his more than comfortable majority to go for soft Brexit, rather than a hard Brexit, in timing and in scope.
Instead, to their surprise and the EU’s consternation, Mr. Johnson is rushing Brexit – for Britain to leave EU by January 31, and to limit by his own legislation the transition period, for working out a new arrangement for trade and people’s movement between the EU and Britain, to December 2020 even though he is allowed two years to do that under the current divorce agreement. The businesses are not happy, and the pound is showing in starting to slide after post-election upswing. Economic forecasters are predicting a 5% drop in GDP over the next decade as a result of continuity Brexit uncertainty even after Brexit is done.
All of this goes unchallenged in England and tiny Wales is tagged along. Not so in Scotland, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is calling for a new referendum because Scotland wants to remain part of EU, on its own if necessary since it is becoming impossible to remain so as part of the United Kingdom. Ms. Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party won just as impressively in Scotland as did Prime Minister Johnson’s Tories won in England. So, Mr. Johnson cannot summarily dismiss Ms. Sturgeon’s call for a referendum, nor can he quietly take Scotland out of the EU. There could be a Pyrrhic price.
Northern Ireland is different, but no less serious as a Pyrrhic possibility. In the December election, the Unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost seats in Northern Ireland. DUP was providing life support to the Tory minority government before the election. Now, with their large victory in England, the Conservatives no longer have any use for the DUP. But the DUP’s loss of seats also marked a shift in popular support for the Northern Ireland republicans who want to unite with the Irish Republic rather than stay in the Union of the United Kingdom. That would be anathema to the Unionists even though many in England and many in the English Parliament may quietly prefer it as a godsend in disguise.
Matters will come to a head over the implementation of Prime Minister Johnson’s Brexit plan. It provides for an open border without customs between the two Irelands as part of the Good Friday Agreement and as insisted on by the EU and the Irish Republic. What this would likely entail is for the UK government to put in place an offshore customs surveillance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to ensure that EU goods are not flowing into the UK via Northern Ireland even after Brexit. Strange indeed are the unintended outcomes of ill-inspired nationalist populism. But the old Irish eyes would literally be smiling.
Old school students of nationalism may have noted Johnson’s celebratory allusion to ‘one nation’, an allusion based on forging the class unity between the Tory and the Labour constituencies in the country. The allusion has a historical echo, for, at the turn of the 20th century there were two nations in the United Kingdom but divided horizontally between classes, and not vertically between nationalities, as it is now. That was how EH Carr, the celebrated historian, described the state of his country then. That was also the cultivated British mindset that was given some expression in the Soulbury Commission’s anticipations for the Empire’s model colony, Ceylon, that the Ceylonese society would over time bridge its communal differences even as new class fissures open up as a result of economic modernization. Some might ask whether President Rajapaksa is not saying the same thing, but it is not the same thing.
Mr. Johnson is naturally over the moon in winning longstanding traditional Labour bastions within England, some of them for the first time. One of them is Sedgefield, the seat held by Tony Blair for 24 years (1983-2007) as MP, Leader of the Opposition, and ten years as Prime Minister. Prime Minister Johnson made it a special point to visit Sedgefield, in Durham County, after the elections to thank the Labour voters who voted for the Tories, and to say, “I want the people of the northeast to know that we in the Conservative Party, and I, will repay your trust.” Of course, Boris Johnson was not being insincere, and socially and fiscally he is to the Left within the Conservative Party. But giving in on the traditional demands of Labour voters will create other problems with Tory right wingers. That could be another Pyrrhic challenge for the new British Prime Minister, his handsome electoral victory notwithstanding.