By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Experience showed that even the simplest events always worked out differently from what one would have thought beforehand.” – Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain)
In modern parlance it would be called a prequel – to the Trojan War. Eris, Goddess of Discord, appears uninvited at the wedding banquet of Peleus and Thetis and throws the eponymous apple amongst the assembled guests, seeding collision, strife and war.
Mahinda Rajapaksa may have intended to do an Eris vis-à-vis the Opposition with his decision to have an early presidential election. But his gambit seems to have backfired. The opposition is indubitably at loggerheads, but so is the government. In fact, the first serious fissure in the hitherto monolithic UPFA was caused by President Rajapaksa’s decision to hold a controversially premature election.
The JHU has left the government but it has not joined the opposition. Doors are still open, both ways, and the possibility of a rapprochement (at least with a segment of the JHU) is very much extant. The regime’s unusually temperate response to the JHU’s quasi-departure is reflective of this possibility. But any such reconciliation will be in the future. The here and the now reverberates with the uncustomary sounds of dissent within the UPFA. Whatever the future may bring, in the present the JHU’s decision is damaging the ruling family’s public image. Voters are used to oppositional wrangling; but a coalition party leaving the government is a relatively rare occurrence and thus more likely to impact on supporters and opponents.
In Lankan politics, coalitions are often synergic – their politico-propaganda effect is much larger than the sum total of the politico-electoral clout of the constituent parties. This is particularly so with the SLFP; historically, the formation of a coalition by the SLFP has been a harbinger of victory while the breaking up of a coalition almost always heralded defeat. The current fissure in the UPFA is likely to cause a degree of consternation, confusion and dismay in the Rajapaksa support base, far in excess of the JHU’s much diminished electoral capacity.
Is the JHU responding to a mood-shift at the grassroots level? Though the JHU’s electoral base is a fraction of what it once was, the party’s transmission belts to its original constituency (mostly Sinhala-Buddhist suburban middle classes) may still be intact. And as the latest CPA survey revealed, economic discontent of the Sinhalese has increased sharply in the last one year. Perhaps the most telling of the survey’s findings is that only 23% of Sinhalese think that their own household economy got better in the last two years. Is the JHU hoping for a politico-electoral rejuvenation by giving voice to this obvious discontent?
Will the JHU’s quasi-departure cause a domino effect within the UPFA and/or the SLFP? That many senior SLFPers are unhappy about a Rajapaksa future is no secret. After all, senior SLFPers have to kowtow not just to the President but also to his brothers, sons, nephews, other favoured relations and boorish acolytes such as Sajin Vass Gunawardena. If Mahinda Rajapaksa wins a third term, most SLFP seniors will have to live out their natural/political lives in that humiliating future – barring a miracle. Will the JHU’s actions embolden other discontented spirits within the UPFA/SLFP into following suit? Or will they wait for a safer moment to jump? Are they too back-broken to do anything other than moan and gripe in private?
Even if no one follows in the footsteps of the JHU, even if a segment of the JHU returns to the Rajapaksa fold (eventually), the JHU’s quasi-departure – especially the manner and the timing of it – will have a deleterious effect on the Ruling Family. At its press conference, the JHU reminded the country that President Rajapaksa promised to abolish the executive presidency not just once but twice, in his previous presidential election manifestos. This renders ludicrously ineffective the national security argument against the abolition of the executive presidency. After all, would Mahinda Rajapaksa, the arch-patriot, have pledged to abolish the executive presidency, not just once but twice, if executive presidency is necessary for territorial integrity and national defence?
Whatever the future may bring, the Rajapaksas no longer look Teflon.
A minority party or a left party departing the UPFA could have been accused, easily, of treachery. It is harder to use the same accusation against the JHU. This is a squabble, almost en famille. The Rajapaksas and the JHU occupy the same politico-ideological space. Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism is the Rajapaksas’ mantle of choice (and necessity) to cover the ugliness of their familial agenda. It is precisely this mantle the JHU will try to tear apart.
As Marx said of British India’s Sepoy rebellion, “There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself”[i].
Maths and Politics
In Sri Lanka, voter turnout, on average, is 10% higher at national elections than at non-national elections.
At the last provincial council elections (held in four rounds over 2 years, from 2012 to 2014), the average voter turnout was around 65%, compared to a voter turnout of 74.5% at the 2010 presidential election.
In 2010, Mahinda Rajapaksa scored 57.88% of the valid vote. At the provincial council elections the UPFA’s average vote was 54%.
This is a drastic decrease; but the decrease becomes even more substantial once the difference in voter-turnout between national and non-national elections is factored in. The adjusted figure is around 49% for the UPFA, less than the all important 50% mark.
The added 10% of votes at a future national election will consist mostly of new voters and uncommitted voters. Their support is not a given for any candidate; it is something which will have to be fought for and won. If the opposition can run an attractively effective campaign, it has a chance of winning enough of these voters, thereby pushing the election into a second round. Even a divided opposition can do it, so long as they do not target each other and turn the entire campaign into a bathetic spectacle.
Objectively, the Rajapaksas are vulnerable in 2015 in a way they were not in 2010.
It is in this context the JHU’s quasi-departure must be considered. Can the JHU deprive the Rajapaksas of even a sliver of their electoral base? In 2010 such minutia would not have mattered; in 2015 they do.
But the JHU can open the doors to Eris in the opposition camp as well. The Rajapaksas cannot be beaten if the opposition fails to win minority support. If due to JHU influence, the opposition moves in a Sinhala-supremacist direction, the effect will be disastrous both politically and electorally. Such a shift will strengthen those Tamil and Muslim voices arguing for an election boycott – on the basis that the election is a ‘Sinhala affair’. This argument is dangerously fallacious – the government which is elected will be ruling over not just the Sinhalese but the minorities as well.
So the JHU is, at best, a mixed blessing for the opposition. The Rajapaksas will win, if the JHU is allowed to recast the oppositional-platform in a Sinhala-Buddhist mould.
[i] The Indian Revolt (New York Daily Tribune – 16.9.1857)