By Dayan Jayatilleka –
It was exactly fifty years ago, in 1964, when I was 7 years old, that my father introduced me to the political personalities who would visit our Ward Place flat and took me around for public rallies including election meetings. Having closely observed Sri Lankan politics for half a century, I cannot but conclude that taken as a collective (and with a few individual exceptions) Sri Lankan politics today has the dumbest opposition I’ve ever seen in this country.
There is a line of Mao Ze Dong to a group of influential Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, which became so famous that it was trendy as a putdown on Western universities. It went: “You say you want to make a Revolution, but you don’t know where the bourgeoisie is…!” The same is true of the contemporary Sri Lankan Opposition, be it the political parties or the civil society intelligentsia. They say they want a democratic change of regime but they do not know what the regime is.
The regime is not the executive presidency. The Executive Presidency is not even the center of gravity of this regime. It is not the main decision making agency. That agency is the “family Politbureau” and the “extended family Central Committee”. The Executive Presidency has been reduced to a façade and the opposition is busily targeting that façade rather than the real power structure. Mahinda Rajapaksa is already a near-ceremonial President, in addition to being a vacuum cleaner of votes. The regime is the ruling clan, its grip on the security apparatuses, its bagmen, its judges, its enforcers and it’s (‘monitoring’) pit-bulls, in a worse variant of the Bandaranaike-Ratwatte-Obeysekara clan in the 1970s under a Cabinet system of government and prolonged Emergency rule after the brutal suppression of the April 1971 insurrection.
Defeating a war winning President against the backdrop of a growing economy would be a tall order in any society but there’s a dumb way and trying to do so and a smart way. The Sri Lankan Opposition is doing it the dumbest way possible, which will incur the highest post-election price for the country.
The Opposition can hardly do more favors than it is for the incumbent and his project of continuity and succession. In the interests of transparency and honesty I must reiterate that I have no real problem with a third term for Mahinda Rajapaksa but I do have a serious issue with his project of entrenchment in power of the Rajapaksa clan. That project is propped up by the Opposition in two important ways.
One is to field as his main opponent, the weakest of all possible candidates against President Rajapaksa, by which I mean a candidate who is a lousy mass communicator with little mass resonance, who also facilitates the rekindling of moods and memories of the resistance to the Tigers, and can generate a pan-Sinhala swing. The current (and very long standing) Opposition frontrunner is a cartoonist’s caricature of an Opposition Presidential candidate. Do you really know anyone with whom Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson would resonate more than James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini (with a Benecio Del Toro moustache)?
The second favor rendered the Presidential project of familial succession is to make constitutional change the main issue of the oppositional campaign strategy when it has little prospect of acting as a rallying cry among millions of rural voters.
The opposition’s strategic target must derive from the real problem facing Sri Lanka today—which is not the executive presidency but precisely the phenomenon of nepotism; of clan based centralization of power and wealth; of the takeover of the state and areas of the economy by a cartel. What we have today is a more insidious version of the phenomenon of “family bandyism” that the UNP under JR Jayewardene so effectively targeted in the 1977 campaign. That phenomenon must not be confused with forms of rule—presidential or parliamentary. Such confusion only helps the regime camouflage its clan-based power structure and oligarchic character, and divert the discussion to the rather more abstract one of constitutional change i.e. the executive presidency.
What an intelligent opposition would do is to map the oligarchy and show the electorate just how much it collectively gobbles, to the detriment of the welfare and advancement of the people. A single dramatic example would be to contrast the ballooning of allocations of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development with the unconscionable starving of financial resources (the lowest allocation since Independence) for education.
The good news is that there are two chances at the coconut shy; two interlinked opportunities to dismantle the clan-based oligarchy. One is at the presidential election – but that’s already pretty much a goner. The other is to use the Presidential election as a massive consciousness raising exercise—with Sajith Premadasa, Sujeeva Senasinghe, Harsha de Silva, Eran Wickremaratne, Rosy Senanayake, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Sunil Handunnetti, Vijitha Herath, Wasantha Samarasinghe, Lal Kantha and Tilvin Silva in a pincer move. With the Presidential election used as run-up or spring board, the Opposition can then go for the weak link in the chain of regime hegemony, which is lodged in its real base: the parliament and the two thirds majority.
The rug can be pulled from under the oligarchic regime if it is defeated at the parliamentary election. There it will be a race between two factors—the momentum generated by the victory of President Rajapaksa in his bid for a third term and on the other hand the simple need for a change from a two decades old SLFP government. The scales can be tipped as between the two factors—a domino effect making for continuity and a dynamic for change based on attrition and anti-incumbency– if and only if the main Opposition goes into the parliamentary election under a new, populist-patriotic leadership which can achieve two things at the same time: (a) re-profile the Opposition so it looks newer and younger than the UPFA and (b) neutralize the regime’s monopoly of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.
If the Opposition does not get this right, an oligarchic-securocratic or oligarchic-militaristic Iron Curtain will descend upon post-election Sri Lanka, behind which a garrison state will grow and a dark age will settle.