Let me begin with a simple question: Why is there much reproach against the role of the opposition now, amidst severe failures of the government in all critical frontiers of politics, economics, and strategic and foreign affairs? It’s a simple question, but there can be multiple answers and opinions. Nevertheless, in this piece, I would like to maintain a hypothetical answer to this question. My hypothesis is very simple, and it has nothing to do with my ideological conviction that politics is a struggle for ‘infinite democracy.’ In this context, I’d like to think about politics in terms of pragmatism or democracy in its most practical sense. Similarly, I would like to think of politics as a system of arriving at common solutions to common issues through a transparent administrative and democratic power structure at its most basic level. Yet, realistically, establishing such a simple and pragmatic democratic structure seems no easy task, particularly within an embedded illiberal system.
At this point, let me assume that all sorts of malicious attempts to castigate the main opposition (the SJB) may be due to the immense impact this party has made on traditional distribution of power in the system; so far, a balanced and rigid system which experienced periodic shifts in power in favor of those elites of either the UNP or the SLFP-led coalition. However, this does not mean that the SJB is a non-elite or a subaltern party, but a party that carries a huge potential to transcend the limits set by the traditional elites of the UNP. The UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe remained an unreformed party that hardly attempted to reach the periphery and the common man. Mostly, the UNP very strictly kept its power confined only to a core team of elites trusted by the leader and aligned itself externally with the west. Obviously, the UNP’s leadership never wanted to create a new leadership and leaders and prepare them to take the party to the next level. The origins of the SJB may be contextualized within this broader issue of the lack of internal democracy of the UNP and its elitist mentality.
Understandably, the SJB is not willing to follow the similar structure and practices maintained by the UNP leadership. Particularly, in the ideological realm, it has pronounced a sharp deviation from the UNP. So far, the SJB’s vision and strategy has indicated that it believes in organizing the party first, like how a traditional cadre-based party would do. During the last year or so, the party has formed its organizational structures and massively recruited members into many of the party organs. The SJB seemed to emulate the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in its drive for recruiting members. Like the SLPP depended much on grassroot structures for organizing power, the SJB also seems to follow a similar strategy. [The Sathkaaraya program like the President’s Gama samanga pilisandara (dialog with the village) is a clear example].
On the other hand, the UNP, during the last two decades or so, did not work hard to organize the party structure(s) but tended mostly to rely on popular personalities and wealthy businessmen for electoral success. The subsequent collapse of the UNP, as seen from the result of the last general election, was to do much with the lack of party structures to withstand internal and external shocks. At the same time, one notable quality of the UNP leadership during that period, was its inclination to defend an ideological position derived from non-nationalism (cosmopolitanism?) and libertarianism. This ideological inclination is also blamed for the unpopularity of the party among ordinary masses exposed to a nationalist upsurge after the war in 2009.
One major ideological difference between the UNP and the SJB can be found here; unlike the UNP, the SJB, being more [R]ealistically oriented, does not appear to propose being so romantic when it comes to choosing between patriotism and libertarianism. In general, in defending democratic ideals, both the UNP and the SJB display no major differences. The UNP showed its most progressive character by supporting the most democratic constitutional amendment ever after 1978, the 19th Amendment. Similarly, when it came to the 20th Amendment, the most authoritarian constitutional reform so far, the SJB followed similar lines by being against establishing an authoritarian executive presidency. In the arena of ethnic politics, the UNP was very progressive (except under the JRJ perhaps) being always accommodating the minorities; similarly, the SJB too fought elections aligning with ethnic minority parties of Muslims and Tamils. Yet, being more realistic, it also attempts to address the Sinhala Buddhist electorate to a larger extent and never wants to create an image of a non-nationalist or non-patriotic party like the UNP. The SJB leadership has explicitly opposed taking a hard-core nationalist stance like the Rajapaksas but appears to rearticulate nationalism as “virtuous nationalism” (sath jathika waadaya). As the nationalist ideology of the SLPP and its supportive elements has largely caused ethnic violence in the recent past among Muslims and Sinhalese, obviously, the challenge before the SJB is to create an accommodative nationalism to unite an ethnically polarized nation.
When it comes to defending Sri Lanka’s national and strategic assets, the SJB’s position on various ongoing and recent national issues such as the Eastern Terminal of Colombo Harbor, the proposed Economic Commission of the Port City, or a minor matter such as the mineral sandbank in Kirinda, Hambantota, etc. are clear examples of its deviation from the UNP’s position. Also, on terrorism and drug trafficking and other issues of extremism, the SJB leadership often advocated a hardline. Therefore, the SJB displays a new realistic incarnation and rejects an ultra-liberalist (and neo-liberal) position as a political party that had its roots in the UNP, yet shows the capability of acclimating to a highly nationalized, ethnicized and religionized and illiberal democratic system.
Nonetheless, the SJB is emerging today as the major exponent of democratic ideals since the old and traditional leadership of the democratic camp failed to survive against the lethal attack on democracy by the Rajapaksas’ nationalist camp. Overall, the differences between the UNP and the SJB’s ideological and leadership styles may help us establish that the new party is quite different from its old structure and attempts to ‘feel the common man,’ an embodiment of religious, ethnic, and patriotic values in general, within its lived culture.
More importantly, the SJB has elevated itself to the leadership position of the democratic camp, a position which is not yet much settled among the prospective leaders as is evident from the uneasiness of the traditional elites of the UNP. Perhaps, in the clamor for the leadership in the democratic camp are several old and young generation leaders, such as Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya, Mangala Samaraweera, Ruwan Wijewardrnr and Naveen Dissanayake to name a few. Yet the SJB under Sajith Premadasa has strongly consolidated the leadership in this camp, though it is yet to be accepted among them all as a reality. In future elections, the SJB is likely to form a ‘grand alliance’ with several competing elements in the democratic camp, yet the regulatory power of any possible alliance goes undoubtedly to the SJB as the largest and the most formidable structure of power challenging the ruling party in the current context.
It is no secret now that the SJB has emerged as the major threat to the traditional power elites of the UNP and the SLFP (SLPP). In particular, the UNP is not ready to accept the progress made by those rebels (forming a new party) within a short period of time. Also, the new ideological position that the SJB is developing as a realistic response to addressing an ethnicized polity is not favorably recognized or to the satisfaction of advocates of elitism and ultra-liberalism. Therefore, while the SJB is yet to take its frontal assault on the government, currently it has to maintain a balanced position by siding with and aiding the common agitations and struggles on several national issues.
In the final analysis the major and the most crucial issue that the country is confronted with today is the future of its democracy itself. The current regime in power is in no way ready to continue with a transparent constitutional, legal, and administrative system and aims to suppress democracy every minute and everywhere. Meanwhile, the hardcore nationalists are demanding that the President play a Hitlerite role to keep the minorities and the opposition suppressed and subdued forever. In this context, a formidable party structure to launch a sustaining struggle for democracy is required and the SJB’s strategy of revamping and rebranding the party needs to be explored as an essential endeavor for saving democracy for posterity.
In this scenario of an existential challenge facing democracy, the unity among those various elements of the democratic camp is essential. Whether they like it or not, the rapid growth of the SJB and its ability to absorb the UNP’s support base should make all aspiring presidential candidates realize immediately that the only possible way to defeat despotism is through unity and peace and not through creating infighting and malicious attacks against each other.
Various elements in the democratic camp should be ready to negotiate power respecting ethics and if they opt for Machiavellian principles of backstabbing and violence, that will never work for the protection of the democratic system in the country in general. The SJB has a huge potential to unite the democratic opposition under one umbrella, but now it should further focus on organizing the party and strengthening all sorts of democratic struggles as the major opposition party.