18 September, 2019

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Liberals For Gota? Politics At The Hour Of Populism/s

By Chamindra Weerawardhana

Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana

As the SLPP National Convention was taking place in Colombo, an intriguing dialogue was taking place on a social media platform between two people this writer seldom agrees with, but nonetheless acknowledges their commitment to their convictions, their experience in the political and media [and in the case of one of them, the diplomatic] fray. One of them was the editor of the Colombo Telegraph [CT], and the other was Sri Lanka’s serving ambassador in Moscow. The former wrote the original post, making a remark about the SLPP Convention’s stage décor. The latter’s intervention came in response to this post. 

The CT Editor’s point was that the décor, which clearly resembled the front façade of the Rajapaksas’ ancestral home in the village of Madamulana, was an indication of the Rajapaksa family’s commitment to its own brand of dynastic politics. In a country in which a considerable segment of the electorate, especially first time and young voters, are increasingly inclined to oppose such dynastic inclinations and the feudalistic ways in which the political class behaves, the CT Editor’s point could well serve as an eye-opener to many. He was one of the first, if not the first, media figure to call out the dynastic symbolism of the SLPP Convention’s stage. 

The Ambassador, himself a political scientist, responded in an emphatic “my reading of the stage is that the voters won’t give a flying f…k about it”. 

This response, as blunt as it may sound, provides much food for thought about the current political ferment in Sri Lanka. On this one, and despite her credentials as a liberal-cum-centre-left analyst, [with political affiliations with the likes of [formerly] Labour and [presently] Liberal Democrats in Britain, Sinn Féin in Ireland and the newly-created Samabhimani Collective in Sri Lanka], this writer stands in full agreement with Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Moscow. 

Indeed, there is a segment in the liberal lobby in Sri Lanka and in expatriate demographies [such as that which our Ambassador to Moscow refers to in a social media comment as “a few dumb London Lankans”], who are desperate to associate Gotabaya Rajapaska’s candidacy as an expression of dynastic, if not regressive politicking. This point may be of interest to political analysts and students of political science. However, readings of this nature carry zero traction in the current Sri Lankan political context. What we are witnessing in Sri Lanka is the local manifestation of the global trend of rising populist leaders, from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro to far right politicos across Western Europe and indeed, Narendra Modi. Public support to this brand of populism has witnessed a rise in the aftermath of post-Easter Sunday 2019 Sri Lanka. The arguments for [to borrow from Theresa May], “strong and stable leadership”, and a strong focus on national security, now carry a great deal of traction with the Sri Lankan electorate – a reality that is markedly different from the situation that prevailed prior to Easter Sunday 2019. 

In this situation, Liberals will have to be a lot smarter than calling out the Gotabaya candidacy as an example of dynastic politics, as a path to the return of white vans, or portraying Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a ‘violent’ leader. The key here is that we live in a time of an acute national security crisis. 

Polarised discourses: Still carrying traction? 

As Mahinda Rajapaksa clearly affirmed in his speech [kudos, by the way, to the speechwriters of Mahinda and Gotabaya!], the rationale for the creation of the SLPP emerged with the CBK-influenced SLFP entering a bonne-entente with the neoliberal UNP. One could also note that at a more ambiguous level, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe joint government further contributed to what one may call the SLFP’s quasi-alignment with the UNP. 

To the discerning political analyst, this argument is only marked by its emptiness. This is because in today’s Sri Lankan politics, the bottom line is that both UNP and SLFP position themselves at the same place. 

However, each party still possesses the social capital of “speaking” to their traditional electorates, using a language, if not a discourse, of yesteryear. Politicians understand the continuing power of this discourse. This is why Mahinda Rajapaksa took his “anti-imperialist”, “national-ising” if not “nationalist”, and “man of the people” line when speaking to his elated audience at the 11/08/2019 SLPP Convention. He knows very well that this line of extrapolating works with his primary target electorate. 

National Security and Nationalism: Post-Easter Sunday Realities? 

Post-Easter Sunday 2019 Sri Lanka is marked by a renewed, if not unprecedented emphasis on national security. A neoconservative, national security-focused discourse therefore carries a great deal of traction during an election year. Irrespective of whatever tug of war that may have existed in Rajapaksa family circles in the past couple of years, their fine understanding of this ground situation is what became very clear – in their quasi-unanimous decision to endorse the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their presidential candidate. 

Gotabaya: The Man of the Match? 

Yet another non-negligible factor is the reputation Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa developed during his years in office as a ‘doer’. Irrespective of how things were done, what rationale, strategies or approaches were pursued, he came to be known as the one man who could get stuff done. That reputation, as the 2019 SLPP Convention demonstrated, continues to hold sway. It will be a hugely powerful weapon for him in crushing to bits whoever comes up has his primary opponent at the forthcoming presidential election. 

Here’s the bottom line – if not the naked truth that many liberals [including, at some level, this writer herself], are somewhat reluctant to affirm, but is right there – neither the UNP, nor the forthcoming JVP-led coalition, nor the plethora of independent candidates represent a challenge Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Just like Boris Johnson’s 2019 candidacy for the leadership of the British Conservative Party and consequently, to British premiership, the Sri forthcoming Sri Lankan presidential election, – at the present stage at least – is a contest already won. Gotabaya, by the looks of it, has a relatively easy ride to presidency. 

The ONE and ONLY way to Challenge Gotabaya? 

The only way in which Gotabaya can be challenged with relative success is by creating a very large, broad church coalition that includes the UNP, the JVP, and a range of ethnic minority parties, and a segment of Sinhala nationalist discourses – represented by the likes of Ven. Athuraliye Rathana and Patali Champika Ranawaka. Some analysts have flouted the idea that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, known for his credentials as a man of the middle ground, could be the “candidate-factor” who could bring the UNP and JVP under one coalition, with endorsements from a pro-CBK faction of the SLFP, ethnic minority parties, the non-governmental lobby and a segment of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. However, presidential elections are political events where elements of charisma, personalities, personal images, and related external factors play out, big time. Only time will tell whether Karu could represent, in the eyes of the electorate, a substantive challenge to Gotabaya. 

The Anura Factor? 

Yet another way, and in this writer’s reading the one and only way, in which Gotabaya could be challenged is if a JVP/UNP/JHU/TNA/SLMP/other Tamil and Muslim parties-led coalition presents Comrade Anura Dissanayake as presidential candidate. The neoliberal establishment of the UNP, however, is far, if not farthest of the far, from endorsing any candidacy of that nature. In this sense, Goabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP have no reason whatsoever to fear.

New Twists: Always Possible? 

 However, let’s not forget that such dramatic twists are not impossible in Sri Lanka, come presidential polls. The advents of Messrs Sarath Fonseka and Maitripala Sirisena in 2010 and 2015 respectively, are living examples. 

The battle, by all means, is now on. The regret, from where this writer stands, is that it continues to be a man’s world, a men’s battle, and a very phallocentric sphere of politics and politicking. 

*Chamindra Weerawardhana is a political analyst, educator and international consultant. She is the author of Decolonising Peacebuilding: Managing Conflict from Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka and Beyond. Her forthcoming monograph is a political biography of Sheelagh Murnaghan MP OBE, the first female barrister in the Belfast bar, human rights advocate and Ulster Liberal MP at the Northern Ireland House of Commons from 1961 to 1969. 

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Latest comments

  • 3
    1

    Good one , Madam.

    It is a bit harsh for Dayan to call them Dumb London Lankans.
    Perhaps Dr Dayan is not aware what a pukka job they did to manufacture all that Bull Dust like Red Ferraris, Gold Thoroughbreds and , USD 18 Billion in Arab Vaults as Head Liner Election Slogans to dupe our inhabitants who make up 70 % of the Inhabitant population, .
    And 30% of whom are Samurdhi Dole receivers…

    I am not sure those poor souls know Neo Liberals , and Neo Capitalists from Neon Lights.
    Anyway that is another story.

    It is sad that those London Lankas and their Colombo Londoners do not have any Bull Shit left in their Buckets this time.
    No wonder they turned the Pandole in the Sugathadas Stadium to make it look like a Castle in Medumulana.

    Wonder whether Suren Surendran still has that USD 4 Billion with him in a Vanguard Fixed Interest Fund.
    If he has, Suren can now offer that as Finance for Yahapalana Mk 11.
    In fact that 4 Billion would be close to 5 Billio now after the Fixed Interest Funds have gone gangbusters..

    May be JVP Prince whom you think is Dr Ranil’s new Trump Card can at least brag about a USD 5 Billion Finance Stream from the LTTE to carry out Dr Ranil’s next phase of Neo Capitalist Development in Yahapalana Mk11. .

    Mainly because JVP Prince wouldn’t have anything else to brag about the Yahapalana Mk1 achievements which the JVP helped to carry out even betraying their own onetime Voter Base..

    • 3
      0

      Liberals for Gota would be the biggest joke!
      No true liberal will vote for or support a psychopathic murder at all…

  • 2
    2

    Fully agree with you Chamindra.
    /
    These so-called Liberals need the ‘hot iron rod’ treatment, after your own heart, don’t thjey?

  • 4
    0

    Chamindra,
    You must be out of mind to suggest JVP Anura Kumara is a liberal & therefore, liberals will/should flock around him! First of all, can you explain on what basis you call a Marxist a liberal? JVP’s politcal slogans only show that they are still loyal to their Marxist principles – minus armed insurgency to attain power – with an admixture of Neo-Colonialism highlighted by emphasis on nationalism – two somewhat contradictory stands designed perhaps by ignorance or as a cheap ploy to attract votes b’cos nationalism is an easy substitute for racism!

    If JVP leadership stands for liberalism, why didn’t they come fighting on behalf of Dr Shafi & failed to utter even a word against A Rathan’s show of fast unto death? It is obvious that they played chicken on both those occasions.

    If Madamulana Replica may have stirred blood in some hard-core SLPP loyalists giving them a positive boost, I must say that the scene generated an equal & opposite reaction among those who still have trembling memories on White Van Culture it represents. Yes, as I explained elsewhere as well, Easter Bombing incident generated some perception against the democratic achievements of 19 a which was a joint product of all the “liberals”behind the 2015 victory. But, why should a faction of the same movement want to go alone this time when the fledgling 19 A is threaten to be reversed back to 18 A with GoRa’s candidacy, unless JVP is intended to march alone their own political Marxist agenda?

  • 2
    1

    you are the only person who cares a fuck about dayans views
    like a chameleon he changes with the times offering one presidential candidate after another
    sira gave the unemployed graduate a job because he kept on attacking ranil
    the security question is being overblown to suit gota and fonny
    i dont think we should worry too much about it as our army can tackle it without anyones help

  • 0
    0

    Dayan is right. When there is hardly an adverse comment on the proceedings at the SLPP event, political pundits have to pick on the background scene. Who cares even if it portrays Medamulana Walawwa.
    Chamidra is spot on. Hope she contributes more to the current discourse.

  • 2
    0

    Gotabaya: The Man of the Match?

    Yet another non-negligible factor is the reputation Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa developed during his years in office as a ‘doer’. Irrespective of how things were done, what rationale, strategies or approaches were pursued, he came to be known as the one man who could get stuff done. That reputation, as the 2019 SLPP Convention demonstrated, continues to hold sway. It will be a hugely powerful weapon for him in crushing to bits whoever comes up has his primary opponent at the forthcoming presidential election.

    Here’s the bottom line – if not the naked truth that many liberals [including, at some level, this writer herself], are somewhat reluctant to affirm, but is right there – neither the UNP, nor the forthcoming JVP-led coalition, nor the plethora of independent candidates represent a challenge Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Just like Boris Johnson’s 2019 candidacy for the leadership of the British Conservative Party and consequently, to British premiership, the Sri forthcoming Sri Lankan presidential election, – at the present stage at least – is a contest already won. Gotabaya, by the looks of it, has a relatively easy ride to presidency.

    *** Are you writing this as a Gotha admirer or as someone living in a dream world. Gotha hasnt achieved anything other than killing thousands and loosing the Nations sovereignty. Sri Lanka is no longer Sovereign. India recently annexed Kashmir despite warnings from a Nuclear Neighbour.. If Gotha is elected ( it looks a possibilty) Sri Lanka will cease to exist. He will be a Perona Non Grata all over the world. No civilised Country will do business with a man facing so many charges.

  • 1
    0

    Populism Leaders , whether it is good or bad is for the people of the land to decide. The decision are to be well thought of and should not be based on racial or religious harm. it is very sad to see that Sri Lankans are still of the same mindset. For god’s sake it is 21st century fellows. You cannot be bread basket , borrowing heavily and selling the sovereignty. This is happening under your nose. The US, China and India have firmly put their boots in Sri Lanka and mark my work, they will be the decider who get elected as president or the prime minister. Even if its Gota, he will be either run by China or the US. India will have a firm say on many policies. Do not wake up from your sleep Sri Lankans and do not snore. You elected the leaders and you live with the outcome. The whole country is under maya – illusion. Sember idem!

  • 0
    0

    To the discerning reader, the last paragraph contains the “strategic message” you would like to convey through your article. When you say “It continues to be a man’s world, a men’s battle, and a very phallocentric sphere of politics and politicking.”, it shows your disappointment for not having enough feminazis as presidents. Our translation/interpretation: it shows your frustration through sort of a Freudian slip, for not having a “vibrator” readily available. Let me help you out if you like or will: put your iPhone on vibration and well place it in your groin and close your legs tight until you have the bliss of a lifetime or a woman president is in power in SL.

    If you think the potential/future success of a president or presidential candidate depends on the sex of a person, think no further than SL (CKB), HRC (USA), DR (BRA), etc. It is high time to get down from your “ivory tower”.

    With regard to the rest of your article, only a couple of hundreds of people would read your article. Sadly, the millions of voters who are supposed to be change agents in an election will not at least read what you are trying to say.

    This no way is an ad hominem, though it might be interpreted that way.

    Sincerely
    Day

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