By Dayan Jayatilleka –
In 2002, in the wake of 9/11, Tariq Ali wrote a book called The Clash of Fundamentalisms. He was referring to the neo-conservative Christian fundamentalism of George Bush and the Islamist fundamentalism of the Wahhabis in general and al Qaeda in particular. His basic point was that these two contending fundamentalisms feed off each other.
We are experiencing a similar situation. The dialectics of our situation are that the UNP, CBK and TNA, the seeming opponents of the Sinhala Alt-Right are in fact the greatest enablers and accelerants of it, while Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Muhammad Ali of Sri Lankan politics, and indeed the Rajapaksas—Chamal, Basil, Gota and Namal—are the last line of defense against the Sinhala Alt-Right project of turning Sri Lanka into an officially Sinhala Buddhist state, a theocratic state, with zero or only district level devolution.
The best defence against the rising tide of the Sinhala New Right would be the reconstitution of the center, not as a single party, a reunified SLFP, but as a bloc. This cannot and should not happen while the official SLFP is aligned with the UNP as it is currently constituted, because that UNP or rather its policy direction, is the main factor for the growth of the Alt-Right. Therefore, checking the Alt-Right means delinking the SLFP from the UNP or delinking the Ranil-Mangala duo from the Unity government.
It is far from the case that the personal subjectivism between President Sirisena and ex-President Rajapaksa is such that a rapprochement between the two leaders and between the SLFP-JO-SLPP is impossible. The leading players in the SLFP and the JO, and the key outlier, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, are all for a political détente of some kind. All these figures however, belong, broadly speaking, to a moderate-nationalist political center, which has not only cracked up, but has been pulled apart and is being kept apart by the forces of ideological extremism: the neoliberal UNP on the one side and the Sinhala radical Right on the other.
Either President Sirisena himself or a significant section of his party are unwilling to break with the UNP in government, for two reasons. One is the legitimate apprehension of being outflanked by the UNP and TNA which have threatened to form a government. The other is the far less legitimate greed on the part of some official SLFP Ministers who are awaiting their part of the share of the sale of national assets as promised by the Ranil-Mangala duo.
The consequence of the SLFP’s unwillingness either to leave the government or to reconstitute its leadership, and the resultant failure of the SLFP-JO-SLPP to construct a political equation, will be the polarization of political space between the neoliberal Right (the UNP) and the Sinhala Buddhist radical Right; between two fundamentalisms—free market neoliberal fundamentalism and Trump-Tea Party type Sinhala neo-nationalism.
If the talks between the official SLFP and the JO-SLPP conclusively fail, it will be because the SLFP (MS) is unwilling either to leverage the bond scam report and de-couple the PM from the governing coalition, or to vote against the “fast track liberalization and globalization” (i.e. free-market fundamentalist, neoliberal) Budget and rupture from/assert Presidential hegemony over the Government’s UNP driven policy agenda at this point in time.
The JO-SLPP, or SLPP-JO, if displaced from Parliament by inner-party disciplinary action, will have found a political base, an alternative home, in the local authorities and the Provincial Councils. That base will be quite adequate to fight the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019-2020. It is from a municipal and provincial/regional base that Lula and his Workers Party first made it to the Presidency.
Even if, in a move of vengeful folly in the run-up to or aftermath of the local government elections, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his fellow MPs are sacked from Parliament, the ruling Establishment will be tied up in litigation in which the creation of a fake Opposition in Parliament by conferring the Opposition leadership to the TNA with 16 seats, will repeatedly come up for aggressive scrutiny. Mahinda and the JO out of parliament while the TNA occupies the seat of Opposition Leader, and the government attempts a new Constitution, the installation of India in Trincomalee and the deep South (Mattala), and Geneva-driven accountability, is a recipe for rebellion, from which the ‘peasantry in uniform’ (Lenin’s description of the army) may not be entirely immune.
The tragic consequence of the official SLFP’s failure of resolve either to press the re-set button at the strategic national level –not the opportunistic and tactical local level– or to give the JO its due place as the Parliamentary Opposition, goes far beyond the electoral arena. It will mark the beginning of the end of the center in Sri Lankan politics and will denote the beginning of an era of polarization that will engulf and probably unravel Sri Lanka as we have known it.
The complete disenfranchisement of the majoritarian Southern Opposition will have the most serious consequences for the country’s stability. The SLFP would become marginal after the local government elections and be swallowed up by the UNP and SLPP respectively; the JO will be driven by the SLPP and Mahinda Rajapaksa could well be on his way to winding up a second Sirimavo Bandaranaike or the R. Sampanthan of Southern politics.
Thus the ideological center is dying in Sri Lankan politics. The displacement of the Government to the neoliberal Right, and worse still, the cynical installation of the TNA as the parliamentary Opposition in place of the much larger JO, has generated a backlash powered by the religious Right. Had the JO been given its legitimate place that alone could have stabilized a moderate nationalist, center left opposition and thwarted the radical Right.
Sinhala Buddhist political fundamentalism would have captured or become the majority shareholder and influencer of a truly mass new Opposition party, which next time around, in 2019-2020, is likely to form the Government or be its core social and ideological component. It has taken over a century, and been a long road from the Dharmapala-Olcott schism, through Sinhala Only and Standardization, to the capture, occupation and systemic remodeling of the State. One child of 1956 (Sinhala Only) would have replaced the other (moderate centrism, social democracy, Nonalignment). Cain would have murdered Abel. Thus will the Sinhala New Right assume state power.
Part of the problem is that the negotiations are not between the official SLFP and the JO leadership, but rather, between the smaller official SLFP and the larger part of the SLFP that is with the JO but is increasingly driven by the newly formed SLPP (‘Pohottuwa’). That dynamic party is led by Basil Rajapaksa and Prof GL Peiris who are pragmatic pluralists but are catering to the intransigence of the younger MPs and the rank-and-file local government representatives who are bitter at the way they’ve been cheated by the official SLFP (removed from organizerships), are looking to capture and monopolize the SLFP’s place in electoral politics.
Though its leadership is pragmatic, the SLPP, and other competing or parallel political projects in the anti-Establishment space, are increasingly infiltrated and influenced by caucuses and pressure groups linked to the ‘New Right’ Sinhala Diaspora grid. The moderate SLPP leadership is playing along with these new ideological entities, in what it thinks is a conscious emulation of SWRD’s shift in 1955-56 but is actually a caricature of his ideology and politics.
The crime committed by Chandrika–Ranil-Mangala in ending the two party system by aligning the SLFP with the UNP, betraying the mandate given to the 95 MPs elected on an anti-UNP, anti-‘Unity government’ ticket in August 2015, has deprived the political arena of a moderate alternative to the UNP. In place of either a social democratic Left or radical Left alternative, we are seeing the rise of a hardline Sinhala neo-nationalist alternative which is seeking to capture potentially social democratic SLPP and the modernizing Gota project.
The Left is too divided (JVP-FSP) to be a viable electoral alternative to the shift to the New Right. Consequently, the only thing that can save the ideological and political center, and thereby the equilibrium and stability of the System, is a restoration of the two party, center-right vs. center-left model before it is captured and torn apart by the neoliberal Right and the neo-nationalist radical New Right.
After the local authority elections, the official SLFP will have three options: go along with the UNP to the bitter end; de-link from the UNP and realign in some form with the JO-SLPP (under the dominance of the latter); seize power within the government by displacing the PM over the bond scam, supporting another UNPer or an SLFPer as Prime Minister, and inducting the JO-SLPP. If the SLFP stays with the UNP, it will shrivel rather like the LSSP-CPSL did when it stayed on with the SLFP almost all the way through in 1970-77.
In these variations, the SLFP will be the junior partner because the upcoming election will almost certainly reveal a tectonic shift in our politics, with the Mahinda–led oppositional formation assuming the role of the traditional SLFP as founded by Chandrika’s, Mahinda’s and Dinesh’s fathers.