Colombo Telegraph

Making Sense Of The Presidential Elections

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

Say not the struggle naught availeth – Arthur Hugh Clough

Nothing straight can ever be made out of the crooked timber of humanity – Immanuel Kant

After the Presidential elections which are widely regarded as having been “stunning”, most Sri Lankans are now engaged in trying to appraise their significance. We have to begin by trying to establish why exactly Mahinda Rajapaksa lost. In my article “After the elections”, published on January 10 but sent to the Editor well before the election results were announced, I wrote, “If Maithripala Sirisena squeaks through, or wins with a substantial majority as I have been confidently expecting, the prospects will be much brighter for a restoration of a fully functioning democracy”. The underlying reason for my confident expectation was something that has been well-known since people began living under the State, by which I mean among other things a centralized body holding exclusive coercive power. It has been established beyond dispute that power tends to go to the head, an excess of power tends to go excessively to the head, from which follows folly and hubris, the pride that goes before nemesis, the fall. It seemed to me that MR particularly by his participation in the creation of an utterly egregious Muslim ethnic problem showed folly and hubris of an order that had to lead to his nemesis.

That was the underlying reason for my confident expectation of his nemesis. The more specific reasons were as follows. Like practically everyone else I expected a massive minorities vote against him. But since the minorities are only 25% of the population their vote would have been far from sufficing to defeat MR. For that there had to be a significant drop in the Sinhalese vote for him. I was confident about that drop mainly for two reasons, the first of which was that people – particularly in the modern world – want change because there is a prospect of change for the better or because a government has become stale through long durance. MR had been in power for ten years and the SLFP for twenty years, and it seemed reasonable to expect that a significant proportion of the people would feel that enough is enough. The need for governmental change requires analysis because it seems to involve much more than the superficial attraction of novelty: the need for the new could spring from a deep human desire for self-renewal. My second reason for expecting MR’s nemesis was that the modern market-oriented capitalist economy breeds inequality and hardship for a significant proportion of the people, and this seems to be true even when the economy is reasonably well-managed – as it apparently was under the last Government. To bolster my argument I cited books by Thomas Piketty and John Gray, and since then I have come across Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality. I need not go into details about how economic inequality and hardship could impact on the voters.

By now there have been several expert analyses of the election results and the picture seems to be reasonably clear. 80% of the Tamils voted against MR, and an even higher percentage of the Muslims did so. MR got 55% of the Sinhalese votes, representing a clear Sinhalese majority, but that figure represents a huge drop of 10% from the 65% that he scored in the previous election. These statistics can of course be interpreted in different ways. MR declared at a public meeting in his home electorate that he lost because the minorities in the North, East, and the Nuwara Eliya district voted against him. They can also be interpreted to mean that MR lost because the minorities voted against him massively and in addition he failed to get an adequate proportion of the Sinhalese votes to compensate for that loss. Both interpretations could be valid but MR and others who have been pushing the racist neo-Fascist line would prefer the former interpretation. That would point to a sharpening of the ethnic polarization.

However, while the ethnic polarization continues we must now view it in the context of a new political configuration that has been taking shape in recent years, a development that I believe is of immense importance for Sri Lanka’s future. I refer to the convergence of our two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP. The cross-overs that have been taking place on both sides is certainly a deplorable phenomenon since they are motivated for the most part, though not necessarily always, by the drive for money and power. But there is a positive aspect to the cross overs since they signify that the policies and practices of the two parties have become largely interchangeable, although there could be significant differences of emphasis. The market-oriented economy has come to stay for both parties, the welfare network has not been dismantled, and now that the Cold War is over their foreign policies are more or less the same.

The convergence signified by the cross overs became spectacular when the SLFP stalwart Maithripala Sirisena crossed over to become the common Opposition candidate of a coalition in which the major component was the UNP. He contested the elections while retaining his position in the SLFP, and he won the Sinhalese votes mainly in the areas traditionally dominated by the UNP. After his victory he has been established as SLFP leader, but he heads a Cabinet that consists largely of UNP members. The Island of January 21, in yet another of its perceptive editorials, has noted a glaring anomaly. MS will have to choose the SLFP’s Prime Ministerial candidate for the General Elections scheduled for April. “He will be faced with the unenviable task of leading the UPFA’s election campaign from the front and convincing the public that his own party’s prime ministerial candidate is better than the Prime Minister he has just appointed – Ranil Wickremasinghe.” Other anomalies have been aired in letters to the Editor. The explanation for them is the convergence to which I am pointing.

The convergence obviously requires in-depth analysis which I cannot undertake here. Basically it has to be along the following lines. The transformation effected in 1956 had a truly revolutionary character. It represented the upsurge of the lower middle class and the underprivileged castes led by the three low-country castes against the hitherto dominant Westernized bourgeoisie of the Western littoral. For the most part they lacked higher education, professional qualifications, and they lacked the capital and skills to thrive in business, which meant that they could make their upward ascent only through a huge state sector. That was the basis for the “socialism” that prevailed in several Afro-Asian countries. Since the ‘seventies the market economy has prevailed over the state-centric one, there has been phenomenal economic growth, and the erstwhile lean cats of the SLFP have become fat cats not significantly different from the UNP fat cats. That seems to be the most important reason for the convergence.

I will now situate our ethnic problems in relation to the new political configuration that is taking shape because of the factor of convergence. The election results certainly signified an exhilarating victory for democracy against dictatorship. They should also be seen as an exhilarating victory for democracy against the racist neo-Fascism for which MR became notorious after 2009, which was best seen in the humiliations heaped on the Tamils in the North and the blatant backing for the anti-Muslim campaign. The victory became possible not only because of the votes of the minorities. Even more important was the fact that a huge segment of the Sinhalese people joined them.

I see a new political configuration taking place with our two major parties converging and becoming more democratic and less racist than in the past, with the enormous gain that our politics will become less conflictual and more consensual, conducing to some sense of national unity in this badly divided nation. But the problem will remain of hard-core racists who are present in both major parties and have been particularly virulent in the SLFP. They should be extruded from both major parties to form a neo-Fascist Party. The international climate for such a party is very favorable. Practically every Western country today has neo-Fascist parties, and massive financial and other backing would be assured from Islamophobes in Norway and other Western countries. The prospect for neo-Fascism in Sri Lanka is quite bright. However, I believe that the prospect for democracy is even brighter.

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