By Rajan Philips –
Thanks to global information overreach, the American midterm elections have been splashed everywhere in everyone’s face. American elections are canonically fixed for their timing, not necessarily for their fairness. Mid-term elections are held between two presidential elections to elect 435 members for a two-year term to the House of Representatives, and a third of the Senate whose 100 members serve a six-year term. In addition, multiple states have their legislature and Governor’s elections in the same mid-term year. Mid-term elections are a referendum on sitting Presidents, especially in their first term, and verdicts usually go against the incumbent President’s Party. President Biden was expected to fare worse than any of his recent predecessors. As it turned out he has performed better than any of them, Democratic or Republican. President George W Bush said he and his Party got a “thumping” after the 2006 mid-term. Obama called it “shellacking” after his mid-term experience in 2010.
If there was any thumping or shellacking last week, it was not in politics but in cricket down under, at the Adelaide Oval, where the national icons of Indian Cricket were memorably thrashed by a relatively nameless team from England which now has a PM of Indian origin to boast. England will now face Pakistan in the 20-over World Cup final, thirty years after a charismatic Imran Khan led his country to its first (50-over) and only World Cup victory, defeating England in the final, which too was played in Australia.
In a curious twist of cricket and politics, Imran Khan is now a deposed Prime Minister leading the charge against the powerful Pakistani military, accusing its top brass and the Pakistani government of plotting to kill him after a gunman’s failed attempt on his life. Ever the fighter, now with his right leg in a cast after the shooting, the former cricketer has become the most serious political threat to the country’s all-powerful military establishment.
Talking of cricket, Sri Lankan cricket is earning notoriety on rape charges in Australian courts after losing out on Australian cricket grounds. What a fall from the winning feats of Arjuna Ranatunga, the spinning exploits of Muralitharan, and the batting brilliance of Mahila Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara! For a fleeting moment, there was something to celebrate about a pathbreaking achievement in the Booker Prize award for a Sri Lankan novel, but then someone pettily decided to toss a piece of dung into a pot of literary milk with a pathetic charge of plagiarism. Be that as it may!
Winners & Losers
President Biden has not only avoided the thumping and shellacking that Bush and Obama got, but has also performed better than any President since John F Kennedy at the national level, and is only the third President since 1900 (after Roosevelt in 1934 and Bush in 2002) to register a net gain of seats at the state level. The much touted red (Republican) wave was reduced to a ripple. So, President Biden did a victory lap in the White House with a vindicating press conference, while Republican leaders ran away from cameras. Except Trump, but as always coveting publicity for all the wrong reasons
At the end of the day, and it is becoming a long election day for every election in the US with its state-specific and contested systems of vote counting, the President’s Democratic Party might lose control of both the House and the Senate, but by the slenderest of margins. Not at all by a landslide that Republicans were cockily waiting for. At the same time, Democrats may still retain their slender control of both, as they currently have. Or the Republicans may take the House, while Democrats keep the Senate. The final tally for the House may not be known for several weeks, and the status in the Senate may not be known until the runoff election in Georgia later in December, as no candidate passed the 50% thresh hold for outright victory. But the indeterminate results have not hampered political postmortems. Nor have they slowed down the Biden Administration which wants to make the maximum use of the current lame-duck status quo, before the newly elected Congress is sworn in January.
The clear losers after the mid-term vote are Donald Trump and his brand of the Republican Party, on the one hand, and the Catholic-Action Supreme Court of the formally secular United States of America. Besides the pundits, Trump was the only political leader who was boastfully predicting a Republican red wave, and if it has materialized, he would have taken to his megaphone MAGA (Make America Great Again) politics and triumphantly announced his candidacy for a third time in 2024. With the mid-term Republican setbacks, Trump cannot take another Republican ticket for granted. But that does not rule out his candidacy as an independent Trump-Republican. He might decide to run for presidency not with any hope of winning, but as a political safeguard against potential indictments in the courts by the US Justice Department.
In addition to Trump’s political antics and disrespect for the law, the Republican chances in the mid-term elections were undermined by the overturning of the longstanding Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision on women’s abortion rights, by a conservative majority of six judges of the present Court, five of whom are Catholics and the sixth had a Catholic upbringing. In exit polls during voting, abortion was the second most voting driver after inflation and cost of living, and it certainly cost the red wave for the Republicans.
The Catholic-Conservative dominance of the US Supreme Court began during the Reagan presidency and is a direct result of the economic mobility of American Catholics and their increasing migration from being a mostly immigrant, working class vote base of the Democratic Party, to becoming a wealthy and influential Republican constituency.
According to a recent statistical study of Supreme Court rulings in cases involving religion over nearly 70 years (1953-2020) by two respected empirical law scholars (Lee Epstein and Eric Posner), there have been two major shifts in the court’s rulings: a leftward shift in the 1960s and 1970s, and a rightward shift since the 1990s. However, in recklessly overturning Roe vs. Wade, the Catholic conservative judges may have dared too much, and have in fact created an unprecedented political backlash against their ideological judicial agenda.
At the same time, the rise of Catholic conservatism in the US, like Rishi Sunak’s rise in British political society, is also symptomatic of the inclusiveness of the American society, albeit at the regressive, if not wrong, end of the ideological spectrum. It is also true that notwithstanding Trump’s ugly racism, there has been an increase in the number of Latinos and African Americans voting for the Republican Party, and a number of them becoming Republican candidates. This year’s mid-term election also saw several firsts – of women, lesbians, and Black people winning elections to hitherto barred elected offices in a number of states.
The mid-term election results show that racism, bigotry and, more broadly, anti-foundational populism can be pushed back both politically, even electorally, and through constitutional means. They also show the institutional resilience of the American polity in pushing back the onslaughts of Donald Trump. Other societies would have buckled under such attacks against the political order, even though launching attacks against the political system for personal gains and without any serious political purpose can only be seen as a unique trait of US Trumpism.
Post-Term, Post-Rajapaksa Politics
However much one might despise and disparage the Rajapaksas, there is one thing to be said to their credit that they did not choose to dig in their heels and unleash state terror or thug terror on protestors. Not that they did not think of doing it, or thought better of it and gave up the idea, or found the aragalaya movement too formidable to take on. Or a hundred other reasons. Some of them tried it on May 9, with disastrous results. Not Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He may or may not have left what he wouldn’t do to be done by his chosen successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who did it anyway.
As the protest dust settles, Sri Lanka finds itself in a period of tense transition. The transition, or stalemate, whatever you might call it, is showing no sign of getting to an end. Put another way, post-Rajapaksa politics is beginning to look like post-term pregnancy, not a healthy situation for anyone. Sri Lanka has experienced political changes and successions through elections and between elections. But never before has there been such an extended transition. The departing political forces (i.e., Rajapaksas) are drawing out their departure. Their potential replacements are jostling for traction.
Rajapaksas are virtually finished in politics – at least from the power business of politics. Ranil Wickremesinghe who was virtually finished in politics a year ago is trying to find his last wind to make most of the fortuity of his becoming President literally out of nowhere. At 73, Mr. Wickremesinghe is about the same age (in fact, a little older) as JR Jayewardene was when he became Prime Minister for the first time and Sri Lanka’s first Executive President soon after. But JRJ had four-fifths of the then parliament in his pocket, literally the resignation letters of his MPs and his Ministers.
Even so the long parliament of 1977 was a substantial parliament in terms of its MPs and their endowments. And also, in terms of its accomplishments. Whether one agrees with them or not, they were significant and substantial. On the other hand, the present parliament is the most insubstantial parliament since parliamentary system was introduced in Sri Lanka. And President Wickremesinghe has to dole out cabinet positions from his presidential pocket to keep his parliamentary majority secure.
Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, DS Senanayake wanted it written into the (Jennings-Soulbury) Constitution that the number of cabinet ministers in a government shall not exceed – if I remember right what I have read – 18. British officials advised him not to, as that would be unnecessarily restrictive. Now the Constitution is not restrictive, but permissive. And not only is President Wickremesinghe expanding his cabinet, but he is also expanding the self-assignment of portfolios to himself as President. On all important matters, the Wickremesinghe Administration is a one-man band. The unimportant matters are the playing fields for corrupt middlemen and money makers.
If the government, or what is there in name, lacks direction, the opposition is in disarray. There have been two separate protests in the name of the same people. The first was on October 27 by JVP-led trade unions, and the second on November 2 by non-JVP unions with limited show by SJB stalwarts. Neither protest gave worries to the government, nor did they make any political gain for the organizers. The JVP seems to have gotten itself into a puritanical political bubble, and is intending to stay there until elections are called. The SJB is all over the map, with as many heads as it has MPs. Between them, the two have made parliament more worthless than what the SLPP has already turned it into. And they are contributing to the post-term extension of post-Rajapaksa politics.