By Rajan Philips –
The country has been on its marks for nearly five months for Wednesday’s election. There have been false starts given the long wait. Now it is time to ‘get set’, in track and field terminology. Get set for what? “When the gun go off, the race be over,” the disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson predicted before his scandalously record shattering 100 meter dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The race seems to be over in this week’s election even before the people have fired their voting guns.
Victory is seemingly assured for the SLPP. The question is whether the Rajapaksa Party will set a new ground record with a two-thirds majority in a proportional representation election. There are other mini bets going on among political bookies. Who will come second: Ranil’s almost-dead UNP, or Sajith’s struggling-to-be born SJB? How well or badly will the JVP do? Will there be a new challenger to the TNA in the shrinking Tamil universe? How divided will be the Muslim vote? And will the Thondaman scion be able to deliver upcountry Tamil votes to the SLPP the way his forefathers delivered them to the UNP?
Whichever way these questions get answered as the votes get counted the day after the election, there is not going to be much of a difference in the new parliament. For, as I wrote last week, a majority of the 188 sitting MPs who are running again are likely to get re-elected in spite of the deep revulsions that most people have against almost all of them. The really bad apples are equally distributed between the SLPP/SLFP and the UNP/SJB.
The only way to prevent at least the worst among them from returning to parliament, is to elect new MPs from outside the four (SLPP/SLFP and UNP/SJB) Parties. And this can only happen in the South where it matters, if at least a dozen or more new JVP/NPP MPs get elected on Wednesday. Whether the country can muster sufficient electoral wisdom to accomplish this, we will know on Thursday.
The JVP’s Vijitha Herath has told Chandani Kirinde of the Daily Financial Times (Friday, August 31) that his Party “would not allow the repeal of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and would join forces with any Party in the next Parliament to block any such moves.” This is courageous and encouraging, something to which Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa have not committed themselves so far. Resistance is not part of their political DNA.
Already, there are worries among civil society activists who worked hard for the enactment of 19A that even if the government does not get a two-thirds majority in the election, it will find a way to buy out enough MPs from the UNP and the SJB to get it after the election. That will be their path of least resistance if there is no JVP in parliament strong enough to mobilize resistance to repealing 19A. A good dozen of them (JVP) can make a world of difference in parliament. They can save what is being set up to be the weakest parliament in Sri Lankan history from becoming its worst as well.
During the last five years, it was often said and heard that Ranil Wickremesinghe plays the long game in politics. That is, he keeps a distant focus, is not ruffled by all the setbacks around him, and keeps moving slowly in the right direction. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe started early in politics and have lived with it for 50 and 43 years, respectively. Mahinda Rajapaksa has seen and achieved everything a Sri Lankan politician can possibly accomplish. Ranil Wickremesinghe too, except the coveted presidency.
We can only say that Mr. Wickremesinghe has played too long a game in politics, over too long a period, and it is now time for him to settle down over a card game of Patience or Solitaire. They are not long games, but they can be played endlessly to turn them into a long game to no end. If it is game over for Ranil Wickremesinghe, what is in the game for Mahinda Rajapaksa? President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is at a different point in his political game. He started late in politics, but he became President without wasting any time in parliament, unlike his older brother. What will he do with his presidency? That is the question.
Although the circumstances are drastically different, there are similarities between the aftermaths of the July 1960 election and August 2020 election. The hallmarks of the 1960-64 SLFP government were overall incompetence, economic mismanagement, and the total repudiation of the efforts of SWRD Bandaranaike to settle the Tamil question. Between July 1960 and June 1964, there were four finance ministers, and the fifth one, Dr. NM Perera, lasted six months from June to December 1964, when the first coalition government fell. There was Satyagraha in Jaffna, a failed military coup, and the prolonged detention of all MPs of the Federal Party. The economy began its downward slide, with unemployment and the balance of payments becoming chronic scourges.
The SLFP government lost the elections in 1965, and when it returned to power in 1970, it was the two Left Parties (the LSSP and the CP) that were left to do all the heavy lifting: on the economy, the constitution and the plantations, and transport and housing. Philip Gunawardena and William de Silva had played a similar role in the first SLFP/MEP government under SWRD Bandaranaike. The objective outcomes of coalition politics were undoubtedly the weakening of the left movement and the disenchantment of the youth, but the main SLFP purpose in coalition politics was not to forestall a social revolution but to compensate for SLFP incompetence by aligning with the Left and its “golden brains.” Even the electoral no-contest pacts were a secondary purpose. How are these relevant today?
The SLPP incompetence and its cabinet material today are far worse than those of the SLFP in 1960-64. Even if you compare head to head the four SLFP Finance Ministers, whom Mrs. Bandaranaike tried before turning to NM for rescue, with the SLPP ministers today (the election is not going to make a difference), you would see that each one of the old SLFPers being heads and shoulders above their SLPP counterparts today. Felix Dias, though he was too clever for his own good, would wipe the floor of parliament with any SLPPer of today. CP de Silva, Permanent Secretary and later Minister, was in a lofty league of his own, that nobody now can even touch. PBG Kalugalla and TB Ilangaratne were not intimidating intellectuals, but they had strong political constituencies and loads of political experience. They were party stalwarts and not family placeholders.
There is no Left, like there was in the 1960s, to which the President can turn, like Mrs. Bandaranaike did in 1964, for assistance in competence. Instead, he is turning to the military for reinforcement. It was different in 1962, when Sirima Bandaranaike and her government had to put down a military coup that was being prepared to take over the country because the government was incompetent in the minds of the military. Now there is creeping takeover of the country not by any military coup but by military task forces, because the civilian administration is incompetent in the mind of an elected civilian President.
Most of all, the challenges facing the country today are far more severe and intractable than those in 1960, or any time in Sri Lanka’s modern history. The mismatch between government competence and the severity of challenges has never been so unmanageable. Can the executive presidency, which nobody could even imagine in 1960, make a difference? Apparently not. The President wants a two-thirds majority in parliament before he can make any difference. He wants more power in parliament to increase his own powers and reduce the cabinet of ministers and the parliament itself to being rubber stamps of the executive.
In other words, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants a two-thirds powerful parliament to make it even more powerless than it was under JR Jayewardene or Mahinda Rajapaksa. The irony is that a former president and the older brother of the current president is set up to reap the effects of a newly emaciated parliament. Unless a sizeable section of the electorate and the JVP’s political stars come together to upset an otherwise foregone outcome.