3 December, 2022


Opposition Blues

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Udaya Gammanpila’s advice to politicians over the growing economic crisis is a five-point checklist: accepting there is an issue, identifying it, understanding it, revealing the truth to the people, and leading by example by making sacrifices.

The checklist reads like the Buddha’s take on the notion of suffering, all the way from accepting it right down to avoiding it. Social media users were quick to criticise it, calling it yet another example of the government’s indifference to the people.

And yet, at some strange, existential level, it makes sense.

More importantly, it points at the rifts that are fast emerging in the government. The most discernible such cleavage is, of course, between the SLPP and the SLFP. The SLFP now says that it will never contest with the SLPP. That remains to be seen, given that some SLFP MPs prefer remaining the ruling party, worried about their electoral prospects.

For its part the SLPP will much lose if the SLFP leaves, including its parliamentary majority. In that sense it’s debatable whether it will be as cocky and confident as it was in 2020, over the prospect of its most important coalition partner calling it quits.

There is another more significant rift, however. The likes of Udaya Gammanpila and Wimal Weerawansa have been voicing criticism about the government over the last few months, especially with regard to its response to the power and debt crisis. Given that they aired similar sentiments under Mahinda Rajapaksa, it would be interesting to know how far they’d go under his brother. Gammanpila has been particularly candid with his statements, thinly veiled as some of them are, pitting him against SLPP bigwigs.

By all accounts, these are developments the Opposition will have to account for. But is the Opposition, or any of the Oppositions, accounting for them? Apart from MPs touting a holier-than-thou line, from Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s disparagement of mainstream politics to Champika Ranawaka’s rebranding of what one wit calls developmentalist presidentialism, no one is making the contingency plans they should be making.

Partly, of course, this is because of the political dynamics the SLPP inherited in 2019: the SLFP and the UNP had parted ways even before the Rajapaksas staked their claim at the election, while the UNP’s colossal defeats led to a breach between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa. Meanwhile, the JVP’s transformation into the NPP added a third element to this witch’s brew, further denting the Opposition’s potential.

But then these alone don’t explain the situation we are in now. Sri Lanka’s political situation, at present, reminds me of the standoff at the end of Reservoir Dogs. It’s the worst stalemate an Opposition can be in, and the best thing a government can hope for.

Underlying these is the Opposition’s woeful lack of a strategy regarding the government. Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s point that the history of Sri Lanka since independence has been a series of maru weem is true, in the sense that Oppositions and governments have frequently painted each other as the worst option there is, and made promises they have reneged after coming to power. But this is hardly the whole picture.

I think a pragmatic Opposition should distinguish between progressive and regressive elements in a government, welcoming the former and critiquing the latter. Of course, what’s progressive and regressive is highly debatable; we saw this two weeks ago, when those who thought Basil Rajapaksa had announced that Sri Lanka would go to the IMF urged the SJB and the JVP to support the government. My idea of a progressive inclination in the regime would be Udaya Gammanpila’s dissenting remarks. Yet no one seems to even have noticed, much less noted them. This doesn’t do any Opposition party any credit.

A pragmatic Opposition should also do everything it can to prevent being fragmented. Yet sadly, the Opposition remains more fragmented than ever. On the one hand, the JVP-NPP airs contradictory statements about the debt crisis, with one faction opposing the IMF and another calling rating agencies “independent.” On the other hand, the SJB dithers between neoliberal prescriptions and populist statements. On yet another hand, the Opposition led by the SJB has split between Sajith Premadasa and Champika Ranakawa.

Personality politics can get you only that far. The Champika Ranawaka faction’s claim to being more popular than the Sajith Premadasa faction is at best intriguing and at worst ridiculous, given that the man they are touting emerged fifth in Colombo district, while the man they are comparing him unfavourably with polled the highest votes.

Twitter liberals are split over Ranawaka: some prefer him to Premadasa, while others see him as a more efficient and dangerous ideologue than Rajapaksa. It’s hard to take sides, but that’s hardly the point: the point is that by dividing the Opposition, these factions threaten to shift what could be a progressive bloc to the right even of the government.

A more worrying trend is Opposition MPs promoting paranoia on social media, especially Twitter, distracting not just online users but the public from more important issues. One Opposition MP’s tweet of a video purportedly showing an inferior imported rice variety, for instance, gained much traction, until it was pointed out even by critics of the government that the rice in question was of a perfectly normal variety.

Faux-pas of this sort betrays the level of disconnect between Colombo-based Opposition MPs and the grassroots, particularly the rural grassroots. That can only delegitimize an already besieged Opposition, fuelling liberal opprobrium and converting floating voters to outfits promoting a leaner, “cleaner” version of Rajapaksist politics.

Complicating matters further, liberals and left-liberals talk of replacing the presidency with a parliamentary system. Laudable as this may be in political discourses, it is counterproductive and ultimately helps no one, least of all an Opposition reeling in disunity.

A parliamentary system worked in Sri Lanka when regional and international geopolitics was more orderly than it is now. To put in place such a system, when politics is more unstable than ever before, would be to empower centrifugal forces and open the country to the risk of a backlash. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, Sri Lanka did not necessarily fare better under Westminster: the disenfranchisement of estate Tamils, for instance, took place under a parliamentary system, as Dayan Jayatilleka has recently reminded us.

The same goes for left-liberal rhetoric about constitutional reform. To draft a new document and do away with the presidency now, when centripetal forces are at their peak, would almost certainly lead to implosion. Conversely, to push forward reforms that rock the boat and galvanise those forces would achieve the same thing. Ironically, though not surprisingly, nationalists who want a more entrenched Constitution and Presidency and idealists who want to do away with both are no longer talking at cross-purposes: they are operating from two camps, but leading us to the same battle-ground. That cannot end well.

None of this is to say that the Opposition shouldn’t be engaging these issues. They should, as indeed they are. Yet as the experience of the yahapalana years should tell us, rattling on about reform, and amputating existing structures where a simple surgery would do, would neither achieve reformist aims nor keep back populist backlashes.

The bottom line is that the Opposition, be it green, red, or blue, needs to be more open and more candid than it is now. It needs to realise that working alone will not work, and it needs to overhaul the failed strategies of the past, substituting new tactics.

The problem is that left-liberal ideologues who once identified with the yahapalana regime, and eventually became beneficiaries of yahapalanist largesse, focus on centrifugal forces, while government supporters want to entrench centripetal forces. This never-ending tug-of-war between ultra-nationalist fringes and liberal peripheries is not going to work for anyone, least of all an Opposition desperate for popular legitimacy.

For its part the Opposition, in particular the SJB, needs to get more pragmatic than it is. It needs to recognise progressive dissent in the government, offer resistance to breakaway factions within its ranks, and not get enmeshed in social media paranoia. In a word, it needs to get more practical about tactics and strategies. Paraphrasing Hegel, freedom is really the recognition of necessity. This is a credo the SJB would do well to heed.

*The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Dear Uditha
    A well written piece.The main duty of the opposition is to ensure that the government is made accountable. But this is not happening in Sri-Lanka. The authorities are getting away with murder so to speak.
    The opposition parties and leaders seem to have their own agenda and not focussing on the crucial matters which affects the livlihood of the common man.
    There are serious cracks within the opposition parties and its leaders. This is a fuel for the authorities to do their own thing

  • 3

    Mr. Uditha Devapriya: The topic “Opposition Blues” given in your article is not “REALISTIC”. I know of at least “ONE” Opposition, viz. the “NPP” (three MPs in Parliament) has very assertively realized that the rest of the political parties (both in Governing and Opposition) in Parliament are not “Pragmatic” and therefore of no further use to consolidate their efforts with any of them to “RE-BUILD” this country. This conclusive decision has been expressly made known in NPP saying: “It is a very easy task to form another (alternative) Government if another “Coalition” is formed, but that too will be a “Repetitive Mistake” as committed during the last few decades. Therefore, we declare there will never be any type of “Alliance” or “Coalition” with “UNP, SLFP, SLPP, and SJB”. But we invite any “Progressive” elements in those parties to “Join” the NPP which is a level field for all of them to contribute to “Re-Build” the country. This is a “Public Statement/Announcement” by the NPP.

    Mr. Uditha: From the above, you will realize that NPP (an Opposition party in the present Parliament) has confirmed with your statement viz. ” I think Opposition should distinguish progressive and regressive elements in a Government welcoming the former and criticizing the later”. I wish to add next to the word “Government” the word “Opposition” as well. Also please note “JVP” is also a “Member” party of NPP while still maintaining their individual identity.

    • 1

      My personal feeling is that there are certain politicians in the SJB who will have positive contributions to make. However, nobody is perfect, and even if those politicians have no skeletons in their cupboards, their ideiologies may not mesh with those of the NPP.
      By way of contrast, there are no allegations of corruption against the leadership of the NPP. Also, their thinking is largely Marxist. I know little of Marxism, but I have no negative reaction towards the philosophy.
      The bottom line is that whilst I may express opinions on these matters, I’m no more than a supporter. If the seemingly impossible happens, and there actually is an NPP-led administration in the country, then that would be the time for us to stridently criticise anything we see as mistakes that are being made.

      • 0

        Sinhala-Man: Thanks. I myself don’t know of the intricacies of “Marxism”, but do know and act on: “Do not do to others what you don’t like others to do to you”. This I know explain both the concepts of “Self” and “Social Self” – consistent with scientific findings of both genetic and cultural evolution that are group processes. Human nature is not static or complete, and there is no reason to think that we are the end of the line. So as long as we are “IN IT” and don’t be “OF IT” (think deeply of what I have emphasized) anything done to preserve “Self” and “Social Self” is acceptable to me.

  • 4

    “But this is not happening in Sri-Lanka”.
    I dont think it is not happening but opposition is weak because the leader himself is a novice in his position. That is why RW took that long keeping him away from the leadership/ had nt SP broken away from

    • 3

      2/UNP things would nt have reached this much of a fall as of today/ only RW and CBK or the like could save the nation from the catastrophic situation fallen as of today/ without the mediation of the west / nothing can turn out to be better/🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔

    • 0

      Old days we had a man called ANDARAY, Latest Andaray is Sajith.

  • 2

    As long as the old cronies Viz- Mahinda brothers, Sirisena, Ranil, , Prof. Cooray and many others who remain in parliament, whilst also getting pensions for their previous posts they held ; it’s meaningless to treat these politicians as genuine leaders of the people,to the people or for the people. Thus, new well- educated and trustwothy politicians should emerge to serve the innocent majority people who are being cheated by these old polticians for a very long time.

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