Colombo Telegraph

Politics Just Shifted In The World & Sri Lanka 

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Things just moved, changed, in the world and Sri Lanka, and I hope we are taking notice. Let’s start with the world and move on to Sri Lanka. 

President Trump’s pullout from the Iran deal sharply enhances the prospect of war in the Middle East, with devastating consequences for the world economy as a whole and the economies of developing (or in our case, under-developing) countries of the global South, in particular. The neoconservative hawks in the Trump administration—most notably National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—and their allies the Netanyahu administration and the Saudi monarchy, are clearly hoping to provoke Iran into resuming its nuclear weapons program which it had abandoned even before the signing of the deal. 

Iran may then become the target of an attack on the ground that it is “racing” towards a nuclear weapon. The gamble is that the US will back Israel and that the two military machines, being the most formidable alliance on the planet, supported by the far less impressive Saudi Arabia, will be able to prevail over Iran. The ultimate goal is that military defeat will trigger regime change in Tehran, reversing the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

For Israel, the goal is strategic and regional: weaken Iran, the Hezbollah and Hamas. For the US, the goal is grand-strategic and global: push Russia back in the region, and tighten the encirclement of Moscow, thereby weakening Putin– and by weakening Russia, also weaken China, the ultimate enemy. This is how the hawks in the US hope to reverse the relative decline of US global hegemony and the rise of Eurasia, chiefly China backed by Russia.  

Matters may not be that easy. Iran is a highly motivated state and society. It is motivated by a combination of factors that social scientists recognize as the strongest combination of motivational factors in the world: religion (any theistic religion) and revolution (any type of real revolution). In the Iranian case there is also the powerful motivator of civilizational nationalism/patriotism. 

The Iranian military, the elite Revolutionary Guards, their strategic allies Hezbollah (which, through its political proxies and partners, has just secured preponderance in the Lebanese parliament, defeating the pro-western bloc), Hamas, and the Shiite militias in Iraq, have developed an impressive capacity for asymmetric warfare. The entire Middle East region may turn into a new Vietnam for the US and may even alter the situation for Israel in a manner that Tel Aviv least expects—now that the demonstrations on the Gaza border, where unarmed teenagers are shot dead by Israeli snipers with explosive bullets, show just how much self-sacrificial desperation the Palestinian people have been driven to. 

Sri Lanka: The Candidacy Stakes 

In Sri Lanka, the balance of forces is shifting. Veteran politician Dinesh Gunawardena notes that the recent SLFP rebellion marks the largest number to cross over from Government to the Opposition at any one time, in the history of the Sri Lankan parliament. When traffic flows usually from opposition to government for reasons of opportunism and purposes of patronage, any reverse flow is noteworthy. Such reverse flows, such as in 1964 and 1975 are signs of a government doomed to be defeated at the next election. So it is with the rebellion of the SLFP Sixteen. 

The SLFP rebellion is noteworthy not only because of quantitative factors, but qualitative ones. As Dayasiri Jayasekara pointed out on Derana 360, of the 16 rebels, 14 have university degrees, 8 are lawyers and one is a specialist doctor.  

The Sri Lankan political scenario registered yet another change at the Sugathadasa Stadium, with Sajith Premadasa receiving sustained applause; far more so than any other personality. His speech which was punctuated by lusty cheers, was a full-on attack on the neoliberal economic orthodoxy that has brought the UNP’s base vote from 40%-45% down to 32%. He didn’t stop at that but went on to invoke his father’s memory – President Ranasinghe Premadasa was a local equivalent of a Juan Peron or Salvador Allende—and unfurl what sounded suspiciously like an election manifesto.  

With the UNP’s crisis having triggered boycotts from within the parliamentary group, ghettoized its May Day in the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium, and manifested disaffection from supporters outside the stadium, Sajith Premadasa emerged clearly as the most popular personality in the UNP and the only hope – and outside chance at best– of avoiding a catastrophe at the Presidential election next year. 

Already the UNP’s rightwing elite has begun to counterattack in the mainstream and social media, arguing that the UNP does not need a “duplicate Mahinda Rajapaksa”. In the first place that’s overly flattering – and today’s UNP would be lucky to produce anyone who could be credibly compared with the country’s most loved personality who will doubtless become a folk deity when he is no more. 

In the second place, these rightwing propagandists have dismally failed to understand the lessons of the miraculous 1988 turnaround, where the UNP snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It was precisely by fielding a candidate who was even more patriotic and populist than Mrs. Bandaranaike. As UNP Gen Sec Ranjan Wijeratne’s survey had clearly indicated, the mood in the country was such that Premadasa was the only acceptable option; the only one with even half a chance. Had Gamini Dissanaike been the candidate in 1988 instead of Premadasa, not only would the UNP have lost; it would have been overrun and massacred by the violent xenophobes—so hated was the governing party, for its perceived treachery and manifest insensitivity to the poor. Ranasinghe Premadasa was the only exception.  

If the UNP does not repeat the move of the maestro, President Jayawardene, in 1988 when the party and government’s back was to the wall, and play the Premadasa card, then, as Sajith said, to the assembled party loyalists in his Sugathadasa stadium May 7th speech (referring to the need for total change and radical democratization of the party and its policies): “May God help us!”

Meanwhile the SLPP-JO was the sole formation among the serious national contenders for state power next year, to have a May Day procession and rally, signaling that it is still the largest political formation in the island. The number of references to Basil Rajapaksa made it clear that the race for the Presidential candidacy is underway. 

There are SLPP voices supporting Basil but the SLPP is not the JO and not even the whole of the SLFP group with Mahinda. The JO parliamentarians as a bloc are loyal to Mahinda and no one else. Any aspiring candidate will not only have to secure MR’s fullest support but also earn the trust of the JO parliamentarians. Among the broader public; i.e. in society at large, the groundswell is for Gotabaya. Inexorably, the choice before Mahinda Rajapaksa is becoming Gotabaya (or Chamal).     

Unless Mahinda Rajapaksa can become Prime Minister and revise the 19th amendment before late 2019—which is the best possible outcome for the country—then the choices have to be made as to the candidates of the respective sides. The increasingly restless and rebellious social mood will impact the final choices. 

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