By Rajan Philips –
The first out of the blocks was the JVP. It declared its readiness to lead and presented a basic program as its “Rapid Response to Overcome Current Challenges.” It pulled no punches in its opening salvo: “We do not need a sophisticated grasp of statistics or politics to understand the socioeconomic catastrophe that has befallen our country due to the misguided economic and social policies pursued by various governments since independence.” This is a sweeping denunciation of any and all governments that almost sounds like Donald Trump’s inaugural rant on the “American carnage.” But the point here is about the current “socio economic catastrophe,” which is the handiwork of the present government and no one else. On that there is no doubt or disagreement. There is nothing either, for anyone to understand. The people are hurting and feeling it in their bellies and in their bones.
The JVP’s splash put the onus on the government and the main SJB opposition to take notice and respond. The government’s response has been mixed. The first response was to throw rotten eggs targeting the JVP leader in his car. After rotten eggs came street thugs, all low-level and quite remote from even O-level or A-level, who invaded university hostels to earn their degrees in bully violence. The President’s Independence Day speech came and went, but left nothing to write home about. There was no mention of foreign exchange, debt, IMF, or food shortages. Only preachy, presidential, hectoring.
In elections they excel
Five days later, on February 9, in Anuradhapura, the family, the Party and the government gathered their wits and delivered their Plan: the government will have an election. Come for an election fight if you want! The Prime Minister challenged the Opposition. The President harangued about internal and external threats who are apparently trying to undermine his government and sabotage his Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour. Again, not a word about any of the current crises and what the people can expect the government to do immediately.
Election campaigns and manipulations are the only thing that Rajapaksas feel they are good at. None more so than Basil Rajapaksa. With elections he can hit two birds with one stone. First, an election campaign will give him the opportunity to do something he likes, and something he believes he is good at. And he can turn the Finance Ministry into an SLPP election office. Second, elections would be a godsend excuse to stop pretending that he is serious about his responsibilities as Minister of Finance. He has no clue about the ministry or the economy and the only reason he would have wanted the job is to make deals with American companies. He is not at all the example of a dedicated Minister of Finance who would be pre-occupied and worried about rescuing the economy from its current morass.
Basil Rajapaksa has already made it clear that the upcoming election would be a local government election and not a parliamentary or presidential election. Both are more than three years away while the local elections now overdue. No one cares about provincial council elections, and no one cares to write to New Delhi about them. But the point about having local elections is that they are not going to make any difference to what could or should be done to deal with the country’s current predicaments. In normal times, local elections serve as a barometer for the national political mood in addition to replenishing local bodies to attend to local matters. Sri Lanka is not in normal times. Whoever wins or loses the local elections is not going to help Sri Lanka find more foreign exchange, pay back its debt, grow more food without fertiliser, and bring in imports to turn into exports. Local elections will not help any of them.
They will only serve as a diversionary route for the government. And if Basil Rajapaksa could pull half as much as his magic in February 2018, the President (who safely chose to abscond from the 2018 election by visiting his step-country) will be emboldened to brag twice as much as the SLPP did in 2018. And the hole the country is in will go twice as deep. I am not suggesting that local elections or any other election should not be held. Only that they will not make any difference to the catastrophic situation that the country is in. One safe aspect of Rajapaksas focusing on elections, any election, is that they are diverted from looking at a military option as quite a few observers fear.
In Anuradhapura, the family and the SLPP put on a bold front. But that did not cover the cracks behind. None of the minor constituent partners – the SLFP and an assortment of old school leftists and new school nationalists – were in attendance in Anuradhapura. The frontline ministers who took to backbench tactics were also conspicuous by their absence. Whether it is bluff and bluster or calculated confidence, the signs from Anuradhapura are that the SLPP is prepared to fight back, not by providing a better and improved governance, but by contesting and winning elections. There have also been suggestions that the SLPP is looking ahead to 2024 and a different presidential candidate instead of the incumbent. There is a reason why the family and the SLPP could feel confident about their electoral chances and political salvation. The reason is the disunity, if not disarray, in the opposition.
Whether smart or not, the SJB’s talkative MP Mujibur Rahuman has already accepted the election challenge dangled by the Prime Minister in Anuradhapura. But to his credit, Mr. Rahuman has pointed out the government’s flipflop in suddenly insisting on local elections after gazetting them out from their due date in March 2022. In any event, opposition parties have no say in the timing of any election (except to prevent premature dissolution of parliament, one of the legacies of the short-lived 19th Amendment). And they have no political option of boycotting an election after the government calls one. The question is what effect there will be on the political dynamic if the government were to act on its Anuradhapura challenge and call the local government elections.
The JVP and the SJB have both been calling for a parliamentary election, hoping for a change at least in the parliamentary branch of government while the executive branch stays with the incumbent. The JVP would have been hoping to use a parliamentary election campaign to take its “Rapid Response” message far and wide into every electorate. A local government election will not give the same platform and amplitude as a parliamentary election for a national policy campaign. However, the JVP could and invariably will turn the local election into a referendum on the government. It has the political ammunition for it. Its focus on and exposures of government corruption and abuse of power will be powerful ammunitions in any election.
But does the JVP have the delivery weapons to use its well-stocked ammos successfully, on a sufficiently large scale, and in every part of the country? How successful will it be in a local government election overall, in terms of – total vote proportion, number of local bodies won, number of seats won, and the number of provinces with above average performance? If the results are not a dramatic improvement from the past, the JVP will suffer dramatic deflation from which it will be impossible to recover for the parliamentary and presidential elections that will follow.
Sajith Premadasa and the SJB have the opposite problem. The SJB has a broader electoral base and network, but it doesn’t have a compelling message or penetrating ammunitions. Mr. Premadasa is yet to have his breakout moment showing his readiness to lead and the direction he will take. There are enough people doing Mr. Premadasa’s bidding and filling up his vacuum of silence. There are others in the SJB, or one other, who has been itching to upstage Sajith Premadasa in providing an alternative to both the government and the JVP. And one of them has – that is Champika Ranawaka who has upstaged Mr. Premadasa from the right.
Upstaging with aplomb may seem to come naturally to Mr. Ranawaka, an ambitious lone ranger with some ability, but without a big stage of his own to strut from. To be fair, Mr. Ranawaka does have a stage of sorts, the 43 Brigade, a clever concept to politically embrace all the (so far only Sinhala) beneficiaries of Sri Lanka’s Free Education system introduced in 1943. And he has used that stage to launch a Manifesto, entitled “Rescue and Thrive,” which seems intended to counter the JVP’s “Rapid Response.” But they both share a common premise even though it is articulated differently.
While the JVP has chosen to blame all governments since independence for the current catastrophe, the message of the 43 Brigade is crisp: “After independence, for the first time in history, Sri Lanka is under a very real threat of going into bankruptcy.” And it is not every government that bears the blame, only the present one. And rightly so. The fundamental difference between the JVP and the 43 Brigade is on evaluating the effects of the open economy. The JVP sees the open economy as the fount of all evils that have befallen Sri Lanka since 1977. To the whiz kids of 43 Brigade, Sri Lanka’s modern economic history began with the open economy and there is no future ahead without the open economy. The historical answer and the future lie somewhere in between. The open economy is neither a flawless success nor an unmitigated disaster.
In any event, the JVP and the 43 Brigade have at least started a debate that others can join. There is no one in the family, the SLPP, or the government who can credibly join this debate, or any thoughtful debate. The SJB has professional economists in its ranks who obviously support the open economy but will likely be rankled by Champika Ranawaka’s upstaging self-promotions. As well, serious debates over political economy are not among the most effective ways to conduct successful election campaigns. Especially, local elections. The JVP will have to find a way to capture the moods of the people and connect them to the themes of its message. SJB and Champika Ranawaka will have to find a way to co-exist for mutual benefits without over-upstaging one another.
There are others too – the parties representing the Tamils and the Muslims, who attest to certain irrefutable facts: that there is and there can be more than One Country within a single Sri Lankan State, that there is and there will be more than One Law, and that there is and there will be more than One People within the small Sri Lankan Island. For the government and the SJB, the JVP presents a political platform that challenges them (SLPP & SJB) to respond with alternatives. On the other hand, the Tamil and Muslim parties present a challenge to the JVP to demonstrate that it will be, and to what extent it will be, different from the broken records of its southern contenders for national power.
The bigger question for the JVP is whether it can go alone without alliances involving others. The NPP is not an alliance but a convenience. For any significant leap from its 3% launching pad, the JVP will have to execute a historically impossible poll-vaulting. And historically, as well, no single party has won a parliamentary majority under the parliamentary system from 1947 to 1978, except in 1952 and 1977. Electoral success in all the other elections depended on either broad alliances or formal coalitions. After 1978, every election has been all about alliances with ever weakening commitments to political principles or programs, and ever strengthening attachments to personal interests and mutual IOUs. IOUs became the organizing principle of Rajapaksa politics. The family and the SLPP are ready to cash in one more, or last, time.