By Dayan Jayatilleke
Is this a functioning democracy or what? The governing coalition’s sweep of the local authorities election, the UNP’s successful resistance in a tough campaign in Colombo, as well as the TNA’s impressive performance at repeated elections in the North, make nonsense of the dark pronouncements and forebodings of dictatorship. Homogenization leads to conformism, which crystallises into a monolith, which translates itself into a dictatorship of discourse and opinion, which straitjackets society and creates a de-facto dictatorship. The results of the local authorities election proves that Sri Lankan society will not allow itself to be straitjacketed into conformity. We are, in short, a democracy.
The extrapolation by some commentators that the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration is somewhere along the trajectory of the recently overthrown Arab regimes is way of the mark because none of them permitted pluralist media (an important feedback loop), subjected their popularity to the test of authentically competitive multiparty elections. As Emeritus Professor of International Law at Princeton, Richard Falk observed to in a recent piece, “…as potent a unifying target as was the grim personage of Hosni Mubarak, cruel autocrat for more than three decades…” Thus, Mubarak can resemble Mahinda Rajapaksa and vice versa, only in the jaundiced eyes of demented Diaspora demagogues.
The election result contains a downside though. That downside is not dictatorship; it is something else, or consists of other things. One is the prevalence of lethal political violence, reflecting a long decline of the country’s political culture into quasi-gangsterism. The other is the clear and almost complete correspondence between the electoral and the ethnic. Sri Lanka’s is an unevenly divided democracy.
The election result contains a downside though
The UPFA’s wave which carried the traditional UNP strongholds of Kandy, Negombo, Moratuwa and Colombo’s suburbs reinforce the reality revealed by the statistical survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA): 74% of the Sinhalese identify most, with the SLFP. This is an unprecedented degree of identification, significantly surpassing the older congruencies between the SLFP and the rural, Sinhala-Buddhist vote. The UNP which once held most of that vote and later was a powerful contender for it, has now lost most of the Sinhala vote, rural and urban, Buddhist and Christian.
Given that almost 74 % of the country’s citizenry are Sinhalese, this places almost insurmountable obstacles to the UNP unless it switches its leadership, which is unlikely in the aftermath of its victory in Colombo. The SLFP’s electoral advantage in a national election is likely to be durable, though not at such high levels, given three factors: the unalterable demographic preponderance of the Sinhalese, a spike in nationalism due to escalating external pressures, the entrenchment of the UNP’s existing leadership and the party’s chronic inability to change its profile (a Wikileaks cable reveals Mr Wickremesingha’s solid defence of the merger and shrill opposition to its dissolution in conversations with the US Ambassador).
However, the unassailability of the SLFP’s hegemony assumes a steady-state or normal situation, which may not be a safe assumption, given the global economic crisis, which could contract the Sri Lankan economy in a few years unless we have got onto far more solid, modern and ethnically integrated footing as a society.
Governing coalition has been unable to cultivate a multiethnic image
It is widely known that almost 60% of Colombo consists of ethno-linguistic minorities, and while this does not mean that the winning candidate must be from one of the minorities, it does mean that in order to win, a candidate from a majority community must have a multi-ethnic base and appeal, or his/her party must have such a profile. Dr NM Perera and B. Sirisena Cooray both Sinhalese, won because they did have this factor.
My friend Milinda Moragoda probably failed because the governing coalition has been unable to cultivate a multiethnic image. If Milinda’s campaign assumed that there would be a subterranean pan-Sinhala swing which together with a split in the UNP’s Muslim vote effected by Mahroof, would see it over the top, it was wrong. The visible tendency, or drive, towards cultural homogenisation and conformity, if not domination, was bound to be rejected by a multicultural, cosmopolitan Colombo citizenry.
Rulers must understand the contrasting lessons of Colombo and Kalmunai
As Richard Falk concludes, “In the end, we all must hope and engage. The beginnings of hope are rooted in the correctness of analysis…” The results of the recently concluded election have lessons and implications for Sri Lankan politics and politicians, as well as for those in capitals elsewhere who observe the Sri Lankan scene. While congratulating themselves on winding up with more political real estate than they had before the elections, the rulers must understand the contrasting lessons of Colombo and Kalmunai. The latter result shows the viability of an ethnic party which maintains its identity – and is permitted to – while remaining in the coalition. For its part, the Opposition UNP, while doing very well to retain Colombo, must comprehend that this result, if it locks in its present leadership, locks the party out of the Sinhala vote and therefore political power at a national level. Colombo is a-typical, as is the Northern Province. However severe a future economic crisis and however serious a future wave of street unrest, the factor of patriotism, nationalism or the collective perception of the Sinhalese of facing an existential threat, cannot be wished away, and as such, this UNP –as currently led, configured and profiled– will always be hamstrung at a parliamentary election while being batted out of the ballpark in a Presidential one.
The country’s rulers and foreign critics have similar lessons to learn from the election results. The foreign critics must know that Colombo and Jaffna are not the country at large, and the country at large has gone overwhelmingly one way. The rulers must know that the world outside, from Seattle to Singapore, is more like Colombo and Jaffna, only far more so, than it is like any other part of Sri Lanka.