By Dayan Jayatilleka –
A Referendum is coming in 2021, on the new constitution. The Opposition must seriously prepare to defeat the regime and strive to the utmost to do so.
“By oneself is one defiled” said The Buddha. The democratic camp ushered in the victory of the hardline Gotabaya regime by committing political, ideological and electoral suicide. It must change drastically if it is to start winning again.
The model of successful democratic oppositional politics after a crushing electoral defeat, is the UNP of 1973-1977 spearheaded by JR Jayewardene and deputy leader R. Premadasa. The emphasis was by no means on building a broad platform. It was on understanding and admitting the reasons for defeat, dislodging the discredited Old Guard, thoroughly reorganizing the party on a new social basis and giving it a new profile. Anything and anyone that reminded the masses of the old Uncle Nephew Party was unceremoniously dumped. The UNP itself became the broad platform.
The UNP’s main ally in 1977 was Mr. Thondaman’s CWC, but that came years after the party’s robust repositioning, reorganization and consolidation. The priority was on turning the UNP into a totally new party. In the landslide of 1977, the new UNP was both main force and leading force.
The next lesson in the successful defense of democracy is 1988. Ranasinghe Premadasa was not a ‘common candidate’; he was the (uncommon) candidate of the common people.
He was geared up to run independently if deprived of the UNP candidacy, but it was ceded to him. Far from bringing together the broadest reassembly of the discredited, polarizing old elements which had caused the crisis and collapse, Premadasa’s election propaganda hardly mentioned the UNP government he had served in; he used the color orange instead of green; his manifesto ‘A New Vision, A New Deal’ was progressive, radical.
SWRD’s SLFP established itself in 1951, ran for elections in 1952 and formed the winning united front with Philip Gunawardena only in 1955.
Mrs. Bandaranaike’s SLFP formed the winning SLFP-LSSP-CPSL United Front only in 1968 at Bogambara.
Mahinda’s SLPP won the February 2018 local authorities election well before it entered a united front with its old parent party the SLFP.
The lesson is simple. You first establish your brand, get your message across, throw the old baggage overboard, demarcate yourself as a new or radically renovated force and build your base, before you form united fronts—or at the least, you give clear priority to the former task than the latter. The model and process must be of concentric circles with the new party as the nucleus, the core, and the united front built around it at the next stage.
Some think that the UNP and SJB belong to the same ideological camp, or should or should be regarded as such. But why? The failure of the post-Premadasa UNP to win a presidential election and lead the country for a quarter-century proves that the majority of the people of this country, the majority of voters, do not form part of the same ideological camp as the UNP. So why should the SJB regard itself as doing so? If it does and the voters think it does, that will ensure the defeat of the SJB too for a good long time. Perhaps that’s what a motley crew that wishes to prevent a second Premadasa presidency would like.
The UNP does not even belong in the same ideological camp as the UNP of JR Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, in that it calls for the abolition of the executive presidency and therefore renounces the obligation to use this powerful instrument in the service of the people as Premadasa did.
The UNP belongs in the camp of neoliberal globalist elitism, which Jake Sullivan, president-elect Biden’s National Security Advisor has declared a “failure”, calling for “a new economic philosophy”.
Can anyone imagine the UNP of DS Senanayake, JR Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa or even DB Wijetunga, co-sponsoring a resolution on Sri Lanka in Geneva which is based on and commences with a commendation of a UN High Commissioner’s Report stating that war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the last war were “systemic” and “systemwide” i.e., not isolated, individual aberrations but deliberate policy?
The SJB cannot and must not belong to the same ideological camp as the UNP. The biggest danger faced by the SJB is the possibility of the public perception of it being infected by ideological ‘Ranilism’; of being ‘Ranil Lite’. The SJB must not identify itself or allow itself to be identified with the 2015 Yahapalanaya UNP, which is in the mind of the Sinhala voter, what the Yeltsin 1990s is in the mind of the Russian voter.
Simply because the SJB emanated from the UNP it does not inhabit the same ideological space, just as SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP, emanating from the UNP, did not share an ideological camp with the UNP.
The people need an alternative to the Gotabayan regime and ideology and decidedly want an alternative that of the UNP of the past quarter-century (of which Ranil, incredibly, remains the leader). The SJB must do what SWRD succeeded in doing: create a new, moderate progressive center and build a new ideological camp around it.
Given the polarization between neoliberal globalism and neoconservative tribalism in the world, as represented in Sri Lanka by the UNP and the Gotabaya regime, the SJB must carve out a new ideological space and rebuild a patriotic, rural peasant heartland-friendly (DS Senanayake), multiethnic, social-democratic (Ranasinghe Premadasa) center-space, aimed in the first place at winning the Executive Presidency (JR Jayewardene) in 2024.
My public support for Sajith Premadasa and clear advocacy that he lead the UNP and the Opposition dates back over a decade, to early 2010, as evidenced by the pages of the Sunday Leader (The Sajith Solution | The Sunday Leader) and Groundviews (THE OPPOSITION IN SRI LANKA: RESTORE VIABILITY, RESOLVE CRISIS – Groundviews).
Why didn’t Sajith Premadasa do better at the 2019 Presidential election than the very respectable 42% he scored? Why couldn’t he do a Premadasa 1988? It has nothing whatsoever to do with a change from his father’s time to the present which my critic alleges Sajith failed to comprehend. It had everything to do with the fact that he was tripped up by the UNP, thereby guaranteeing Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory:
(A) Sajith was not given the nomination until after Gotabaya had done several laps around the country as candidate.
(B) Sajith was given the candidacy but not the party leadership as his father had been in 1988.
(C) Gotabaya ran with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the ultimate electoral asset, at his side. Sajith was forced to run with the electoral deadweight and jinx Ranil Wickremesinghe appearing on the platform and on campaign literature and symbols, unlike in 1988 when Ranasinghe Premadasa ran with a clean slate devoid of any sign of the earlier President.
(D) Sajith was saddled with an election manifesto that was a compromise with the UNP’s old Ranil-Mangala thinking, unlike Premadasa’s winning 1988 manifesto ‘New Vision, New Deal’ which was drafted by him and Susil Sirivardhana.
(E) In the midst of a campaign where Sajith ran against an ultranationalist candidate, Mangala Samaraweera tweeted that the MCC would be adopted—while Premadasa in 1988 would never have countenanced anyone in his camp asserting that the IPKF would be retained. Premadasa’s manifesto pledged it would be sent back, thereby neutralizing the nationalist advantage of his opponent Madam Bandaranaike whose manifesto contained the same pledge.
Are there any alternatives to the SJB and opposition leader Sajith Premadasa’s leadership of the democratic camp? The SJB’s National Organizer has already announced his candidacy in 2024.
What of Karu Jayasuriya? I had said publicly that he would have been a better UNP candidate than Ranil in 1999, 2005, and 2015, but certainly not so in 2019 and not anytime in the future. I was appalled by Mr. Jayasuriya’s obduracy as Speaker in depriving Mahinda Rajapaksa of the leadership of the Opposition who clearly enjoyed the largest support in the opposition, and granting it to the TNA which had a fraction of that support. If anything lent a huge fillip to the Sinhala sense of a minoritarian conspiracy to displace and deprive them of even the Opposition leadership, this was it.
During and after the 52-day event of 2018, Karu Jayasuriya functioned as if the Speaker was a third political pole, the third center in the government, challenging the directly-elected President. This was the same Trumpian playbook as in Venezuela where Juan Guaido, the puppet pretender to the Presidency (now a nonentity) was propped up by the post of Speaker, and in Brazil where the Speaker succeeded in ousting Lula’s protégé and successor President Dilma Roussef.
These were powerful emotional factors which culminated in a ‘never again’ backlash from the overwhelming majority of the Sinhala majority, resulting in the 20th amendment and the retrogressive character of the forthcoming Constitution. Sadly, Karu Jayasuriya is identified in the mass mind with the disastrous Ranil Wickremesinghe leadership and his state-weakening project. The populist Sajith Premadasa was far less complicit, which is why he fared better as presidential candidate in November 2019 than Karu Jayasuriya could have in the face of the backlash, just as the populist Ranasinghe Premadasa did vastly better in 1988 against the xenophobic wave than Gamini Dissanayake or Lalith Athulathmudali could have.
Contrary to the myth of a strong Karu J-civil society movement, there are five identifiable streams in civil society:
(1) The pro-Ranil-Mangala-CBK-KJ stream of neoliberals who were against the war to crush separatist-terrorism (unlike Karu) and are for a non-unitary and non-Presidential state (like Karu). In the Sinhala heartland they are delegitimized and radioactive.
(2) The Sinhala-Buddhist extremists who shouldn’t be touched with a barge-pole.
(3) The independent professionals, including Sinhala patriots, who stood above the partisan political fray or supported one or another camp without being fanatics (e.g., the GMOA).
(4) Progressive civil society represented by the JVP-driven NPP.
(5) Radical civil society gathered around the Frontline Socialist Party.
The priority of a democratic movement should be to draw in categories (3) to (5). Ranasinghe Premadasa would have taken a verbal buzz-saw and power-drill to anyone who used the “Toiyya/Baiyya” dichotomy, not only because it was insulting to the common folk but also because there are a great many more “Baiyyas’ than “Toiyyas” among the voting population.
The UNP’s democratic claims are wildly uneven. The current UNP Constitution—the Ranil Constitution-which dates back to 1995 is utterly undemocratic. In 2010-2011 Sajith Premadasa led a reformist revolt within the party proposing structural democratization. It was defeated. Today the UNP is wiped out. It would not have been the case if Sajith’s reforms were accepted and the party had become more open and socially responsive. The party seems to have a lifetime leader. How can such a party which does not permit internal change, internal democracy, claim to stand for democracy and against dictatorship in the country?
The regime which deviated more sharply from democracy than any other, before or since, was UNP. The UNP government of 1977-1988 violently stole the 1981 DDC election in Jaffna and held a fraudulent and coercive island-wide Referendum in December 1982, suspending for an entire six-year term, the holding of the parliamentary elections scheduled for early 1983.
With the electoral safety-valves shut down and UNP Minister Cyril Mathew spreading racism for years through publications massively mailed out with the Government seal, Black July 1983 erupted a few months later.
The UNP promptly blamed the JVP which was completely innocent of the charge and banned it (over Premadasa’s objections).
In 1984, two unarmed university students were shot dead by the Police in Peradeniya and Colombo following a brutally threatening televised speech the previous evening by National Security Minister Athulathmudali (one was murdered by the Police before my eyes, when I was a visiting lecturer at Colombo University).
By its policies and practices in government, the UNP elite had created the extreme crisis which Premadasa (who had repeatedly dissented in Cabinet) dramatically summed up as a “torch flaming at both ends” which had been bequeathed to him when he accepted the candidacy.
Democracy cannot be safeguarded or retrieved by continuing to hold the very ideas and defending the very strategy that alienated a huge majority and opened the space for the most chauvinist regime in our post-Independence history. Projects and personalities (political and civil society) that were part of the problem, cannot be part of the solution.