By Kumar David –
Of course I am disappointed by the presidential election outcome for two reasons. I wished for at least 700,000 votes for Anura to kickstart an alternative to the rotten two-party hegemony of the post-1975 decades; second, I wanted Gota defeated as I perceived in him as an autocrat. The first was unexpected as I was confident Anura would do much better. Regarding the second, those who read me between the lines would have realised that I did not expect Sajith to win outright and was pinning my hopes on a second-preference count. In the event even Anura’s total absence would not have mattered, the swing to Gota was huge among the Sinhalese and especially the Sinhala-Buddhists (SB).
I have mulled over the statistics and confidently assert that 72% of SB voters opted for Gota. Well over half non-Buddhist Sinhalese also supported him thanks to the untiring efforts of our blessed Cardinal. The former votes alone would have pushed Gota just over the 50%+ mark; the latter cemented a comfortable first-count majority. Tamils, and more so Muslims, voting for Gota were negligible in number. Statistically and politically this is a historic election and has changed Sri Lanka in ways irreversible for a long time to come. I will not discuss the setback for a democratic-left option due to the NPP/JVP’s poor showing; that will be the topic of a separate essay, later.
It is incorrect to refer to this election as a return to 1956. No! First, SWRD’s SB vote was in no way comparable. No, 70+% of the SB population did not align with the SLFP (the landslide was in part thanks to a no-contest pact with the left). The key was that 1956 was a first-past-the-post (FPTP) election. In an FTFP contest, technically, a party can win every single seat in parliament if it secures 50%+1 vote in every electorate. I have to work from memory as I cannot afford the time to dig out and analyse statistics, but I am confident the SLFP in 1956 did not garner even 60% of the Sinhalese vote, probably in the high 50s. The second difference that recent writers all too readily forget is that in political character the ‘1956 movement’ and the ‘2019 rush to Gota’ are poles apart. The former was populist, vernacular-nationalist (Sinhala Only), progressive in class terms even posing as leftist, and distinctly democratic in its social overtones. Gota is none of this. Even his ‘Sinhalaism’ is couched in national-security statist terms. In all respects what SWRD is to Gotabaya is what centrist-populism is to potential authoritarianism.
I know some readers will say: “Gota is a new President; give him a chance”. That’s fair and I agree; but there’s nothing wrong in getting one’s guard up, just in case. Defence can be scrapped if not needed; to be caught flat-footed is calamitous. I am not prepared to relax to the extent that I concede that the authoritarian danger I wrote about these months has evaporated. On the contrary, because of the highly ethnically polarised election results, the danger has increased. Two versions of authoritarianism have emerged globally in the post WW2 period; a nativist-nationalist-statist version and, alternatively, a populist paradigm. And if you want to put a face on each you can colour them the Gotabaya version or the Mahinda paradigm, respectively.
And that brings me to my point. Is Gota really interested in holding state power for one full term, or even two, or is he only “the one who comes before preparing the way and making straight the path for him who is to follow”? Does Gota really want to be president and implement his programme or will he swiftly carry out constitutional changes needed for Mahinda’s return for a third term, and eventually life presidency? No one knows, least of off all the two protagonists. The answer is as yet unknowable. It depends not only on their own ambitions but also on the schemes of the family cabal and the forces that stand behind each of them. Mahinda’s base is an adoring populist mass, Gota’s the Shangri-La class of business and military types, professionals and technocrats, oddly garnished with cohorts of militant yellow-robed racist hate-mongers. In a showdown, MR’s populist mass will win hands down, at least that’s the current balance; Shangri-La cannot match Mahinda’s mass. After all there is no denying Gota won the presidency thanks to Mahinda.
But not all the cards are stacked in Mahinda’s favour. The main obstacle standing in his way is the Constitution and 19A. It’s not breaking news that most of our MPs are available for sale on cash-down terms (money or Cabinet post), or on hire-purchase (nomination for a seat in the next election). Like my fellow citizens I am no admirer of Sri Lanka’s Members of Parliament. If it is decided to bring Mahinda back to the presidency pronto, then a constitutional amendment is possible even before the election using the cash-down method. Or it may be less messy to wait for the 2020 elections, which Mahinda will win by a landslide, and screw the constitution at a more leisurely pace. If FPTP or part-FTFP is restored, the landslide will be a repeat of 1956, 1970 or 1977.
That equation will have to include an agreement between MR, GR, the family cabal and Gota’s business-military types about when Gota should quit and hold presidential elections facilitating MR’s expeditious resumption of the presidency. Or perhaps the equation will allow Gota to complete his term; but isn’t that risky? Won’t he and his loyalist hangers-on then want the constitutionally allowed second term? If term-limits are rescinded why Mahinda and not Gota as life president, they will boldly ask? There are knowns, known-unknows and unknown-unknowns. No one knows nor can know how all this will spin. So, let’s leave speculation to one side and turn to a known-knowns.
Whether it’s the MR manifestation or a spectral Gota haunting, Sri Lanka is in for a long grip of authoritarianism; but the two versiosn will be different. The Mahinda version will be populist as were his 2005-2015 presidencies; there will be a velvet glove of welfare and concessions to popular pressure. Argentina’s Peron or Mahathir’s long former spell as PM spring to mind except that neither was corrupt. A Gota autocracy will reflect the style of the man and the expectations of those who want him “to get on with the job”. It will be less class conciliatory, make short shrift of liberal niceties and get on with the job in the name of efficiency. He has expressed a commitment to modernisation and global opening-up, technology especially IT, renewable energy and environmental protection and comes over as a problem-solver and a doer who has proved himself, controversially as Defence Secretary and creditably as urban reorganiser.
He is painted, justifiably to go by experience, as a threat to democratic rights and freedoms. An old friend and one-time university leftist, now a devoted Gota admirer, joked that he hoped they retained one last white van for me! Though both are avatars of authoritarianism, the two will impact on personal lives and social spaces differently. The Gota version, it is feared, will be harsh, the Mahinda option avuncular. What the two have in common is that, given the electoral antecedent, both when under pressure will stabilise themselves by an appeal to nativist Sinhala-Buddhist ideology. That ideology will not go away because it was the people themselves who willed it. I am aware that this is a pessimistic thesis, but my task is to tell you the truth not lull you with soporifics.
Does this mean that we must throw up our hands and do nothing? Absolutely NO! Even on the darkest nights there are things to do. I will conclude by stating the most urgent; recall my comment about “getting ready, just in case”. The imperative in this phrase is the “getting ready”, not the “just in case”. A defensive non-regime alliance, not only political but also including the political parties (UNP, JVP, minority parties) and civil society, journalists and artists, must be formed. The programme must be minimal: Resist the creep of dictatorship by legislative statutes, state repression and in ‘vans’ of any colour. The JVP has to take the lead since the UNP is comatose after its knockout.
Come on everybody let’s get started. Defeatism following a defeat is suicide; know your enemy, know the terrain and know yourself.
Sun Tse say:
If you know your enemy and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your enemy, you may win or you may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always lose.
The Art of War (2nd Century BC)