By Dayan Jayatilleka –
There is a right way and a wrong way to fight any battle. The right way is the way to win or at least accumulate as many gains as possible, and to do so in a manner that is universally recognizable as ethical, so that even if you lose the battle you would have won the moral high ground, giving you a good chance to win the war.
The 20th Amendment battle is far too important not to fought in the best and smartest way possible. While the broadest coalition of the most diverse forces is a commonsensical approach, that should not be the main criterion. The chief consideration should be to take a stand on 20A that will help secure the largest number of votes at the inevitable referendum on the new Constitution. In other words, it would do little good to construct a coalition that is wide on paper but doesn’t bring in sufficient votes, especially from the Sinhala majority.
Let us grasp the nettle. Building a coalition that involves elements and arguments that are anathematic to the Sinhala voters will not help and will in fact do more harm than good to the anti-20A cause. With enemies like the residual neoliberals, the regime’s 20A effort doesn’t need friends.
Most important is the political stand or as they say on the left, the political line, that has to be adopted, and the one that has to be avoided, in fighting 20A.
The first – but not the most important—thing to do is to avoid a blanket defense, still less a proud glorification of 19A. The all-important campaign against 20A must be acutely sensitive to the mass sentiment.
19A is not merely seen but has been experienced as part of the dreadful experiment of Yahapalanaya; a an experiment so dreadful that one of its main players, ex-President Sirisena has turned against 19A and the other, ex-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is clinging to a piece of wood which is all that is left of his sunken ship.
Yahapalanaya sank the UNP and almost sank the SLFP. Any attempt to uncritically celebrate 2015 and 19A will only doom the resistance to 20A.
Disastrous as that is, that’s not the worst mistake that can be made by the resistance to 20A. Understanding that worst of possible mistakes takes us right to the heart of the unresolved issue in the ranks of the democratic opposition and the democratic movement as a whole.
That is the interlocking issue of the executive Presidency and the Sri Lankan State. 20A can be resisted from one of two standpoints, just as 19A can be defended from one of two standpoints. Trying to do so from both standpoints will cause a deadlock, cancelling the efficacy of each standpoint. Trying to remain uncommitted to one of the two standpoints will only result in falling between two stools.
In politics as in life, when it comes to serious matters, one simply has to choose, and be prepared to live with the consequences of the wrong choice.
So, what are these two contending standpoints? What do we have to choose between?
On the one hand we have the line of criticizing 20A and defending 19A from the standpoint of a commitment to, or assuming the desirability of and showing a preference for, the abolition of the executive presidency and the adoption of the Westminster model or some variant.
That is the line of supporting the original draft of 19A presented by Ranil Wickremesinghe and tossed back with strictures by the Supreme Court.
It is also the line of supporting the various attempts at a new constitution, be it by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1995-2000 (mainly the so-called ‘Package’) or that of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the TNA in 2015-2019.
It short it is the line of the neoliberals.
On the other hand, we have the line of resisting 20A and defending the pluses of 19A while admitting its minuses, from the standpoint of supporting an executive presidential system but one that ensures the separation of powers as in every presidential system in a democracy—especially in the USA and most of Latin America.
The advantage of that line, is not only that it is true and scientific but it enables the anti-20A campaign to avoid the charge that it stands for the weakening of the state and is opposed to strong the national leadership.
Lenin once said that serious politics begins where tens of millions of people are. Redrawn to the Sri Lankan scale that would mean that serious politics begins where millions of people are. Serious politics and political parties have therefore to factor in what millions of people think and would think—not what a few hundred or thousand would.
Serious politics must be realistic. How can one fight a referendum which will come up in a few months, while entertaining in one’s ranks those who proclaim from platforms that the Presidential system should be abolished?
Why does anyone think the presidential system has not been abolished despite pious promises to do so? Surely it is because public opinion trusts a President elected by the majority of the country, rather than a parliament? Surely it is because the people have consistently shown a preference for a strong center, a strong system as represented by the presidency? Surely it is because the masses sense that the elected presidency is a symbol and guarantee of national unity?
Any campaign tainted by the old anti-Presidential propaganda spouted by the same personalities who pasted posters in Colombo calling for endorsement of the ISGA as well as those who pushed for a non-unitary, ‘Orumittanadu’ Constitution and the Geneva 2015 resolution, will not get anything like the percentage of votes that a moderate nationalist, statist campaign, which stands for the separation of powers could get. A neoliberal ‘abolitionist’, ‘Back to 2015’ campaign will generate yet another landslide for the regime.
The campaign must focus on the dangers of 20A and the coming Constitution, so that it can be stepping stone to a strong fight at a referendum. The effort must be the raising of reasonable doubt in the minds of even those who voted for the Pohottuwa at two elections. If on the contrary, the same old voices are heard saying the same old things that they did from 2015 to 2019, the vast majority will vote decisively against them and for the government which strikes a chord with the theme of a strong national leadership.
Practicality and logic are important criteria. How can the Opposition and its Leader position themselves for the Presidential election of 2024, in the company of those who openly continue to call for the abolition of the Presidency?
Hasn’t the disastrous experience of the last quarter-century been absorbed? The UNP under Ranil shifted to a position of the abolition of the executive presidency and in consequence the party never worked in a such a manner that it was geared to win a presidential election. In any case why should anyone select you for a post that you have promised to abolish because you think it is bad?
The Opposition must take a clear-cut stand against 20A because it makes for a dictatorship, while at the same time it must take no less clear-cut a stand in favor of the executive presidential system.
To conclude, it must be recognized that the choice is between neoliberalism on the one hand and liberal, progressive and social democracy on the other.
Look the USA today: according to the Trumpian right, who are the liberals, progressives, leftists, democratic socialists and social democrats? Those who are for the state, the intervention of the state in the economy and as a guarantor of social welfare.
Conversely, who are the neoliberals? Those who think the state is a problem, or the problem, and should be weakened, rolled-back, in politics and economics.
That is the dividing line between liberal democracy/liberal democrats on the one hand and neoliberal democracy/neoliberal democrats on the other.
In Sri Lankan too, for a quarter-century it is the neoliberal, state-weakening Constitutional agenda that has dominated UNP and para -UNP politics. It has been the ideology purveyed by so-called ‘civil society’. It is the ideology that made the Chandrika Government fail; miniaturized the SLFP, wrecked Yahapalanaya and destroyed the UNP. The masses of voters have rejected it utterly.
The neoliberal remnants must not be allowed to similarly wreck the anti-20A campaign, the Referendum campaign against the coming Constitution, and the fate of the New Opposition and its promising young leader.
Don’t take it from me, take it from Prof Robert Reich, formerly Secretary of Labour in President Clinton’s administration and one of the world’s leading progressive-liberal thinkers in Economics and public policy. In his latest book, Reich says: “Forget left versus right. It’s democracy or oligarchy… There’s either authoritarian populism (Trump) or democratic populism…” (Robert Reich, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It , Knopf, $24, 224 pp.)
It is way past time for the democratic movement in Sri Lanka, especially the new democratic Opposition, to dump what remains of the failed, rejected neoliberal constitutional agenda and fight President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ultranationalist Alt-Right authoritarian populism, with the only viable alternative agenda: democratic populism. The New Opposition and its leader, the son of President Premadasa, are uniquely equipped to do so.