Colombo Telegraph

Short On Strategy, Long On Sectarianism: Come On Opposition; Wake Up!

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

At the time of writing, latish in October, political soothsayers predict presidential elections are on course for January. I have no idea how Pope Francis’ visit is to be slotted-in, but am certain Sarath Silva’s constitutional challenge will be seen off, irrespective of its legal rectitude. The regime did not invest effort and squander decency, impeaching, popping up henchmen, and despoiling the higher judiciary for nothing. On the Rajapakse side strategy is well integrated, unlike the opposition. The tests the regime confronts are circumstances beyond its control. Post-Uva and post UNHRC it is more than possible, but less than certain, that Mahinda Rajapakse can be defeated, but much depends on how the opposition gets its act together. The signs of preparation on the opposition side are not encouraging. The regime is in better readiness though it has the dilemma of whether to move now and risk being clipped by a year or two, or to hang on for a while in worsening circumstances. Its tactical readiness is thanks to the cohesion of its constituent elements; asses bray in chorus or you may say they reckon it’s better to hang on together than to hang separately.

The disarray in the opposition can be sourced explicitly to fragmentation and implicitly to a deficit of grey matter among political leaders. They are unable to get their act together since some leaders lack strategic wisdom about blending ultimate goals (each obviously different), with current actions, which equally obviously, need to be coordinated and synchronised. Let me return to this after a few words about numbers. At worst this number game is intellectually numbing and wide off the mark; at best it is but a rough guideline to a momentary state of play. But this essay cannot progress without at least a rough numbers game in rounded of figures, so here goes.

It appears that post-Uva the UNP can count on a base vote of say 30% in the south – note I say south excluding north and east; I do not say Sinhalese or Sinhala-Buddhist. Again in rough and rounded numbers let us say the JVP can haul 6% and Sarath Fonseka 4%. The hard question is how much can the ‘Abolish Executive Presidency’ campaign, sometimes called the ‘Sobitha Movement’ draw, excluding what has already been counted  – one must be careful to avoid double counting. If you ask me to guess about this as yet untested quantity, I will opt for 5%. If you deem 30%, 6%, 4% and 5% to be on the low side, let me point out that I mean percentages on a national base. That is, for example, I am saying the UNP core vote, which is located almost entirely outside the north and east, is about 30% of the gross national vote. These four numbers add to 45%. Next the Ceylon Tamils and Muslims not already counted in the UNP’s southern 30% (most Muslims and all Ceylon Tamils in Colombo are already in the 30%). These additional elements are Tamils in the NP and EP, and EP Muslims; safely another 10% together. The sum of this potential but not watertight anti-Rajapakse vote is 55%, but don’t get excited. Violence, fraud, and switching ballots (in this life-and-death struggle of a regime that dare not go out of office) can reduce this by 5%, 10%; I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine. Shall we settle for a potential anti-Rajapakse vote of 45 to 55%?

These numbers make sense if you start at the other end too. The Sinhala-Buddhist electorate is about 70% (I have put the bulk of Sinhala Catholics in the UNP camp) and a neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic estimate is that Rajapakse will poll 60% of this. That is 42% of the national vote; in addition he will (unless Thonda splits) collect most of the 5% Upcountry Tamil and a minority of the southern Muslim vote. This puts Rajapakse in the 45% to 50% bracket; more if some voters in any of the groups counted in the previous paragraph throw him a lifeline.

OK, that’s enough for the numbers game; my purpose, most emphatically, is not to attempt electoral predictions, it is insanely too early for that. Rather, the case I am making is this: Things are quite finely balanced and can swing either way. A real fight is on; so my objective is to insist that the opposition leaders, one and all, deserve be certified as jointly and severally insane if they do not get their act together NOW.

Sectarian obstacles

Senior UNP MP Joseph Michael Perera made sensible conciliatory remarks according to a newspaper report last week: “We have not yet decided who our presidential candidate will be. We cannot do so since the election date has not been announced. A common candidate will be picked by a joint opposition front”.  This is tactically wise, though as the largest group by far its pick of candidate will have to be endorsed by everybody who is serious about jettisoning Rajapakse. So far so good, but uncertainty starts with Perera’s next point: “The executive presidency is the cause of mounting problems in the post war era. It has to be scrapped if democracy and the rule of law are to be re-established; national security can be maintained under any system”.

This is the formula on which a common candidate can be ratified by the whole opposition; but the public at large, and this correspondent, cannot banish lingering doubts. Does the UNP mean it? Yes Ranil has said it a few times and Karu several times; I believe an internal committee has endorsed it as policy. But still it has not been proclaimed from the rooftops; no statement issued as a formal policy charter, nor road map of the procedure enunciated. The UNP has still not woken up to grasp the most important step needed to stabilise a common opposition front against the incumbent.

The JVP is in something of a pickle because its cadres are unable to disentangle fundamentals from tactics; Anura Kumara and some leaders are probably clear about what to do eventually, but not in a position to get round the party as a whole, at least so it seems. Their concern is simple, the JVP cannot support Ranil, the class enemy, but it also sees that if defeating Rajapakse is the number one priority, then there is no option but to back the UNP nominee. The dilemma is easy to resolve if you prioritise your concerns. The JVP needs to declare that it will support anybody, even a broomstick, even Ranil, if it is for the sole purpose of abolishing the executive presidency. The UNP in its turn can lubricate this outcome by issuing a clear unambiguous and solemn pledge and road-map to abolish EP. It is all so obvious; you will appreciate why I say these guys need to have their heads examined.

Post election pitfalls

Though the election will be violent, fraudulent and rigged, the worst may come afterwards; certainly if Rajapakse rides again; even otherwise unless the winning opposition is mature and tolerant. If Rajapakse wins by a large majority the UPFA terror machine will rampage again, drug dealers will have carte blanche, and what is there to stop kleptomania? The family will run amok romping through social and business circuits. If Rajapakse only scrapes through, regime and state will be as stable as a pack of cards in a typhoon. Who will recognise the legitimacy of a Rajapakse who gets, say only 51% of the vote, in rigged elections? Such a regime cannot survive the ensuing civil unrest and open defiance.

More important is if Rajapakse is defeated. When power-centralising rotten regimes, accused of gross rights violations, are thrown out, a temporary vacuum follows. A winning but diversified opposition must then act wisely and responsibly. The current regime has undermined ethnic, social and political cohesion, but it is not a worst case scenario like Libya after Gaddafi (a good friend of the Pakse family) or Iraq after the Americans destroyed the state and put nothing acceptable in its place. Even in monolithic China, rigid Stalinism has stoked rebellion in Xingjian, instability in Tibet and endemic protest in Hong Kong. The moral is: After a dictator, national cohesion has to be carefully reconstructed by a victorious democratic alliance.

The UNP, TNA, JVP and Fonseka do not play the same social and economic policy tunes, that’s how it should be and it’s fine by me. However, it is crucial for them to appreciate in the event of victory that we are passing through a very fragile period in world history. From the Middle East to the Far East, from Sub-Saharan Africa to the eastern borders of Russia, cracks can become chasms and swallow society in brutal conflict if not properly managed. Indian democracy is an example to learn from, but more important, the winning alliance must not lapse into anarchic internecine conflict as has happened in Libya and Iraq. Responsible democratic opposition is what the TNA and JVP must pledge (Fonseka may take a portfolio – why not Defence?). That will be my place, in the democratic opposition, if the UNP forms the next government. There is a lot of essential democracy rebuilding to do if we have the good fortune to be rid of this regime.

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