By Dayan Jayatilleka –
If you ask the wrong question, you inevitably get the wrong answer. The entire burden of Krishantha Cooray’s strategic perspective for the SJB is contained in the penultimate paragraph of his latest article. It reads:
“…In effect, do they [the SJB] want to borrow from the strategy that propelled Maithripala Sirisena to the presidency and succeed where he failed, or take a page out of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s path to victory in 2019 with a promise to succeed where he has failed?”
He adds that “the latter strategy would be a fatal error”. Why on earth does Cooray think that the choice is twofold?
(1) “Borrow from the strategy that propelled Maithripala Sirisena to the presidency and succeed where he failed?”
(2) “Take a page out of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s path to victory in 2019 with a promise to succeed where he has failed?”
Why assume that ‘Sirisena Plus’ or ‘Gotabaya Minus’ are the only or main choices? Indeed, why assume that they are choices at all?
I dismiss both these as non-choices. Instead, I argue that the most viable option for the SJB is, as a first step, to return to the point it was last successful in leading the country, and avoid going down the wrong turning it made which prevented it from electing a leader for almost thirty years—and I don’t mean one borrowed from the rival camp, who naturally turns against it.
When Joe Biden campaigned against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political role-model, President Trump, registering a historic victory, and in his first acts of legislation as President (I refer to the Recovery Act), to uplift the American people hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis and President Trump’s heartless economic policies, there is one name and one set of policies that kept coming up in political commentary and discourse in general. That name was President Franklin D Roosevelt and that policy paradigm was the New Deal.
So much for Krishantha Cooray’s objection to my perspective, namely: “Most examples he cites are from a time before there was an internet or cheap international communications, before we understood climate change or the full extent of our natural heritage, and in an era where all opposition to governments was centred around political parties.”
By this set of criteria, FDR and the New Deal would have to be ruled out. But these two references were emblematic in the Biden candidacy and indeed his Presidency. Cooray’s insistence on this set of criteria is evidence of his grasp of the fundamentals of politics and political strategy.
Who is/was Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Biden’s hero and role model FDR? Ranil Wickremesinghe? Maithripala Sirisena? Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga? Karu Jayasuriya? Mangala Samaraweera?
What was the period in which closest equivalent of Biden’s policy template, FDR’s New Deal, was implemented in Sri Lanka? The Wickremesinghe UNP period in office 2001-2003? CBK’s two terms in office? Yahapalanaya 2015-2019?
The answers to these questions are amply clear: President Ranasinghe Premadasa and 1989-1993 respectively.
In plain English, the choices are neither Sirisena nor Gotabaya but the father of Sajith Premadasa, the SJB leader: Ranasinghe Premadasa, the last UNP President elected by the people, and one whose development philosophy is imperative to lift the country from the deep pit into which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has led it. The UNP’s long losing streak began with the deviation of the Premadasa paradigm; with post 1993 de-Premadasisation. Of course, the Premadasa paradigm must of necessity be updated and upgraded to fit the 21st century.
Krishantha Cooray has must to say about me, much of which is irrelevant. Let me content myself by stating where I am coming from. 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).
Given that it is by far the main force of the democratic opposition, and by definition the alternative government, the topic of the strategic direction of the SJB is far larger and more important than responding to the many critical and sometimes factually inaccurate references to me in Krishantha Cooray’s response. Dr. Mahim Mendis, a respected civil society figure and Working Committee member of the SJB has clarified the party’s position in these pages, in a reply that covers many of the issues raised by Cooray.
What should be the starting point of the discussion of the SJB’s future? Should it not be, as I suggest, strategic clarity and precision as to objective? And should that overarching objective not be a clear commitment and determination to winning the Presidential election of 2024, which, since it precedes the Parliamentary election, is also the first chance the citizens have of ridding the country peacefully and democratically of the ultranationalist autocratic regime that now rules it?
Isn’t winning the presidential election of 2024 far easier than winning the parliamentary election, and isn’t Sajith Premadasa by far the obvious candidate, given that at the zenith of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s popularity, which neither he nor a successor SLPP candidate will reach, Sajith fell short only by 10%, and his 42% is only 8% short of that which is needed for victory?
The Presidency: Reform not Abolish
No candidate can win the Presidency now if the electorate seriously thinks he/she is going to abolish it, any more than any board of interview is going to employ a candidate who says he/she will abolish the job he/she is seeking. What the people want at a presidential election is someone who will best lead the country; not someone who will abdicate that responsibility. Given that Sajith’s profile and obvious political lineage is one of caring and concern for the citizenry and of ensuring rapid yet equitable growth and high human development, he is the obvious candidate and likely winner of a Presidential race against a manifestly heartless regime which has caused a sharp drop in the living standards of the people as a whole.
The best chance the SJB has of winning a Parliamentary election is its chronological positioning downstream from the presidential election; i.e., on the wings of a Premadasa victory as in 1988-1989. Even if the regime somehow inverts that sequence, it is Sajith Premadasa and the policies he is associated with—as noted by Ronnie de Mel—that is the main asset of the SJB at a Parliamentary election. I would add that it is also the fact that he, like is father before him, is an unmatched campaigner; energetic and passionate.
As Ronnie de Mel put it, Sajith is the country’s only hope. To put it very bluntly, the best chance the SJB and the country have to get out from under, is Sajith Premadasa’s combination of liberal-democracy, pluralism, developmental populism and devolution within a unitary state.
Having won the Presidency his sacred task would be to use the powers of that office to radically re-charge the economy as President Jayewardene did and do so while ensuring equitable growth as President Premadasa did.
Sajith and the SJB must also reintroduce and strengthen the separation of powers, but that must be along the lines of the American and French presidencies. The question of the abolition of the presidency, perceived by the great majority of the citizenry as weakening the state, should be removed from the discussion. If the Sinhala voters think that a vote for the SJB candidate is a vote for a return to the 19th amendment and its weakening of the state at the hands of unaccountable civil society to the detriment of the Sinhala nation, a significant percentage will either vote against or abstain, which could make the difference between defeat and victory.
Furthermore, the abolition of the executive presidency will never secure a majority at a Referendum and even if it does, it will not obtain the support of a majority of the Sinhala majority, which means the regime will be perceived as illegitimate in the eyes of the Sinhalese and dangerously prone to instability, if not ouster by the nationalist, overwhelmingly Sinhala-Buddhist military.
Recommitting in any way to Yahapalanaya, the disastrous Ranil Wickremesinghe quarter-century or indeed the near thirty years of the post-Premadasa UNP which witnessed its slow-motion implosion, is a wholly illogical and self-destructive idea. Yahapalanaya ended with the UNP eliminated from the Parliament, its leader eliminated from his home base Colombo, the SLFP reduced to a residue and the JVP which supported it from outside, halved in its parliamentary representation. Most important of all, it culminated in the shift of 72% of the support of the Sinhalese, who comprise 75% of the populace, away from the UNP to the Rajapaksa led coalition, and most dangerously a far-right, ultranationalist, autocratic personality and project. It is difficult to imagine a greater social and politico-electoral disaster.
It is also important to remember that while the SLFP and President Sirisena barely survived the Yahapalanaya experiment, the UNP did not. What did survive was the Sajith Premadasa led lifeboat, the SJB. Thus, the policies of the UNP, domestic and foreign, constitutional and economic, during the Yahapalanaya period are radioactive and must not be touched. In his repeated public foreswearing of neoliberalism, Sajith Premadasa has already begun that rupture.
This does not mean that the SJB must turn its back on the heritage and policies of the UNP, but only those of the last 25-30 years; the post-Premadasa, and particularly the Ranil Wickremesinghe decades. The SJB must, as one of the several wellsprings of its inspiration, return to those decades of the UNP’s success in leading the country. It must lay claim to and critically absorb the heritage of 1947-1993, abandoned by the UNP of the last quarter-century: DS Senanayake’s pluralist patriotism and pro-peasant policies, Dudley Senanayake’s welfarist liberal democracy, JR Jayewardene’s Open Economy and Executive Presidency, and perhaps above all, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s growth with equity and national sovereignty. These decades constituted the UNP’s Golden Age; its Great Tradition, while the policies and ideology that Cooray et al want the SJB to swear allegiance to, are the detritus of the UNP’s decades of decline, downfall and demise.
To put it succinctly, the SJB must commit to liberal-democratic values and their sole guarantee, namely social democracy. By contrast the SJB must and its leader repeatedly has, rejected the neoliberalism of its decades of downfall.
Cooray’s insistence that the SJB take the Yahapalanaya policies as touchstone is an echo of exactly what ruined Yahapalanaya. It wasn’t an absence of good, effective propaganda. It was that the Yahapalanaya UNP took as its starting point, the UNP administration of 2001. That administration was not merely dismissed by President Kumaratunga but that dismissal was endorsed by the electorate in 2004 and 2005. Instead of a critical analysis of what went wrong during those years, including the CFA with Prabhakaran and the resultant Sinhala swing from which the UNP never recovered, the UNP of 2015 took up from where it left off. Since it had obviously not got the point, the masses made that point clear this time around by wiping it out electorally.
However, the likes of Cooray have no criticism to make of either 2001-2003 or 2015-2019, when a post-mortem is quite literally called for, while challenging the SJB to restate its commitment to the toxic poison that killed off the UNP and turned the SLFP paraplegic.
The MR Factor
Mr. Cooray refers to my support for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a charge to which I proudly plead guilty. Proud, because he was the leader who liberated us from thirty years of separatist terrorism which no other leader succeeded in doing, and his rival, the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe was engaging in Neville Chamberlainesque appeasement of Prabhakaran. I stood with MR throughout that long struggle. I delivered the DA Rajapaksa Memorial Lecture in 2003, when he first became Opposition Leader and continued through three Presidential elections up to the 52-day interlude.
I did suggest Dinesh Gunawardena as Foreign Minister during and for the MS-MR bloc which I believed then and do now, was the country’s last chance to stop a Far-Right Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy and Presidency. I am also among the many who will be difficult to convince that had Mahinda Rajapaksa been the PM, working closely with President Sirisena, the Easter massacre would have taken place. I’m pretty sure the Indian authorities would have delivered the April 4th warning directly to MR who would have responded as fast as he did in 2006-2009.
Cooray strangely says that I was appointed as ambassador to Russia twice, once by President Rajapaksa and once by President Sirisena. No informed, lucid Sri Lankan commentator could make that mistake. For purposes of record, I was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN Geneva (2007-2009), appointed by President Rajapaksa, Ambassador to France and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO (2011-2013) appointed also by President Rajapaksa, and ambassador to Russia (2018-2020), appointed by President Sirisena. My equation with ex-President Rajapaksa ended when I supported on my FB, Sajith Premadasa as UNP candidate, a position I had taken in public since 2010.
This isn’t about me, but it speaks to a fundamental question of political and electoral strategy. In a situation in which 72% of Sinhalese who are 75% of the populace have shifted away from the neoliberal UNP policies, personalities and profile of the last quarter-century, how can the SJB win a majority of that majority back? It certainly cannot do so by being tainted by association with those policies, profile or personalities. When the UNP was led by JR Jayewardene and R Premadasa since 1973 and became the force that won a sweeping victory in 1977, it did so by a dramatic rupture with the past, including most decisively with the 1965-1970 UNP administration. When Ranasinghe Premadasa snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by beating the formidable nationalist personality Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, he did so by rupturing with the policies and platform of the UNP government he had been PM of. The SJB has an even greater challenge to overcome and gap to bridge—and can do no less.
Let me put it bluntly: nowhere in the world, especially in the global south, has ultranationalist autocracy been beaten without a recourse to some variant of populism, some progressive, non-ethnic variant of majoritarianism; nowhere can it be beaten by a return to neoliberalism, which created the swing which brought ultranationalism to power in the first place.
The SJB is perfectly positioned to introduce its own new policies, studying, I hope the US Democratic policy platform, while drawing on what is most vibrant from all points of the political and ideological compass. In foreign policy, this would most certainly mean the foreign policy perspective and practice of Lakshman Kadirgamar rather than of the disastrous Yahapalanaya UNP.
The SJB must win the Sinhala rural heartland and it cannot do so by a return to ‘Ranilist’ UNP neoliberalism. It has to look the challenge squarely in the face: winning over the Sinhala masses who voted for the Rajapaksas and may do so again in decisive though reduced numbers if they think that displacing the Rajapakasas means a return to the neoliberal minoritarianism of 2015-2019. The SJB can win back the Rajapaksa voters only by going halfway to accommodate the grievances and concerns of the Sinhala masses. That entails a two-pronged approach: (a) adopting what was progressive and positive in policies endorsed by the voters, while cutting away anything and everything that was/is racist, retrogressive and reactionary and (b) reaching out to the masses through the revival and resetting for the 21st century, the ‘growth with equity’ developmental success story of President Ranasinghe Premadasa—a terrain on which no one can compete with Sajith Premadasa on.