Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lankan Politics 2015-2018: From Fantasies Of Unipolar Hegemony To The Reality Of Multipolarity & Resistance

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The Yahapalana project was predicted upon the assumption that the UNP and SLFP together would amass such an overwhelming preponderance of votes that the coalition would establish a stable hegemony in Sri Lankan politics, possibly leading to a fusion of the two parties into a center-right behemoth, reversing the split off by SWRD Bandaranaike and restoring the uni-polarity of the system and the UNP dominance of 1947-1956.

Today that dream of bipartisan centre-right hegemony of the pro-western bloc in Sri Lankan affairs looks pathetically ridiculous as it lies broken and scattered. Far from a stable unipolar hegemony, Sri Lankan politics is more multipolar than ever before.

Someday, as early as 18 months from now, when this time is viewed in retrospect, the main observation will be how blind the elites, both the decision-making and the opinion-making, were; how distant they were from the people and their sentiments and how deaf they were to the rumblings of a social volcano of proto-revolutionary proportions.

All the signs are there right now though. What happens when the protracted crisis of a political party, which is in government, coincides with a dramatically mounting economic crisis? The UNP is the country’s second oldest political party. Never in its 70 year history has it been out of the apex of power and the top leadership role in the country for as long as it has been during this stretch: a quarter century. The other main contender for power, the SLFP has never been out of the top spot for 25 years. The UNP has had lean stretches before in its long history, but even in defeat it has been led by large personalities who were popular, and had a broad personal constituency and support base. This is manifestly not the case today. During this entire period of almost quarter century out of the top spot, the UNP has been led by one man. Today there is open dissent against his leadership; dissent that makes it to the TV news almost every single day.

The UNP which, while in office, would have impressive marches on May Day, culminating in a huge rally on Galle Face Green, is today devoid of the capacity to mobilize a march, and penned itself into the Sugathadasa indoor stadium at which even this writer, in an earlier avatar of Executive Director of the Premadasa center, has spearheaded a May Day event back in 1997. Today’s UNP, though in office, has no powerful Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya to organize a May Day parade.

These manifold manifestations of the crisis of the UNP take place less than 18 months before a national election. What if the election were held tomorrow? In what shape will the UNP be in, this time next year?

What we are witnessing is the crumbling of the UNP. It has already been beaten into second place by the Pohottuwa. Though its strategists are counting on the abolition of the executive presidency, projections show that at a parliamentary election the UNP would clock 60 seats while the JO-Pohottuwa would clock 120. So there’s no comfort there either. Wherever the UNP turns it is a dead-end.

All of this comes on top of a rupee that is at its historic lowest, a flat-lining stock market, an economic growth rate that is the lowest in 16 years and a rise in the price of staples. 

As a conscious, if precocious young observer, I’ve seen the UNP from 1965 through to its defeat in 1970– and of course from that point forward. I must say I have never seen the UNP in as bad a shape as it is now. I venture to predict on the record that at the next nationwide election, the UNP will plunge to its lowest ever percentage. It will be the worst defeat in the UNP’s history.

The only silver lining for the UNP is Sajith Premadasa’s speech at Sugathadasa stadium and the uniquely tumultuous applause both he and it received. ITN cameras repeatedly cross-cut to the supercilious smirks and bemused exchanges between Ranil Wickremesinghe, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Navin Dissanaike, as Sajith made a blistering critique of neoliberal economics, exposed the horrendously unequal distribution of wealth, emotively invoked his father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, and rolled out an electorally compelling, pro-peasant/pro-youth populist policy package. 

Sajith is the sole populist in the front ranks of a party dominated by an unpopular neoliberal globalist elite, at a time that populism is on the rise globally and neoliberal globalism is on the retreat. Way ahead in the UNP leadership stakes, he won’t get there in time to salvage the party in 2019 despite his super-subtle signaling that he hasn’t ruled out running as candidate (“endorsed by hundreds of thousands at Galle Face Green”). When the party crashes and burns in 2019, he will get the chance of leading it into the parliamentary battle of 2020.

The SLFP too is at its lowest ebb ever, in terms of electoral percentage. It is in a governing coalition and yet, its trade union wing just broke away and the party is unable to mobilize a parade for May Day either. 16 MPs have broken away from the Unity government, moving into the oppositional space which over 50 SLFP MPs had opted to stay in, back in August 2015. Thus the great majority of SLFP parliamentarians and voters are in Opposition, with only the Chandrika-ist rump faction of 23, remaining in government. If anything, the number in opposition will increase, not decrease. This too is just one Vesak Poya away from a national election.

The SLFP however, is better placed then the UNP. It has two options. Either it goes with Mahinda Rajapaksa or regrows its base by fighting had as an independent Opposition party albeit with links to the President. The latter project may not quite work because the link to the incumbent may be counterproductive in the scenario of a massive anti-incumbency wave. But the SLFP retains the option of throwing in its lot with Mahinda Rajapaksa – and his designated Presidential candidate—thereby clambering on board a winning coalition bandwagon. The UNP by contrast, has no such option between now and 2019-2020.  It is doomed. 

The only hope for UNP MPs is to imitate the Pohottuwa and the SLFP Sixteen and break away, sitting in Opposition as an independent entity (as Dayasiri Jayasekara argued for in 2011). Better still, the UNP dissidents and the SLFP rebels could form a new moderate centrist formation in the Opposition.

Meanwhile, in the penultimate year before decisive national elections, the government has just hiked the price of staples: milk powder and cooking gas. I have never seen a government quite so suicidal. Does it suffer from collective lunacy, perhaps?

Chandrika and the West’s formula of an UNP-SLFP government has fallen apart. The UNP’s vote base has shrunk as has the SLFP’s. The SLFP fig-leaf that remains in government hardly has any votes attached to it. Neither the UNP nor the SLFP can have May Day parades nor can they join in order to muster a larger crowd on the occasion, which can even remotely rival Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mobilization in Galle. 

If anything surer than anything else it is that the Yahapalana regime change of January 2015 and its agenda, are bound to be overthrown and its agenda reversed later next year. What is not known is just how violent the overthrow or, more correctly, its aftermath– will be, and how deeply and durably Yahapalanaya and its neoliberal globalist agenda will be buried.

The government has not only hit the living standards of the masses, it has alienated itself from nationalist and even basic national sentiments. Those who recall the election of 1956 and 1970—the so-called Silent Revolutions—will remember the role of the Buddhist clergy in the election campaigns. Can anyone doubt that the Sangha will mobilize itself and plunge into the campaign next year?       

The most interesting immediate question in Sri Lankan politics is: how much impact will the SLFP rebels have, how effective will they be and how many others will join their ranks? But the most important question in Sri Lankan politics is this: who will Mahinda Rajapaksa’s choice of Presidential candidate be– Gotabhaya or Chamal Rajapaksa? One of these two will be elected President next year. The only puzzle is which one it will be. 

What the last nail in the government’s coffin will prove to be, has already been spotlighted by the most authoritative columnist on Tamil politics. The TNA, whose leader is in usurpation of the seat of the Leader of the Opposition, is due to launch a campaign of non-violent agitation calling for the implementation of the Government’s alleged promise of a new Constitution. He says that MA Sumanthiran and Jayampathy Wickremaratne have a draft which can be fast-tracked in two weeks, if the Government gives the green-light. If not, the ITAK will endorse at its convention in June, the slogan of a non-violent campaign of agitation. He discloses that such a campaign had been planned and thousands of Gandhi caps stitched for use in late 2014, but was halted by the victory of the Yahapalana regime change project. So the caps will be dusted off for use from mid-year 2018.    

Now, one doubts that the TNA seriously wants a new Constitution. If it does, why would it not reach out to the man who controls the largest bloc of Opposition MPs and more crucially, the largest bloc of Sinhala votes in the country– Mahinda Rajapaksa? Why would the TNA prop up a wobbly Prime Minister on a controversial issue, instead of remaining above the fray? And why would it do all this a mere 18 months away from national elections?  Perhaps the explanation is that Northern Tamil politics has no tradition of thinking realistically. 

No matter. At a time when the government is on the decline and the Sinhala Alt Right on the rise, nothing is calculated to bury the Yahapalanites electorally—if not by a more dramatic kind of political intervention for which South Asia, Asia and the global South used to be notorious, with Sri Lanka and India being notable exceptions—than agitation for a new, non-unitary Constitution, in the North. Nothing could be more conducive to generate a hardline majoritarian nationalist backlash which any Opposition candidate will feel tempted to surf.

Of course it may well be the case that the planned Northern agitation is intended by foreign intelligence agencies to set the stage for a Kosovo-Kurdistan type separatist outcome once the inevitable happens and the Rajapaksas return to power.

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