Colombo Telegraph

The Coming Nationalist Juggernaut – 2020

By Lakshan Sathokorala

The Progressive Liberal World Order, itself borne out of the disastrous War on Terror and Invasion Iraq, and which ruled the roost for 10 long years at least, is now on decline, possibly until President Donald Trump finally wears off his welcome, mainly due to economic meltdown brought on by his isolationist foreign policy and/or protectionist economic policy, each of which are too early to predict at this early stage. But what of the Sri Lankan Political scene?

The room is wide open another actor, namely the former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa | Photo via Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Facebook

Winter of Discontent ?

The alleged mismanagement of Rajapaksa regime brought those touting Good Governance to power in what rather optimistically termed as January 8 Revolution. Then we heard theories about ethnic distribution of votes and voting patterns and this led to intense debates in social media and political forums. But barely two months in to that exalted reign, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe saw it fit get himself involved in a what seems to be a shady treasury bond issue and its fallout now hurting his “Mr Clean” image more deeply than any reports of the Batalanda Commission appointed by the ex- President Chandrika Kumaratunga, more so given rumors, some verified, that the prime movers behind the Bond scam are now aiming to acquire a loss making TV station and to start a brand new newspaper publishing company with whooping salaries for the journalists headhunted from other establishments, with a view to prop up Mr. Wickremesinghe in a future Presidential Poll. Further the talk of the street pithily describe the Government as pure snake gourd or “pathola” meaning that it has ground to a halt without any noticeable development activities to be spoken of even while people are saddled with an unprecedented tax burden. Added to this the disaffection among ordinary Sinhalese Buddhists that this government favors minority interests over their wellbeing and that it has ulterior motive of division of country along ethnic lines via a Federal constitution, despite numerous assurances given by both President and the Prime Minister. The arbitrary halting of the Sampur Coal Power Plant Project and Government’s misguided dependence on so-called “Alternative Energy Sources” means that Sri Lanka is notoriously ill equipped to face the supposed Power Crisis come 2018. Those of the urban middle class who voted with their feet having disgusted with cronyism and alleged corruption of the Rajapaksa regime are now red in the face having their hopes dashed rather unceremoniously. All eyes are now fixed on the 2020 Presidential Election.

The Numbers Game

After the disastrous Peace Process of the previous UNF government of 2001-2004, a sizable section of the right wing conservative Sinhala Buddhists defected to the newly formed Hela Urumaya which capitalized on the death of Ven. Soma to win 10 Parliamentary seats in 2004 election. Mahinda Rajapaksa successfully managed court these votes during Presidential Elections. When Patali Champika Ranawaka boasted after the Presidential Elections 2015, that it was JHU instrumental in the downfall of Rajapaksa regime, that statement is not without significant merits. It was not the groundswell of support for the Common Candidate from minority centric electorates in the North and East that ensured his eventual victory, but the considerable sway in the highly populous, nationalistic Sinhala Buddhist dominated electorates in the Western Province like Kaduwela, Gampaha, Maharagama, Homagama, Kesbewa etc. and a major factor behind that sway is the defection of Champika Ranawaka and the JHU. And any reversal of these votes will surely offset any large gains from minority dominated districts. And further we can expect even other electorates of the South and not to mention Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts voting the nationalist candidate with higher margins. The deep felt disaffection on Sinhala Buddhist electorate would propel them to vote in same numbers as the Mahinda Rajapaksa’s triumphant 2010 Presidential Election.

But this sway is no longer there. The actions of the Sirisena- Ranil Government, even though they may had best intentions for the country at heart, alienated this nationalist voting bloc, making not the pseudo- Marxist, internationalist JVP but the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist faction of the SLFP led by Mahinda Rajapaksa the clear favorites. The hopes of JHU to play the ace by gobbling up a sizable chunk of nationalist SLFP votes is now dashed by the sins of association, and JVP is discredited with highly effective allegations of collusion with UNP and TNA. But there’s another significant factor that would surely come in to play in 2020.

The Not So Dark Horse

There are not so subtle hints about what the race in 2020 is going to look like. Ranil Wickremesinghe has already thrown his hat into the ring despite being severely handicapped in several fronts, not the least of which is credibility factor. There is also some talk about Presidential ambitions of Champika Ranawaka, who at the moment, it is said, is planning to leave the Government. But as explained above his chances are also shot the by the sins of association. Mahinda Rajapaksa of course will not contest thanks to the intricacies of 19th Amendment. So the room is wide open another actor, namely the former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence (but often mistakenly called with the non-existent title of Defence Secretary) Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man behind the war victory against the LTTE and subsequently the accelerated urban development. Already he has been sending out feelers to this effect via interviews, tweets etc. and also an organization of nationalist professionals called Viyathmaga has sprang up to support his candidacy. His clear endorsement of Trump victory and talks about an “outsider” taking on the political system signifies his wish to do the same in Sri Lankan context.

The lack of palpable progress, the feeling that the government is getting nowhere and is not in the control of events gives way to yearnings by even the most sanguine people for a “benevolent dictatorship” to put things in order. Indeed it is this sort of illiberal thinking that paves way for nightmares a la V for Vendetta style. We have already seen an example of such in the United States, where the liberal political order unraveled by what the irrepressible Michael Moore called as “Angry White Men” in his pre-election essay uncannily predicting a Trump victory. So will 2020 be the time for those disaffected voters of the Sinhala Buddhist middle class irate as they are by the disproportionate empathy that the Government allegedly has for the ethnic minorities , those frustrated professionals whose Good Governance dreams are dashed by the ubiquitous claims of corruption leading up to the highest of the land , the Sinhala Buddhist villagers who had their hopes dashed due to Government attitudes towards agriculture, the moderate urban voter reeling under the cost of living brought on by the weak economic policies and resultant tax burden and the young voter who feel their votes wasted to bring about an ineffectual government out of touch with their hopes and aspirations, to come together and giver one angry retort against the incumbent regime ushering a landslide for a nationalist President who may or may not be a benevolent dictator ? The indications are certainly pointing that way. Let us fervently hope that a V for Vendetta scenario would not unfold.

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