By Dayan Jayatilleka –
It is no accident that the renovation and recovery of the British Labour Party during the long night of Thatcherism was intellectually spearheaded by three outstanding theoreticians of the Marxian Left, Eric Hobsbawm, Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, all of whom drew on the political science of Antonio Gramsci to critically comprehend the success, national and cultural, of the Thatcher phenomenon of ‘authoritarian populism’ (Stuart Hall) and the ossification and obsolescence of the Labour Opposition.
There is no better guide to understanding the dual crises of Sri Lankan opposition and state and likely outcomes than Gramsci. His pertinently titled ‘Observations on certain aspects of the structure of political parties in periods of Organic Crisis’ in the essay ‘State and Civil Society’ in his Prison Notebooks could well have been about the United National Party:
‘At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words the traditional parties in that particular organizational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic “men of destiny” ’. – State and Civil Society, Prison Notebooks.
Dating from the Chandrika Kumaratunga presidency and turning torrential in the successor Rajapaksa regime, the UNP under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe has found its electoral support base halved, losing vast swathes of its traditional social support at both ends of the social spectrum– the Sinhala Buddhist peasant masses as well as chunks of the capitalist class. It is in the throes of a classic ‘organic crisis’. As Gramsci went on to stress, this results in an extremely dangerous political situation and endgames. We shall see how this may work in the contemporary Sri Lankan context.
There are three possible scenarios of the future of the United National Party.
(I) While retaining its present leadership it becomes the beneficiary of the near-totality of the minority vote, an erosion of the Sinhala support base of the regime due to the external squeeze on the Government (Geneva March 2014) and the resultant economic crunch, augmented by a split in the regime’s vote bank caused by a Chandrika-driven spoiler candidacy. This is the Ranil-Mangala strategic project of a domestic prong of an external-internal pincer.
(II) The downward spiral of the UNP continues, with a leakage of voters and MPs to the regime and voters to Gen Fonseka’s DP.
(III) A new leader rebrands and re-positions the party as a moderate centrist alternative, causing a revival of its electoral prospects at Presidential and parliamentary levels—perhaps more decisively at the latter than the former.
Which of these three scenarios prevails depends on whether the UNP’s crisis is (A) situational/ ‘conjunctural’ or (B) structural/systemic. In diagnosis (A) the UNP’s crisis is definable as a crisis of leadership and ideology. In diagnosis (B) the multiple dysfunctions are symptomatic of the leadership crisis having turned malignant and metastasized, causing a compound crisis of the formation as a totality.
If the former, either the prospect of the next round of provincial elections, or more likely the traumatic outcome of that round next year will trigger the leadership revision that is necessary for rectification and revival before the all-important national elections.
If the crisis is structural or systemic, the possible alternatives to the existing leadership will be unable to prevail or worse still, remained trapped into virtual paralysis, both unable to prevail and unwilling to launch a new centrist, moderate nationalist project outside the party.
I am agnostic as to which of the two diagnoses of the UNP’s crisis is correct. It does seem that the dog-in-the-manger stance of the present UNP leader will be able to sustain itself given that he belongs to an influential and wealthy family clan which has a long association with the party and owns a segment of the mass media, while he has himself been around for a longer time in UNP politics than the alternative personalities and has a grip on the party apparatus, having been able to shape it over two decades. These socio-political assets and the conformist consciousness of the organizational apparatus of what has reverted to a profoundly conservative rightwing party, constitute the enabling environment in which Ranil Wickremesinghe is more determined to remain than his critics and competitors are to replace him. In the conformist nutrient medium of a UNP battered and depleted by the serial assassination of its more spirited leading personalities by the LTTE, Mr Wickremesinghe displays more political will to stay than his critics do to dislodge him.
Those critics and competitors are also hampered by their unwillingness to admit to themselves that their future is structurally blighted within the UNP in its current state of decay and degeneration. The UNP that the Reformists are loyal to is a lost civilization which no longer exists except residually at the grassroots. That grassroots UNP remains crushed by the failure to resolve the crisis by the only two means possible, namely an ouster or a breakaway.
Earlier, more spirited generations of politicians, having found themselves thwarted within parent political parties, decisively broke from them and launched successful new projects (while some of them returned in triumph to lead their mother parties): DS Senanayake, SWRD Bandaranaike, SJV Chelvanayagam, Rohana Wijeweera, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Gamini Dissanaike, Lalith Athulathmudali. Ranasinghe Premadasa was a significant variant, always keeping open the option of an independent project and formation—he was planning to run as a common candidate if he were deprived of the candidacy in 1988—and letting it be known that he possessed such a credible deterrent.
These personalities broke away from parties that were far more robust than today’s UNP and rebelled against leaders far stronger and more successful, or at least vastly more popular, than Mr Wickremesinghe. Sadly the current alternatives to Ranil are not men and women cut of the same cloth as these earlier dissident and political path-breakers. Thus the UNP’s crisis is almost as much the fault of Mr Wickremesinghe’s critics as it is of Mr Wickremesinghe himself. They will neither launch a sustained rebellion against him not take the initiative to launch a new formation which represents the best of the UNP’s past and vision of a different better future for democratic politics. They are trapped within the UNP because they voluntarily remain so. Thus the UNP is trapped in the double bind of inability to throw out Ranil and the unavailability of an alternative provided by a recognised UNP personality.
However, politics, like nature – and life itself– abhors a vacuum. The UNP’s crisis shows signs of resolution of an unorthodox and (arguably) undesirable sort. Unable to change its leadership because the organizational apparatus is unwilling to, the ethos of the party Establishment remains conformist, and the Reformists aren’t rebels, the UNP at the grassroots is escaping the death-grip of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership by getting out from under. They are defecting: They are heading in two directions as evidenced by the Dayasiri Jayasekara affaire and its electoral outcome and the Sarath Fonseka surge. The UNP voters are voting with their feet. Call it (crisis) resolution through (self) dissolution.
In an optimistic scenario these trends will get worse before they get better, but they will get better somewhere between the next round of provincial elections and the national ones. In a pessimistic scenario, either the leadership change will not take place even after the next PC elections or will prove too little too late for the party to retrieve its lost fortunes and prospects. The optimistic prognosis accords with the diagnosis that the UNP’s crisis is situational-conjunctural while the pessimistic prognosis flows from the diagnosis that it is structural-systemic.
If the latter proves true, for Sri Lanka taken as a whole this means a nightmare scenario of a dual deadlock: a regime that is unable to adapt and survive in the new international environment and a democratic opposition that is unable to do so the same in the post-war national environment. The predictable outcome would include a shift to secession in the North and from the current quasi-authoritarianism to outright military rule in the South.
The prospect of military rule or a military-civilian junta (Latin America in the two decades from the mid 60s to the mid 80s, Pakistan until the last election, Egypt before and after the Spring), can be triggered in two situations, not just the one: either by a Tamil Nadu tugged Northern secessionist surge or by the UNP’s best case scenario (I) listed at the commencement of this article. If there is an external-internal encirclement as in the Ranil-Mangala strategic project, the military as an institution will not go along with the individual officers who try to cut a deal with the UNP leadership for survival. Rather it will act to prevent the accession to power of an externally-assisted minoritarian bloc it perceives as unpatriotic enough to barter the victory over the LTTE and to yield to the West on issues of accountability for so-called war crimes. In short the military, driven by the ideology of what we may term the ‘Buddhist brotherhood’ will act to protect itself as well as its ethno-religious homeland. In the case of serious threat of exit by the North, the knee-jerk reflex will be to throw up a separation wall sealing off ‘contagion’ from without, erect a Garrison State, institute mandatory military service and tighten a ‘protective’ grip on the Sinhala heartland.
If this dystopian scenario comes about, Northern separatism cannot be prevented by Sri Lankan military force as it would be a Bangladesh-Kosovo process under R2P, and an ‘organic’ military regime south of Vavuniya cannot be uprooted in its traditional homeland by external force.