By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“Of battles won or lost—but fought…”—Che Guevara
Having argued for years that (a) Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapaksa is no dictatorship but a unipolar democracy because of the meltdown of the centre-right UNP under its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and (b) that the Opposition should put forward a liberal nationalist instead, my perspective has been at least partly vindicated. Why then was Mr. Sirisena my second choice rather than my first? An obvious reason is the Ranil-Chandrika factor (or factors). The second was his program of fast-track radical political reform and its possible centrifugal consequences.
The Opposition strategists got it right and therefore they won. They outmaneuvered and outplayed Mahinda Rajapaksa and his camp, and in that sense deserved to win. The Opposition’s strategy was to win the vast majority of the minorities and a minority of the majority, by generating a split in the majority vote. It worked. The game plan was transparent and had been rolled out by Mangala Samaraweera in a Sunday paper months ago. If the 2012 video of Dr. Rajitha Senaratne is authentic (and I haven’t heard any statement to the contrary) the game-plan went a few years back and had at least one particular provenance, at the outset. He addressed a media conference that year to disclose that prominent pro-Tiger Tamil Diaspora activist Charles Gnanakone had attempted to inveigle two MPs with large financial blandishments, accompanying it with a narrative that “they” had decided to replace the Rajapaksa administration, that Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Samaraweera were on board, and that at an appropriate moment, ex-President Kumaratunga will return to Sri Lanka in order to break into the SLFP.
This bears very striking resemblance to what actually went down. It worked because the compensatory vote from the majority community was not sufficient to compensate for the near-total loss of the minorities and the slice of majority votes garnered by the excellent choice of Maithripala Sirisena as candidate. To reiterate, the Opposition game plan proved to be a good one, and it succeeded.
It could not have done so if not for the intrinsic weakness of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency. President Rajapaksa paid heavily for the sins of his family. The post-war model of the Rajapaksa administration was not compatible with the social needs of peacetime. That postwar model was animated far more by the doctrine, attitude, mindset and discourse of Gotabaya Rajapaksa than Mahinda Rajapaksa. If Mahinda Rajapaksa won the war with the managerial dedication of Gotabhaya, he lost the peace and therefore the election also because of the personality and policy impositions of those who failed to transcend that time and progress towards normalcy.
When the TNA leadership met President Rajapaksa before the investiture of Justice Wigneswaran as Chief Minister, they told him that they could contribute a million votes, should the Northern Provincial Council be made viable. The first item on that agenda was the replacement of Gen Chandrasiri with a civilian governor. As it turned out, Gen Chandrasiri was not merely retained but also extended, thereby dashing the hopes of the TNA and going contrary to the indications given to India. That decision was pushed through by Gotabhaya. There went the last chance of Mahinda Rajapaksa obtaining any portion of the TNA’s vote bank.
It was Dr. Rajitha Senaratne who told me that Mahinda Rajapaksa had ordered while still overseas, the arrest of the BBS rabble rousers after Aluthgama. That arrest was thwarted by an intelligence report presented to the president upon arrival, that any such crackdown would probably trigger nationwide rioting. That dereliction, coming on top of the optics of Gotabhaya at an event featuring the top BBS monks, with the consequent impression of tolerance if not patronage of the BBS by the state apparatus, caused the loss of virtually the entirety of the Muslim vote.
The grave mismanagement of foreign policy, again driven in the final analysis by the hardline defense bureaucracy, lost us the support of India, while the BBS factor lost us the Islamic states of the OIC. This created a broad Indo-US-Islamic external coalition with considerable local assets, and a vested interest in regime change. It worked.
The main challenge that President Sirisena faces is twofold. One is domestic geopolitics. The majority of the majority ethno-religious community, the core of the island’s demographics, did not vote primarily for him but rather for his opponent, President Rajapaksa. The other is that the program and platform of President Sirisena involves an untested systemic transition which may result in unstable multipolar ‘jockeying’ and prove susceptible to external and minoritarian pressure groups. I would urge him to drop the abolition of the executive presidency and the fast-track approach. Instead he should be a normal President, serve his term while retaining executive power while slimming down the surplus power of the executive through a gradualist and consensual approach. A referendum on whether the executive presidency should be abolished, retained or reformed would be a good idea. If he sticks to a fast-track abolition (and permits neoliberal economic policies as well), the Sri Lankan State will not only be scrubbed clean as it should be, but also vulnerable to centrifugal pressures (especially at its ethnic periphery) and thus weakened, retrenched, diminished. Theda Skocpol has through painstaking socio-historical research, sourced much of violent upheaval in such a retrenchment of the state.
As an early critic of the negative postwar trends, I could see it coming. However, I chose to get off the fence and support President Rajapaksa (just as I did President Premadasa), because I regarded and still regard him as far more sinned against than sinning, and his merits as greatly outweighing his demerits. Put more simply I tend to support the hero—or, as in this case, the anti-hero–especially if he is an underdog (provided it isn’t rabid, like the Tigers or the JVP of the ’80s). I have no regrets.
What has happened is not merely the defeat of a President. It is the end of a cycle; perhaps even an age. What has dawned may be a new one or a return to an older pre-war period. That remains to be seen. Yet there is something else beyond this. It is the defeat of a certain idea, project, paradigm, way of being and set of values, which may be traced back to the political struggle against the CFA and reaching a high point in the military victory and diplomatic success of the last war. The ethos could be regarded as that of wartime, or more dramatically, the Spirit of 2009. Despite all my criticisms I supported Mahinda Rajapaksa in all three of his elections- 2005, 2010 and 2015—because I shared those values more than I did those of his opponents on each occasion. This time five million people shared those views but that was not enough.
What has happened is not only an end of a paradigm but a more basic sociological phenomenon. The father of ‘elite theory’, the Italian Vilfredo Pareto, wrote of a pattern in the history of societies of the rotation or circulation of elites of two main types, for which he borrowed the symbolism appearing in Machiavelli’s The Prince, and dubbed the Lions and the Foxes. Mahinda Rajapaksa was a Lion and he represented the age of the Lion. He and it have now been replaced by the age of Foxes.
In his “The End of History and the Last Man”, Francis Fukuyama famously applauds the definitive victory of liberal democracy as a universally acceptable idea of organizing governance, but his applause is deeply tinged with regret. He views this victory as one of the end of the heroic age and values that Nietzsche had extolled (looking back nostalgically at Homeric Greece). Nietzsche had been bitterly sardonic about the imminent triumph of what he termed “the age of the flea” and the arrival of the un-heroic Last Man, whose consciousness was essentially that of a consumer. Fukuyama, a liberal who applauded the victory of liberal democratic capitalism, was nonetheless enough of a philosopher to lament that arrival.
All that said Maithripala Sirisena as President is infinitely preferable to having Ranil Wickremesinghe or Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in that role. The people have voted for change and the unipolar situation has ended. I hope the new leadership will reconsider the fast-track systemic change and instead consult the people at a referendum before undertaking any adventurist experiments with the constitution.