By Dayan Jayatilleka –
It is fairly clear at this time, that the populist wing of the SLFP, the Pohottuwa, identified with and led in effect by Mahinda Rajapaksa is going to emerge the largest element within the non-UNP space, and thereby will emerge as the largest single opposition party; effectively, the government-in-waiting, with the most important national election due late next year.
The only question that remains to be resolved is whether the Pohottuwa will wind up “a close second” to the UNP as the most intelligent Yahapalana ideologues writing in English have opined repeatedly in print, or whether (as I think) the Pohottuwa will wind up quite simply, the largest single party, displacing the UNP from that historical role and status.
For his part, Victor Ivan, a leading Yahapalana 2015 champion and public intellectual, has suggested that no party will emerge a clear winner, thereby throwing the political situation into crisis if not chaos.
Whichever of these three scenarios comes right, anything short of a clear win for the UNP, the dominant of the two governing parties, will mean that something has gone very wrong, and irreversibly so, with the Yahapalana Project of 2015.
What was the Yahapalana 2015 Project? It was the trade-in of a successful competitive two party electoral democracy of long standing, in favour of a dubious bipartisan coalition government. To put it very bluntly, Sri Lanka’s successful democracy which had ensured the best possible deal for the citizenry through the competition of two strong blocs, center-right and center-left, was sacrificed for so-called ethnic reconciliation in the form of a new Constitution which would fulfil promises made offshore, to the Tamil parties and Diaspora. Democracy was distorted in order to give the Tamils a new Constitution.
That gamble has failed utterly. What is saddest is that it was not needed. The distortion imposed upon Sri Lankan democracy, that of confiscating Southern democratic opinion by establishing an SLFP-UNP coalition despite a strong 96 seat showing against such a coalition by Mahinda’s UPFA in August 2015. This was followed up by awarding the TNA with 16 seats the post of the official Opposition, ignoring the 50 plus members of parliament who stayed with Mahinda.
Now, that model is about to fall apart. The UNP can remain under Ranil’s leadership and in government, the SLFP can stay in cabinet with the UNP, the parliamentary fiction of the TNA as Opposition can stay undisturbed, but the country and the world will know where public opinion– the citizens, the people– are at. In short, the Yahapalana 2015 model will be held up to the light of public opinion and revealed to be quite hollow.
Three years of Yahapalana and there’s no ethnic New Deal in the form of a Constitution. Now there isn’t likely to be one at all, within the remainder of this government’s term—a government that will be seen from Feb 11th as going downhill.
In the first place, a weakened ‘official’ SLFP is unlikely to run the suicidal risk of supporting a new constitution with Provincial council election a matter of months away.
In the second place, even if it seems, on Feb 10th, that there are a slightly higher percentage of votes against Mahinda’s Pohottuwa than there are for it, it will be obvious that not only are these votes split, but that they won’t add up to a YES vote for a new Constitution because the UNP voters who cast a ballot for their party will not necessarily do so for a federal Constitution or one that smacks of federalism.
In the third place, the Pohottuwa, even with a disenfranchised Mahinda or Gotabaya, or especially with a victimized Mahinda or Gotabaya, will be a sufficiently powerful force to turn any referendum into a Super Brexit by the Sinhala voters.
What’s strange is that none of this need have happened. There were two other options. A new Constitution would have been possible if Mahinda and the JO had been given their legitimate place, the Opposition leadership, and round table negotiations taken place, chaired by the President, as he so successfully piloted the 19th amendment.
Why was this not done? Simply because Yahapalana biggies Ranil-Chandrika-Mangala not only wanted ethnic reform, which is fair enough, but were greedy and wanted Mahinda completely out of the way. More, they wanted their ally the TNA installed as part of the political architecture at the expense of the Southern democratic opposition.
This is the same kind of reason that made JR Jayewardene go for a referendum instead of a parliamentary election in December 1982. He wanted to knock out the ‘radical’ (‘Naxalite’) SLFP wing led by Vijaya Kumaratunga and to strengthen his ally Anura Bandaranaike. It took longer for JRJ’s adventurism to fail because the economy was growing, but fail it did. The equivalent Yahapalana gamble has imploded much earlier.
There was a second way to avoid the ethnic fiasco that the government is now faced with. That would have been to eschew the plan for a whole new constitution and to limit the effort to a more modest reform which would have required only a two thirds majority in parliament, with no referendum attached. With the new Constitution project taking heavy fire from the JO on the charge of federalism and being sniped at by the official SLFP for the effort to decapitate the executive Presidency, the UNP-TNA-CBK plan was coming apart even before the Feb 10th election.
So what remains of it today? The manifest extent of voter disaffection will make Mahinda and his Pohottuwa the center of gravity of non-UNP politics on the ground, at the level of the electorate, with three elections due in two years. The SLFP will go either with Mahinda or with the UNP, or stay with President Sirisena if he dumps the electorally radioactive Ranil. It is very likely that only a splinter of the SLFP will go with the UNP. Overall, the shift will be towards populism. This makes it wildly improbable that a new, non-unitary, quasi-federal Constitution can muster support even within the coalition government, should that government remain. After a setback on Feb 10th and with a Presidential election next year, the UNP itself will probably undergo a shift in a populist direction, away from its current cosmopolitan liberalism.
There is one move left to be made but the obvious question is why it wasn’t made before, and whether the same reasons would prevent it from being made. That is to negotiate with Mahinda Rajapaksa for an acceptable adjustment of the 13th amendment, i.e. to implement that which he indicated to the TNA in 2011, would be acceptable to him.
This move will probably not be attempted, and the real reason will reveal what’s real wrong here. What’s wrong is that (A) the Tamil politicians regard themselves as being way above and beyond the confines of the 13th amendment (B) their Western and Indian patrons and supporters are far too influenced by those Tamil politicians and community leaders in the Diaspora and Tamil Nadu, and (C) therefore the bar of ethno-constitutional reform is set far too high for any Sri Lankan government to comply with and survive electorally.
Thus, after February 10th, the utopian liberal ethnic reform agenda will be back to square one, awaiting the crafting of a common denominator based upon Realism. That, I’m afraid, will probably have to await the Presidential and Parliamentary elections of 2019-2020.