By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“You want it darker,
We kill the flame.”
–Leonard Cohen: ‘You Want It Darker’
It must be clear to all except a delusional handful at the top, the less discerning ambassadors, some officials in western capitals, and several NGO/INGOs, that the defeat of this Government at the next elections culminating in the Presidential and parliamentary, is a foregone conclusion. This Government ends late next year. With the visible disintegration of the UNP, the SLFP and the coalition, and effect on the morale of the UNP and SLFP activists and supporters at the grassroots, and of course the voters, the electoral outcome can no longer be in question. It cannot be avoided by a minority bloc, voting faithfully for the UNP.
What remains to be decided are how the rest of the Government’s term goes, whether or not the ending of the government is smooth, the extent of the government’s defeat and the margin of the incoming government’s victory, and the nature of the successor administration by the end of next year– which will almost certainly be a Rajapaksa dispensation.
In short, the only valid political subjects for serious scenario planning and rational discussion are those that pertain to transition and to the problems –economic, ethnic and external- faced by an incoming Rajapaksa administration. This is not yet the time to discuss the latter topic. What needs urgent clarification though is the nature of the transition and the management of that transition.
There are contrary signals. There are signs that the UNP and the government are headed in exactly the wrong direction at this hinge moment. There are also other signs that healthier dynamics will prevail. If the positive dynamics proved stronger, then the situation will stabilize, and the transition will be smooth, normal and regular. The sooner the positive dynamics prevail, the sooner the situation will stabilize. The longer it takes, either the negative dynamics will triumph albeit temporarily or the stabilization when it comes will require much more effort and extract a heavier price.
What are these positive dynamics and which are the negative ones. The positive dynamics are those within the UNP and the SLFP. So too are the negatives. Thus the political action at the moment is taking place in the intermediate zone, the shrinking center.
There are two contending trends within the UNP. One argues for a ‘target hardening’ and policy acceleration, by the induction of Field Marshal Fonseka as Minister of Law and Order, and a redoubled effort to implement the so-called reform agenda of January 2015. The other tendency argues for a replacement of Mr. Wickremesinghe as party leader and Prime Minister, and has floated the idea of a motion of no-confidence, so as to bring the party and government closer in line with the public consensus and mood and thereby stabilize a situation that is becoming increasingly volatile.
The first tendency has an ideologically coherent line, if disastrously in error. Toughen up by placing the Police and more importantly the STF under Field Marshal Fonseka or retain it under Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in his late 1970s-’80s ‘retro’ mode. Push on with free market friendly reforms as rolled out by Minister Mangala Samaraweera and urged on by his advisor Prof Razeen Sally. These free market friendly reforms are not voter friendly anywhere in the world at this time (note the dramatic rise of Corbynism). So the projected answer to that problem is a tightening up through the Ministry of Law and Order. Which of course is quite silly, given that crackdowns are even less voter friendly than free market reforms, and protests are going to be more frequent as the Presidential election draws closer.
To make matters worse, the votaries of this political perspective also urge a push on the accountability and Constitutional change agenda, i.e. the TNA agenda, which they think is the best way to save the Tamil ‘moderates”. So they hope to save the “Tamil moderates” from recent electoral trends in the North, while electorally sacrificing the Sinhala moderates. They expect The UNP and SLFP to be electoral suicide bombers, blowing themselves up electorally for the cause of Chandrika’s crazy notions of “national reconciliation”.
By contrast, the UNP and SLFP rebels, epitomized by Vasantha Senanayake and Susil Premjayanth, are the real moderates, and the best hope of stabilization by surgical intervention which would create a new center, in and for the interim, tactically and conditionally supported from outside by the center-left. A successful motion of no confidence would unfreeze the present situation and provide an administration that is more reflective of public opinion as well as in greater consonance with President Sirisena.
In fact it would be the only Sirisena-ist administration we have had since he was first elected President. It would render the present dysfunctional situation, less so. This can normalize matters across the board and buy some time at the ground level, enabling the burgeoning economic crisis to be rationally managed. Restoration of the social safety net, pragmatic renegotiation of the Geneva resolution and modest improvements within the existing framework of devolution are also possible under such an interim administration of a hybrid character.
Today’s UNP and SLFP dissidents are the real reformists, because they are challenging within the UNP and within the Yahapalana government respectively, the most ancient of the ancien regimes that Sri Lankan politics has ever seen: the ossified leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe as UNP leader since 1994, and hardly a successful leader at that. There is a growing national consensus across parties, which is that Ranil just has to go. He has been around too long. One of the smartest of the Opposition’s personalities, Dullas Alahapperuma, hilariously reminded the public at a media briefing that the Catholic Church and the world have seen three Popes since Ranil took over as UNP leader! The TV newscasts prominently featured that punch-line and his longer list of incumbents (including US Presidents) who have come and gone while Ranil has stayed.
Within the government it is now a tale of two contending projects—the UNP/SLFP liberal Realists versus the neoliberal hawks who want to push forward with the Ranil-Mangala globalization agenda of January 8th 2015, on the economic, ethnic and external relations realms, albeit with Sarath Fonseka as Enforcer, especially in the matter of jailing Gotabaya Rajapaksa and removing Mahinda Rajapaksa’s civic rights. This line is the one that remains committed to Ranil as PM, the Ranil-CBK alliance, the SLFP as a prop and President Sirisena as a human shield, i.e. the increasingly unpopular, delegitimized, hollow status quo. Those who advocate this line think that the powerful Opposition, the SLPP-JO, can be rolled back by determined ‘toughness’ i.e. repression.
This is a throwback to the irrational mentality that made the UNP bring in Sir John Kotelawala as Prime Minister, after the August 1953 popular uprising, the Hartal. That ‘hardening’, that ‘rigidification’ by the UNP, directly resulted in Sinhala Only and 1956. What we are seeing at one level, is a replay. Luckily, there is the saner, more pragmatic parallel project of the no –confidence motion and a centrist re-composition of the Government, with a drawing together of the UNP and SLFP’s moderates, rather than the neoliberal compact of the Ranil-CBK-Mangala-Sumanthiran Quartet.
Which of these two intra-governmental tendencies, which of these two projects—rigidification versus flexibilization; dogmatic reformism versus pragmatism; neoliberalism versus moderate centrism—will succeed? Time is tight. March is the month of making the choice, the sooner the better.
Which of these two projects succeed will be the factor that determines the nature of the remainder of the term of this Government, the character and magnitude of its demise, and the complexion and dynamics of the successor administration.
The continuation of the Ranil-Mangala-Chandrika status quo, especially with a harder input from Sarath Fonseka, but even without it, will only distance this Government further from public opinion. Its social base will narrow still further, thereby guaranteeing instability, and an instability that grows more chronic.
If however, the project of the UNP and SLFP resistance succeeds and is temporarily supported from without by the JO and the JVP, then a recomposed government which will be of a provisional nature, will be more in line with public opinion; will have a social base which permits stability and the avoidance of anarchy as well as polarization and radicalization. Maintaining the status quo or reinforcing it by unleashing Fonseka and repressing the Rajapaksas, will only lead to a quantum leap in polarization and radicalization.
Already the future is playing itself out on the streets. The demonstrators in Thambuttegama, in the Sinhala heartland area of the Rajarata, were more impressive than the large contingents of students that the FSP-IUSF is able to bring to Colombo. In Thambuttegama the demonstrators fought back against the water cannon, with women, protecting themselves from tear gas with handkerchiefs, throwing stones, the demonstrators actually pushing the Police and the water cannon back into the precincts of the Police station, before the counterattack came. This was authentic “Rage against the Machine”! These are not students; they are peasants and citizens of the area, willing to fight for the material conditions of their existence and those of their children and grandchildren. They can be temporarily suppressed, but as the Rajapaksas learned at Rathupassala, the cost is in votes (though they handsomely recovered Gampaha, thanks to the popular Prasanna Ranatunga, who combines determination with unflappability and dead-pan humor).
Rathupassala was against the backdrop of a growing economy, a stable government and strong Presidency, but the context is far more unfavorable for Yahapalanaya. How many more Thambuttegamas will there be? And how many more sectors will join? Can the iron-fisted Sarath Fonseka, an utterly conspicuous electoral wreck, do anything but exacerbate the situation, cause the proliferation of protest, and ultimately sink the UNP by turning it into a hate symbol?
The red line is a move to frame Mahinda and/or Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This is a country where things can boil over, especially when national elections are on the horizon and an unpopular incumbent regime’s days are known to be numbered by the Supreme Court’s decision. All manner of actors, social and institutional, non-state and state, secular and religious, trade union and uniformed, can come into play, as in Portugal 1975, Iran 1979, the Philippines 1986, Eastern Europe 1989 and the Arab Spring.
And after the fall of the regime, which will eventually be electoral and late next year (whoever the Opposition candidate), there is, I would imagine, enough material about Richard de Zoysa, Batalanda, the saving of Prabhakaran from the LRRP hit, the Millennium City betrayal, the Central Bank Bond scam, to keep at least one defeated political leader occupied long after he loses the next election, just as thoroughgoing investigations into the Lasantha killing and Prageeth Ekneligoda affair could be more constricting for the actual perpetrators.
So, the bottom line is that any move against the Rajapaksas, and the lid of a social cauldron already on the boil, will come off. Then the end of the regime late next year—if not sooner—will not be a soft landing but a hard takedown, and a long goodbye.