By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Do you watch ‘Boston Legal’? We do, by which I mean my wife Sanja and I, and we like it. Of course it is one of the few programs we enjoy equally, since she finds my favorites, such as ‘True Detective’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘The Bridge’, and ‘Sons of Anarchy’, which reflect my obsessions with the dialectic of evil and justice, the figure of the anti-hero and the struggle for a code of violence, far too…violent. I find Comedy Central too lightheartedly escapist. Domestically, a bipartisan consensus is reached in our preference for ‘Homeland’— the selectively violent but cerebral espionage thriller—and of course ‘Boston Legal’ and ‘Castle’. Which brings me to the Presidential candidacy and the question: who can be a consensus candidate of the Opposition?
In ‘Boston Legal’ the other night, Denny Crane,( played by William Shatner, whose a sartorial flamboyance and egotism ,but not his Republican conservatism, reminds me of my late father in his heyday), advises his colleague and old flame played by Candice Bergen, that in a trial by jury, the trick is to “keep it simple”. He advises her – and reminds her by silently mouthing a prompting in court– to close the address to the jury with the line “it’s that simple”. They win the excruciatingly difficult case.
So it is with elections as well as the choice of candidates. Let’s start with the regime’s candidacy. The Oppositional civil society effort to prevent Mahinda Rajapaksa from running a third time is stupidly counterproductive. Who does it think will be the candidate if Mahinda were to be disqualified? Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that’s who—and he will secure the support of the Buddhist clergy, the JHU, BBS, NFF, the armed forces and their families and the Sinhala Buddhist business community including its chauvinist yuppies. Against Ranil, Sajith or Karu, he’d probably win this time around. Would the opposition, especially the civil society opposition, like that prospect?
I wouldn’t because it would harden the regime qualitatively and accelerate our confrontation with the external environment. Mahinda Rajapaksa is all that stands between us and such an outcome. It is my fervent hope that if he wins a third term, Mahinda will last it out rather than succumb to any eventuality that enables his martial sibling, who will doubtless be in Cabinet next year, to be the local ayatollahs’ anointed successor, imposed on the SLFP virtually at bayonet point, riding on a wave of adulation for Great King Mahinda in whose name he will pledge to rule.
Since this could still happen, fate being the fickle thing it is, those political forces which believe in a free and open society have two opportunities to pre-empt it. The first is the presidential election and the other, which will doubtless arrive close on its heels, is the parliamentary election.
Let me place my cards on the table. For the reasons I have just set out, I prefer Mahinda to run rather than be disqualified. If in the Presidential race, the real choice is Ranil vs. Mahinda, I would definitely prefer Mahinda, a war winning President conscious of the country’s sovereignty, to an appeaser of fascist separatist terrorism and a puppet of the West. If however, the presidential race is between Mahinda and a candidate who can credibly represent the promise of a better and socially fairer tomorrow, out of the wartime tunnel, I would definitely endorse the latter. Simply put, I support Mahinda critically– and my option for Mahinda is relative and conditional.
Time is running out, so the question must be put squarely and publicly: could Karu Jayasuriya be the candidate who can give Mahinda a real run for his money and even stands the best chance of beating him? Given his profile, yes; given his current stance and strategy, no. Could he re-position himself so as to be the most viable alternative to Mahinda? Yes. How? Read on.
With his Sinhala –Buddhist profile, gentlemanly manners, benignly avuncular demeanor, solid corporate credentials and volunteer army background, Karu Jayasuriya would be the ideal candidate: a kinder, gentler, more genteel Mahinda Rajapaksa, who corresponds to the self-image of the Sinhala Buddhist majority while standing for a more inclusive Sri Lanka, can reach out to and dialogue with the minorities, defend Sri Lanka’s sovereignty rather more intelligently than the ruling family, win over the SLFP moderates and win back the UNP defectors, and restore investor confidence in this country.
He could conceivably win the support of elements of the Rajapaksa constituency such as the JHU, the Buddhist clergy and the armed forces. He also stands a chance of neutralizing the JVP or better still, getting it on board. Thus he would be the closest to a consensus candidate of the opposition or as the local usage goes, a ‘common candidate’.
This however, is only his potential. It isn’t his reality. Certainly not yet—and there are only a few short weeks to go for crunch time.
What stands between the Opposition and a viable liberal-democratic nationalist or liberal patriotic candidacy such as the Karu candidacy would be?
Firstly the UNP, which seems to have opted for Ranil rather than either Karu– or still more logically, Sajith, whose developmental populism and pluralist patriotism could give Mahinda a run on his own territory (as he has done for 14 years in Hambantota). Karu would be far better candidate than Ranil. Indeed Ranil is the very worst candidate that the UNP could field against Mahinda. Yet, the UNP sticks with him, in electoral suicide mode.
Can there be a Karu candidacy which is supported by civil society organizations, the JHU, et al? That would not be a common candidacy, even if it is called such. A Karu candidacy which is not also and at the same time, a UNP or solidly UNP backed candidacy, would not be a common candidacy but a spoiler third candidacy, and wind up a disaster.
Secondly, a Karu candidacy would be almost fatally hampered by his mismanagement of the equation with young Sajith Premadasa, who is not only the only UNPer who can galvanize the UNP grassroots , he is the only frontline UNPer with resonance among the vast majority of voters who are rural/provincial. Make no mistake, Karu represents the Goigama Sinhala Buddhist elite, and its urban and suburban strata, not the much larger swathe of Sinhala Buddhists under the poverty line, cutting across caste identification. Only Sajith can carry them, as his father did, beating the patrician Sinhala Buddhist matriarch Sirima Bandaranaike in 1988.
Any election strategist who thinks that a Karu candidacy can take on the ‘patriotism on steroids’, with its intersecting and reinforcing quadruple modes and avatars of folksy (Mahinda), martial-modernizing (Gota), pragmatic-developmental (Basil) and yuppie-toughie (Namal), without ideologically supercharging the ticket with Sajith Premadasa as running mate and designated Prime Ministerial candidate, has just got to be kidding. And, no, not even the JHU and Sarath Fonseka on Karu’s side can be sufficient substitutes for the Sajith chemistry or rather the (Sajith) Premadasa ingredient.
Thirdly and finally comes the most important defect of the project of a Karu candidacy. The Karu candidacy is one to abolish the presidency. That is simply not where the vast masses are at. A Presidential election is by definition an election at which one makes the choice as to who would make the better president, and not who would abolish the presidency. Karu Jayasuriya has not yet been projected as someone who might be a better president than Mahinda Rajapaksa, though he would almost certainly fare better if he were to do that rather than to project himself as one who would abolish the executive Presidency.
The Sri Lankan people, OK, the Sinhala people, most of whom are Sinhala Buddhist, may vote for someone who would be a more democratic and benign leader and Karu could fit that bill. But the people want better governance and less economic hardship, not a weaker government still less a weaker Sri Lankan state. The rural Sinhala Buddhist voter, well over 60% of the total, will not relate to a fortress without a tower; the Temple of the Tooth without the Pattirippuwa; a dagoba without a pinnacle. They will not vote for someone who promises to weaken – rather than reform and streamline-the strong centre by decapitation of the Presidency, and thereby facilitate centripetal ethnic forces at a time of external encirclement.
That is the Achilles heel of the Karu candidacy project. It does not present him as Presidential material. As it is presently conceptualized, he would not be running for Presidency because he could be a better president and leader of this country. Rather, he would be running to abolish the Presidency itself. That is not what a presidential election is about. Mahinda Rajapaksa by contrast knows what it is all about: being presidential, looking and sounding presidential; offering a choice of continuity of successful leadership and thereby stability, in which the Sinhala people feel their existential status and security are guaranteed. This puts Mahinda way ahead of Ranil and even of Karu as the latter is currently positioned. The Karu candidacy project is a misnomer in that it is not a presidential candidacy project. On the other hand Mahinda Rajapaksa is running for president. As William Shatner (‘Denny Crane’) said to Candice Bergen on ‘Boston Legal’, “it’s that simple”.