By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The victory in Round One of the French elections and his highly probable election as the new President of France on May 7th, of Emmanuel Macron, the young outsider with a neo-Centrist or ‘Alt-Centrist’ stance, underscores that the global trend goes against conventional, traditional, established Governments and Oppositions, and favors unorthodox, out of the box, alternative personalities, outside the established party structures and system, with new political fusions/mixes, discourses and projects of Alt-Right, Alt-Left and Alt-Centre.
It was Albert Einstein who is said to have defined insanity as trying to do the same thing and expecting a different result. The Opposition, including its new wing the SLPP, is doing just that. It is expecting that the formula of a purely and exclusively Mahinda-centric, Centre-Left populist nationalism, which narrowly lost two national elections in 2015, can win in 2019-2020, without much change and solely on the basis of the unpopularity of the Government of the day.
This county was the victim of the same erroneous thinking on the part of an earlier version of the Opposition, led by Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, which kept the UNP in office and the Opposition out for 17 long and bloody years, until a new factor was introduced into the equation- namely Chandrika, in 1992-1994.
Mrs. Bandaranaike’s SLFP didn’t understand that despite the horrors the country underwent in the 1980s, the Old Guard image and the negatives of her term of office could still be tapped to give sufficient voters pause as to make the difference between victory and defeat, especially with the minorities voting UNP. In 1988 the voters opted for a combination of continuity and change—Premadasa representing continuity with the Open Economy fused with change through his patriotic, pro-poor profile and project. By contrast the SLFP represented a throwback. Ironically it had become a traditionalist, conservative party and national leadership. No repositioning and re-branding was effected until CBK was brought in (thanks largely to Victor Ivan’s ideological efforts).
Today, a simple MR-centric Opposition project, with or without the new party, cannot, in and of itself, be sure of victory merely due to an anti-government swing at the end of this government’s first term.
Looking back at our contemporary political history, both the UNP and the SLFP underwent far greater transformation before they emerged victorious after electoral defeat. The UNP changed twice, and quite drastically, firstly under JR Jayewardene (and R. Premadasa) in 1973-1977, and secondly under Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1988. The SLFP for its part, did so in 1994.
However, today’s Opposition has not changed that much from its defeat in January 2015. In fact it hasn’t changed that much from the Rajapaksa second term which opened the road for those two defeats in 2015.
Was the 2015 defeat predictable? Yes, because it was predicted. That was by a young researcher, now a Yahapalana parliamentarian, Malith Jayatilaka, who was working for the Rajapaksa administration and had been a loyalist for years before he defected at its tail-end. I recall him rolling out to me a sociological and statistical analysis which projected a defeat for MR, and cautioning me about my public stand. I told him that I was supporting MR not because I was sure he would win or thought he couldn’t lose, but because he was more right than wrong while his challengers were more wrong than right. I had told the same thing to presidential candidate Sirisena on Dec 8th 2014.
Malith Jayatilaka’s discerning point was that even in 2005, in the aftermath of Ranil’s treacherous CFA, the margin of MR’s victory was fairly narrow, and though it widened in 2010 after the war, it would normalize and narrow again in 2015. His second and still more interesting point was that an urban educated middle class had grown up in the two decades of SLFP rule and that the aspirations of this class, especially its younger generation, had changed; globalized. They were alienated by the nepotistic style of governance of the Rajapaksas and if no reformist changes and re-profiling were immediately instituted they would defect from the party of their parents.
Malith Jayatilaka proved correct. The question was, what had happened to his predictions? Had he showed them to anyone in the Rajapaksa government? He had indeed, to almost two dozen MPs. He had tried to get through to MR but a powerful Gatekeeper had stopped it. Therefore MR never got the opportunity of hearing his full presentation and seeing the power-point. The Gatekeeper had read the report, dismissed it, relied on a report from his collection of mediocre stooge academics, and sent that report to MR instead. He had also discredited Malith Jayatilaka, calling him variously an NGO agent linked to Kumar Rupesinghe and a RAW agent. Now if Malith were a RAW agent at that time, why on earth would he try to warn the Rajapaksas with as many statistics as possible, of a likely defeat, and the urgent imperative for course correction?
The Gatekeeper who blocked access to MR and dismissed Malith Jayatilaka’s prophetic analysis and projection was Basil Rajapaksa, the ‘master strategist’ of the Rajapaksa second term including the timing of the 2015 election, the disastrous Geneva battles of 2012-2014 and the election campaigns of 2015. He is now the master strategist and de facto chieftain of the new SLFP offshoot the SLPP, and is bidding to be the strategist of the MR camp and the entire Opposition. While he is a very good organizer, empire building, influence peddling and crowd mobilization are different from a winning electoral strategy—still less leading a nation. I don’t see how his electoral-political track record is going to be any different from before.
What is worse is that certainly from ‘Divi Neguma’ if not way before (from the time he won an SLFP youth wing election ‘managed’ against Mahinda by Mrs. Bandaranaike), he has been regarded by himself and his band of loyalists as the worthiest possible successor to his iconic brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as leader of the SLFP and the country itself. The WikiLeaks cables show that this was indicated to some Western embassies which in turn promoted such thinking and began to share it themselves, since they regarded Mahinda and Gotabaya as hardcore nationalists who could not be influenced beyond a point.
The view of BR as MR’s worthy successor, is, to put it mildly, not one that is widely shared in society or even the ranks of the Opposition. One has to be loved/liked or respected and he doesn’t have anything close to either MR’s personality or GR’s narrative. Mahinda radiates strength, resolve, resilience, matchless charm and popular appeal, while Gota projects discipline, determination, studiousness and seriousness. If they get the equation and the ratios right, together they could work wonders for the country. Petulant, intemperate garrulity cannot compete.
No Opposition wins simply because the errors of the Government triggers an anti-incumbency swing. Thus even in its heyday the traditional Left could not beat the UNP in 1952 and 1960. An Opposition wins if it has re-profiled, rebranded and repositioned so it can win back the votes it lost and win over new voters and fence-sitters. An Opposition wins not only if it reflects the mood of society better than the Government does, but if it also reflects the composition and interests of society more accurately than the Government does, tapping into and approximately incarnating society’s hopes for a better future.
An MR+BR Opposition or an MR-centric/BR-driven Opposition with MR as the figurehead and BR “leading from behind”, is not a rebranding. It is a replay of the old profile and family dynamics i.e. the downside of the (postwar) Rajapaksa second term. It may prove unable to decisively break out of and expand its constituency which amounts to somewhere in the high 40% range (i.e. 40% Plus), though at Referendum on a new Constitution, it can beat the Jan 8th 2015 Yahapalana bloc, since it will surf a protest vote.
By contrast, at a regular national election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (“GR”) can do what Premadasa, CBK and MR did in 1988, 1994 and 2005, namely generate a new message, project a new profile and cut into the vote base of the opposite camp (in this case the UNP), while simultaneously reunifying his own party’s (in this case the SLFP) vote.
In the succession stakes he has several advantages over his much more ambitious and manipulative rival. He is not a traditional politician. He has an authentic narrative of heroism and management and the fused profile of a Warrior-Manager; a Fighter-Defender-Builder. His drawing power is such that he doesn’t have to extend patronage or make deals to secure loyalty and support.
What the country needs is a source of new hope! It needs a constructive, creative new fusion, an appealing new synthesis. To borrow Maoist terminology, it needs the JO-SLPP as the ‘main force’, MR as the ‘motive force’ and GR as the new, ‘leading force’ or ‘vanguard’—the Presidential candidate. It needs MR as PM, representing populist continuity, and GR as agent and driver, vehicle and visionary, of change—of accelerated national modernization. That in turn imperatively requires the retention rather than the abolition or further weakening of the Executive Presidency.
Anybody, whoever it may be, who is conspiring to or wishes to abolish or further truncate the Executive Presidency and thereby deprive this country of the benefits of a presidential system which facilitates a strong and visionary national leadership, is wittingly or unwittingly going against the National Interest, or to put it more plainly, sacrificing the interest of the country for their own petty, parochial power play.