By Dayan Jayatilleka –
New wine cannot be put into old wineskins. And vice versa.
A new Opposition with a new leader cannot be burdened with an old ideology, not least an ideology which has failed to secure the election of the leader the country for 30 years. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
The old ideology antedates the assumption of the leadership of the UNP by Ranil Wickremesinghe, but was mightily reinforced by his conversion to it.
The ideology commenced with the impeachment motion against President Premadasa and the subsequent formation of the DUNF. At the core of that ideology was the abolition of the executive presidency.
As the regime hardens and digs in, the Opposition and the democratic intelligentsia must get its collective head straight and learn to focus.
It must abandon the time-wasting abstraction of Presidentialism vs parliamentarism; a diversion which helps the regime. Abolition of the presidency is off the table: it requires a two-thirds majority at a parliamentary election which isn’t due for five years and would either follow the next presidential election, or if it precedes that election, is likely to ensure a regime victory with the latter’s new, heavily-loaded institutional dice.
Politics is not a school debate, a classroom lecture or a court case. It is an arena in which you need to persuade a large number of people. As Lenin said, serious politics begins where tens of millions of people are.
People live through experiences which form their consciousness. The Sri Lankan people’s consciousness has been formed by thirty years of armed conflict and a renewed spurt of terrorism. The lived experience of the vast majority of the people of the island who happen to be Sinhalese has seared into them the experience of having being retrieved from existential threats by rulers holding one designation: President.
The Sinhala majority feels the state was saved twice (three times, counting CBK’s ouster of Ranil in 2003) from terrorism and prime ministerial/parliamentary minoritarian sellout, precisely by Presidents it could and did vote for, namely CBK (1999), Mahinda (2005) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa (2019). Given that lived historical and existential experience, the Sinhala majority would shoot down at a referendum, any proposal to abolish the directly elected executive presidency.
Let’s unpack that, shall we?
The people were saved from the JVP terror of the late 1980s by an elected President, Ranasinghe Premadasa.
They were liberated from a foreign military presence also by President Premadasa.
They were saved from a giveaway of a de-facto separate state to the Tamil Tigers in the form of an Interim Self-Governing Administration, by President Chandrika’s ouster of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
They were saved from the marauding LTTE and Prabhakaran by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
They feel safer from Islamist jihadist terrorism because of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
They felt most insecure, saw the state most weakened, under Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
This being the case, why would anyone with a functioning brain, think that the Sinhala people would ever give a two-thirds majority to a party which they suspected would abolish the Presidency, and follow that up by voting in favor of abolition of the Presidency and empowering the Prime Minister and parliament instead, at a national referendum?
The name of the game is defeating Gotabaya Rajapaksa electorally, at the first possible opportunity, preventing him from getting a second term.
Which is easier, more feasible, more realistic? Bridging the gap between 42% and 52% (Nov 2019) at a presidential election (2024)? Or bridging the deficit between 52 seats and 150 in parliament (2020), i.e. securing a two-thirds majority in the House, at an election?
The second motif of the neoliberal intelligentsia is the opposition to the unitary form of state. This dangerously nonsensical. Sri Lanka is not the only country that is allergic to the term federal and continues to feel secure as a unitary state.
The soldiers who fought and finally defeated Prabhakaran and his Tigers, did not fight for only a united country but also for the unitary state. What kind of mentality could assume that a majority of people would actually vote for the abolition of the unitary state? The depth and width of public emotion over the definition ‘unitary’ is such that such a proposition, were it to appear close to squeaking, would trigger a military coup or majoritarian (counter)revolution.
Any deletion of the term “unitary” should be explicitly rejected by the New Opposition.
The democratic forces must also learn the correct lessons of the game-changing American election. The Biden-Harris win is a triumph of liberal-democracy but is not a triumph over ‘populism’. Biden ran as a liberal, moderate centrist with a populist appeal.
‘Populism’ is so named because it stems from the invocation of ‘the people’, rather than ‘classes’ as in Marxism, ‘race, religion, private enterprise’ as in neoconservative Rightism, and ‘markets, globalization, globalized elites’ as in neoliberal Rightism. The hallmark of populism is not that of a ‘strongman’ or ‘ultranationalism’. Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador is a populist but eschews the strongman style. SWRD Bandaranaike and Vijaya Kumaratunga were populists but not strongmen. Bolivia’s new president Luis Arce is left-populist but not ultranationalist.
The defining marker of Populism is discourse constructed around ‘the people vs. the (social and economic) elite’. ‘Amtrak Joe’ Biden’s key motifs were his social empathy, blue-collar appeal and folksy contrast between ‘Scranton’ (his hometown) and ‘Park Avenue’ (Trump’s milieu).
A liberal-centrist, Biden ran on a program characterized by Obama as the most progressive since Roosevelt’s New Deal. Trump denounced Biden as fronting for ‘the radical left’, ‘socialism’, and ‘communists’, a corny charge that resonated only in Florida, but attests to the populist-accented progressivism of the Biden-Harris platform.
Populism is like cholesterol: there are good and bad varieties. Populism with ultranationalism is bad, populism mixed with social democracy and moderate nationalism/inclusive patriotism is good. In his acceptance speech Biden disclosed that “I sought this office to restore the soul of America. To rebuild the backbone of the nation — the middle class”. Contrast this with the quarter-century electoral curse of Ranilism’s nihilistic deletion of ‘the nation’ and ‘the national’.
Lankan neoliberals, UNP or ex-UNP, hopelessly outdated as usual, must read Biden’s incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s article co-authored with Jennifer Harris in Foreign Policy (Feb 2020), billed ‘Neoliberalism is Finished’ and arguing that “America needs a new economic philosophy”.
The Opposition must have a populist platform of the ‘good cholesterol’ variety, a progressive ‘Premadasaist’ platform, to organically displace and replace the ideological hegemony of ultranationalist-militarist absolutism over the national and public imagination.