By Uditha Devapriya –
Could it have been otherwise? The Podu Jana Peramuna has swept the boards, claiming bigger majorities where they scored heavily last November (predominantly in the South), conceding (in VERY few cases) reduced majorities or outright defeat to the Samagi Jana Balavegaya in others, and bringing the circle to its end by crushing the United National Party to third or fourth, sometimes fifth or sixth place. The JVP under its new avatar, the NPP, has retained three seats. But its standing has certainly diminished: its brightest stalwart, Sunil Handunhetti, is out, signalling the end of a colourful 22 year career.
What happened? What’s been happening over the last six years, of course. If the November election results signalled the electorate’s rejection of the yahapalana program, the August election results confirmed that that electorate (which has, as the numbers clearly show, grown by a not insignificant amount) accepts, and affirms, the program Gotabaya Rajapaksa has brought in its place. By its relegation of the SJB to second place, and its repudiation of the UNP, it has also signalled that it prefers a youthful-populist movement in the opposition, in place of an archaic neoliberal ideology that’s making an exit even in the countries of its origin. It’s the squaring of a circle, come to think of it: continuity of the present regime, disruption in the opposition. This is not just a volte-face; it’s a paradigm shift. Surely, things can never be the same again. Not the day after, not the year after.
The results confirmed one more thing: the suburban demographic that supported Gotabaya last year has not let go of him. In areas where it rallied a Sinhala middle and lower middle class last year, the Pohottuwa won hands down, again. Kesbewa, Maharagama, Homagama, and Ratmalana: even the more cosmopolitan suburbs gave overwhelming majorities to Gotabaya, signalling, as it did in 2019, a turnaround on the part of a growing self-employed and middle level professional class fed up with the previous regime’s sell-outs, kowtows, and inconsistencies. This is not Sinhala Buddhist heartland, folks; it’s bordering on the city, comprising a milieu that might well turn the other way around if the SJB gets its game right. It’s Viyath Maga territory, which means that if the promise Viyath Maga made – of restoring the country’s dignity while satisfying a nationalist middle class’s economic aspirations – are not made, it’s a matter of time before they defect to the other side.
The Southern constituencies were always going to go to the lotus bud, and it did with much bigger majorities. Even Galle town, usually a UNP stronghold (it was the only major Southern polling division Sajith won in November), came to the SLPP with a 9,000 lead this time: it had lost to the UNP here by a mere 140 votes last year. Beyond Galle, Sinhala Buddhist turf: not just anti-UNP. but also anti-anything-UNP: including, of course, Sajith.
The biggest challenge for the new oppositional alliance will thus be to convince the Southern electorate to support it next time. In 2015 the neoliberal Right, with a section of the UPFA, managed to divide it. That is not going to happen a second time, unless those contesting against the incumbent prove themselves as receptive to the people who live in these heartlands. The same, incidentally, goes for other Sinhala Buddhist strongholds; even Kurunegala, where, contrary to expectations, not even the demolition of a historical site built by a hallowed, celebrated king could prevent people from handing a majority to the ruling party. To those who thought the tide would turn here, think again.
Tactically, and strategically, the SJB may find it easier to wean away the middle class next time. With Sinhala Buddhist strongholds, particularly in Mahinda territory – from Galle to Hambantota – however, the task will be difficult twice over: because of the electorate’s hostility to the UNP and anything-UNP, but also because of a surge in Sinhala nationalism among younger sections of the population post-Easter 2019.
I do not see this latter surge as necessarily good, or for that matter necessarily bad; normative considerations aside, it’s a reality, and the only way the SJB is going to triumph over it is not by cosmetic gestures to the Sinhala Buddhist community, but by real, patriotic gestures which go a long way in assuaging their fears. For those fears are real: they have been fermented, and only casually addressed, by anti-Sinhala rhetoric that’s become the stuff of neoliberal governments here since 1994.
Cosmetic gestures of the sort that the neoliberal Right has been making for some time now, particularly after 2015, will not break down but rather only harden their feelings of hostility towards the anti-Rajapaksa bloc. To take an analogy from over half a century ago, the third Dudley Senanayake government (1965-1970) showered the Buddhist clergy and Sinhala Buddhist Right with one cosmetic after another (including a fleet of chauffeur-driven luxury cars for the Mahanayakes), but failed to address more urgent economic and ideological concerns (including the Vietnam War, which, as Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed out, meant a great deal for the local Buddhist population). The result was its trouncing by a centre-left Marxist coalition, one which, against all expectations, also won Catholic strongholds, just as the SLPP did – in Negombo, Wattala, Ja-Ela, Katana, and Moratuwa – this time.
The north and east have seen it go both ways. The SLFP, contesting as a single entity in place of the SLPP, has beaten the SJB and the TNA in several polling divisions, while the TNA’s dominance has been checked by the rise of the Ponnambalam (ACTC), Wigneswaran (TMTK), Devananda (EPDP), and Karuna (TMVP) groups.
Given these conjunctures, only the most starry-eyed commentator would have openly cheered the UNP. Thrashed by the SLPP in November 2019, and at Local Government level in 2018, the Grand Old Party – supported now, no doubt, by only a diehard Kolombian base – has been rejected by the populist sections from within its own ranks: the final nail on the coffin, a surgical incision from within.
Here I’m not just talking about the Dilip Wedaarachchis and the Harin Fernandos and the Ajith Pereras and the Harshana Rajakarunas, whose populist chest-thumping the UNP can’t really match; I’m also talking about the Harsha de Silvas and the Eran Wickramaratnes, who had to suffer as second fiddles under an old cabal in the previous regime but who now, with what little they were able to do while in that regime (think of Harsha’s Suwa Seriya, which Ranil Wickremesinghe inaccurately, though not altogether wrongly, credited to himself in his campaign ads), can bring in credibility to the new party. Whether or not Sajith returns to the UNP as its leader, only time will tell. But the portents are clear: what we’re seeing now is the biggest turnaround in the UNP since Ranil took over in 1994.
Quoting Dayan Jayatilleka, “this was a long time coming.” After the 2018 Local Government election, I argued that the anger of the people spoke, in no small measure, because the coalition was mired in a fatal contradiction: its social democratic roots, an inheritance from the SLFP, clashed with a compradore-elitist wing represented by Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mangala Samaraweera, and Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The problem with the avowedly political-liberal base of the Ranil-Mangala-Chandrika troika – with its championing of individual rights, its opposition to discrimination, and its campaign to reduce presidential powers while concurrently setting up independent commissions and enforcing other checks and balances – was that a) it seemed a world apart from its economic program – “our policy of liberalising and globalising” as Mangala summed it up in his 2017 Budget Speech – and b) it failed to resolve, if not address, fears over the bartering of our sovereignty and the Americanisation of our foreign policy.
The UNP committed blunder after blunder on the domestic-economic and foreign policy front because of this contradiction. The SJB, pitted against that front, has spoken as a far more credible opposition group by beating it. The new opposition has conceded the need for an alternative paradigm, one which coheres more with the Joint Opposition’s populist roots than with either the UNP’s compradore base or the SLPP’s centre-right outlook. For now, however, the people have decided that that centre-right outlook will take the country forward. For now at least, they have signalled that they’re comfortable with it.
The night of the yahapalanists is over, for both sides. This is the morning after.