By Dayan Jayatilleka –
I suppose it takes the Sri Lankan Opposition to make the slogan of a common candidate, a source of fissure and the search for unity a source of division. But that’s Sri Lanka, or rather, that’s the Sri Lankan Opposition. It would be fun to have good old CBK as common candidate though I doubt that even the Sri Lankan Opposition is going to do something that corny. CBK would be an entertaining, hard hitting public speaker on a broad opposition platform. As candidate though, she’d be able to achieve something really difficult: poll far fewer votes than even Ranil Wickremesinghe. Not many could match that, unless you count the good Rev Sobitha. CBK is that out of sync with the zeitgeist.
Chandrika can peel off some SLFP MPs but she cannot break the SLFP voters away from Mahinda Rajapaksa. She may have a few barons but not the SLFP serfs, who are accustomed to loyally serving whichever ‘royal’ family runs the party. In any case, the SLFP grassroots actually like and respect Mahinda Rajapaksa much more than they do the deposed queen.
President Rajapaksa will be re-elected this time, despite economic disaffection and even if the entire electoral process were to be freely observed by, say, the Commonwealth, because of the factor of ideological and cultural hegemony (to use Gramscian terminology), i.e. the impression and impact he has made he has on the nation’s consciousness. While that hegemony is mightily disseminated and reproduced by the State’s ideological apparatuses, that factor of agency is not the secret of his ideological-cultural hegemony. The secret of that hegemony is that he has a mode and message, a demeanor and discourse that are organic (if one may lapse again into Gramscianism)—far more so than that of the opposition parties, jointly or singly.
This doesn’t mean that there is no significant discontent over economic and governance issues. What this does mean is that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mode and message succeeds in transcending or deflecting this disaffection away from himself, in the popular consciousness. His image and discourse constitute Kevlar body armor. This isn’t magic. If electoral change could be read off from economic disaffection, most of the world would have leftwing or left of center governments, but the status quo is protected by thicker walls of consciousness and it takes enormous ideological and cultural labor and resultant political re-positioning to translate economic disaffection into regime change.
In Sri Lanka there is a half successful experiment the Opposition could have built upon but will not. That is the almost scientific process of the emergence of an antibody that has been going on for fourteen years in Hambantota, where young Premadasa has faced the Rajapaksas as electoral opponents in their own heartland, held his own and even raised the UNP’s percentage to the cost of the Rajapaksas’ own. That is nothing less than the generation of an effective antibody from within the Rajapaksa ideology. Now as in medicine, an antibody does not a serum make—much more work has to go into it to fashion the necessary synthesis to prevail over the dominant organism. But it is the indispensable basis for an effective serum.
The so-called joint opposition has chosen to ignore this sustained if limited success story of Hambantota. Instead it has chosen to foreground a platform of constitutional change. The contrast with Mahinda’s appeal could not be starker. His appeal is profoundly social and personal at one and the same time. The Opposition’s pitch is neither. Mahinda’s vibe is one of strength and warmth. The Opposition’s platform is bloodless, disembodied, top-down. Mahinda is organic (as is Sajith Premadasa). The opposition platform is dis-organic.
The Opposition’s platform is also easy to dismantle. When a party that introduced and had enjoyed Presidential office for 17 years ( the UNP), and is run by someone who is a failed presidential candidate twice over ( Ranil), is joined by a two term ex-President (CBK), in denouncing the presidential system and pledging its abolition, it comes across as a clear case of sour grapes rather than enlightened reform.
As for the pathetically illogical counter argument that the Presidential system was OK until the abolition of the term limits and the independent commissions, surely the remedy is to reintroduce the term limits and the independent commissions, abolishing the 18th amendment, rather than the Presidential system itself.
The people have no stated or manifested problem with the Presidential system. What the Opposition fails to get is that the masses like and trust their elected Presidents much more than they do the parliamentary representatives. The people are not going to transfer power from the Presidency to a probable bickering bunch of parliamentarians. Nor are they going to risk the whip hand in a divided legislature being held by the fickle TNA and SLMC.
The people do have a problem with bad governance, cronyism, nepotism and economic hardship. The Opposition’s manifesto does not foreground these issues and suggest a credible solution.
Mahinda is closer the sentiments of the people than is the Opposition. He strikes a more positive chord. He resonates. By contrast, the opposition’s platform is pretty much a Colombo civil society construct. That, and not the 18th amendment, is why he is going to win.
The parliamentary election could however, be a different ballgame, especially if the UNP is under a different leadership; an organic one positioned in the centre-space between the alternatives of Mahinda’s conservative nationalist-populism and the JVP’s radical populism.