By Dayan Jayatilleka –
A famous soliloquy in the history of Hollywood movies in Don Siegel’s iconic film Dirty Harry begins with Clint Eastwood, playing Inspector Harry Callahan says “I know what you’re thinking— did he fire six shots or only five…” In similar vein I can tell what the strategists of the Opposition are thinking after the Provincial Council election: “when we add the total vote of the ethnic and religious minorities to the 25% plus that the UNP has got, we can get the 50.1% we need to beat Mahinda Rajapaksa”.
In that movie scene, Dirty Harry went on to add a qualifier: “but seein’ as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and could blow your head clean off, there’s one question you’ve gotta ask yourself— do you feel lucky?” My response to the Opposition’s calculation is a similar one: “but seein’ as this will be a Presidential election, which is a popularity duel for leadership of the country, and you’re fielding Ranil Wickremesinghe against Mahinda Rajapaksa, there’s just one question you’ve gotta ask yourself— do you feel lucky?”
All the post-election analyses I read from the critics, tell me that they either do not know or have forgotten what Trotsky said about politics, namely that arithmetic is trumped by higher algebra. The higher algebra is that the Sri Lankan system is presidential, not parliamentary, and while the result of the PC election may be a pointer to future trends, it is far likelier to be indicative of parliamentary trends than the prospects at a Presidential election. The socio-psychological dynamics are quite different in a contest between two candidates for the top spot; for the leadership of the country. This does not mean that Mahinda Rajapaksa is unbeatable. He can certainly be given a run for his money and may even be beatable, but certainly not by Ranil Wickremesinghe who has seen a slight drop in the performance of his party and caused a significant drop of 5,000 votes in his party’s performance in his own Colombo Central, while the most significant improvement in his party’s performance has been spearheaded by his obvious rival for party leadership.
The Government has declined noticeably in its popularity, but the UNP has not only failed to gain, it has a huge gap to bridge between itself and the Government’s percentage of votes. Most dramatic is the fact that the gap between the UNP and the Government, which is 30% plus, is a greater percentage than the votes polled by the UNP. This means that in order to beat the Government the UNP would have to more than double its vote.
The counterargument is of course, that the Opposition would combine, but that’s hardly self evident. It is highly unlikely that Ranil Wickremesinghe could unite the Opposition and even if he were to do so, such a united opposition would see a drastic abstention by voters or even a shift to the incumbent, if the choice put before the electorate were Ranil vs. Mahinda.
The other argument is that even if the only vote that Ranil could count on is the 25% the UNP got this time, the minority bloc vote would see him through. It is here that Trotsky’s point about politics being higher algebra rather than simple arithmetic is relevant. Those who voted for the UNP’s candidates at a provincial election are less likely to vote for Ranil at a Presidential election. He is also unlikely to pull in votes that have gone to the smaller opposition parties— after all if those votes went to those parties, they did so at least in part as recoil from Ranil, and are unlikely to return. Most importantly, a Presidential candidate with a fairly conspicuously minoritarian profile such as Ranil (or Chandrika) are likely to trigger a pan-Sinhala slide towards Mahinda, as compensation for the swing of minority voters to his opponent. It is a toss-up as to who would do better, or less badly, Ranil or Chandrika—because CBK may not be able to pull out the UNP vote.
None of this means that the project of a joint opposition is untenable or that President Rajapaksa cannot be given a run for his money. This can be done either by a common candidate or the candidate who can revitalise the UNP, attract the votes of the other opposition parties at a Presidential election and bring back the voters who stayed home.
The problem with picking Gen Fonseka as the common candidate would be that the government can mount a legal challenge by proxy and this would snarl up the election campaign, culminating, in all likelihood, in a courtroom decision in the government’s favour. (In retrospect, the entire impeachment move seems more a pre-emptive strike with this Fonseka contingency in mind, than a move aimed at securing the passage of Divi Neguma).
Who this might be is evidenced by the results of the Provincial election itself, but is not remarked upon by the UNP in its official responses to the results. Perhaps the most dramatic single result was in Hambantota, and here too in Tissamaharama, the deepest of the Deep South. Not only did the ruling party and the ruling family experience a decline, but the UNP actually gained 10,000 votes (10%). This was the achievement of a young politician who was fighting on two fronts, one against the Rajapaksa machine and the other against the UNP establishment which attempted to isolate him and his campaign. Yet he did much better, comparatively speaking, than Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo.
If Ranil registered a decline in Colombo Central, the UNP’s citadel, how poorly will he perform in the Sinhala Buddhist heartland at a Presidential election and how poorly will the UNP do at a parliamentary election under his leadership?
Conversely, and logically, if Sajith did so creditably against the Rajapaksa machine in the heart of the Rajapaksa Rajjya itself, how well will he not fare in those areas of the country which are not Rajapaksa fiefdoms? How well will the UNP and the Opposition do at a parliamentary election under his leadership?
The Government has lessons to learn as well. Patriotism works electorally — and one wonder what the voting figures would have been without the Geneva factor—but it works best when it is felt that one is successfully resisting against the enemy or is putting up a good fight. That wasn’t the case with Geneva this time or the past three years. On the contrary, patriotism is either neutralised or works against a government if the public perceives that it is unsuccessful or not putting up a valiant fight commensurate with the nation’s self-respect. As the OHCHR international inquiry starts its insolent probe and Tamil Nadu opens a second front of pressure after the Indian election, patriotism can cut both ways.
The second lesson for the Government was the top spot that young Hirunika Premachandra won, nudging the prominent personality of a Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist party backed openly by the powerful Secretary of Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Hirunika, who secured the patronage of President Rajapaksa as well as the backing of senior SLFPers projected a youthful re-mix of the traditional centre-left SLFP/UPFA and won. This is a clear signal to the government that it should shift from the Sinhala extreme right, back to the progressive centre.
Thirdly, the Rajapaksa administration should recall the lessons of the decline of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration of 1970-77. It was not so much the unpopularity of the Prime Minister, but that of nepotism, of the family tree, or ‘family bandyism’ as JRJ put it, as well as the polarising and alienating role played by the family strongman, Felix Dias Bandaranaike. The contemporary parallels are quite evident. The economic hardship that finally wrecked the Bandaranaike regime could have its contemporary equivalent when an economic squeeze is imposed by legislatures in the West after the High Commissioner’s Office issues its report. The Rajapaksa government should strengthen itself politically by re-profiling and broad-basing itself, starting with the appointment of the party’s Gen Secretary Maithripala Sirisena as Prime Minister.