By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“There is great disorder under heaven. The situation is excellent!” —Mao Zedong
No Sri Lankan leader was willing to give India a footprint in Trincomalee harbor. No Sri Lankan leader for millennia was willing to give India a strategic base (in this case a dual use airport) in the island’s deep South, the Ruhuna. Ranil Wickremesinghe has done both. This on top of his protection of Prabhakaran from an LRRP hit on Dec 20th 2001 and his appeasement of the separatist Tamil Tigers during which Lakshman Kadirgamar was killed. Add to this the giant bond scam. All this makes Ranil one of the worst ever figures—the biggest knaves– in this island’s long history, and certainly the biggest knave in my lifetime. Leave alone the allegations of aiding and abetting crookedness, his treachery alone should make him a reviled figure throughout the generations to come. In short, he should be cursed by History.
Mercifully for this island, there are three people who can stop him in his treacherous tracks. One is President Maithripala Sirisena. He is best positioned to intervene at this moment. The others who are more include to do so, are not yet in power, are two heroes from the Ruhuna, one who is now on the march yet again ( as in 2005), and the other who is on the horizon. These heroes can, singly or together, liberate us from the Ranil curse. They are, in the first place Mahinda Rajapaksa and in the second, Gotabaya.
The road seems clear for a Mahinda Rajapaksa comeback. How so? The Supreme Court judgment suddenly shifted politics on its axis. The mere fact that the Presidential election is next year (2019) brings the prospect of the end of the Yahapalana model and policy regime closer.
The most recent Supreme Court ruling is not the end of the road for President Sirisena and perhaps not even for the Yahapalana experiment, but most certainly for the 2015-2017 Yahapalana model.
Either the present Yahapalana model ends after February 10th or the entire Yahapalana experiment and the Sirisena Presidency can end at the end of next year.
If President Sirisena wants to run for re-election he has to drop Ranil and Chandrika after February 10th and reposition himself in new centrist alliance with either (I) a reconfigured UNP, the SLFP and the JO, or (II) with the SLFP-SLPP/J and elements of the UNP.
If it is Scenario I, Mahinda Rajapaksa has to be accorded his rightful place as the Leader of the Opposition on Feb 11th and publicly pledged the Prime Ministership next year.
If it is Scenario II, Mahinda Rajapaksa has to be made Prime Minister after February 10th.
The road map draws itself clearly for the Mahinda-led JO/Pohottuwa:
Step 1. Win the Local Government elections or clearly dominate the Opposition space as the main anti-UNP force. Establish an alignment with the SLFP or not.
Step 2. Win the Provincial Council elections later this year or clearly dominate the Opposition space as the main anti-UNP force. Establish an alignment with the SLFP or not.
Step 3. Push in and outside of Parliament for the dissolution as per the 19th amendment when the four years are over, i.e. in August 2019, before the Presidential election.
Step 4. Amend the 19th amendment bringing it into line with international norms by retaining the two-term limit but establishing a bar only to a previous President contesting for a third consecutive term.
Step 5a. Endgame: Launch Mahinda as the Presidential candidate in November 2019.
Step 5b. Endgame: If Step 4 and Step 5a are not possible, launch ‘Operation Gota 2019’, with Mahinda as the main motor force and Prime Minister-designate with all the powers of the existing 19A.
The Establishment has to decide on whether it was a soft landing or a hard landing. As they say, we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way. The soft option or the hard option. There are two easy ways. One is a Sirisena-Mahinda Rajapaksa equation. The other is a Mahinda Rajapaksa restoration via the revision of 19A.
Then there is the hard way. Gota 2019: GR Next Year. It’s that close.
So it’s all good, except that the Left is failing to fulfil its full potential. It can learn from experiences as diverse as Nepal and Britain. If the JVP and FSP can present a united front under a collective leadership, incorporating student, worker and peasant organizations, Lankan politics would have a strong Left Opposition and government-in-waiting. This is an indispensable positive factor in any scenario whatsoever.
We have commenced Yahapalana Year 4. The third anniversary of Yahapalanaya is also the third anniversary of the defeat of the Rajapaksa regime. Both anniversaries coincide happily with the imminence of an island-wide election, the first since 2015. The Yahapalana government is also well past its halfway mark. The occasion therefore permits a reflection on Mahinda’s defeat, the record of Yahapalanaya and the prospects ahead, especially in the light of the upcoming election.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in January 2015 for pretty much the same reason that Winston Churchill lost in 1945 and De Gaulle felt constrained to step down in 1946 and again in the early 1950s. Both Churchill and de Gaulle made comebacks, as did Indira Gandhi, and Mahinda is doing so too (albeit in Muhammad Ali or ‘Rocky II’ style).
2018 is not 2015. Time has not worked in favor of the government. It is difficult to imagine that the electorate will reward the bond scam and a low growth economy with an electoral victory for the UNP.
At this election Mahinda’s victorious opponent of 2015, the Yahapalana bloc of January 2015 is split in three: UNP, SLFP, and JVP. The UNP is being attacked or criticized from all three sources, and is therefore, politically isolated. The JVP’s pronounced anti-UNP, anti-Ranil pivot is the best evidence of how far down the UNP has plummeted in popularity from January 2015 when the JVP was a de facto ally.
The most damning indictment of the Yahapalana story so far, did not come from the Joint Opposition or ultranationalist pressure groups, but from within the Government. Here too, it was not from the SLFP or a nationalist dissident within the UNP ( such as Wijayadasa Rajapakshe) but from the heir to the finest traditions of UNP liberal-conservatism, namely the great grandson of DS Senanayake, Hon. Vasantha Senanayake, State Minister for Foreign Affairs.
He was seen on TV news delivering the address at the FR Senanayake commemorative meeting, at which he dropped a bombshell saying that it seemed to him that “Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was being decided externally”. Senanayake went on to say that while Lord Naseby and Ian Paisley had courageously defended Sri Lanka in the British parliament, they were sniped at by influential elements in the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry. He ended his speech saying that he does not know how long he would be able to retain his present post.
DS Senanayake’s great grandson’s whistle-blowing was preceded a few months ago by JR Jayewardene grandson Pradip’s denunciatory interviews in which he said that under its present leadership the UNP had abandoned the core values of his grandfather’s party, beginning with the strong role of the state in the economy.
Whatever the result of the upcoming local election, anything short of an unambiguous victory for the UNP; any significant downswing in the government’s popularity—which is almost certain to be the outcome– will inevitably slow down and probably put a stop to the dangerous UNP ‘reform’ packages that are on the runway: implementation of the Geneva 2015 resolution on accountability; a new Constitution which is beyond the unitary state and ‘beyond federalism’ too (according to MA Sumanthiran); the sellout of Trincomalee and Mattala to India; the unleashing of free market forces throughout the economy and social sectors including higher education; and the rollback of progressive legislation on land and labor.
The results of the upcoming election will show just how close or far Mahinda Rajapaksa is from being the Prime Minister in 2020. Of course that could be sooner if there is an electoral seismic shock leading to a drastic re-composition of forces in Parliament after the local authorities’ election or the Provincial Council elections due later this year.
Certainly the Rajapaksa comeback project has a contradiction within it, but that is smaller than the contradiction that the UNP-CBK bloc faces. Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot run for President and therefore he faces a dilemma. Does he help push through a Constitutional reform that abolishes the executive Presidency?
That option is problematic because the hostility generated between the UNP and the JO/Pohottuwa is so intense that any collusion which shifts power from the SLFP’s President Sirisena to UNP leader and PM Ranil Wickremesinghe even temporarily, is going to be a hard sell among anti-UNP voters, though most Opposition activists would be captivated by the prospect of placing Mahinda within striking distance of the country’s leadership in 2020 by any constitutional means necessary. If the abolition of the executive Presidency is deemed by the Supreme Court to require a referendum, it is unlikely that the JO-SLPP and the UNP will find it comfortable to campaign on the same side, and for the JO to call for a YES vote for a UNP proposal against an SLFP incumbent. As Brexit showed, all it takes for the defeat of a proposition at a referendum, even if the proposition had bipartisan mainstream support, is an economically disaffected citizenry and some mavericks determinedly campaigning for a protest vote.
Mahinda has the option of pushing for a revision of the 19th amendment so as to restrict the restriction to two consecutive terms, as in Russia. He can do this if he musters support after winning the August 2020 parliamentary election and becoming the PM. But here too the problem is that the Presidential election is schedule to be held before– in November 2019– not after, the parliamentary election. So that looks like a dead end– which leaves either the removal of the executive presidency or the eventual naming of a successor as presidential candidate. That is, unless public pressure forces the dissolution of Parliament after the four year mark as permitted by the 19th amendment, making it August 2019, not 2020. In that scenario, Mahinda can revise the 19th amendment, lifting the ban on his Presidential candidacy.
The dilemma is far greater for the UNP. If it tries to abolish the executive Presidency, it opens up the prospect of a Ranil versus Mahinda fight for the country’s leadership in 2020. Not even the JVP’s promise of fielding Anura Kumara Dissanayake as Presidential candidate is going to significantly improve Ranil’s chances against a resurgent MR, a largely reunited SLFP or an SLPP-SLFP united front, and against the backdrop of a shrinking economy. Even in the best of circumstances, never once has Ranil beaten Mahinda, or anyone else for that matter, in a race for the leadership of the country.
This leaves the UNP with three, or two and half options. One is of recycling the 2015 formula and supporting President Sirisena. If President Sirisena has Ranil as his Prime Ministerial ‘running mate’, he will surely lose in 2020, though he stands a chance if he has Mahinda, Gotabaya or Chamal, or the UNP’s Sajith Premadasa, as Prime Ministerial candidate.
The UNP’s second option is running Ranil as presidential candidate against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Dinesh Gunawardena or Chamal Rajapaksa. The third and final option for the UNP is running a non-Ranil candidate e.g. Sajith. Sajith will indubitably stand a better chance than Ranil, but he has chosen not to be the conspicuous patriotic-populist dissident within the UNP that his father was, and therefore it is unlikely that he or any UNP candidate will be able to survive the anti-government pendulum swing of 2020.
The UNP has, as we have just outlined, hardly any viable options in 2020, even if manages to perform adequately at the upcoming local elections. Conversely, unlike the UNP, the SLFP has several options in 2020, however badly it may fare at the upcoming local authorities’ election. The SLFP can opt for (I) a Sirisena-Rajapaksa ticket or (II) a Gotabaya, Dinesh or Chamal candidacy or (III) abolish the presidency and rally round Mahinda as the Prime Ministerial candidate.
The IMF has just called for ‘structural and state reform’ by Sri Lanka. The Indian Army chief declares that India must “not allow” Sri Lanka and other neighbors to “drift towards China”. The UNP’s plans to Indianize the Trincomalee-Mannar-Mattala triangle.
In a striking counterpoint, addressing from LA via Skype an electoral town-hall meeting with a Pohottuwa billboard as backdrop, Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared that “the present government is taking its development cues from the IMF, World Bank and a West in crisis and decline, but Sri Lanka should follow instead the developmental experience of Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan and above all, China.” He offers a vision of an alternative (East) Asian modernity.
The Yahapalana strategists can comfort themselves with the tale that a solid phalanx of the combined minorities can beat a Gotabhaya presidential candidacy. The huge flaw in that calculation is that it assumes that the UNP’s base vote remains intact and overlooks the enormous swing of UNP votes, especially Sinhala Buddhist UNP votes, that a Gotabhaya candidacy can secure, which, together with the reunified SLFP vote, can more than offset the projected loss of the minorities.
The hegemonic moment of the neoliberal globalist project of January 2015 has long evaporated, the hegemonic model sought to be erected has been blocked. The strategic counter offensive by the nationalist-populist forces has begun and will crest in 2020.