By Uditha Devapriya –
The government and what remains of the opposition will be going out to the polls in a month’s time. Freed from lockdowns and curfews, candidates are already organising small scale rallies, challenging opponents, and racking up one controversy after another. Harin Fernando’s “harangue” against the Cardinal, and the backlash against it by his party and his former party as well as the regime, won’t be the last of its kind: expect more slipups, more faux pas, and more baying of blood over statements and remarks. In that scheme of things, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa – the leading faces of the only parties that will matter – have their own strengths and weaknesses.
For starters, take the government. No ruling party in recent memory has faced the incumbent edge Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s SLPP faces today. Certain unpalatable facts and points must be acknowledged here. The ruling party controls State media. It’s supported, tacitly if not (often) openly, by sections of the private media also. It has tapped into the people’s need for security at a time of uncertainty and, regardless of its flawed handling of the lockdowns, it has emerged from the three pandemic months unscratched and unscathed. Rajapaksa’s blend of populism and authoritarianism, of rigid force and rationality, may not be and indeed isn’t to everyone’s liking, yet it has arguably delivered results with regard to the contagion. If the government is tipped to win the upcoming elections – which we can’t say for sure, since anything can happen – it’s partly because of this perception of it fed to the people by the media. And yet, despite this, the regime is not without its weaknesses.
Its biggest weakness is an unending, unyielding resort to militaristic rhetoric and, very often, action. The president’s press briefings show this only too clearly: the message they give out, inadvertently, is that without his intervention and directives, the local administration and bureaucracy will remain indecisive, incapable, and incompetent. Instead of a harmonious relationship between the man at the top and his officials, what we’re seeing is a relationship rooted in conflict and confrontation. This does not bode well for any country, let alone a country like ours, and it certainly can’t be sustained for long. And yet, that is the image of the present administration that administration has, for better or worse, created for itself: elected and appointed officials have to rely on the president, and if they don’t toe the line they will be publicly humiliated. It’s pertinent that his harsh rebukes of officials on TV have earned praise not only from party supporters, but also supporters of the UNP and the SJB. In fact given the level of public distrust with the bureaucracy, such interventions by the Executive are welcomed; overwhelmingly by the professional middle class that, interestingly, has the biggest gripe with the bureaucracy. However, this does not and cannot marginalise any legitimate criticism of the president’s quasi-militaristic tongue-lashings.
Apart from the unintended consequences of these tongue-lashings – for instance, the Central Bank’s decision to cut the Statutory Reserve Requirement (the SRR) from four to two percent– we’re seeing here the shape of things to come after the polls: if there isn’t a harmonious relationship between the Executive and the State apparatus, how can we expect a similar relationship between the Executive and his Cabinet? Assuming that all the president’s men – the Viyath Maga coterie plus the educated professionals from the SLPP – gain positions in that Cabinet, this still leaves enough room and space for incompetents in parliament, perfectly normal in a context where populist candidates, regardless of qualifications and experience, can easily get elected. The SLPP, let’s not forget here, is not housed by Viyath Maga: it’s housed by the same populists and rabble-rousers even SLPP voters are trying to get out. Obviously not every rabble-rouser in the party will get ousted by Viyath Maga; of those who remain, we can thus expect to see conflicts with the president. Does that augur well for any elected government, whatever its ideological orientation?
Project Gotabaya seemed destined, when the first Viyath Maga seminars were held four years ago, to jettison the Joint Opposition. The two were founded on conceptually different ideologies, and it’s no coincidence that they reflect the dominant passions of the two Rajapaksa brothers: the populist JO headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the professional Viyath Maga-Eliya (VME) headed by Gotabaya. In its emulation of the technocracy movement in the US and Canada, which was founded on the same principles (that politicians should be replaced by professionals, especially entrepreneurs, scientists, and technical experts) against the same backdrop (a period of growing resentment against neoliberal economic policies and internationalism), VYE made use of the public’s distrust with the bureaucracy, a sentiment widely shared among the middle class of this country. In fact the role of populist in last year’s presidential election fell on Sajith Premadasa mainly because the VYE factor made the SLPP’s and SLFP’s pandering to populist rhetoric obsolete. It had another social milieu to tap into; as I wrote then, Gotabaya found his way to the good books of the suburban middle class through VYE, and the rural electorate through his brother. The question is, can the government overcome the disjuncture between the Executive and the State apparatus that has arisen because of this duality?
If the contradiction within the government is between its populist roots and technocratic thrust, the contradiction within the opposition – the SJB – is between its desire to carve a new movement and its tendency to emulate the ideology of the ruling party. This contradiction has congealed, the way I see it, in the SJB’s and the UNP’s response to Mangala Samaraweera, the bête noire of populist race-baiting politicos in the country. Ostensibly Samaraweera’s exit from the SJB was not unexpected, and he has cited personal reasons for his decision to get out. But reliable political sources confirm what we already know: his exit from the SJB points at his departure from the direction its leader has been taking since the UNP’s defeat last year. (The UNP itself has not taken kindly to Samaraweera’s brand of targeted criticisms of Sinhala Buddhist populism.) For his part, the former minister has chided the SJB: many in it, one source quotes him, “were not too comfortable with my liberal democratic values and some want the front to be a poor imitation of the SLPP.” He adds, according to the source, that the party should forge “a distinct identity based on its UNP roots.” In other words he welcomes the SJB, but only insofar as it echoes the founding principles of its parent.
Interestingly enough, Samaraweera’s thinly veiled critique tells us more about the quagmire the SJB outfit is waist-deep in than what its representatives are saying. The critique is mired in enough and more contradictions in themselves: among these, his incredible view that UNP policies were “at their zenith” during John Kotelawala’s tenure (when all that regime, arguably more unpopular than even Ranil’s premiership, could achieve was a deterioration of the same liberal democratic values the ex-Minister champions) and his extolling of the “valiant attempts” by J. R. Jayewardene to put out “the terrible genie” of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism (when it was during that regime that this terrible genie manifested itself in its most militant form: the 1977 riots, the 1983 pogroms, the Jaffna Library burning, and the deployment of chauvinist vigilante groups, all conveniently brushed aside in the ex-Minister’s narrative). I will explore this later; its relevance to the SJB’s present crisis is that it reveals the distance between the UNP’s elitist roots and the SJB’s populist thrust.
Call me optimistic, but between the government’s contradiction – populist roots versus technocratic thrust – and the opposition’s contradiction – elitist roots versus populist thrust – the SJB has a better chance, I think, of making it. What is now, for now, the government’s popularity can well become its Achilles heel if the rift between the president and the State apparatus is not resolved. On the other hand, the Sajith factor can be a potential for parties to aspire to. The Joint Opposition, in its rebellion against the SLFP after 2015, did not, strictly speaking, fit the model of a populist party breaking away from an elitist one: it was more a populist faction of a populist party rebelling against the latter’s co-opting by an elitist one. The SJB’s defiance of the UNP, on the other hand, fits the populist-versus-elitist model better. The SJB is in its infancy today, and while it may not be to the liking of those, like Mangala Samaraweera, who want it to deny its pro-Sinhala Buddhist tilt (the ex-Minister of course forgets that this tilt has not come about at the cost of the SJB’s commitment to a multiethnic polity; he views popular nationalism and multiculturalism as polar opposites), it shows a more dignified way forward for an opposition than the “liberal democratic” values of any parent party. On the SJB, thus, rests the future of a viable, democratic opposition in this country.