14 July, 2020

Blog

The SLPP & The SJB: Which Way Forward?

By Uditha Devapriya

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.

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Latest comments

  • 6
    1

    This is turning out to be a pus-vedilla [ a damp squib of a general election.? ]
    =
    The voters have got better things to worry about especially as to where their next meal is coming from many mundane issues.?
    =
    These numerous issues should help the SJB along with the numerous opposition parties to greedily eat into the seats that the crime specializing SLPP hope to obtain by hook or crook.?
    =
    Both parties reek of racist Sinhala Buddhist petty-minded racism but the SBJ along with the opposition parties have a better breed of candidates who can make mincemeat out of their erstwhile SLPP boru hora rivals.
    =
    Even if the crooked to the core SLPP get first into the winning post they must never be given the chances to obtain the much-desired dream of a 2/3rd majority.?
    =
    Up with the SBJ/ UNP and other parties alliances and down into the bog in the sewer cesspit for the SLPP/SLFP misfits.

    • 7
      1

      Dnk. rj1952,
      .
      There is no competition you idiot.
      This is just one horse race.
      .
      SJB (Not SBJ as you say. Learn the correct name first) is just going through the motions of a election. Harin and Mangala is always there to cut SP’s legs out.
      SP will be looking for a new job after election. Post of Opposition Leader is already gone.
      There is no way SP can fight UNP backed by RK’s bond money and RW’s Colombo league.
      .
      UNP / RK / RW’s aim is to survive the election. And build UNP with new blood. Just look at the nomination list (If you can read that is).
      .
      Minority parties will support GR after the election for survival. There is no way they can survive without power perks for their support base.
      .
      Red branch of UNP (Namely AKD’s JVP) doomed for good.
      .
      You idiots can cry some more in CT for another 4 + 5 years. May be indefinitely.
      .
      Have a nice time.

      • 2
        0

        Pasky the pest –
        I might have made a typographical error but its not the end of the world.
        =
        I am told that you being a supplier in the red light district in Germany am not aware of what’s actually taking place in the motherland.?
        =
        To call me an idiot, you are recognising yourself.?
        =
        You are one of the foursomes on this forum, who’s assured of containing many a dislike due to your obnoxious comments supporting a bunch of nation eating petty murdering criminals.
        =
        Have you ever scored any positive likes.?
        =
        The best you can do for yourself and to the rest of the world is to get into your birthday suit stand in front of a full-sized mirror ascertain for yourself whether your liabilities make it worthwhile to be one of one most disliked morons on this wonderful planet of ours.?
        =
        if you need the most potent medication to get rid of yourself from being an undesirable plague of a pest please ask me to provide you a vial or two of Velu Anna’s most potent death guaranteed CYANIDE capsules.?
        =
        Ask and you shall be given is our policy.

      • 3
        0

        S. C. Passqual

        By any chance you have changed your name from Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena to S. C. Passqual and your vocation from astrologer to Gota’s b***s carrier.
        No harm in both actions.

  • 10
    2

    The answer is simple.

    SJB is backed by Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Islamic voters.
    SLPP is backed only by Buddhists.

    If the aim is unity and peace, SJB is the only choice.
    If the aim is a mono-ethnic nation then the choice is SLPP.

    • 2
      3

      Mr. GATAM,
      .
      A dog, a dog, my opposition leader post for a dog.
      .
      – Sajith Premadasa
      – After 2020 general election.

  • 3
    3

    Both SLPP and SJB are still confused.

    Populist Mahinda and Authoritarian Gota could not co- exist for long.

    Parting of ways will come soon.

    Sibling rivalry or not two conflicting personalities cannot work together for long.

    On the other hand,SJB is still not settled, they are still in a fluid state.

    When it is settled, it will be too late.

    Difficult days are ahead!
    Sri

  • 4
    0

    A relationship rooted in conflict and confrontation does not bode well for any country, and it certainly can’t be sustained for long is precise and precious.

  • 3
    0

    A dignified way of saying that the SJB is not a Sinhala
    /Buddhist only party. Wait till the election draws nearer.

  • 3
    0

    Uditha,
    Your comparative analysis of Strengths and weaknesses of SLPP and SJB is theoretically good but in practice how both are going to use the opportunities and threats are very important. There is a difference between presidential election and parliamentary election. In Presidential election, SLPP got 52% and 48% was against to him. So, SLPP need to convert this 52% to 67% to get two third majority. Without that majority, they can’t get rid of 19th amendment. They fully rely on Buddhist Sinhala votes. Their continued anti minority policy and the actions they took during the past six months shows that they have not changed their tactics and strengthened their anti minority policies. On the hand SJB is divided and Ranil is a threat to SJB. It appears Ranil motive is to reduce the possibility of getting more Sinhala votes. Even though TNA is not going to support SJB, Tamils voters are not going to support SLPP. However, it is a difficult task for maintain the Buddhist Sinhala voters and there are some opportunities to exploit Kauna issue, Cricket issue, Hisbullah issue, US MCC issue etc. Their propaganda machine should focus on the threat to the true Buddhism by SLPP, threat to democracy, threat to Government servants etc.

    • 4
      0

      Ajith
      “So, SLPP need to convert this 52% to 67% to get two third majority.”
      *
      Despite district wise PR, one does not need 67% of the votes to secure 67% of the seats.
      Even without opposition votes scattered as now, even 55% of the votes could secure a strong party pretty close to 2/3 of the seats. Your arithmetic of 67% of the vote will perhaps be more valid in a two-horse race.
      There is also the prospect of horse trading.
      *
      The opposition parties will need to make some electoral compromise adjustment.
      It is a tall order under the PR scheme.
      Even otherwise too much to expect of them.
      Their priorities are not the same as yours.

      • 0
        0

        SJ,
        You are right. I have completely forgotten about Districtwise proportional system.
        Thanks.

  • 2
    0

    It was the late Dr. W. Dahanayake who once told politics is “podi tricks” (small tricks). Politicians, like frogs jump here and there in this country. Opportunism is at its highest. It is not one’s writing prowess that matter loading a set of words covering a mass of facts. What matters is the lessons Sri Lanka can learn. Political system in Sri Lanka at the moment borders to a failed state if not a failed state. We may not have voted for people to be in power but using words if we can appeal to their senses, if any, for the good of the country, then we perhaps have achieved something.

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