Colombo Telegraph

The UPFA’s Chronic Crisis: What Next?

By Kumar David

Prof Kumar David

It is astounding that the crisis now tearing the government apart is about the national question. All of us radicals and liberals have theorised that the Sinhala political classes would never risk the wrath of the Sinhala-Buddhist masses by standing up for Tamil rights. What on earth is happening now? The last four weeks have been amazing. It will teach as all to stand aside and bow our heads in humility before history’s complexity and uncertainty. Frailty, sometimes thy name is history!

The crisis in the UPFA, the government, and the Cabinet, is manifest in the political domain. It gives the appearance of having burst out unexpectedly on conflicts about the NP-PC elections and 13A. This view is incomplete; the economy totters and the government’s future on current account, debt and fiscal deficit is perilous; secondly, the hens are coming to roost in the international arena; the Rajapakses have lost the plot on how to deal with India and the international community. Instability on these two fronts underpins the restlessness in the political domain; government MPs and UPFA partner parties fear that they are on a sticky wicket.

A dissident core is congealing inside the government. This is sprouting as two shoots; the left parties in the UPFA and the SLMC, and radical-democrats within the SLFP. This twin manifestation is what I call a left-and-democratic caucus. This is no flash in the pan or ephemeral transaction. Tissa, DEW, Vasu and Hakeem have gone too far in defence of devolution to retreat. They may compromise but they cannot fall short of a reasonable degree of autonomy for Tamils and Muslims. The President has retreated, and for and for the time being conceded a walkover, but his chauvinist wing is seething and his brother Gota is on record against NP-PC elections before castrating 13A. A backlash is in the making, sooner probably than later.

The other emerging shoot entwined with the left and SLMC is what I call the radical-democrats in the SLFP; Rathitha, Dilhan, Cooray and others who don’t want their names mentioned yet. The “fed up with the Rajapakses” tendency numbers some 38 MPs in the government parliamentary group according to Douglas. A key factor about the leading radical-democrats, but not all anti-Rajapakse SLFPers, is concern for the welfare of Tamils and Muslims. The siblings have no one but themselves, and their obnoxious conduct over the years to blame for anti-Rajapakse antipathy in the UPFA. When Chandrika plays her hand, which she probably will in the coming months, the siblings will find themselves isolated in the party; their residual legions will mainly be alleged drug lords, murderers and rapists.

Social-democracy on the horizon

I have so far described what I call a left-and-democratic issue-oriented caucus. Then what do I mean by a social-democratic alliance? This is what the next stage may be if this issue-oriented caucus evolves in a programmatic direction. I believe the chances of this happening are fairly high. Otherwise, what’s their alternative? Are these radicals going to go up to a point, and then suddenly stop, like coitus-interruptus? If they fail to see their own initiative through to its logical conclusion, the extremist will hound them until they capitulate; so they have little choice.

If they capitulate, they are but a passing storm in a teacup; after a little turbulence it will be back to a rightwing regime, a pro-IMF crony capitalist economic programme, unabated corruption, and the hegemony of Sinhala chauvinism. This is difficult for the leftists and the radicals to stomach after having invested so much political capital; therefore it is likely the alliance will evolve along a programmatic path. That is to say, looking some months or a year down the road, today’s issue-oriented caucus is likely to travel beyond the national question to become a social-democratic political option within the UPFA.

I approve of the development, notwithstanding my reservations about whether this is too little too late. Their success will depend on how deep the inroads they make into the SLFP, and drawing in big vote-catcher personalities. The Chandrika challenge to Mahinda, as now gossiped about, is simply a personality challenge; who will win more support in the SLFP and who will win more votes. She may win this challenge but it is a barren game. If Chnadrika surfaces not only as a personality challenger, but as the bearer of an alternative programme, now that’s a bigger story. I have no inside information on the state of play between the lady and the caucus, but my instincts say something must be going on.

The UNP has missed the social-democratic boat. After the war, the Rajapakse government veered steeply to the right in its authoritarian and corporatist intents, economic policy and rejection of rapprochement with the Tamils and Muslims – even Christians are nervous. There was no space, not even a sliver of space on the right of the government for the UNP to sneak into. The traditional place of the UNP has been to the right of the SLFP but that space was foreclosed. There was an opportunity then for the UNP to somersault into the middle ground; to rebrand itself as a centre-left option. Ranil, the only person in the leadership with a brain, did not have the imagination and daring to make this bold move. The second tier in the UNP is brain dead and doesn’t grasp the meaning of such a refocus.

The JVP and smaller left parties are too far out to the left to be able to occupy this vacancy in the social-democratic middle ground. If the centre-left tendency that I have written about has imagination and vision, there is a vacant political plot to occupy. No one can predict at this stage whether it will be a winning strategy, but it is a strategy that will give it a substantial political position both electorally and ideologically. Today UPFA leftists and democrats have no identity and no influence. So, surely “one crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name”.

The Single Issue Challenge

None of this talk of a social-democratic programme, the UNP’s programme, or anyone else’s socio-economic and political programme, makes any sense until the Executive Presidency (EP) is abolished and a new constitution put in place. I am very much of the view that this is a two-step process. First, defeat Mahinda at a presidential election, abolish EP and change the constitution, and only then, a few months later, hold elections to establish the new substantive government, perhaps Westminster style if that’s the preferred option. It is this subsequent government that will be the carrier of a new socio-economic and political programme; it may be Ranil and the UNP, maybe Chandrika and the social-democrats, or maybe the dregs remaining in the Rajapakse rump. That’s a separate story; let’s cross that bridge when we reach it.

The basic obstacle to this strategy is Ranil; he refuses to take a clear stand and commit the UNP to a two stage process and declare that the first stage will be an SI Challenge. The presentation of the new draft constitution by the UNP (a good document) leaves the SI issue ambiguous. It seems the UNP hopes to win a “normal” presidential election (that is, place a constitutional as well as a socio-economic programme before the electorate) and within six months abolish EP and write a new constitution. After that it hopes to continue in office and implement its substantive socio-economic programme under the new structures using the same people. But the UNP cannot win an election without a unified opposition and it won’t get that unless it promises, when the old structures disappear, to hold fresh elections for a new parliament, prime minister and head of state.

Unavoidably, this is going to unfold as a two-stage process, though the UNP seems unable see this obvious fact. It is a pity that UNP strategists lack the clarity of vision to think their ideas through to a logical conclusion and make unpreventable decisions. Attempting to telescope these two stages together, that is attempting to convert the winners of stage one into the substantive government leaders of stage two (prime minister, head of state, or whatever) instead of holding a second round of elections will lead to conflict with the rest of the opposition. And constitutional change is impossible without a wide opposition alliance. Does the UNP not see that if there is no unified opposition (for example if there are three substantive presidential candidates) Rajapakse will romp home?

Perhaps Ranil’s objective is to grab the SI Challenger nomination because he reckons it will give him pole position in the subsequent substantive election. In the case of Sobitha this is a pyrrhic victory because Hamuduruwo has no interest in the substantive office. And in the case of Chandrika, Ranil has to face the reality that there will be a centre-left or social-democratic challenger, even if not Chandrika, to the UNP’s socio-economic programme in the subsequent phase where the public will demand to choose between competing programmes.

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