By Dayan Jayatilleka –
1. Can you think of two personalities more contrasting than former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and President Maithripala Sirisena? Few who are in favor of the former endorse the latter and few would see anything in common between them, especially today.
2. But critics of President Sirisena do not stop to ask themselves why as President, both personalities did the very same thing to the very same Prime Minister—in 2003/4 and 2018 respectively! Surely the question is why did this happen and the ancillary question is why does no one ask the question?
3. Logic teaches us that when two different factors behave in the same way towards the same single factor, then it shows you something about that single factor. To put it more formally, when there is a constant amidst two variables; when the same outcome occurs in two different contexts, then the focus has to be on the constant factor/s, not about the variables.
4. The main constant factor was Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. The other constant was that both Presidents, CBK and MS, headed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. So the preliminary answer is a simple one. 15 years apart, the SLFP under two wildly contrasting leaders, reacted in exactly the same way, and it in the same way to the same personality, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The SLFP leader of the day, then (15 years ago) and now (15 years later) who happened to be the elected President, followed suit.
5. In policy terms Mr. Wickremesinghe behaved consistently and the SLFP too reacted consistently to the same stimuli. He behaved then, in 2001-2004, and now, in 2015-2018, in the same way. That way, Wickremesinghe’s Way so to speak, inevitably generated a backlash in the SLFP, especially at its base.
6. In 2001-2004, the SLFP and the JVP joined hands to campaign for the ouster of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the UNP government. President Kumaratunga and ex-Foreign Minister (he was briefly her International affairs advisor) went to Delhi and briefed the Indian Establishment about the CFA and how it jeopardized both Sri Lankan and Indian security. India had already replaced the dovish High Commissioner Gopalkrishna Gandhi with the pronouncedly anti-LTTE Nirupam Sen. The main campaigners domestically for the PM’s ouster were the moderate Anura Bandaranaike and Mangala Samaraweera and the radical nationalist Wimal Weerawansa.
7. The same thing happened this time around. Obviously the SLFP is allergic to either the UNP generically or the consistent policies and profile of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in particular.
8. If Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe were electable as President, a coalition would not have been needed, but he proved repeatedly that he wasn’t. Thus the imperative arose of a common candidacy and a coalition with the SLFP or a faction of it. This in turn opened up the inevitability of an SLFP rebellion against him sooner or later.
9. This would have been avoidable if the UNP had replaced him with another, more centrist and organic leader. That would have given the party two options. Either a credible run at the Presidency in 2015 or a more consensual relationship with the SLFP had it entered a coalition government. The UNP chose to stay with its present leader notwithstanding the fact that it had been out of the slot of the country’s top leadership i.e. the executive presidency, since 1994.
10. The last chance to save the 2015 coalition was the no confidence motion. President Sirisena tried to continue the coalition with a new UNP leader or to defeat that leader in a parliamentary vote. The UNP chose to spurn that opening.
11. The neo-liberals and the liberals thought that the ‘unity’ coalition, the influence of the former President (CBK) and the 19th amendment was a firewall against the repetition of the 2003-4 outcome of ouster. They were wrong. These constituted a flimsy firewall against the sentiment at the base of the SLFP. That sentiment was aptly demonstrated by the success of the SLPP at the local government election.
12. It is nonsense to argue that the SLFP is incorrigibly racist. Why then did the SLFP rebel against the UNP Prime Minister of 2001-2004 when the party was under the liberal, if not neoliberal leadership of President Kumaratunga and why did she feel compelled to go along with it?
13. The fact is that the SLFP has been in office since 1994, that’s almost a quarter of a century. It goes with what works with the voters, in order to secure an electoral victory. It felt that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s policies then and now were deeply unpopular. In 2001-2004 that unpopularity redounded to the credit of the SLFP in Opposition. This time around it saw that it was being dragged down the unpopularity of his policies, because the SLFP was its coalition partner and in the meanwhile the breakaway SLPP was doing vastly better electorally.
14. If the UNP partner’s policies were working on the ground, at the grassroots, the more populist-nationalist SLPP would not have instantly outstripped the SLFP and the SLFP would not have rebelled because it would have felt it more pragmatically utilitarian to remain in office with the UNP. All that the current leadership finally did was the reflect and respond to this pressure of social and national outrage from below, just as President CBK did 15 years ago. A different UNP leader—more realistic, more flexible, more socially sensitive, more populist, more patriotic, less tarnished and tainted by the Bond scam — may have not caused such an erosion of its own electoral base and a worse one in the base of its SLFP partner and thus generated such a backlash from the SLFP. No one (possibly apart from his ex-Finance Minister, ex-Foreign Minister) has as big a target profile that he has. So instead of lamentation and hysteria, the wailing and gnashing of teeth, place the blame if one must, for his overthrow at the correct doorstep—his own and those who kept him in place and in play.
15. What happened was inevitable and predictable. Firstly it had happened before, in 2001-2004, especially 2003/4. Secondly, this time around, there was also a visible global phenomenon of the sharp swing against neoliberal globalization and towards patriotism, nationalism and populism of one or another sort (Right, Left or Center). And yet, the UNP (with a single prominent youthful exception who was lustily cheered at its recent demonstration) and Colombo’s civil society including academia and professionals, did not figure it out. How could they be quite so obtuse?