By Dayan Jayatilleka –
I write to respond to Uditha Devapriya’s literate, critical commentary ‘Hobbes & Locke: Dayan Jayatilleka & The Opposition Reset’ – Colombo Telegraph, not to rebut, but rather to clarify and elaborate.
In the first place I have been appointed the Senior Advisor on International Relations to the Leader of the Opposition, rather than Senior Advisor to the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) on the subject. While I support Sajith Premadasa, I am not a member of any political party and anything I write and/or say about the Opposition is as a political scientist who also happens to be sympathetic to and critically supportive of the main democratic opposition party, the SJB; not as the holder of any official designation within it.
In the second place, my views on what Mr. Devapriya correctly calls ‘the Opposition Re-Set’, does not stem from purely normative or ideational reasons, but from coldly Realist analysis.
To the extent that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency is on a continuum with the Donald Trump presidency, it is incumbent upon the Sri Lankan opposition and intellectuals in the broad oppositional space, or more correctly, the space of the democratic resistance to the regime, to study and emulate the methodology and pathway of the US Democrats who successfully defeated Donald Trump, reversing the 2016 defeat under the leadership of the neoliberal Hillary Clinton.
This precisely what Oppositional intellectuals and commentators have failed to do, as has the political opposition as a whole.
What were the steps followed by the US Democrats which the Sri Lankan oppositional democrats have so far failed to study and emulate?
The website FiveThirtyEight, which most professional analysts found the most reliable, objective source of reports and projections during the recent presidential election campaign in the USA had a superb article recently on that subject. Authored by Perry Bacon Jr., it was entitled ‘Biden’s Team and Priorities Show How The Democratic Party Changed In The Trump Era’.
Its opening paragraph details an exercise which Sri Lanka’s democratic Opposition and political commentators have yet to undertake, though it is the imperative starting point of a successful political strategy. It says:
“Democrats spent much of the last four years debating exactly how they lost to a fairly unpopular and flawed candidate like Donald Trump in 2016 and what changes they needed to make to avoid another defeat. They debated if they needed to be more liberal or more conservative on policy; if they should be principally focused on the Sun Belt or the Rust Belt, on voters of color, white voters with college degrees or white voters without degrees; if they needed to nominate more white men as candidates or more women and people of color; if they had to talk about race less or economics more.”
The crucial line here is “how they lost…and what changes they needed to make to avoid another defeat.”
This is exactly what the oppositional intelligentsia in Sri Lanka has yet to do, which is why many of them regurgitate the conventional wisdom of uniting all forces of the Opposition, including the UNP under its existing leadership, and thereby, recomposing in effect the profile of precisely the government that was massively defeated in 2019-2020, enabling Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP-led SLPF to win decisively.
The FiveThirtyEight essay goes on to elaborate:
“…In other words, we now have a pretty detailed picture of where the Democratic Party landed on many of those debates. And the main takeaway is this: A multiracial group of Obama-style Democrats are in charge, just like from 2009 to 2016. They’re solidly left of center — but mostly from the ideological middle of the party, not its leftmost wing…But this time, the explicit goal is to push and enact more leftward-leaning policies — compared to the Obama administration, in particular — on both economic and racial issues.” (ibid)
Perry Bacon Jr. spells it out:
“…From the day after Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election to the 2018 midterms, Democrats were battling over the party’s direction but mostly focused on fighting now former President Trump.
…Biden won in large part because of the support he got from the party’s more establishment and centrist figures who were wary of Sanders and Warren. But along the way to his victory in the Democratic primaries, Biden moved left when compared to the Obama-Biden administration’s stances…Then, after Biden basically had wrapped up the nomination, two real-world events pushed him even further left…
Harris, like Biden, is a center-left establishment Democrat who has moved leftward as the party drifted in that direction but is not as progressive as Sanders or Warren.
Sanders, Warren and Ocasio-Cortez and the broader left wing of the Democratic Party unified behind Biden in the general election…
…Biden has gone about filling the government and leadership of the Democratic Party with a demographically diverse group of establishment types who have moved left in recent years like Harris and Biden himself.
…Jake Sullivan…one-time top adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign urged the party to become more populist after Clinton’s defeat.
… in the Biden administration, there is one clear, dominant ideological view — left of Obama in 2016, not as left as Warren now. “Left of Obama in 2016, not as left as Warren now,” of course, isn’t a precise ideology. But we are already getting some glimpses of what that means in practice.” (Biden’s Team And Priorities Show How The Democratic Party Changed In The Trump Era | FiveThirtyEight)
This is clear, I think. It is also what I urge on the SJB and the opposition in general, in the struggle to face and defeat our tropical, tougher-than-Trump: a “more populist” (Sullivan’s argument) democratic Opposition, to the left of the UNP historically and most certainly of the UNP of the Wickremesinghe quarter-century, but not as left as the JVP.
This then is what I am arguing for in the case of Sri Lanka. An Opposition which is ideologically moored, but not mired, in the ideological middle while being left-of-center, pushing left-leaning policies. That is the route I’m hoping and expecting Sajith Premadasa’s SJB will go.