By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Sri Lankan politics today is characterized by an absence and a presence; on the one hand by a mystery which no one raises a question about, and on the other, by something so obvious that I cannot understand why anyone is surprised.
The ‘absence’ is the lack of an obvious question: why are those who supported 19A then, opposed to it now, and why has the JO/SLPP’s foundational strategy been completely inverted?
The ‘presence’ which is no less inexplicable is why is there a sense of surprise and/or shock at what is happening to the UNP?
The entire pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa Joint Opposition represented in parliament engaged in the protracted negotiations over and voted for 19A, with the concurrence of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (barring the solitary exception of Rear-Admiral Sarath Weerasekara).
I publicly supported the 19th amendment at the time and still do. If anyone’s stand on 19A has changed, it certainly isn’t mine.
I was perhaps the first to articulate the slogan “GR 2020” not only in print in 2016, but at high-level opposition discussions chaired by MR, at which the architect of what would become the SLPP once interrupted rudely to say (in Sinhala) “Dayan, don’t give dead-ropes!”.
My advocacy was based precisely on the strategic formula which had led the JO to vote for 19A, and became the publicly stated platform of the ‘Bring Back Mahinda’ campaign, namely that with the passage of the 19th amendment, power had shifted to the Prime Ministership and though MR couldn’t run for another Presidential term, they would fight to make him the powerful PM under 19A.
In that context, I thought that GR would be a managerial proxy President as Raúl Castro was when Fidel was no longer President but still effectively leading Cuba. Others far closer to MR saw him as playing Putin to Gotabaya’s Medvedev.
I fully supported the appointment of MR as PM by President Sirisena in late 2018 as a partial fruition of our struggle (many in his camp did not do so)—and was criticized in Parliament by the JVP for doing so.
The situation now is entirely different with the slogan abandoned if not up-ended by the SLPP.
If 19A is abolished, then if as is likely MR is elected PM, the most experienced politician in Asia will have “the powers of a peon” (as Presidential candidate Ranasinghe Premadasa said in bitter retrospect), while a leader with zero experience in politics will have (at least) the presidential power wielded by JR Jayewardene.
This is completely contrary to what was envisioned when the formula of an MR/GR equation was put forward within the JO, including by me. It is not I who have changed on 19A, the powers MR would wield as PM, and the desirable balance within the MR/GR equation.
Those –the SLPP leaders–who have changed completely have not explained the logic of that change. Nor has anyone asked them to explain themselves. Why not? That is the tale of the absent question, or in Sherlock Holmesian terms, ‘the dog that didn’t bark’.
The UNP’s Fate
Now for the dismay and tut-tutting about a split in the UNP, a division in the opposition and the fate of the UNP leader, which is but should not be present at all, because the denouement was quite obvious for quite a while.
Mangala Samaraweera has opined in a recent interview that Ranil Wickremesinghe will always be remembered as the best President Sri Lanka never had. In the first place that’s an inappropriate use of the phrase. It is used when someone has been cut down in his/her prime—as in “Bobby Kennedy was the best President the USA never had”. Or, as I strongly feel, Vijaya Kumaratunga was the most progressive President Sri Lanka never had.
However, when someone has been the leader of a mainstream party for a quarter-century which has witnessed five presidential elections, two of which he has run unsuccessfully in, the others which he opted out of running in, and failed to become the president even once while also failing to have his party re-elected to successive parliamentary terms, then he’s not “the best President Sri Lanka never had”. He’s the worst presidential candidate any Sri Lankan political party ever had, and should have given up his day job a long time ago.
The UNP was ailing and what it was ailing from was diagnosable and diagnosed at least a decade ago. Going beyond diagnosis, a clear prognosis was presented, with no less clear a prescription. It would have worked, but it was at first ignored and later, blocked. What we are witnessing now is the result.
In 2013, I laid bare the reality of the UNP which was evident to me at the time:
“…The UNP is dying of multiple causes. It is losing votes; its own as well as those new votes it should have attracted as an Opposition party. It is losing parliamentarians, the latest and most visible being Dayasiri Jayasekara. It is losing activists and representatives through absurd disciplinary inquiries…It is losing numbers in parliament and at every level of the political system, through loss of votes and elected representatives.
…No one seems ready to accept the reality that there are two parties struggling under the tattered and perforated green tent…” (Dayan Jayatilleka, ‘The UNP’s implosive collapse and a dying democracy’, The Island, Oct 7th 2013)
I concluded by prescribing a course of action which has come to pass at least partially, seven years later:
“…Therefore, the UNP can be saved only by two procedures. Firstly, the party must be rebuilt under the leadership of a personality who can re-unite the party’s factions, provide a healing touch. I can only think of the benign father figure within the UNP, Karu Jayasuriya. Secondly the UNP must recharge its batteries, renovate, re-brand and re-launch with a candidate who can energize an electoral ‘ground game’. I can only think of Sajith Premadasa.”
Even a few years before that, indeed an entire decade ago, I had prescribed in The Sunday Leader the change that has now, finally, taken place. I had entitled it ‘The Sajith Solution’:
“…Does the UNP have a personality who can fit the bill? Someone who is educated enough to lead the country into an Asia that is led by an educated elite; has sufficient experience of the West to understand it and mend fences but trusted by Sri Lankans never to sell out the nation? Is there someone who is solidly Sinhala Buddhist but not narrowly chauvinist or communal minded and can therefore win the minorities without repelling the majority as Ranil does? Is there someone who is so knowledgeable in economics that he can plan and pilot our sustainable take-off, while simultaneously alleviating poverty and thereby pre-empting a social backlash? The answer is obvious and it is yes, there is. Sajith Premadasa, educated at a British public school and the LSE (specializing in economics), is certainly far better educated than Ranil Wickremesinghe or any of his supporters. He is almost certainly far more popular, both among the party members and voters and in the country.
…His father, Ranasinghe Premadasa was the epitome of the Nietzschean ‘will to power’, more accurately translated from the German as ‘the will to overcome’ — though it was never fully deployed and thereby failed in relation to the Tigers. Does Sajith have the requisite ‘will to overcome’? For the sake of Sri Lanka let us hope that he has, or will generate it rapidly enough.”
It took a decade from the time that was published, for matters to reach the point of rupture. Sajith’s SJB is reminiscent of the populist Citizens’ Front that Ranasinghe Premadasa built and led in 1972-1973.
The SJB resembles but is a far larger, more established, mainstreamed version of the Citizens’ Front, which was the SJB in conceptual, political and ideological embryo. The SJB is more a democratic-populist political movement than a political party.
This was a long time coming. It should be welcomed.