By Uditha Devapriya –
Among critics of the regime, much tends to be made of the point that the electoral system favours two parties and that an alternative is needed. Anti-corruption has become the call of the hour, while many of those who say that we should vote the government out hasten to add that shouldn’t vote or get the Opposition in.
In other words, while critics of the SLPP aren’t necessarily supporters of the SJB, they have become critics of the system. Insofar as this has pushed them towards a party, these voters are increasingly turning to the JVP and its parliamentary avatar, the NPP.
Given that nearly every class has turned to these establishments, it comes to no surprise that most diagnoses of the present situation recommend an overhaul of the system, a point on which everyone seems to be agreed. Recommendations include abolishing the Executive Presidency, replacing it with a parliamentary system, increasing oversight over parliament, and making asset declarations compulsory for MPs. These proposals reflect the distrust with which the masses view MPs today, which is why it should surprise no one that the JVP has noted them in its manifesto in the most idealistic tones possible.
Such critiques of “The System” are, of course, not unique to Sri Lanka. Anna Hazare built up an entire movement around the theme in India, bringing down the Congress government and propping up Narendra Modi. More significantly, across the transatlantic world of the 1990s, socialist and social democratic parties reinvented themselves as Third Way centrists by tapping into the electoral potential of “deradicalised” anti-establishment politics. This eventually spread to centre-left parties in the Third World, turning most if not many of them towards an ideology rooted in a distrust of politicians.
From Clintonian Democrats to Blairite Labourites, distinctions that had once prevailed between right and left across the Atlantic were dispensed with, on the grounds that the post-Cold War conjuncture had made them unnecessary. Politics, in other words, was no longer about enacting policies, but rather about achieving consensus.
In giving way to these trends, these parties let go of much of what had defined them, in particular their commitment to state-directed social equity. Like their counterparts in the Third World, which included the Freedom Party in Sri Lanka and the Congress Party in India, these outfits abandoned their raison d’être on the pretext of adapting to a new order. This process is still ongoing, and as Tariq Ali has noted in The Extreme Centre, its effects continue to be felt. It is one of the principal legacies of the collapse of Communism.
The result was one grand unholy mess. Policy formulation, at its very inception, requires ideological orientation. Without a proper ideology to call their own, Third Way Centrism floundered, eventually shifting to the right. Thus, in the lead-up to the 1997 election Tony Blair and his deputies in the Labour Party promised to reverse the policies of Thatcherism, while at the same time assuring Big Business that a Labour government would be amenable to their interests. In the same vein, Bill Clinton promised to ditch the Reaganist legacy, only to continue with Reaganist policies to their logical conclusion. Closer to home, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party embraced free market economics, determined to strike a compromise between their ideological roots and post-Cold War realities.
To consider anti-corruption as a preserve of Third Way Centrists or Radical Centrists would of course be reductionist. Yet there are traces of Giddensian Centrism in many of the claims made by politicians, political outfits, and NGOs who campaign against corruption and graft. The underlying message in these claims is that, at its very inception, politics is tainted by sin, and a citizens’ movement is needed to defeat them. In other words, it is the political class that is responsible for society’s problems, the obvious solution being an alternative to not so much mainstream parties as the political system itself.
There is very little difference between these claims and the claims of free market advocates who contend that a society’s problems are rooted as much in politics as in government, and the way out of the mess is reducing the size of the State. Hence the same activists who call for greater accountability from bureaucrats recommend the privatisation of national assets and the easing of price controls. To them there is no contradiction between these proposals: in politics as in economics, they believe less is more. This is why many of our political liberals are also economic liberals or more correctly neoliberals, and why even left-liberal discourses are notoriously vague on issues like debt restructuring or going to the IMF.
Of course these ideologues, and the politicians supporting them, aren’t all that clear about what they want for themselves or the country. The Opposition’s attitude to price controls is a case in point. When controls were eased two months ago and rice oligopolists decided to escalate prices, the anger on the streets was too much for SJB MPs to claim, as free market advocates on Twitter did, that it was the right thing to do.
Today the SJB is divided between MPs who want such measures extended and those who think we need to stop them. As Devaka Gunawardena has observed in a perceptive article, neoliberal elements in the SJB explicitly sympathise with the ordinary consumer. Yet as their social media feeds make clear, privately they are not in disagreement with the general tenor of such policy reversals, and in fact advocate more of the same.
These developments have infected the Left too, which is why the NPP’s proposed solutions, tentatively titled “Rapid Response”, are not a little vague on points which need specification and elaboration. The NPP does identify the Open Economy as the root of all evil and does go about recommending solutions such as import substitution and making unaccountable elites pay their due. But in themselves, these are hardly enough.
Indeed, in more than one section the document leaves much to the readers to figure out, while in others, like the section on “Culture”, there’s hardly any solution. When it comes to important issues like debt repayment, all the authors can say is that the party will “[d]evelop a formal plan for the next five years.” But why wait? Why not develop it now?
I think I understand the NPP’s strategy: to have no coherent strategy at all. I know this is a little cruel, but it is vital to understanding what the NPP wants.
The NPP wants to bring together a broad coalition of anti-regimists. Now, the clearer its policies are, the more specific its target audience will be. Hence, by limiting proposals like import substitution to words, it can leave the task of specifying them to the future, after it wins elections. The plan here is to keep as many as possible happy with its opposition to the government, thereby targeting what I call the golden mean of disgruntled voters.
Three decades of Third Way Centrism should make us aware that this tactic can only lead to electoral suicide. An obsession with reaching a compromise may win votes in the short and medium term, but in the longer term it can only deprive parties of the radical potential they require to propose a way out. Why the NPP, of all parties, should opt for such a path, when recent developments in Latin America point to other strategies, boggles me.
Already neoliberal think-tanks in the country are recalling and critiquing the JVP’s policies under the Chandrika Kumaratunga government. Already blue-chip executives who professed admiration for the likes of Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sunil Handunheththi are expressing their disappointment with their proposals. What is the NPP’s response to such turnarounds? We obviously need to know, but we don’t yet have the answers.
The Opposition’s strongest point is, of course, its opposition to the present political set-up. Some are calling for a different political system, others for a different face in a reformed status quo. Almost none of these reformists suggest an alternative to the economic model we have enforced since the 1980s, which on the one hand has generated discontent and on the other deprived the government of tax revenues to finance welfare.
Couching reform in terms of cutting down social welfare, while not doing anything to address economic inequalities, would be the height of folly. Yet this is the neoliberal right’s preferred way out, which neither the social democrats in the SJB nor the left-liberal activists in the NPP are contending with, much less contesting, even less disputing.
It is certainly unfair to single out the current administration, though it has to share much of the blame for the crisis we are in. A better proposition would be to recognise the nature of the crisis we are in and call for alternatives on issues that directly affect the people, such as food prices. That is the sanest solution we can articulate, the only one worth proposing. But how many in the Opposition, the SJB and the NPP included, will concede this?
*The writer can be reached at email@example.com