By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Its AN ELECTION. So, it’s the arithmetic, stupid!
The only question today is “REALISTICALLY, WHO CAN GIVE THE REGIME THE BEST RUN FOR ITS MONEY?” The answer to that is “Whoever is giving the regime the best run for its money today, July 31, 2020.”
Think logically. Certainly, the dynamic at a parliamentary election is significantly different from that of a Presidential election—but not THAT different. Can a party which failed to break the 5% barrier in November, be expected to bridge the gap between that and 52% by August the next year?
Can any rational person think that could happen and where in the world has it happened?
How can anyone of sound mind recommend that a citizen waste a vote on such an option at a time when we are threatened by a two-thirds tyranny?
Isn’t it mathematically far likelier that a young guy who clocked 42% last November, coming into the presidential election late, because he was denied the candidacy while his rival had already done several laps around the track, will be the most effective in giving the regime a run for its money in August, thereby denying it a two-thirds majority?
Moving on to the next option, who can imagine that a guy who when he was in Prime Ministerial office, couldn’t get his undivided party—the main party in the ruling coalition of that time– a 30% vote at the local authorities election of 2018; a man who didn’t have the confidence of his own party to sufficient degree that he could become the candidate at the presidential election in November, is likely to offer the front-runner any competition this August, when his party has split and the bulk has gone with the candidate of November 2019?
Even Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said on TV last night (July 30th) that it would be dangerous if someone who was so (allegedly–DJ) cavalier with his Ministry’s funds were to become the PM because one could imagine what he would do. This means that the most experienced politician in the island, and perhaps in Asia, acknowledges that his main opponent is Premadasa and the latter is an opponent he cannot ignore—and opponent who has an outside chance of winning, in MR’s estimation, which is why he is warning against the prospect.
If August 2020 is not to be Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Germany 1933, if future historians are not to judge this as the moment in which we failed to stop the transition to totalitarianism, the focus must shift from “Whom do I most agree with?” to “Who is most likely to able to block the most dangerous outcome?”
To break that down: “Who in the Opposition is most likely to secure the most votes and thereby be the most effective in blocking a two-thirds majority?” “Who is least likely to secure votes at this election and is therefore least likely to be an obstacle to a two-thirds majority?”
Mr. Wickremesinghe generates no enthusiasm even among his urbanized middle-class, smallish, mostly indoor/garden audiences. 26 years as leader and never elected President, he states on the record that the time is not yet right for a leadership change and stipulates his condition that when that change does come it must be a “united” decision i.e. not by competitive secret ballot. Fossilization dooms the UNP to be a political relic.
The JVP has lost its mojo. Its modest audiences watch as if they are in a tuition class or university lecture room, paying attention to their lecturers—which is apt because the JVP and its front, the NPP, is an almost entirely ex-campus/para-campus constituency organized as a political formation.
That leaves the SJB led by Sajith Premadasa, who is the only personality in the Oppositional space with the ‘chemistry’, the pulling power and ability to manifestly enthuse audiences. The SJB audiences, though understandably smaller than those of the ruling coalition, are comparable with those of the SLPP (as the UNP and JVP audiences are not). Moreover, they are more multiethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural and gender-balanced– an accurate, if modestly-sized mirror of the composite citizenry. The manifestly enthusiastic participation of Muslim women, alongside their Sinhala and Tamil sisters at Sajith’s rallies is the best response to Wahhabi-Salafist fundamentalism.
The SJB is easily looking like the biggest anti/non-SLPP political force that will emerge from this election.
If the goal is to avert a two-thirds tyranny, then, from a pragmatic ‘tactical voting’ perspective rather than those of habit, congruency or comfort, the best bet would be Sajith’s SJB.
Those who sincerely uphold the vision of a liberal society must identify and avoid that which causes a massive backlash which impacts on the character of the successor administration, infusing it with Sinhala-Buddhist extremism. This happened to the UNP administrations in 1956 and 1970, was barely averted in 1988, and recurred in 2005 and 2019. The sole exception was the administration of President Premadasa, which was succeeded after a brief transition by a Blairite (neo)liberal SLFP administration of Chandrika Kumaratunga.
CBK’s quasi-federalist constitutional ‘package’ and Norwegian engagement generated —for the first time in SLFP history–a Sinhala backlash which durably shifted the leadership of the anti-UNP forces to the robustly nationalist Rajapaksas.
When the UNP neoliberals and SLFP liberals combined in Yahapalanaya, the Sinhala backlash took the steelier Alt-Right form of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The only way the Yahapalana experiment could have worked was if it were a Karu Jayasuriya-Maithripala Sirisena hybrid. Given their previous experience with a Ranil premiership (2001-3) CBK and Mangala knew what he was like and would do, but did not insist on Karu instead.
The enduring legacy of Ranil-CBK-Mangala neoliberalism and its resultant recoil, Gotabhayan ultra-nationalism, is the ‘new normal’. Every future administration will have to legitimize itself by declaring itself Sinhala-Buddhist, with the only choice being which brand of Sinhala-Buddhism it is: the harsh hegemonism of Gotabhaya or the pluralist moderation of Sajith (invoking his late father).
Notably, Sajith is the only mainstream leader to pledge the proscription of hate-speech. He is also the only leader to pledge at this election that he will not agree to the abolition of 13A, and that he stands for neither 13+ nor 13-, but for strengthening and rendering more efficacious the existing system of provincial councils? Not even the JVP/NPP has stated its stance on devolution/autonomy!
The only time the UNP could not be outflanked on the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist front was during the incumbency of Ranasinghe Premadasa, notwithstanding the fact that his discourse and policy practice were pronouncedly multiethnic, multireligious, multilingual and multicultural.
Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake (1965-1970) appointed a Sinhala nationalist literary personality, IMRA Iriyagolla as the Minister of Education, while changing the universal calendar of Saturday/Sunday weekend holidays into the Buddhist “Poya and pre-Poya”. The UNP lost the election by a landslide. A Center-Left coalition won a two-thirds.
Liberalism and pluralism are secured not by gestures of religio-cultural conservatism but by generating a sense of security in the Sinhala majority that the government is genuinely patriotic. Liberal-democracy can and will survive only as liberal-nationalism/nationalist-liberalism.
Moreover, core liberal-democratic values can be safeguarded only when encased in a policy regime of equity and strong social welfare. The actual or potential social bases of racism and xenophobia shrink through populist social security and upliftment programs.
These (Premadasa-ist) lessons were ignored by the UNP for the past quarter-century and it repeatedly paid the electoral price for such arrogant errancy. Sharing a panel in Colombo in 2015, Nobel prize-winner in Economics, Joe Stiglitz urged Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to make greater equity the Archimedean point and lever of post-conflict economic recovery and growth, cautioning against a neoliberal model. That advice, on the public record (reproduced on Stiglitz’ Harvard webpage), was totally ignored.
The regime can be deterred or contained only by a countervailing political force that plays the role of the alternative government, capable of posing the credible threat of winning the next Presidential and parliamentary elections (2024/5). The present UNP, JVP and SLFP do not seem potential parties of governance.
The defining issue of our contemporary history was that of the long anti-secessionist war, and it is imprinted in the collective psyche that Mr. Wickremesinghe’s UNP appeased and collaborated with the enemy. This perception has been compounded by the shocking downgrading of national security, dismantling of military intelligence and resultant co-negligence in the face of Islamist-jihadist terrorism.
It is a memory the Rajapaksa regime finds easy to evoke. The country will never feel safe enough with a ‘Ranilist’ UNP, to return it to office. The only way to flatten the curve of the ultra-nationalist pandemic is to exorcise that ‘fear and loathing’. If voters—especially UNP voters—subtract/delete the longstanding factor of ‘Ranilism’ and pivot from that past, ultra-nationalism will lose traction because Sajith is simply not that kind of hate symbol for Sinhala-Buddhists. He changes the target profile, and is a moving target anyway. The Sinhala-Buddhist majority can then put the war and existential threats behind it, and focus rationally on socioeconomic and governance grievances.
Sajith’s SJB not only has war-winning Army commander Sarath Fonseka and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist Champika Ranawaka, but also several candidates who are retired senior officers, veterans of the wartime military, some from elite combat units.
The generational shift that Sajith personifies can offset ultranationalist radicalization against an ossified democratic political system.
The best—the only– chance of stopping a two-thirds tyranny, salvaging the core values of liberal-democracy and pluralism, is a tactical vote for Sajith’s SJB. It is the strongest line of defense against despotism. The 300 at Thermopylae.
Traversing the country from Far North to Deep South, addressing almost five hundred meetings, Premadasa is giving the Pohottuwa Machine a run for its money, taking the fight — guerrilla warfare– to the Power, including a surge into its southern citadels of Beliatta, Mulkirigala, Walasmulla, Angunakolapalassa, Suriyawewa and Tissamaharama.