By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“Why Prabhakaran Will Lose” was the unusual title of an article which appeared in the Sunday newspapers in Sri Lanka on October 17th 2004. That was over a year before Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa became Secretary/Defense and Sarath Fonseka became Army commander. That article was written (and signed) by me. The title of my current article must be read in the light of that earlier prediction.
Krishantha Cooray’s most recent article is an assault on the SJB of which Sajith Premadasa is the founder-leader. His accusation is that the Opposition is not strong; that it is weak. This is amusing since he does not have a word of criticism of the UNP of Ranil Wickremesinghe which headed by definition the weakest Opposition in the history of the island’s politics. By definition, because it is during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s continued and continuing stewardship of the UNP, the main opposition, that it failed to lead the country for over a quarter century and enabled the UNP’s rival the SLFP and its successor the SLPP to do so instead.
When a writer criticizes a one-year-old party of being a weak Opposition while failing to criticize the UNP for having failed to elect a president since 1994, that is an amusing exhibition of hypocrisy. While lecturing the SJB, Mr. Cooray does not once make the simple suggestion that Mr. Wickremesinghe remove his lifeless political carcass from the leadership of the UNP.
Mr. Cooray fails to acknowledge that the SJB’s performance has been quite remarkable given the odds it faced. No Sri Lankan political party under a new leadership, still less a wholly new political party, has faced the odds that the SJB has. Those odds are that Sajith Premadasa and the SJB have had to emerge from under the deadweight of the most unsuccessful mainstream party in our history.
When SWRD Bandaranaike broke away from the UNP, it was a successful ruling party. He didn’t have to live down a disastrous heritage; only to challenge it. Even without the deadweight that the SJB had to emerge from under, SWRD’s SLFP scored fewer seats and a smaller percentage than did the SJB did in a much shorter time, in its first national electoral outing in 2020.
When the SLMP of Vijaya and Chandrika Kumaratunga broke from the SLFP, that party had failed to lead the country for only seven years.
When Chandrika took over the SLFP it had been out of office for seventeen years.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa took over the leadership of the SLFP it had been leading the country for two terms.
When Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa founded the SLPP, they split from SLFP which had been leading the country since 1994.
Never had a new leader faced an inheritance of almost three decades of failure. Never did a new leader, still less a new party start with such a burden of liabilities as did Sajith Premadasa and the SJB. And yet in its first electoral outing it beat SWRD Bandaranaike’s historic achievement on his first time out in 1952.
If the SJB is in any sense ‘weak’ today it is because the last time that camp had been elected to state power was when Sajith Premadasa’s father was president three decades ago. Whatever the SJB’s shortcomings, they are debilities directly sourced in the Thirty-Year Curse of the post-Premadasa leadership of the UNP and most particularly the Ranil Wickremesinghe leadership.
Krishantha Cooray raises some seemingly interesting questions and makes some nonsensical suggestions.
An example of the latter is that Ranjan Ramanayake’s seat should have been left vacant. This would have meant one less member of the Opposition at a time when, certainly at a future mid-term vote, numbers could be crucial. We know that even in the USA, Kamala Harris’ casting vote is of decisive importance in the Senate. Can the opposition take the risk of subtracting a single one of its number? What if the regime keeps jailing MPs? Are we to play into the hands of the regime and keep their seats unfilled, thereby reducing the opposition’s numerical strength?
Cooray wishes to know how an SJB government will stop deforestation. How silly can you get? At which point when fighting the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime of 1970-1977 did the Opposition led by JR Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, go beyond a blistering critique and a broad-brush conceptual framework of an alternative, provide detailed prescriptions for all the ills that had befallen the country? Surely it was in the famous election manifesto?
The less said the better about Krishantha Cooray’s claim that “The UNP has twice in recent times rescued the country from economic catastrophe brought on by their political opponents, first in 2001, and again to a large extent in 2015.” On both occasions the UNP was swept out of office by the electorate, just as it had been in 1970 despite the claims made about the Green Revolution. There was obviously something amiss—as R. Premadasa pointed out at the time—with the economic model itself.
Cooray poses the question: “Does the SJB share its mother party’s economic vision?” Did anyone ask this question of any new party or new leader of a party, from SWRD Bandaranaike to Mahinda Rajapaksa? Why pose it to Sajith Premadasa and the SJB, which has clearly and explicitly broken with neoliberalism and professed a centrist social democratic vision?
Cooray says that “This Government reversed many foreign policy decisions taken by the Yahapalanaya Government, many of which boosted our image and drew us closer to our traditional democratic allies. But the SLPP said these policies violate our Sovereignty. Does the SJB agree with the SLPP, or does it stand by the foreign policy of the Yahapalanaya Government?”
Again, was any new leader of a party or a new party asked whether its stands by the policy of its predecessor or with that of the government? Did Presidential candidate Ranasinghe Premadasa stand with the foreign policy of his parent party and the Government he served in as PM? Did Mahinda Rajapaksa? Did they stand instead with the foreign policy of the party they ideologically opposed? Surely every new leader and more so every new party carves out his/her/its own space and pulls together elements from friend and foe, in a new synthesis?
Cooray adds “At the most fundamental level, the SJB has yet to forcefully assert that were they to come to power, they would reintroduce key provisions of the 19th Amendment and abolish the executive presidency.”
The SJB has made itself very clear on that point. The Presidential candidate will be the party leader and opposition leader, and as he stated during his presidential run as the UNP candidate in November 2019, he would as President use the power of the presidency to serve the people. The SJB challenged the 20th amendment in the courts and parliament because it opposes it as it stands. It is however, in no way committed to a return to the 19th amendment as it stood.
The SJB at the leadership level has openly supported the Presidential model as exists in the great democracies like the USA and France; Presidencies with the separation of powers. There is absolutely no reason to assume that the SJB leader will not, as President, follow in the developmental footsteps of his great father and use the powers of the presidency as an instrument for uplifting the people and the economy.
How does Cooray propose to abolish the presidency when that task has proved beyond President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and has indeed resulted in successive backlashes which has left the executive presidency stronger?
Surely the first chance we have to be rid of this autocratic ultranationalist President is to defeat him at the presidential election scheduled for 2024?
This time around, the non-Rajapaksa camp has a candidate who is the most viable in decades; one who lost the election in November 2019 when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was at his height, by only 10%. This time around the democratic camp has a candidate whose concern for the people, for the citizens, is manifest and a complete contrast with that of the incumbent.
The comparison that Cooray makes between Sajith performance in November 2019 and the SJB’s in 2020 is that of apples and oranges. The correct comparison involves the UNP in Feb 2018, the UNP in November 2019 and the SJB in 2020.
True, the newly minted SJB was unable to significantly breakthrough the barrier of the voting percentage that Ranil Wickremesinghe had reduced the UNP to, in which what was the UNP’s historical base-vote had become its ceiling. The exception, the spike, is the UNP in November 2019, which was Sajith Premadasa’s presidential run, at which he punched through the UNP’s ceiling of 2018 and got 42%.
He’d have got a higher percentage had he given the party leadership as his father was in 1988, or at the very least, been nominated at the same time as Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Instead, GR was allowed several laps around the track before Sajith was allowed to start his campaign. Finally, his 42% would have moved up had Ranil Wickremesinghe not insisted that he would be the PM if Sajith won (which the candidate contradicted) and Mangala Samaraweera announced that the MCC would be implemented. These were tantamount to acts of sabotage.
What then is Krishantha Cooray’s game when he seeks to revive the old, failed slogan of the abolition of the executive presidency? This is at a time when the USA has given us the example of exactly what attitude to take towards an ultranationalist autocratic president, which is to defeat him at a presidential election. Is it not to prevent Sajith Premadasa, who has inherited the knowledge of a successful experiment in rapid and equitable all-round economic growth, and whom Ronnie de Mel, the respected maestro of the Open Economy, recently designated “the only hope” of the country, from being the President?
Cooray goes on to query “As the main Opposition party, what is the SJB’s stance on exercising our country’s right to assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help resolve our fiscal challenges? How would they tackle our debt crisis? Would they follow the Yahapalanaya example of negotiating consensual resolutions with the UNHRC members to demonstrate our commitment to the Human Rights of our people, or do they agree with this government that doing so is a violation of our sovereignty?”
If the SJB agreed with the UNP it would surely have remained with and within it. If it agreed with the Government of the day surely it would have joined it. The SJB has the brains to see what was so wrong with the UNP as to keep it out of the leadership of the country for decades. It also has the guts to see and say whatever is correct in the policies of its opponents. Furthermore, it has the creativity to come up with its own synthesis which may involve elements from the old opposing camps, thereby transcending the old polarizations and constituting a new center, carving out a new Middle path.
Cooray asserts that “By now, with so many Government failures on so many fronts, many expected the SJB to have taken the lead in calling for a United Opposition Conference (UOC), rallying the other opposition parties and civil society groups into a combined front”.
The SJB is quite aware that the regime would like nothing better than for it to be tainted by the sins of the past and the policies of the past so recently and decisively rejected by the people. No new political party entered a political front or alliance within a year of its birth. Even the UNP in 1970-1977 when it set the gold standard of an Opposition, facing the autocratic United Front government of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, entered into an alliance just before the general election, after years of reform, renovation, rebuilding and rejuvenation.
While Krishantha Cooray is confused or is trying to sow confusion, let us conclude by reproducing the sage observations of Ronnie De Mel, a Sri Lankan who made a great contribution to his country and one of the most astute Sri Lankans alive today. On his 96th birthday (April 11th) he said to Sajith Premadasa the following words, as seen and heard on TV news and the social media:
“I think that the only hope for Sri Lanka to make a comeback is if you can get the whole thing going under your control and the control of policies that you represent. That’s the only hope for Sri Lanka. I will say that openly, and have said that to many people…Sri Lanka is in a dire situation…I am very fearful at times at what might happen…I hope you will be able to save Sri Lanka…I always feel that you are the only hope…”
If 42% supported the idea of Sajith Premadasa as President and leader of Sri Lanka in November 2019, despite these odds, it is wildly improbable that over 50% will not do so after the heartlessness and material privation the citizenry, including the middle classes, have experienced under the Gotabaya presidency, whichever sibling is the SLPP candidate in 2024.
The SJB, led by Sajith Premadasa, is potentially better positioned than any other, in government or opposition, in the country today—and poised to win in 2024, the centenary year of the birth of Ranasinghe Premadasa.