A REALIST READING OF THE POLITICAL MARKETPLACE – The Island


Dr. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

[This article is dedicated to the memory of the late B. Sirisena Cooray, former General Secretary of the UNP.]

The irony never fails to strike me when the Lankan liberals who fetishize the free-market above all in economics, are totally impervious to and imperiously ignore the signals of the political marketplace.

If Dr Ravi Ranan-Eliya’s SLOTS tracker is accurate and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has lost a full third (33%) of his 2019 vote, then he is still slightly above the combined SJB+UNP vote of 2020, i.e., the ‘greater UNP’ space in the polity.

In an extended interview given to Dinesh Weerakkody which was the cover story of Business Today February 2000, the UNP’s former strongman-General Secretary Sirisena Cooray, who had been Ranasinghe Premadasa’s righthand man for decades, predicted (“take it from me”) that the UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe would average 25% in the future. He was right. After a quarter century that ideological space in the political spectrum has become structural, though the UNP itself has almost vanished. No combination of forces that stays within that space can defeat the regime. Only a breakout/breakthrough strategy can.

Two Traumas

Political commentators correctly observe that the decline of the regime’s popularity is not matched by the rise of the Opposition’s. They fail to grasp the reason for the mismatch and prefer instead to prattle on about the allegedly poor performance of the current Opposition, chiefly the SJB.

I’d say that mismatch is because the regime’s popularity has declined so speedily that the memories of the previous administration’s negative performance have not faded. The Gotabaya administration has proved the most traumatic to our material well-being in our post-1948 history. The predecessor Yahapalanaya administration, chiefly Ranil’s UNP with its foreign and constitutional policies and cultural nihilism, proved traumatic to our national identity and sense of sovereignty.

To re-state: the Gotabaya presidency and the Pohottuwa are in a downward spiral which they can’t pull out of and are wildly unpopular. This in no way means that the values, policies, practices and profile of the Yahapalanaya UNP by any other name are retrospectively popular. It too is unpopular, doubtless less so currently than the GR regime, but that’s a low bar.

Yahapalanaya

didn’t fail because the Government “failed to resolutely prosecute the crooked Rajapaksas”. The prosecutions didn’t help the Government and in fact hurt it, because the larger percentage of the public perceived a UNP which had appeased if not collaborated with the LTTE, persecuting Mahinda, who had won the war, depriving him – and therefore the Sinhala majority–of the Opposition leadership and prosecuting those who were loyal to him.

Those who see the GR presidency as a self-evident argument for the abolition of the executive presidency ignore the market signals that the primary problem was/is not the presidency as an institution:

(a) Even the protesting peasants curse the parliamentarians and Cabinet more, and more often, than they do the ruler.

(b) The former president Maithripala Sirisena found an ally and survived electorally while the former Prime Minister did not, and the former Speaker and former Foreign Minister couldn’t muster any political traction by the tail-end of the previous regime and opted out.

(c) It is doubtful that a two-thirds majority in parliament and a simple majority in the country at a Referendum can be mustered for a Constitutional change that abolishes the directly elected executive presidency while enhancing or even retaining the 13th amendment or any form of provincial devolution. A majority of Sinhalese will not vote for it. Any government, Constitutional order or law that exists without the consent of the majority of the majority is doomed to generate eternal instability, even a coup.

The citizens detest the Gotabaya regime for the trauma they are being put through. They almost certainly regret their choice of 2019. But only someone who is deluded would think that means they wish to return to 2015-2019 (or 2001-2004) or approve of that government and its values.

SLPP & SJB

Sirisena Cooray often insisted that the UNP must win back “the majority of the majority” which Ranil Wickremesinghe had lost. That was the bedrock of any winning strategy, he emphasized, endorsing the report of NGP Panditharatne (2003) that most UNP activists felt the party could never win the Presidency under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe because he had lost the support of the Sinhalese, especially the rural masses.

The accusation that the Rajapaksas’ SLPP and Sajith Premadasa’s SJB are ‘two sides of the same coin’, or more charitably, siblings, is vastly amusing. If the underlying critique is that there is a similarity or sharing of views or values in some sense, then my answer as a Realist is “I would certainly hope so!” because there is little prospect of winning back “the majority of the majority” i.e., the Sinhala voters who shifted to the Pohottuwa, if an Opposition party takes a stand and espouses values that are the total opposite—the antipode– of those of the majority.

Only if the Opposition shows sensitivity to whatever is legitimate in the concerns of the Pohottuwa voter; only if those voters feel that their concerns and core values will be respected and safeguarded by the Opposition; only if what the Opposition says emotionally resonates with the Sinhala voter who shifted as a bloc to the Pohottuwa, can they be won over and the regime defeated. This is exactly how Joe Biden won back the social strata and the states that the neoliberal Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump and earlier, Bill Clinton won the South from the Republicans.

The Lankan Opposition must fuse whatever was legitimate and correct in the SLFP, UNP and Left traditions, values and discourses.

A human is not only an economic animal (‘homo economicus’) but fundamentally a political and social animal, as the ancient Greeks understood. Today the economic factor has punched through, but it won’t stay that way if too much violence is done to the political and social animal within.

Referendum 2022

If the main Opposition sports a cosmopolitan cultural profile and minoritarian-globalist discourse when a Referendum on a new Sinhala-Buddhist, minimal-devolution Constitution is looming, nationalism may partially neutralize the socioeconomic and governance factors, the Sinhala-Buddhist vote may split, and some may stay home.

By contrast, an ‘organic’ Premadasa-ist populist profile could (as in 1988) neutralize the nationalist factor acting as a Pohottuwa/GR asset, swing the Sinhala middle ground over to the mainline Opposition and ensure massive NO vote, a protest vote on socioeconomic grievances, which could break the back of the autocratic GR regime.

The Sinhala-Buddhist voters who, in a tectonic shift, swung to the Rajapaksas in 2018-2020, have swung away from them as a result of meltdown of their economic conditions. The material factor has eclipsed the ethno-nationalist for the moment, which doesn’t mean that the Sinhala-Buddhist voters have deleted their values and identity concerns. No economic crisis is going to make them swing all the way from the Gotabaya paradigm to the Ranil-Mangala-CBK cosmopolitan-elitist paradigm. Most are mainly Mahinda voters, and a smart Opposition would not flaunt Yahapalanaya UNP policies and icons, but instead pivot, move halfway and reposition itself in the progressive center so that those voters would have to come only halfway themselves.

Dirty Secret

What is it that gives the neoliberal Right in Sri Lanka such ideological durability even in the Opposition when its main agency and agents, the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe, have consistently been unsuccessful, and the ideology is itself widely discredited and obsolescent in the West?

The dirty secret lies in the decision made by Mr. Wickremesinghe to break sharply with UNP tradition maintained even during the Cold War (old and new), and formally, officially incorporate the party in a global ideological bloc, that of the world’s Conservative, Christian Democrat and Center-Right parties grouped in the International Democratic Union (IDU), co-founded by the US Republicans and the UK Conservatives.

The opportunities, funding flows and ideological indoctrination have created a certain stratum in Sri Lanka, an elitist policy Establishment in the party-political and civil society spaces, which regards adherents of rightwing, free-market fundamentalist, anti-state globalist economic thinking, to constitute its real family, far more than it regards Sri Lanka’s working people and least of all the Global South or progressive opinion (social democratic and liberal) in the West, as its family or “hive”.

Foreign Relations

There were very good contributions ranging across the political spectrum in the Budget debate on the Foreign Ministry vote by Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, Tharaka Balasuriya, Gajan Ponnambalam, Rauff Hakeem and Harini Amarasuriya. One could almost discern the outlines of a refreshing revisionist conversation and potential consensus.

However, in the main, the polarization continues between extremes continues on foreign policy.

Reflecting on his presidency, Barack Obama went on the record that his biggest single regret was Libya. Obama and his Secretary of Defence Bob Gates were against intervention, but that intervention went ahead, double-crossing Russia and the Security Council resolution, culminating in murderous regime change, opening the door for the wave of Islamist jihadism including ISIL, and triggering a toughening in Russia’s global stand under a returning Putin.

Three personalities were responsible for driving the US decision to intervene in Libya which policy decision Obama says is his greatest regret: Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power.

These, and not Barack Obama, John Kerry or Joe Biden– still less Bernie Sanders or AOC– are foreign policy and ideological icons of Sri Lanka’s cosmopolitan neoliberals, ‘radical centrists’ and Yahapalanaya ex-UNPers who are Mangala proteges.

Troika of Heroes

It is in the final analysis an existential question. In economic development who should we be like? I would say Ranasinghe Premadasa. In foreign policy? Lakshman Kadirgamar. (Interestingly, he was commended in Sirisena Cooray’s Business Today Feb. 2000 interview). In Sri Lankan nationhood, embracing diversity and combating racism while being at one with the common people, I would say Vijaya Kumaratunga.

It is a triangulation of these three great heroes and martyrs that give us the values to be the best society that Sri Lankan can be within and the glowing example we can be in the world.



Thank you

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