Groundviews

OPPOSITION TRENDS IN THE ELECTION SEASON

Image courtesy JVP Media Unit

If the Rajapaksa administration wanted to mislead and confuse the mainstream opposition and lead it to an electoral dead-end, it could hardly do better than the opposition has itself done, and done unto itself. The main Opposition candidate remains Ranil Wickremesinghe who has no rural resonance. As Mervyn de Silva wrote, “the road to Temple Trees runs through the paddy fields”. Meanwhile there is the project of a common opposition candidate on the single issue platform of abolishing the executive presidency. A common opposition candidate is a good idea, but the abolition of the executive presidency –as opposed to its structural reform through the reintroduction of the 17th amendment– as the single issue platform, is bound to collapse under the common candidate the moment the campaign moves to the rural areas where the majority of voters (who are Sinhala Buddhist) live. It is revealing that the only UNP front liner who has any resonance among such voters was not in the front row of the recent Opposition in-gathering at New Town Hall.

The best the Opposition can hope for is that the inevitable defeat in Uva and the imminence of a Presidential election will have the shock effect of unseating Ranil and replacing him with a Karu-Sajith or Sajith-Karu ticket. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.

The next option is for a Karu candidacy backed by Sarath Fonseka and Chandrika Kumaratunga, but if that candidacy is based on the abolition of the presidency rather than its reform (and Karu J has been the most consistent liberal-reformist in Sri Lankan politics for decades), the platform will collapse his candidacy, while the race will be three-way– between the official UNP candidate Ranil, the dissident UNP-SLFP candidate Karu and the JVP. The incumbent will romp home.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is going to win the Presidential election—and that won’t be due to rigging. He still looks The Champ. He’s going to win the election for roughly the same reason that the TNA was sure to win the Northern parliamentary and provincial council elections. That factor will last as long as the context remains i.e. the main opponent re-kindles in voters, existential issues of collective identity and memories of the war.

Mahinda is going to win for a few other reasons besides. The economy is still growing, albeit exceedingly unevenly. Infrastructure development has provided opportunities for commerce which in turn creates a modest number of jobs and incomes. The Rajapaksas have been enhancing their social support base (check out the Arcade at Independence Avenue) while the UNP has been losing its own. The UNP is in what Gramsci called an organic crisis of long duration, in which a political party loses its traditionally supportive social strata, while the SLFP under CBK and now MR have been replenishing through re-branding –what with Gotabhaya and Namal ably picking up where Mangala Samaraweera left off, with his urbanization and modernization of the SLFP. And then there’s Mahinda’s appeal, which is a close approximation of the Sinhala Buddhist self-image: patriotic, religious, yet friendly (especially child-friendly!) and hospitable. Karu J as UNP candidate with dissident SLFP support could conceivably give him a run for his money in that department, but not as an independent or a single issue anti-presidency candidate.

The real question is what happens after the presidential election and because of that election. If Mahinda wins overwhelmingly because of the Opposition’s sheer silliness, he could either go for a snap parliamentary election with nominations given to ruling family loyalists or could be pressured as JR Jayewardene was, into a referendum instead. The latter is a huge gamble because the divisions in the Opposition will not matter. All the Opposition needs to do is to unite on a call for a resounding NO vote. This was what led to the unseating of the far more oppressive and powerful Pinochet regime in Chile.

The present administration may be tempted to do what JRJ did when he opted for the referendum, which is to lock up the most able oppositional campaigners on trumped up charges. Since there are familial and financial stakes today which JR Jayewardene fortunately wasn’t burdened with, far nastier measures to take out the leading Oppositional challengers and leave the campaign in the able hands of Ranil Wickremesinghe, could be quite tempting to sections of the power elite. In today’s context the targets would be the JVP and the FSP –which is why they should reunite soon. One notices that there was an attempt to frame the JVP after Rathupassala and that the initial reactions after Aluthgama were that it was a conspiracy of “defeated political forces”.

An Alternative Opposition Project

Two trends in the opposition, albeit tangentially overlapping and intersecting, held two important events over the past several days. One was the meeting at the New Town Hall (convened by Rev Sobitha) for the abolition of the presidency. The other was at the open air amphitheater at Vihara Maha Devi Park, organized by the JVP’s youth wing, the Socialist Youth Front in association with many civil society organizations, and was aimed against racism and religious chauvinism.

The first meeting was more mainstream; the second was left-led. The first gathering consisted primarily of those above retirement age; the second was overwhelmingly youth based. The first manifested political confusion, the second, clarity and coherence of analysis and ideas. The first meeting was redolent of the past while the second held out some modest measure of promise for the future. The first meeting was packed by the ghosts of presidencies and prime-ministerships past– a cast of has-beens– while the second featured potential and emergent leaders. The first meeting was a gathering of those in the Last Chance Saloon; the second, of a demographic geared for a Long March.

At the anti-racism meeting Anura Kumara Dissanayake articulated the most hard-hitting and credible critique I have so far heard of a form of rule which has deteriorated into a family oligarchy.

He also made a more important critique of the failure of the administration’s post war policies; it’s failure to fulfill the promise of peace. This failure he attributed to the administration’s nurturing of racism and religious chauvinism, its policies of militarism, and its marginalization of the Tamil people of the North chiefly in the realm of the occupation/seizure of lands. Interestingly he denounced the regime for being unable to move beyond the exhausted discourse of the war. The regime is unable to move an inch forward in its thinking, he said. It is unable to learn any new ideas. It is this conservatism and backwardness, including in the superstitious props of the pseudo-modern younger element of the regime that the JVP leader identified as ultimately responsible for the inability to move beyond the wartime mentality towards a fairer and brighter tomorrow based on a shared Sri Lankan nationhood.

Anura Dissanayake underscored that a shared Sri Lankan nationhood can only be based upon the recognition of equality of rights of all, irrespective of ethnicity, language, religion or region.

The rally was preceded by a well-attended march from Maligawatte, the part of town which BBS chief Gnanasara (the FUTA’s Chandragupta Thenuwara’s wittily alluded to a ‘Madyasaara’) alleged that Minister Hakeem was striving to turn into a Gaza. The twin events saw the birth (or re-birth) of something fairly new to Sri Lanka but quite normal in most parts of the world, namely an ad-hoc coalition of left-led trade unions, student organizations and non-party civic associations of academics, lawyers, progressive clergy of the religious majority, and ethnic and religious minorities.

Passionate and persuasive speeches were made by the JVP’s youth leader Bimal Ratnayake and young trade union organizer Wasantha Samarasinghe, Mohammed Hisham of ‘Rally for Unity’ Fr Rohan Ekanayake of the National Christian Brotherhood, and Priyantha Gamage of the BASL. A former colleague and friend, ex-Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam marched and addressed the meeting, articulating a gauchiste line way to the left of my own left-liberal reformism. All these speeches were enthusiastically received with applause and whistles by the audience.

My wife Sanja and I attended the rally to show solidarity with all the courageous and principled young men and women of all classes, ideologies, ethnicities and religions who mobilized against racism, religious chauvinism and the prospect of another Black July ’83. Up close, my main and abiding impression of the evening is that Anura Kumara Dissanayake is definitely “a comer”, a confident contender, though right now he is much more a Manny Pacquiao than a young Muhammed Ali. Since the UNP, the conventional Opposition, shows no signs of the requisite re-invention, Anura Dissanayake may emerge as the best default option for all of those who oppose a stifling status quo and hope for a more equitable, ethnically non-discriminatory future.