Photograph via VOA News
It had to happen that way, and the break was only possible with a serious split within the regime. The moment had come for members of the SLFP to take the plunge. And when finally Vasantha Senanayake, MP, crossed over (the first member of the brave ‘suicide squad’) and mentioned that he knew who the common candidate was, the matter was settled. It had to be Maithripala Sirisena. And yet it was somewhat remarkable, in this day and age of unprecedented surveillance, how the opposition forces kept the regime guessing, until a couple of hours before Minister Sirisena left it. But the gates are now open; this is set to be a wonderful and exciting battle, but also a very grotesque one. So grotesque that even the Pope would feel helpless.
The challenge posed by Maithripala Sirisena appears to be a formidable one. His is unlike the Fonseka-campaign of 2010, for the individuals are two very different political animals, the former being a seasoned politician, a man with a following within the SLFP voters and has stood by the SLFP, and one that all parties, including the UNP, have no serious problem endorsing as a ‘common’ candidate; especially against the present regime. Fonseka was a man who could have been easily isolated, and was. Not so, Sirisena.
And unlike Fonseka, Sirisena’s campaign appears to have what it takes to sustain the challenge even beyond the Presidential election on 8th January, 2015, in case the latter loses it. Also unlike Fonseka, whose statements during public rallies showed he could be as ruthless as the regime, Sirisena can easily position himself as the more caring and compassionate one. Many of the backers of the present leadership promote the idea that the SLFP seniors are still in awe of the very friendly demeanour of the leader. This is only partly true. For numerous reports and sources (not simply newspapers) suggest that MPs fear even meeting the leadership. Mr. Vasantha Senanayaka, MP, himself admits that his reform proposals did not proceed beyond the point of being acceptable to the senior SLFPers, since they feared talking about them (as he told the Irida Lankadeepa of 23 Nov.). And it is not just the factors of corruption and the inability to work for their constituencies, but also the fear-factor (the latter is often forgotten), which have led to the break-up of the SLFP.
In a sense, the task of the opposition forces ought to be somewhat easy. For this election is not necessarily about upholding the ideal moral and ethical values or presenting candidates who have consistently maintained an anti-government policy; for such people are rare in contemporary politics, and also because people today are immune to the many inconsistencies of individual politicians, especially when they know that such inconsistencies exist even in those within the regime, and where they feel that the opponent has to be defeated. So, much depends on whether the opposition will be able to show that the present regime is so corrupt and evil that any alternative is a better and credible choice. This is largely a consequence of the present regime being correctly perceived as one of the most corrupt regimes in Sri Lanka’s recent history and that this is the lowest we can hit. Perhaps that’s a generous assessment of the depths we can potentially fall into; and yet, it is a widespread and accurate feeling that after the war, this regime is beyond reform. To push this perception, the anti-regime forces actually don’t have to do much; the regime will do that for them.
The reformist agenda and key players
What of the Sirisena-campaign’s reformist agenda?
One of the advantages of the campaign, once again, is that given its share of nationalists, the convenient and famous labels – too much to mention here – would not really work. And boosting its appearance with a reformist agenda becomes somewhat easy when the regime has none.
But broad alliances come with their weaknesses, and the present anti-regime alliance is one such which has weaknesses. Firstly, the anti-regime campaign has its own critics within. One is almost tempted to state that the anti-regime campaign is so diverse and therefore problematic, that President Rajapaksa does not even need a reformist agenda, but only needs to print thousands of copies of Victor Ivan’s writings on former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and former CJ, Sarath N. Silva, and distribute them free-of-charge. Secondly, then, the Sirisena-campaign would need to ensure that the role of Mrs. Kumaratunga needs to be minimal especially in front of the cameras. Her principal challenge and contribution to this campaign would be to show that Mr. Sirisena is not her puppet.
So the effect of much of this can be mitigated only with the active involvement of the likes of Patali Champika Ranawaka, the Pivithuru Hetak/JHU forces, and younger elements of the UNP (Harin Fernando, Buddhika Pathirana, et al), and with some clear support from Anura Kumara Dissanayaka/JVP and other critical forces. That’s a political platform which can be very formidable. From what transpired at the Sirasa TV’s Satana programme last night (which the regime blocked-out for some), the JVP would offer its critical support for the Sirisena-campaign. But what was also noted in that programme was Maithripala’s emphasis on the SLFP ideology (and the adoration of the Bandaranaike-family). While such emphasis is understandable, this approach, in a broader coalition with the UNP, could easily distance the UNPer and the UNP voters. That’s the misfortune of broad coalitions; and a task before Maithripala would be to ensure that the anti-regime coalition does not appear to be one hijacked by the SLFP.
There is also, however, the question about the JHU.
As was argued sometime ago, if there was any single movement that was going to add strength to the anti-regime campaign, it was going to be the Pivithuru Hetak movement led by Ven. Athuruliye Rathana (JHU) which adopts a clear ‘regime-change’ policy (not a ‘course-correction’ one). In other words, to attack the regime’s arrogance and break its monopoly over the Sinhala-Buddhist vote-base, a convincing and formidable challenge had to be posed from within the Sinhala-Buddhist ideological camp. The UNP, or a few SLFPers, couldn’t do that.
And for the moment, the JHU has emerged victorious. During recent times, it was battling with other Sinhala-Buddhist forces such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – which are also entities nourished by the regime – for supremacy within this Sinhala-Buddhist camp. Also, it may be that the JHU was getting distanced from the Prince’s ear. And with one bold move initiated largely by Ven. Athuruliye Rathana, the JHU has been able to regain their position within the Sinhala-Buddhist camp, and do so by portraying it as a reformist outfit; even though ‘reform’ may not be the only motive behind this entire campaign.
In such a scenario, attacking the JHU and its monks as the regime is seeking to do today, is going to backfire; not only because such a policy is going to anger the broader Sangha community, but also because of the widespread view within the Sinhala community that the JHU (especially Champika Ranawaka) cannot be blamed for corruption and financial misdeeds. Furthermore, politics is such that it is today difficult to find anyone, even within the NGO/civil society community, who will be openly critical of the JHU or Champika Ranawaka. That just might say much about political praxis, but it also says a lot about the palpable need to defeat the present regime.
But it is still unclear how the reformist agenda promised by the JHU will be implemented. For instance, Maithripala Sirisena promised the abolition of the Executive Presidency in 100 days, while the JHU adopts a reformist approach towards the Presidency. Also, the JHU proclaims to be concerned about introducing independent institutions when it was the only party that was against the 17th Amendment. We know that Champika’s main argument regarding the 17th Amendment was that the Constitutional Council so created was anti-Sinhala (which was a fantastic claim). And as he has explained recently, that problem is seen to have been somewhat addressed through the Parliamentary Council system of the 18th Amendment. So what form should independent institutions take in the future?
Many such questions arise about the reformist project promoted by the JHU.
The forgotten Tamils
But there’s always a forgotten other in these political campaigns, and once again, it’s the Tamil people. The primary function expected of them by the Southern leadership in this election campaign would be to ensure an anti-regime vote, which the Tamil people would ensure (and that says much about Sri Lankan regimes too). But apart from that, they are almost totally neglected as a people and community; by the regime (for certain), but also by the anti-regime forces and movements.
While this is not at all surprising, the underlying reasons as to why the Tamil question is not on the agenda in this campaign, reflects perhaps the long history, but also the developing dynamics, of politics. Sri Lanka’s post-war politics appears to be largely a struggle between different versions of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Its internal struggle is akin to a high-jump contest, where every time a group intervenes in political debate, it raises the ideological bar that much higher. But this inevitably lowers the ceiling set on devolution. And as is quite clear today, the new ceiling on devolution which is gradually solidifying in the country is: 13th Amendment minus (13A-). This in turn doesn’t make standing for 13A progressive; it only makes standing for something ineffective appear progressive and reformist.
This is one thing that the Pivithuru Hetak movement/JHU has done with its 19th Amendment proposal. And there’s broad consensus on this matter, for not only is this the Rajapaksa-regime’s avowed policy, but it also receives support from the UNP leadership (with only a few voices of resistance, such as that of Mangala Samaraweera, MP, being heard). Given the current state of affairs, it would be quite amazing if at least the few conditions set out by the TNA (i.e. demilitarization, resettlement and an end to land grabs) can be accepted and implemented by the anti-regime campaign. Therefore, it’s not just the regime (for which the above conditions are unacceptable) but also the anti-regime campaign which needs to be critiqued strongly and continuously for the approach adopted towards the Tamil question.
Conclusion: critical support
Sri Lanka has now got her best chance to topple the present leadership democratically; one which is either moving from a benevolent dictatorship to a mad and ferocious one (sonduru aaknyadaayakathwayaka sita viyaru aaknyadaayakathwayakata, as Maithripala stated) or one which has already reached the latter stage (according to Anura Kumara Dissanayaka). Whereas one would have expected a war-winning outfit to remain in power with some convenience for a decade or so, the regime is shaken to its core from within, just 5-6 years after the war; which explains the state of affairs in the country. Against the anti-reformist and corrupt governance of the present leadership, there’s little reason why the anti-regime campaign should not receive the support of a majority of the Sinhala masses. Even for those equally committed to the Tamil question, one believes it would be a vote for the anti-regime campaign with firmly held noses.
In other words, given the seriousness of the situation, critical support, then, is what the Sirisena-led opposition campaign deserves, not any blind and uncritical support merely motivated by hatred towards the existent leadership/regime. But, why?
It is only critical support which guarantees that supporting the anti-regime campaign is not motivated by a belief in its promise of a bright and better world; rather, such support is motivated due to the fundamental reason that one of the principal tasks today is to challenge and defeat authoritarianism. Support also has to be a critically oriented one to remind ourselves that the task does not end on 8th January, that democracy is always a thing waiting to be realized, a path that needs constant critique and renewal. It is about taking a firm decision against authoritarianism without vacillating, while being fully aware of the many indeterminacies and uncertainties inherent in politics and political campaigns. And it is amidst these uncertainties that one now sees some hope; a little more than there is today. That too could be a little myth, but politics isn’t possible without myths.