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“That was both the opportunity and the problem. Suddenly, subjects were told they had become Citizens; an aggregate of subjects held in place by injustice and intimidation had become a Nation. From this new thing, this Nation of Citizens, justice, freedom and plenty could not only be expected but required”(Simon Schama, Citizens, A Chronicles of the French Revolution, 1989).
A year ago, a great electoral victory was set in motion with the coming together of the joint opposition and the common candidate, President Maithripala Sirisena. This was not the first time a common candidacy had been attempted in order to challenge the Rajapaksa regime. In the previous Presidential election in 2010, the common candidate Sarath Fonseka was defeated electorally and jailed. This was the indelible image that served as a warning to any future challengers. The idea of running a common candidate again was therefore fraught with great personal and political risks. The resounding electoral defeat handed to Rajapaksa last January seemed a very remote possibility even a few months prior to the election. Despite this danger, there were still brave groups of citizens and individuals who refused to be intimidated. The remarkable political judgement of the joint opposition, the personal bravery of President Sirisena and the millions of voters who were ready to call time on the Rajapaksa regime set the stage for a historic election victory.
The Rajapaksa Hegemonic Project
Before exploring the nature of its defeat, it is important to briefly reflect on the main elements of what I like to call the Rajapaksa Hegemonic Project (RHP). The Rajapaksa victory in 2005 over the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe marked a watershed in Sri Lankan politics. The core of support for the Rajapaksa regime consisted of a majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist constituency – politically and ideologically anti-Tamil and nurtured by a virulent kind of Sinhalese nationalism. Any political negotiation with the Liberation of Tamil Tigers (LTTE) to offer a package of devolution of power was strongly opposed by the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist forces. The Tamil Tiger’s terrorist campaign, their indiscriminate killing of innocent people as well as the assassinations of Sinhalese political leaders served to harden the opinion amongst Sinhalese people. Thus, the Rajapaksa regime was able to exploit political tensions in Sri Lanka to consolidate its power and destabilise any opposition. The regime was able to use Sinhala Buddhist anxieties to justify the political onslaught on its Sinhalese political opponents in the South and intimidate them.
The Rajapaksa regime also maintained neo-liberal economic policies throughout this period. That had opened the possibility of other capitalist politicians to join the Rajapaksa Hegemonic Project if they were sufficiently convinced that Rajapaksa would be able to defeat the Tamil Tigers. The main opposition, the United National Party (UNP) became a real victim of this situation, losing most of its top leaders to the government at this period. Those who were deeply rooted in Sinhala nationalism were attracted to the Rajapaksa Project. Even the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was split right in the middle. A significant number of JVP parliamentarians also joined the government.
Finally, in 2009 the Rajapaksa brothers annihilated Tiger leadership to claim the military victory of a civil war that had torn Sri Lanka apart for decades. As a result Mahinda Rajapaksa won a handsome victory in 2010, sealing their hegemonic control of Sri Lankan politics. It was built upon the exclusion of Tamil and Muslim communities from political and social power. The regime’s intoxication with power after their election victory initiated a new wave of suppression and intimidation of political dissent. The infamous white van culture with the abduction of political opponents, killing of journalists who dared write the truth, interference with the judiciary, killing of innocent civilians who demanded clean drinking water in Rathupaswala, and the inaction against the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) in Aluthgama who attacked the Muslim people and their properties were all elements of an authoritarian regime that had come into power by the people’s vote. The existing two-term bar on presidential power was lifted by parliament. The regime was prepared to use the popularity of the war’s end to consolidate and extend its time in power. In addition, corruption and the theft of national wealth had become endemic.
Moreover, the final days of the war had killed thousands of innocent civilians and the issues of accountability had become a major issue for the Rajapaksa regime. Internationally, charges of war crimes were not easily dispelled. Images of live pictures of Issapriya’s tortured, raped and half naked body and Prabaharan’s’s 12-year-old son pictured eating a snack followed shortly by the images of his dead body with gunshot injuries epitomized the culture of impunity that had come to dominate. The government consistently ignored local and international calls for accountability and refused to engage in any meaningful reconciliation with the Tamil community.
In September 2014, I argued that one needed a counter hegemonic project to reverse the political process initiated and consolidated by the Rajapaksa hegemonic project. Such a counter hegemonic project, it argued would not be successful unless the devolution of power to the Tamil community was not included. Therefore the inclusion of democratic rights of the Tamil community needed to be one of the main elements of any counter hegemonic project.
A New Historical Bloc
It was not established political parties, but human rights defenders, journalists and NGOs who undertook crucial initiatives in opening up and maintaining Sri Lanka’s democratic political space. They defied the Rajapaksa regime’s attempts to shut down political dissent and dominate all avenues for action, campaigning for liberty and democracy. In so doing they took considerable personal risks and laid the crucial foundation for President Sirisena’s victory. They were able to muster an important array of parties and organizations with diverse ideologies and political philosophies from the UNP to the radical left. They broke the ice that was hindering the possibility of constructing an anti-Rajapaksa coalition. This was called ‘Platform For Freedom’. In ideological and political terms this new mustering of forces represented a watershed in the political discourse of the regime change: they could not have pioneered that role without dissociating themselves from ‘classism’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985,Hegemony and Socialist Strategy p, 177), of the Left political discourse. The Sri Lankan Left in pursuing their dream of the working class war against capitalism had underestimated the crucial nature of the new social movements. The Left parties had abandoned the struggle against the violations of personal freedoms, including the right to life, the oppression of minority communities, the subjugation of women and the community actions against the destruction of their living environments. The ‘Platform for Freedom’ took up some of these issues in their campaign. Actually the January 8th victory has underpinned the correct reading of this ground reality.
They were not alone in this. The Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) led by the late Rev. Maduluwave Sobitha’s intervention to campaign for the abolition of the executive presidency as well as to field a common candidate made a crucial contribution to the formation of this movement. Rev. Sobitha’s untiring and selfless dedication in persuading and negotiating with the opposition political parties to field a common candidate for the Presidential election against Mahinda Rajapaksa transformed the oppositional forces by contributing hope, passion and a fighting spirit. This process then contributed to gaining in Gramscian terms ‘moral, intellectual and political leadership’. It was due to the result of such work that the opposition started gaining credibility. When Maithripala Sirisena and others defected from the government ranks and Sirisena claimed to be the common candidate from the opposition, it was a game changer. From this point onwards, political space was opened in a spectacular fashion. Hitherto excluded people started coming out and openly expressing their feelings and how they had suffered under the Rajapaksa family plc. The demand for the abolition of the executive presidency condensed the democratic demands of the opposition and the cracks started appearing in a Rajapaksa regime that seemed a few months ago electorally unassailable.
President Sirisena’s common candidacy was supported by a huge number of civil society organizations, trade unions and the Left Centre, which compromised of two break away left parties from the government, the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP) after President Sirisena’s common candidacy was announced. Some of their members were remained in the Rajapaksa camp. The Nava Lanka Samasamaja Party (NSSP) who campaigned vigorously for many years for the democratic aspirations of the Tamil people also supported the common candidacy of President Sirisena. The UNP that had the largest voter base of all the parties in the Sirisena camp actually had made an electoral sacrifice when they agreed to back the common candidacy of President Sirisena. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also gave the tactical support to President Sirisena’s common candidacy committing the Tamil voter base for a political settlement. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) also supported President Sirisena’s candidacy resigning from the Rajapaksa government. Thus, President Sirisena was able to garner the support from the right wing to the Left parties and from the Sinhalese to Tamil and Muslims to form a new historical bloc called the United National Front For Good Governance (UNFGG). In its organizational form and political philosophy, this was an extension of the ‘Platform for Freedom’. This kind of alliance is bound to have ideological and political differences but they were united behind the common slogan of defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa.
At the Presidential election Maithripala Sirisena did the unexpected. His victory over Rajapaksa was a great electoral triumph given the fact that Rajapaksa used state power, government resources and state media at will and believed that his victory was securely assured. But those who often silently suffered under his rule finally had their chance to speak and vote him out of power. President Maithripala Sirisena was given the Presidency of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and it made a significant moment in legitimizing his authority in the Party. The party that was supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa during the campaign came under his leadership that offered him the chance of dismantling Rajapaksa ideological and political influence in the SLFP. This was a turning point in consolidating the new historical bloc. President Maithripala Sirisena’s victory ushered in a new air of freedom and extended much needed political space as never before. The intimidation and impunity disappeared and the rule of law was gradually restored. However, apprehending wrong doers from the previous regime has not happened as quickly as people had wanted. The previous regime left their criminal apparatus and bureaucracy intact and it was not so easy to make the law to take its course. Such a situation has helped the wrong doers of the previous regime
Despite certain frustrations, the electoral victory of the January 8th was a truly historic one, which also paved the way for the winning of the parliamentary elections, held in September making it a double victory for the popular forces. These popular forces none other than ordinary men and women who belong to all three communities. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s electoral history people whose democratic rights had been dangerously trampled and their ethnic existence had been fatally engendered by a powerful political and military might was overthrown unexpectedly. Those who created such an organizational framework to unite diverse communities and people who had multiple and different democratic grievances and issues should be credited for their novel, historic accomplishment. That also gave a rational political model for working and wining the democratic demands outside the class based politics. It is a democratic political discourse that had been incompatible the broader political practice of the Sri Lankan Left.
The current historical bloc faces four challenges at this current juncture. Firstly, it faces a stiff resistance from the Sinhala Buddhist supremacist forces in devolving power to the Tamil community. This involves a considerable political risk. Even though Rajapaksa lost the Presidency, the Sinhala Buddhist forces to which he had given hegemonic expression in the South were reluctant to acknowledge their defeat. They lost the election but ideological and politically their electoral base has not shrunk in certain Sinhala Buddhist strong holds. President Sirisena needs to convince the Sinhala Buddhist constituency that his approach is safer for the territorial integrity of the country than Rajapaksa’s pseudo patriotism, which suppresses the democratic aspirations of the Tamil community. Unless President Sirisena is proactive in pursuing this line it will be harder for him to consolidate his victory and build on the coalition, which brought him to power.
Secondly, implementation of neo-liberal economic policies would be politically unpopular. Any move to take measures that would reduce the existing welfare structures will be deeply unpopular. This is particularly important in relation to health and education that directly affect the life chances of the Sri Lankan poor. The protests from the trade unions and civil society organizations who brought the new regime to power after the recent presentation of budget proposals demonstrates the breadth of the protest movements that the government will have to grapple with.
Thirdly, broad ideological and political differences could destroy its unity. If ideological and political contradictions are not resolved in an amicable way within the government, the current bloc will disintegrate. Diverse and different opinions can be positive if resolved in a spirit of democracy and tolerance. However, some ministers’ behavior in public around accusations and counter accusations are disappointing and show political immaturity.
Fourthly, the government needs to acknowledge that people have a right to protest. That is how democracy works. It is criminal to attack or use force against any group of people because they exercise their democratic right.
Unless these challenges are overcome it would be harder to fully realize the January 8th victory. And this new historical bloc would not be transformed into a hegemonic project.
The victory of the Presidential election in January 2015 was clearly a democratic victory of the people in this country and the general election victory in September by the UNFGG made the democratic aspirations of the people a realizable prospect. That is if the Maithripala -Ranil leadership can carry out their election promises. If they transform the historical bloc into a hegemonic project with the inclusion of ethnic minorities with a devolved power structure, the current coalition would be able to build ‘national popular’ regime in Gramscian sense. Maithri- Ranil leadership needs to persuade the Sinhala Buddhist constituency to become a political ally in their effort to build a united democratic country where all communities live with dignity and respect. If the election promises made by the UNFGG are achieved, that would make the January 8th victory epochal. Then only can it be called a democratic revolution. Otherwise it would result in the elite political classes triumphing and the popular forces would become losers. Then we will have to start the struggle again.