Photo via Bloomberg
With days turning into weeks and weeks into months, President Maithripala Sirisena appeared to have realized that power is ultimately the primary concern of politics and political leadership. What necessarily follows from this is also the realization that, to sustain a ‘good government’ in trying times one has to engage in practices which are antithetical to the very idea of good governance. Ever a contradiction to the ordinary mind, this is an uncomfortable reality in politics.
But in a democracy (unlike in any other system of governance), political realities can carry unpredictable consequences. Now with the completion of the first year in power, the people are exposed to a leader and a government, confronted by daunting challenges, facing an uncertain future. Once considered a refreshing voice – and still the West’s newfound darling of South Asia – President Sirisena has begun to speak and act in old and familiar ways. This isn’t surprising. As a political honeymoon (between a President and the people) slowly ends, the popularity wanes and the stains become more apparent, it would be natural for a leader to wonder how to retain power while protecting himself from his political enemies.
Democracies can tell us how the people have voted, what the numbers are. But they are unable to tell us accurately why leaders get defeated, why the people voted the way they did. This inability has caused the popular lamentation one encounters in political commentary about Sri Lanka today. In wondering, as political commentators often do, whether real ‘change’ has taken place, one may be engaging in a critical exercise; but it’s also an exercise that stems from a misunderstanding of what actually happened in January, 2015.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s key failure is often considered to have been his inability to introduce democratic reform. While this is only partially true, there were more decisive reasons for his downfall. One of the most significant was Rajapaksa’s inability to respect and please the ‘old guard’ of the SLFP. Surrounded by his own family, Rajapaksa underestimated the anger and frustration that was generating within the SLFP’s senior-camp. Inevitably, the regime cracked with Sirisena’s exit; and perhaps with that, the hearts of the senior SLFPers were never at the same place again. Torn between a secret desire to support the new developments and the sheer impossibility of imagining a world without Rajapaksa in power, the senior SLFPers appeared to be screaming for a victory for Rajapaksa, while hoping that the Rajapaksa-regime would be finally defeated.
In addition, hubris had consumed him. On the one hand, in being unable to listen to his more realist-advisors, Rajapaksa proved that his methods lacked the nuance and sophistication required to act in a post-war setting; especially in addressing issues relating to accountability and power-sharing. To be sure, Rajapaksa’s overarching ideological approach to these issues was not inconsistent with the wishes of a majority. The problem, however, was one of serious ‘mismanagement’; and of course, a disgruntled West.
On the other hand, hubris led him to alienate his broader constituency. In particular, having unleashed forces such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) into society, those very forces ran out of control effectively ending all hopes of retaining power. In all this, Rajapaksa failed to learn one of the least regarded lessons from Machiavelli: that in the long run, a ruler cannot run the risk of being hated by his people. In Sri Lanka’s case, the people included the minority peoples as well. After long years in democratic politics, Rajapaksa had forgotten the humbling potential of democracy: the possibility of electoral defeat. Yet, democracies work in mysterious ways. In his swift recovery, especially since August 2015, it is Rajapaksa who is slowly reminding his opponents that electoral politics is never for the complacent.
Tired of the mess and mismanagement of affairs, the 8th of January (2015) arrived as a moment when the people (especially a considerable section of the Sinhala constituency) decided to let off some steam. But the resulting change – inaccurately characterized as a ‘revolution’ – was brought about largely by two factors, hardly recognized in the commentary that glorifies President Sirisena’s victory.
The first had to do with the strength and reassurance the anti-Rajapaksa camp attracted through the serious intervention of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist forces, such as the JHU and the Pivithuru Hetak movement – helped by the timely transformation of these groups into something more national and reformist. This intervention, in turn, was effective because of a ‘common candidate’ who seemed more presentable to the majority (for the Tamil people, it was anyway an anti-incumbent vote). To a wider public and the world at large, change was coming. Beneath the surface, however, there was another subtle message at work: there were different and more ‘progressive’ ways in which the Sinhala Buddhist State can be protected. Some in the anti-Rajapaksa camp may have wanted to abandon the Sinhala-Buddhist project; but that project had never abandoned the anti-Rajapaksa camp.
The second factor was the popular slogan: ‘yahapalanaya’. Apart from portraying the Rajapaksa-camp in a negative light, its key advantage was its overbroad character which was able to please various different constituent groups in society. It had something for everyone: for the Tamils, for the Sinhala-Buddhists, for the civil society groups, for some leftists, etc. With ‘yahapalanaya’, any one of your political fantasies had the potential of being (at least partially) realizable in the future.
Yet, the ‘yahapalanaya’ myth is also an enduring problem; since it created dreams of a fantastic world that cannot be realized. It proclaimed a swift end to corruption and nepotism, tough action against those who had wronged, and reconciliation between peoples. But the context proved that this was not possible, especially if the main goal of the new leadership was the prevention of the return of the Rajapaksas. In constructing the hope of an ideal world, the new establishment exposed itself to be critiqued and ridiculed in case it failed to meet the promised high standards of good governance. In short, to win an election a beautiful promise had to be constructed. But this was also risky: for frustration was bound to arrive more quickly when grand promises appeared unrealizable.
Furthermore, the present frustration with the political leadership has much to do with the image of a depoliticized leader that certain yahapalanaya-activists had come to develop in their own minds. Having emerged victorious in what was potentially a life-threatening electoral battle, the new President was now expected to introduce necessary reforms, abolish the Executive Presidency, forget about his party, and perhaps retire from politics at the earliest opportunity. (The President himself sought to suggest initially, that this was the plan).
On the contrary, the task before the new leader was one of serious power-consolidation, of avoiding the return of the Rajapaksas, of having to re-engage with his party, and seek to ensure its success at future elections. Also, the new leader had to avoid looking overly weak before the likes of Ranil Wickremasinghe and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. In this, the new leader had to be mindful of another irony underlying his election: the Sinhala majority was ready to welcome or tolerate a new leader, as long as he resembled something of the old. Reforming the Presidency was fine; but one had to essentially act like a Commander-in-Chief.
As honeymoons end and politics becomes more normal and real, President Sirisena confronts a staggering array of political challenges which, if mismanaged, would spell disaster to his stint in power. In seeking to manage them, however, he would find himself having to displease some of his ardent supporters who had come to build fantastic hopes around him.
Of the many challenges confronting the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government, one is the making of a new Constitution. Having started off on a ‘radical’ promise of facilitating a final and lasting solution to a bitter conflict, the new government appears to have realized that ultimate success of the proposed new constitution would principally depend on the retention of the provisions concerning the ‘unitary state’ and the prominence given to the Buddha Sasana. In doing so, considerable opposition to the new constitution would be effectively avoided, making it somewhat more convenient to construct and present to the people a constitution which, inter alia, abolishes the Presidency, while introducing a new electoral system, an enhanced fundamental rights-chapter, and a devolutionary framework which is only a modest improvement on the 13th Amendment. Never a fulfillment of the desire for federalism of the Tamil polity, the new constitution and the political leadership would only be able to promise a more equal and just society where the human rights of all will be protected.
Another key challenge concerns the re-energized ultra-Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist forces, such as the BBS (and the new Sinha-Le movement). As has happened already, President Sirisena is most likely to engage with these groups (especially the BBS). Non-engagement is not an option; because the success of non-engagement can only be guaranteed through the brutal and violent suppression of the monks. Though electorally weak, the BBS represents something more serious and potent in Lankan society, with its main face, Gnanasara thera, having a cult following (as witnessed in public), while also attracting much admiration within the Sangha community. The uncomfortable reality that has emerged given the developments of the last few years is that the task before any leader is to prevent the dangers (i.e. harm for minorities) by swift and forceful action, while continuing to engage with them, and at times seeking to exploit them to further one’s political agendas. With the incidents in Homagama, a mix of these different approaches will ensue. This is also because of the likelihood that the problems of the BBS will also become the problems of the Sangha, with the problems of the Sangha now being the problems affecting the Sinhala-Buddhists too.
In 2015, President Sirisena appeared to be an illusive, enigmatic, character. He was often viewed as a leader who, elected by the people (and with considerable foreign assistance – something that the majority polity is aware of), was politically closer to the projects of the West and civil society groups. The political context demanded that he either played such a role or allowed himself to be interpreted as being such a leader. The politics of 2016 is set to be different. Striking a more nationalistic tone, President Sirisena will find himself having to manage competing values and interests of different and more disgruntled political forces, while also trying to learn from the prominent mistakes his predecessor made; a difficult task, since mistakes often begin to appear differently with the passage of time.
But with the return of a re-energized Mahinda Rajapaksa (given the developments during the past week), President Sirisena would be compelled to take maximum use of the authoritarian tendencies of his Prime Minister, the commitment of the likes of Minister Champika Ranawaka, and most importantly, the involvement in active politics of the establishment’s final trump card: Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. If the lesson was not clear for the new leadership, it appears to be clear now: to defeat the Rajapaksas, it will have to be like the Rajapaksas in certain ways. Yet, the problems don’t end there. In having to be like the Rajapaksas, the new leadership will now need to be more open to the vagaries of life.