Colombo, Elections, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance


“Prabhakaran, a textbook fascist…” - The Economist (‘Victory for the Tiger Slayer’ Jan 28th, 2010)

“Resistance to imperialism does not of course involve only armed force or bands of guerrillas. It is mainly allied with nationalism and with an aroused sense of aggrieved religious, cultural or existential identity.”- Edward Said (‘The Voyage In: Third World Intellectuals and Metropolitan Cultures’)

It is easy to be wise after the event, so I usually try to be wise before it. In a piece originally entitled ‘Crisis 2010: The post election scenario’ published over a month ago, from Dec 20th 2009 through to the 23rd, in the Sunday Lakbima, Transcurrents, Sri Lanka Guardian and Ada Derana, this is how I saw the Presidential election panning out:

“It is a fairly safe assumption that with the Southern province elections the Rajapakse administration hit its electoral ceiling and the UNP its floor. The ceiling is fairly high, around 65%, and the floor (almost a basement floor, courtesy Mr. Wickremesinghe) pretty low, 25%. It is a safe guess that President Rajapakse had his eyes on Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s “ground record”.

However, he will have to contend with the fact that even without the Fonseka challenge the UPFA with its patriotic platform has peaked and is on a slow parabolic downswing, enabling him at best to beat or reach President Jayawardene’s winning 1982 figure, Premadasa’s 1988 score or CBK’s 1999 result, but not her higher, or one might say, substantially fuller, figure of 1994. That last figure was an anomaly in any case, not generated by her “charisma” or “peace program” …but by default – the Tiger having serially assassinated every viable UNP presidential candidate…

On balance it is exceedingly doubtful that any personality around today can, even as “common candidate”, bridge and exceed the gap of around 30% between the Opposition and President Rajapakse. If the UNP had a viable candidate such as Karu Jayasuriya, then a Fonseka or Sarath Silva “spoiler” third candidacy might have made it a close fight, but even so, President Rajapakse would probably win, in a replay of JRJ’s 1982 or Premadasa’s 1988 victories.” (Sunday Lakbimanews Dec 20, 2009)

The only thing amiss about this projection is that it underestimated the sweeping character of the President’s victory in the Sinhala, and more especially, Sinhala Buddhist heartland, but it was made before the TNA allied with the opposition.

Mahinda Rajapakse gave the lie to the notion that the minorities, especially the Tamil minority held the key to the outcome of the election.  Given the demographics on the ground, namely that the Sinhalese constitute an overwhelming majority, Rajapakse proved that winning an overwhelming majority of that overwhelming majority was a viable path to victory, leaving the Tamil voters relatively peripheral to the outcome just as the Tamil majority areas are peripheral to the island.  The (geographic) periphery proved to be (politically) peripheral, while the road to power lay through the paddy fields and the provinces of the Sinhala heartland. The Sinhala peasantry which provided the manpower to sustain the war against the Tigers and finally prevail over them, provided the votes needed for a political victory for the incumbent over the Fonseka option chosen ironically by the unreconstructed Tamil nationalists. The foot soldiers who loyally followed Gen Fonseka as Army chief, voted with their families for Mahinda. It is not that they deserted Fonseka but that Fonseka was perceived as deserting the camp of Sinhala nationalism. Rajapakse romanced and won the hearts of the heartland.

The question remains as to how the Opposition’s strategists, Western diplomatic opinion and the overwhelming majority of media pundits got it so very wrong. Not only were they on the wrong side of History and totally oblivious to the sentiments of the vast majority of their fellow citizens, their demonstrated powers of analysis require them to get to the back of the (Poli Sci) class and work it out. A cursory acquaintance with modern history would have told them that no military chief has bested a strong national political leadership in a political struggle in the aftermath of a historic, victorious struggle, be it war or revolution. As I said on Al Jazeera, can anyone recall the name of the Russian general or field marshal who led the successful campaign against the Chechen insurgency? The Russian voter remembers only President Putin, and we in Sri Lanka are experiencing our Putin moment. A Fonseka candidacy could have had a chance only in the context of a military defeat, an economic depression or an incumbent with a wimp factor. Furthermore, an Obama campaign can work only with an Obama candidacy, not grafted onto a John McCain or Ariel Sharon one. A Terminator-type candidate had no chance against a serial smiler with proven machismo and warm if rascally, piratical charm.

The statistical starting point of the opposition strategists and most commentators, not to mention those who sent an array of ‘polls’ by email, was the Presidential election of 2005. We were informed that “the facts were undeniable” when the only thing that was undeniable was the hollowness of pure empiricism as an analytical methodology. It was truly imbecilic to take 2005 as the base line, when that was an entirely different conjuncture. (i) The then President Chandrika Kumaratunga had thrown her not inconsiderable weight behind former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at that election and (ii) the intervening period was taken up with a full-on, victorious war, making the difference between 2005 and 2010 one between distinct historical periods, “pre-war”  and “postwar”, or  “the Prabhakaran period” and the “post-Prabhakaran period” with their qualitatively different dynamics and altered states of collective consciousness; of national moods.

Election 2010 was held in a period that was post-Prabhakaran but not post-nationalist or post-patriotic. The reckoning that Fonseka’s military record could neutralize that sufficiently, even to the extent of bearing the burden of an alliance with the TNA, the Tiger fellow travelers, ( and Ranil, the Tiger appeaser) proved disastrous. Above all, the Opposition, its western backers/handlers, its Diaspora Tamil allies and local pundits grossly underestimated the patriotism/nationalism and anti-interventionism/anti-imperialism of the Sinhala masses, as well as their democratic aversion to the risk of Bonapartist tyranny.  In Gramscian terms, the vital “national popular” and “national democratic” dimensions were ignored by the opposition’s strategists and ideologues, except in the most superficial sense of fielding a war hero as candidate. The struggle was perceived as being, and to a great extent was in fact, one between a “national popular bloc” identified with MR and a “neo-comprador bloc” identified with the joint Opposition.  Those factors, the depth and extent of which were underestimated, were activated not only by the perceived threat to the main political leader who had restored national pride, but by the presence of the pro-Tiger TNA and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s unrepentantly pro-appeasement (CFA) UNP at General Fonseka’s side, the reactivation of the “war crimes” propaganda in the West and certain gratuitous remarks by some Western representatives. The model for Rajapakse’s defeat was supposed to be that of Churchill in 1945, but not only was the born again politician Fonseka no Clement Attlee, Labour leader Attlee did not contest in alliance with Nazi supporter Oswald Mosely and appeaser Neville Chamberlain! Though unaware of its Biblical provenance, “tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are” seems to have been the criteria of the Sinhala Buddhist voter.

Is the newly and handsomely re-elected incumbent then secure from challenges? The first challenge is the avoidance of hubristic adventurism. President Jayewardene won a 5/6ths majority at the parliamentary election of 1977 and promptly disenfranchised his main opponent Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike. He won the Presidential election of 1982 comfortably, but blundered by postponing a parliamentary election and substituting a referendum instead. These two moves, coming in the wake of clear victories, de-legitimized the administration, generating a huge crisis with a bloody denouement. One can only hope that President Rajapakse is not nudged along the same path.

Less apocalyptically, dangers still beckon. If I may quote once more from my article a shade over a month ago:

‘The real problem starts after the elections. Presidents Jayewardene and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had dreadfully crisis-tossed second terms, which were terrible experiences for the country and its citizenry. If re-elected, President Rajapakse is likely to have a similar experience, though it may be lesser in intensity because he has, to his undying credit, removed the main motor of development of those earlier crises: Prabhakaran, the Tigers and the war. However, will he be able to overcome the abiding temptation of Sri Lankan presidents (what might be termed the CBK syndrome) to attempt escape from the confines of a rigid constitution?

The most prudent course of action for a President in his or her second term would be to take a leaf from the book of any US President, however popular or powerful, and understand that the corollary of occupying a seat of such great power and influence is that it is limited by two terms. No better recommendation could be given to a Sri Lankan president than to accept these limits of power and (a) to seek to ameliorate the North-South or Sinhala-Tamil question by simply implementing the 13th amendment to the existing Constitution while (b) unblocking the road to meritocracy which is a prerequisite for economic development, by implementing the 17th amendment, rather than to risk a referendum on more venturesome architectural moves.

What is sad is that no Sri Lankan president will accept that Realist advice with equanimity: hence the fiasco of Chandrika’s abortive “Constitutional revolution”. …Though the argument for a total replacement of the Constitution rather than its full implementation or reform, is that the existing one is too authoritarian and/or unsuited to the resolution of the ethnic issue, the real reason-cum-target is the two term limit and the electoral system of proportional representation which act as checks and balances.

The incumbent will be forced to confront the unresolved ethnic issue (despite a reluctance to admit its existence) in the form of the TNA, which has not yet eschewed Tamil Eelam and the Vadukkodai Resolution let alone accepted the sole practicable formula of maximum devolution within a unitary state (the UK model). It may very well pick up Trincomalee at the parliamentary election, approximating the TULF’s sweep in 1977. Its “asking price” will therefore be high; far too high for any government to grant without fear of a Southern backlash.’ (Ibid)

What now, what next?  The Sinhalese have voted overwhelmingly one way, the Tamils the other. What this means is that despite developmental successes, the Administration’s stewardship of the North and East and relationship with the ethnic minorities in general has been as stark a political failure as its relationship with the Sinhalese has been a political success. One is the reflection upside down, of the other.  Today, the majority of the Tamil–speaking people of the North and east have voted in a single bloc, and barring the Sinhala majority areas, the North and East have psychologically and politically re-merged! The failure to win notably large political support from the Tamils and Muslims in the East, despite the progress of economic development, not only reveals the flaws of that model of development – perceived as ethnocentric – but of the administration’s central and abiding weakness so far: its blind-spot regarding the political and psychological dimensions of the ethno-national question and its insensitivity to the dimension of ethnicity and the management of difference.

The ethnic polarization of the map of Sri Lanka reveals a basic structural weakness of the Lankan state formation. Samir Amin tells us that systems decay precisely at their periphery, and this I believe is true of state formations too. While President Rajapakse has resolved the decades long crisis of state power in that he has restored the state’s territorial borders (which are once again co-extensive with its natural ones) and monopoly of violence, he has not yet resolved the state’s crisis of legitimacy at its periphery. There is no political consensus which cross-cuts ethnicity and runs from North to South, East to West.  Thus, the crisis continues.

Sad, troubling, but more affordable in the final analysis for the Sinhalese than the Tamils because the former have the numbers, the big guns, the engines of economic growth, the ideological fuel of assertive nationalism and the historical memory-driven collective political will to maintain or restore coercive control over the North East. This means that the Tamils, having now seen that Sinhala sentiment tends overwhelmingly one way and the incumbent is here to stay another term, have one more chance to negotiate its way into the mainstream or remain an alienated periphery in more senses than one. That last chance or those last chances are at the parliamentary and provincial council election, as well as within a constituent assembly if one is constituted.  The Tamils need to become stakeholders of the Rajapakse administration and partners – neither posturing competitors nor pliant clients—of Sinhala nationalism. This entails a double and mutual shift: on the part of triumphant Sinhala nationalism and the re-elected presidency, to greater openness, generosity and accommodation of the Tamil sentiments, and on the part of the Tamils, to leaders from their community with whom the Sinhala nationalist dominated centre is willing and likely to deal with.  Here, I can only think of Devananda and perhaps Dharmalingam Siddharthan. Prudence, responsibility and constructive partnership are the need of the hour.  If the Tamils vote a Hamas equivalent, the North East could go the Gaza way. Far better they vote an Abbas/Palestinian Authority equivalent.  Any society that could produce Prabhakaran, a “textbook fascist”, “the Pol Pot of South Asia” (John F Burns, New York Times) is a sick society, or was. When the Sinhalese produced an equivalent, Wijeweera (who, however, was never deified as was the ‘Sun God’), it had enough healthy antibodies to destroy him. Tamil society did not. If Tamil society decides to be led and represented by those who do not yet forswear the evil that was Prabharakan and the Tigers, we can only conclude that the sickness has not left its body politic and is possibly endemic. This may render problematic, both the prospect of integration and the perspective of autonomy. The larger polity could find it problematic to fully integrate with or grant autonomy/devolve power to a sub-national formation from which the bacillus of separatism remains politically and ideologically dominant.