Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Politics and Governance, Post-War


Remember the “Bandaranaike yugaya” (the “Bandaranaike Era”)? Well it is now the Rajapakses’ round. The Rajapakse family now dominates the SLFP and Sri Lankan politics in much the same manner as did the Bandaranaikes (Sirima, Felix, Sunethra, Anura, Chandrika, and son in law Kumar, not to mention Mackie and Seewali Ratwatte and irate Ira). In the Gramscian sense, there has been a re-composition of the ‘power bloc’, and a shift to the Deep South which has provided the new ‘hegemonic fraction’ in what appears a stable, durable hegemony — or is potentially one, provided Sri Lanka’s Northern Question (Gramsci spoke of Italy’s ‘Southern Question’) can be amicably resolved.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has proved himself a superb politician and a successful wartime leader. Can he now make the ascent to the next level, from being a great Sinhala leader, a great leader of the Sinhalese, to being a Sri Lankan statesman? Will he use the moment and the momentum to press the re-set button on Sri Lanka’s Northern Question within the first hundred days of the new cabinet and parliament?  Will he press the re-set button to move forward to psychological unification and reconciliation through a ‘grand  bargain’ with the ITAK (TNA) on constitutional reform, or to move backwards to non-consensual centralisation and the abolition or dilution of existing provincial autonomy through its substitution by sub–unit devolution?  Will we move backward (not least constitutionally and legislatively) to 1977-83, 1972 and 1956, or forward to the 21st century?

President Rajapakse and his ruling coalition now control all levels of the island’s polity: the executive, the legislature, the provincial assemblies and the municipal authorities. This makes Sri Lanka, once an overly fractious multiparty democracy with an entrenched and highly competitive two party system, currently closer to that which existed in India until 1977 and Mexico until a few years ago: not so much a ‘one party dictatorship’ as what political scientists term a ‘one-party –dominant’ system.

While this should guarantee unprecedented political stability, will it help resolve the country’s longest running problem, that of the psycho-political integration of the Tamil majority areas and the transcendence of parochial Sinhala-Tamil identities by an overarching Sri Lankan consciousness? Will it enable Sri Lanka to accomplish its deferred task of integrating into Asia’s economic success by replicating the rest of Asia’s great leap forward into modernity?

That depends on how President Rajapakse chooses to invest the political capital of his cumulative victories. He has pulled off a triple whammy: won a war and two nationwide elections. Except for the Tamil majority North and East, his party dominates most of the country (possibly plus the strategic salient of Trincomalee district). Reverting to its old federalist platform, the TNA ran as the ITAK, and has won in the North and part of the East. It is the pre-eminent player on the Tamil side.

Now that President Rajapakse and his coalition are firmly in the saddle for at least the next six years, will the TNA unilaterally drop the slogan of self determination and unconditionally declare its loyalty to an undivided Sri Lankan state?  Will President Rajapakse avoid the short and easy route of securing a two thirds majority for constitutional change by attracting defectors from the UNP and opt instead for the moral high ground: a ‘historic compromise’ with the ITAK/TNA as the better means of a broader consensus for a new, post-war Constitution? Will his serial and cumulative victories amount to politico-ideological closure, system stagnation and toxicity of the political subculture or, with the ‘extreme situation’ of war over,  will it result in opening up, broad-basing and ethnic accommodation, making all ethno regional, ethno-linguistic and religio-cultural communities stakeholders in the Sri Lankan state? Will these victories unblock the reforms imperative for modernization?  The answer will determine whether or not Sri Lanka catches up with the rest of its fast-moving Asian family.

The historical precedents are ominous: on the last two occasions any leader (and government) had a greater or similar plenitude of power, Mrs Bandaranaike in 1970 and JR Jayewardene in 1977, the fissure in the North-South tectonic plates widened drastically rather than narrowed. Furthermore, just as it has Douglas Devananda today, when Colombo governments had strong Tamil partners – GG Ponnambalam Snr, M. Tiruchelvam, V. Ponnambalam – they were diminished and devalued by Colombo’s handling of the Tamil question.

Opposition’s Organic Crisis

The back-to-back elections, Presidential and parliamentary, took place in a historical context and their results reflect that combination or cross cutting of factors: on the one hand, a ‘history-making man’ and an administration which won the war against separatist-terrorism, which four former Presidents had failed to, and on the other, an Opposition leader indelibly associated in the mass mind with a policy of appeasement and defeatism in the face of the existential enemy, heading a party which has failed to take its distance from him, that policy and that past.

A striking feature of the results is that the UNP, hovering below 30%, has been unable to approximate the score that the newly widowed Ms Srima Dissanaike, who was not even a UNP member at the time, garnered for her party as presidential candidate in 1994 when the UNP was on its way out after 17 traumatic years in office and decapitation by Tiger suicide assassins.  If one deducts the votes that have returned to the ITAK this time around, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s UNP obtained roughly 10% fewer votes than it did when the Opposition was episodically headed by General Sarath Fonseka. Even making for the Sinhala votes that have gone DNA-wards, the UNP fared worse at the parliamentary election under Ranil than in January.

The UNP meltdown is attributable to the dysfunctional leadership of Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe who was Prime Minister for a brief two years, but apart from that interlude has kept his party securely in the opposition benches from 1994 to date.  Having lost elections at the hands of not only (war-winning) President Rajapakse but also his predecessor, (war-fighting) President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Mr. Wickremesinghe has the reputation of being a serial loser. This time on a visit to Jaffna he ‘suicide bombed’ his own party’s election campaign by promising to remove all military camps except one airbase.

However he has two factors in his favour: the loyalty of civil society and ethnic minorities of the city of Colombo, which dominates the UNP although the road to electoral power lies through the paddy fields, the provinces and the Sinhala majority suburbs; and membership of the Jayewardene-Wijewardene family clan that continues to enjoy pre-eminent influence over the party.    Thus the UNP under Mr Wickremesinghe ‘retained’ –has shrunk to — the country’s two main cities, Colombo and Kandy, while it has been swept away as if by a tsunami in the rest of the island.

The preference votes for Wimal Weerawansa, Douglas Devananda, Sajith Premadasa and Dayasiri Jayasekara (the top vote takers, the Rajapakses apart) show where the people of South and North are at: with populist nationalisms of this or that stripe, radical, progressive or centrist democrat; personalities that are youthful, politically literate, articulate.  Neither the free-market cosmopolitan pacifists nor the nativist ethno-religious fanatics are their first choice.

Gramsci identified as an aspect of what he termed an ‘organic crisis’, the detachment from a political formation of those social forces that had traditionally supported it. While the UNP was always a more broadly inclusionary and representative party than the SLFP in its ethno-religious composition and support base, it was also able to retain the support of nationalist Sinhala Buddhists, thereby making it the largest single political party in the country.  Due to Mr Wickremesinghe’s deracinated minoritarian profile (yuppie old boys, city-folk, ethnic lobbies, INGOs) and abandonment of the UNP’s fusion of tough conservative patriotism with robust mass appeal, there has been a haemorrhage of Sinhala (not just Buddhist but increasingly, Catholic) nationalist voters from the UNP. They will never return until there is a ‘game changer’ of a new leadership. Nothing else or less can repair the rupture, stem the outflow. Having marginalised itself into near-irrelevance under a ‘disorganic’ leader, the UNP is in a hopelessly self-destructive mode, driving itself to electoral extinction and its supporters to political destitution and deepest despair.