18th Amendment, Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Politics and Governance, Post-War


“In other words it now becomes evident that (to quote Marx) people do not treat somebody as a king because he is a king in himself; he is a king because and as long as people treat him as one.” (Slavoj Zizek, ‘The Ticklish Subject’, p192, italics in the original).


If God is dead, everything is permitted, said Dostoevsky, part echoed by Nietzsche who exclaimed “God is dead, and we have killed him”. The danger of announcing the death of democracy, when it isn’t dead, is precisely that ‘everything is permitted’. It permits dictatorial practices on the part of the authorities who no longer feel fettered by democracy. It permits violent protest by those who believe that there are no longer any democratic methods of change – which in turn permits greater violence on the part of the authorities which directs it also against peaceful protest.

The placing of an obituary of democracy is even more pernicious because it removes hope from the citizenry, and as Ernest Bloch argues in his multivolume work ‘The Principle of Hope’, it is utterly indispensable.

I agree with Kalana Senaratne’s sober critique of the 18th amendment on Transcurrents and in the Sunday Leader but I also think that the Supreme Court judgement made some valid observations about the franchise. My comments on the debate are a critique of the hysteria and are written in the spirit of what Alain Badiou terms an “interpretative intervention”.

By committing the cardinal error of misinterpreting regime type and state form – and here the LSE’s (Sri Lankan born) Prof Razeen Sally was far more rigorous than the locally based critics when he noted the tendency towards ‘Caesarist-Bonapartist authoritarianism’- the post 18th Amendment discourse of Colombo’s civil society intelligentsia obscures the actually existing political space which constitutes the sites of strivings and struggles for potential transformation.

Here’s something for those who bewail that the 18th amendment was the ‘last nail in the coffin in which democracy has been laid’ to ponder: what do you say when the next nail goes in? To put it plainly, the 19th amendment could be to the electoral system.  How many seats will the opposition get under its present leadership, when elections are held under a system which is preponderantly ‘first past the post’? Let me put it in terms of Political Analysis for Dummies: hypothetically speaking, if Colombo has only one seat and the UNP were still led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, on present data that one seat would be won and Colombo represented not by the UNP but by a certain Mr Weerawansa.

This brings me to the Lawrence Olivier question. In Marathon Man, Olivier, playing the Nazi war criminal, Szell, kept drilling without anaesthesia into the teeth of Dustin Hoffman, all the while asking him a solitary, maddeningly repetitive question: “Is it safe?” (By which he meant was it safe for him to get his diamonds). Given the statement of Minister Keheliya Rambukwella (an early donation from UNP ranks to the SLFP government) that the next election, the ones to local government bodies, will be held under the FPTP system, one can assume that a change-over may be contemplated at the national level too, someday soon. Those members of the UNP and its supportive civil society who wish the UNP’s present leadership to remain must then ask themselves the Olivier question: “Is it safe?” (As in “Is it safe for Sri Lankan democracy, to retain Ranil as the party or Opposition leader?”)

As Szell (Laurence Olivier) discovered, it wasn’t safe.

There is the question of moral-ethical credibility. How to take the protestations of those who are critical of Mahinda Rajapakse but were never critical of Velupillai Prabhakaran? Or those who were and are far more critical of Mahinda Rajapakse than they ever were of Prabhakaran? Some, like the admirably eloquent Mr Sumanthiran of the TNA, have yet to make as full length and full–on a critique of Prabhakaran and the Tigers as he did in parliament of Mahinda Rajapakse and the 18th amendment. Ok, forget ‘full-on’, couldn’t he mention the LTTE and its leader even once, in his passionate denunciation of the “nailing of the coffin of democracy”? If this seems like a ‘Sinhalese militarist’ harping on the past, what does one make of the memorial ceremonies nine years after 9/11, not to mention the war memorials decades later? How many 9/11s did we experience? The Central bank bombing was only one. And our Thirty Years war ended only a year back. For the sake of credibility if not ethics and morality, self-criticism of collusion with naked fascism must surely precede criticism of a Caeserist- Bonapartist authoritarianism which still keeps alive the practice of multiparty representative electoral politics.

It is true that the regime’s ideologues play the anti-Tiger patriotic card to justify the 18th amendment, but that linkage is made not only by pro-18A but also anti-18A personalities. The Opposition which is hobbled by association with the LTTE (TNA) or appeasement of it (Ranil’s UNP), finds itself virtually impaled on the stake of un-patriotism by those like Prof Kumar David who draw a direct line of causation between the military victory and support for it on the one hand, and opposing both the military victory and the 18th amendment on the other.  He writes:

“Such is the gravity of September 2010, an inexorable consequence of May 2009…I take no particular delight in rubbing it into my Sinhalese compatriots that, as surely as night follows day, when state power raises itself above society through victory in a racist civil war, its subsequent transformation into an instrument for the repression of its own people is a lesson that history has demonstrated many times. The psychological setting and balances of power fashioned by the overwhelming victory of the state over the LTTE is the backdrop to today’s march to dictatorship… “(‘Treachery what is Left of thy name’, Sunday Island Sept 12, 2010)

Well, if that’s the package, if that’s the retrospective identification and nexus, then Kumar David and his “Sinhala compatriot” are of one mind, and whose arguments do you think the masses will go along with; which choice will they make?

Unlike the UNP, the TNA and their supportive intelligentsia, the JVP did stand against the Tigers, though they have yet to settle accounts with their own unrestrainedly savage attacks on democracy and democrats in 1986-89.

It is exceedingly difficult to take seriously the civil society opinion makers bewailing the death of democracy because they are not behaving as do any serious intellectual and political resistance against the kind of phenomenon they claim to be combating.

Take your pick: Lenin’s Bolsheviks against the Tsarist autocracy; Trotsky, his Stalinist opponents and the genius Gramsci against Fascism; Mao against the Japanese invaders. None of them wasted time screaming at or squealing against the enemy. Their audience was precisely their own ranks, those of the opposition or resistance. Their writings were about the strategy, tactics, lines, programmes and slogans to be adopted precisely to stop or roll back what was happening.  If they did any yelling, metaphorically speaking, it was within the oppositional space. Trotsky spent the years 1929-1932 like John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness, calling for a united front of the working class parties, the Communists and Socialists. The Stalinist Comintern, led by the  enormously courageous  Bulgarian, Georgi Dimitrov who braved a Nazi court in Berlin (attended by Goebbels and Goering) and won by virtue of his argumentation and international solidarity, campaigned for an even broader alliance — that of the Popular Front of working class, middle class and liberal bourgeois parties. Mao went further in his advocacy of the united front, twinning guerrilla war with a broad alliance that included erstwhile enemies like Chiang Kai Shek (who had massacred Communists in 1927 and executed Mao’s second wife). Gramsci, jailed by Mussolini’s courts explicitly in order “to stop that brain working for the next twenty years”, spent his time in an encyclopaedic labour of critique and comprehension, forging a whole new arsenal of theoretical weapons, suggesting a sophisticated and seamless long term strategy and minting almost a new lexicon of politics of emancipation, instead of foaming at the mouth at his oppressors.

If someone were to think that I am stuck in a time warp, the point I make applies to Gramscian Marxist intellectuals like Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques who helped the British Labour movement think through and overcome the long Thatcher era.  Stuart Hall fought against the dominant views on the Labour Left, that Thatcher was yet another traditional Conservative Right wing government, and of the Trostkyist loony Left that considered her some kind of fascist. Using Gramscian methodological tools, he pointed out that Thatcher had used a package of emotional, psychological and ideological themes to bring together a broad and durable bloc of forces in a project that Hall defined as “authoritarian populism”, which had shifted the national terrain over the long term.

Stuart Hall also pointed out that the fight-back will have to be Gramscian, not a frontal assault by the no longer existing (disintegrated, atomised) “working class movement” against a non-existent “fascism”, but the construction of a countervailing but no less national and popular bloc and a protracted, incremental accumulation of cultural and moral hegemony which finally results in a politico-electoral tectonic shift. Martin Jacques took the discourse forward from that point, putting the spotlight on the disappearance of the old ‘working class’ and the emergence instead of new social forces, critiquing the programmes of the ‘Old Guard’ Labour Opposition and various Marxist groupings, encouraging new thinking about a new programme.

These intellectual and theoretical efforts had an ancestry in the pioneering re-thinking of the mid-1970s, by the Euro-Communists, mainly the neo-Gramscian Italian and Spanish CPs, grappling with the problem of one party dominant regimes such as that of the Christian Democrats who had ruled Italy for decades. The Italian CP leader Enrico Berlinguer floated the slogan of a historic compromise with a wing of the Christian Democrats. Other ‘new thinkers’ were Regis Debray who argued for a ‘Socialism wrapped in the French tricolour’ (the equivalent would be democracy, not twinned with a line that appeased the LTTE, but wrapped in the Sri Lankan flag) and Nicos Poulantzas who stressed that the state was not so much a monolith to be frontally confronted, but itself a terrain of contestation, and the site of power shifts.

Ernesto Laclau, Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques built on these foundations.  It was from these intellectual efforts and the understanding that some of what Thatcher had done could not and should not be undone; that the national terrain had permanently shifted; that this shift had to be taken into account and partly respected if it were to be partly replaced and wholly superseded, that New Labour arose out of the ashes of the old.

Much the same narrative, without the theoretical and ideological background, is true of the Democratic Leadership Council, which shifted the US Democrats to a centrist stand, picked and promoted Bill Clinton, and thus put an end to the long era of Reaganism and Republican rule.

If I may reiterate my original point, a serious intellectual resistance begins with the effort precisely to redraw and restructure the oppositional space and outline a viable, alternative political project with a national-popular appeal.  Lenin famously said that without a revolutionary theory there cannot be a revolutionary movement. Similarly, without an alternative political project, no party put itself forward as a political alternative and expect to be taken seriously by the citizenry.

Contrary to the ‘theorists’ of the Opposition, the historical moment is NOT one of a democracy movement but of the revitalisation of the political party system through the revivification of political parties. Non-party political movements are fine but they can be regarded the crucial political agency of change only in a system in which the opposition parties have been actually repressed – not when they are simply unpopular and unelectable. The civic resistance strategy was the right one for unelected despotisms (the Shah), military juntas or communist party dictatorships, in which there was no multiparty system and elective principle. Only someone with a fragile grasp of reality could claim that it is true of Sri Lanka today, and only someone who has no political memory or is ignorant of our contemporary history could deny that the closest we came to it (apart from Prabhakaran’s fascist rule which surpassed these forms) was between July 1980 (the smashing of the trade union movement by sacking 60,000 workers), through December 1982 (JRJ’s referendum in place of parliamentary elections) and July ’83 (the proscription of the JVP, with the SLFP already decapitated through civic disabilities and incarceration).

Leon Trotsky may have been pushing it a bit, when he wrote that “the crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of leadership” but it is certainly true of Sri Lanka: contrary to the apocalyptic “wailing and gnashing of teeth” among the civil society radicals, the crisis of Sri Lankan democracy is primarily (if not ‘reduced to’) the crisis of opposition leadership.

There will be no revival of a democratic opposition without an opposition politics that reassures the majority of the electorate about its staunchness on issues of secessionism, terrorism, national security and national sovereignty. Any doubts on this score, or associations with the past of appeasement will have at the very least the same effect as memories of the closed economy of 1970-77 had on the electoral fortunes of the SLFP and therefore those of the UNP administration.  Amilcar Cabral urged his own class, the petty bourgeoisie to “commit suicide as a class” and be re-born ideologically as “revolutionary proletarians”, in an act that came to be known as “revolutionary suicide”. Similarly, for an effective re-balancing of the polity, the civil society cosmopolitans have to ‘commit suicide ideologically’ and be reborn as (pluralist) patriots or just get the hell away from the UNP and take the Wickremesinghes with them, allowing that party to return to its roots as the multiethnic, multi-religious representative of the patriotic Sinhala peasantry and provinces (Senanayakes) and the urban and rural ‘have-nots’ (Premadasa).

In Sri Lanka, the ‘intellectual’ critics of the administration are those least conspicuous in the search for an alternative to the prop that holds up the status quo which they condemn as ‘totalitarian’ and ‘fascist’. Ironically, these civil society ideologues prop up the prop; not support the alternative. Is it purely coincidental that those civil society personalities that opposed the military victory and Mahinda Rajapakse and advocate an international war crimes probe, are pretty much the same ones that opposed President Premadasa and supported the impeachment motion against him? There are echoes and residues of that political struggle, also in today’s polarisation within the UNP.

These pathetic, retrogressive pseudo-politics can have no resonance with the people – and as Lenin said “serious politics begins where tens of millions of people are”.