Image courtesy Lanka Puvath

Perhaps the most interesting single thing to watch about the upcoming Uva election is whether or not the UNP will get significantly more than half of the vote that the Government succeeds in obtaining. Will the Govt’s percentage of the vote increase, decrease or remain roughly static? If it is a decrease, will that be lesser or greater than the increase in the UNP vote, if increase there is? Will the UNP show tangible signs of recovery, of bottoming out of its long downswing?

The next most interesting things are the percentages that the JVP and General Fonseka’s Democratic Party succeed in polling. 

If the UNP fails to get appreciably more than half the vote that the UPFA obtains, the reason will be very simple. While on the surface of it, it is almost impossible for a coalition that has been in office for two decades to retain its percentage of the vote, the UPFA contests under the leadership—the sign, the brand as it were—of Mahinda Rajapaksa who has been in office for under ten years while the UNP is running, or hobbling, under the leadership and the brand of Ranil Wickremesinghe who has been around as opposition leader for twenty years. By this reckoning the factors of attrition and anti-incumbency go twice as much against the UNP as against the UPFA. Therefore, paradoxically, the Opposition UNP tends to get roughly half the vote of the ruling UPFA.

There are considerations even more important than the UPFA and UNP’s relative performances in Uva. Those are what the Government and Opposition will do on the morning after.

The President has two options. Does he press home the advantage of a win in Uva, maintain the momentum, and go for a snap presidential election, probably in the weeks and months after November 19th? Or does he space out the elections so as to retain the option of leveraging the UNP leader’s unpopularity in contrast to his own popularity, thereby imposing an electoral defeat on the Opposition even when mass economic discontent builds up significantly?

If on the morning after a disappointing showing in Uva, the UNP leader fails to step down or the UNP fails to remove him, so that the party may climb back into the ring for the big one, the Presidential election, the only conclusion is that the UNP is like the proverbial dog in the manger, with a leader who is unable to defeat the UPFA and unwilling to step down and a party that is unable or unwilling to replace him with one who may have half a chance of doing so.

If anything is a safer assumption than anything else, it is that the present UNP leader and the Head of Government must already be sharing information about the respective dissidents in each other’s camps, just as the same UNP leader did with President Kumaratunga, and one of his predecessor’s as Opposition Leader, the SLFP’s Anura Bandaranaike did with President Jayewardene in the run-up to the Referendum of 1982 (resulting in the infamous Naxalite Plot and the incarceration of Vijaya Kumaratunga).

Understanding Uva’s Deep Dimension

It may come as a surprise to the readers to know that Uva has anything to do with London, Paris, Boston or St Petersburg, but it does. The assumption in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries was that the processes of revolutionary modernization in England, America and France were the templates of social and political change. The rising upper middle and middle classes, preceded by the thinkers and professionals, would rally the peasants around them, and take on the monarchies and feudals, either displacing them and wrenching reforms ( England), throwing off their yoke (US) or overthrowing them (France). These were the three variants of democratization and modernization and all took place under the leadership of the rising bourgeoisie and middle class.

The expectation in Russia too was that the liberal bourgeois opposition would spearhead the political struggle against Tsarism, but it soon began to be clear that no such thing would happen, because the liberal bourgeoisie was either too weak-kneed or too economically complicit with the Tsarist state to lead the struggle for democracy and modernity. That realization led to the next one, namely that the historic tasks of democratization and modernization could no longer be fulfilled by the liberal bourgeoisie as happened in England, the US and most conspicuously France, but would instead have to be shouldered by a coalition of social forces, urban and rural, led by the Left.

This amounted to a paradigm shift to the left, but had to be followed within a few decades by yet another paradigm shift, this time rightwards or rather towards the center. Just as it was understood that the liberal bourgeoisie could not be counted on to democratize and modernize the nation and society, and that this task therefore devolved on the Left, the Left itself was to realize in the face of the rise of Fascism in Europe, that it had to shift rightwards, i.e. to the center, forming the broadest possible social and ideological coalition which embraced everyone while isolating and targeting the most violently militaristic, monopolistic and racist element. In pursuance of this broad coalition, the Left had to drop its more radical programs and commit itself to a platform of democracy, patriotism and reform. This strategy, famously known as the Popular Front, tragically came too late to prevent fascism from taking power, but was successful especially in its global and local applications, in finally defeating fascism.

The Popular Front concept took root beyond Russia, especially in the East. Mao Zedong called it New Democracy, which featured a bloc of four social classes including the nationalistic/patriotic section of the capitalist class. The two most creative political thinkers associated with the new paradigm of alliance and flexibility were Mao in the East, and Antonio Gramsci (and his friend and successor Palomiro Togliatti) in the West.

The sweeping contemporary successes of the Left in Latin America have been the result of the creative application by those parties and leaders, of Antonio Gramsci’s own creative version of the Popular Front strategy.

It is Uva and its immediate aftermath which will demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt whether such a shift in perspective is necessary in Sri Lanka; whether the traditional party of bourgeois modernization, the UNP is unable to perform its task of dislodging or even constituting an effective alternative to the entrenched status quo.

The Real Political Agenda

What are the corresponding tasks of democratic modernization facing Sri Lanka today, which would have to be undertaken by the Right, Left or Center?

  1. A permanent and just peace and national unification: the fulfillment of the promise of peace and the prevention of renewed ethnic secessionism by learning the lessons of the Thirty Years War and building a unifying Sri Lankan identity through the eradication of ethnic and ethno-religious discrimination, prejudice and injustice.
  2. Fulfillment of the country’s potential through the institution of the principle of merit in every sphere, which requires as a pre-requisite, the dismantling of a closed, extended family/clan based monopolization of political and economic power and decision making.
  3. Rollback of the overextension of the security agencies and military into spheres of social, political, cultural and economic life.
  4. Safeguarding national independence, sovereignty, the Sri Lankan armed forces, and the verdict of history on the quintessentially just character of the final war, from hegemonic external interventionism and the falsification of history, by returning to Sri Lanka’s traditional, balanced foreign policy and rebuilding a broad coalition of global support.

When the most crucial historic task facing the country was its reunification by defeating the fascist-secessionist enemy, the UNP failed in fulfilling it, as did the Chandrika led SLFP (though to a much lesser degree). It was therefore left to a coalition of the Rajapaksas and the Sinhala ultranationalists to succeed.

As often happens in history, the bloc that won the war has been unable to win the peace, and therefore requires either (i) a re-composition which retains Mahinda Rajapaksa as engine while de-coupling the wagons of family monopoly of power, or (ii) a democratic replacement. The historic gains of Mahinda Rajapaksa may require either de-linking him from a quasi-monarchic political monopoly and interfamilial succession or if that is not possible, his eventual democratic replacement.

Though the entrenchment of the gains of the war under President Rajapaksa may require a post-Rajapaksa future, such a future cannot be arrived at through the agency of a pre-Rajapaksa political elite. Sri Lanka needs to move beyond the war, but that cannot be achieved by a failed pre-war elite of which Ranil Wickremesinghe is the exemplar (and CBK too, though less so). The postwar tasks which the Rajapaksas, the dominant faction of the wartime power elite, have failed to undertake still less complete, have to be completed either by dissenting elements of the patriotic wartime elite—the JVP, Gen Fonseka, Karu J—or younger patriotic popular figures (Sajith). It took Clement Attlee a progressive member of the wartime national coalition, to supplant Churchill. The appeaser Neville Chamberlain surely could not have.

Uva and the morning after will show whether or not the UNP is declining faster than the Government; whether it is a tribe facing extinction because it is unable or unwilling to replace its leader. If so, then a dual paradigm shift will be urgently imperative, with all those of reformist, progressive, moderate, centrist, liberal and dissenting views having to shift to the Left (i.e. to Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s JVP), while that Left will have to greatly broaden its appeal to moderate opinion by a corresponding shift to the center.

Dangers & Chances

To put it at its simplest, the JVP has to attract UNP voters belonging to three sub-categories i.e. those who once voted UNP, still vote UNP and might well have voted UNP had it been under a new leadership. The JVP also has to attract SLFP voters disaffected by the unprecedented monopoly of power and resource allocation by the ruling family. These UNP and SLFP voters are moderate centrists, and will not be radicalized beyond a point; will not shift too far left in their thinking even if there is an economic crunch. Thus the JVP will have to be flexible enough to embrace the center.

This is a matter of life and death for the JVP, because it is the size of their vote and representation in parliament that will safeguard them from repression on trumped up charges as they experienced at the hands of JR Jayewardene in 1983. With familial succession at stake today, in a manner that it wasn’t under JRJ, the likelihood of suppression during a third term is even greater than in the 1980s. Even the organizational strength of the JVP as a party will depend upon the size of its mass support base, and that size will in turn depend on the breadth of their sociopolitical appeal.

Only a Right-Left pincer move which shifts the middle classes of town and country to the Left, and the Left towards those middle classes; only such a historic convergence, can constitute a new progressive project of Hope as an alternative to the four negative phenomena of (a) political monopolization and hereditary succession, (b) rampant racism and religious polarization, (c) latent Northern secessionism and (d) hegemonic external interventionism.