Photograph via VOA News

The irony of the present political moment in Sri Lanka is that it appears the message of both Mahinda and Maithripala is essentially the same: ‘there is no substitute’. Both build their politics on how dangerous the other is, seeking to thrive on a politics of anxiety. And for these reasons alone critical democratic reasoning must be skeptical of both.

But there is more to it. Just the other day a friend of mine recalled that a professor he once knew used to say that politics is about replacing one set of problems with another rather than solving them. By all accounts the Rajapakse regime is fundamentally anti-democratic in form and substance. Maithripala promises us that he will blunt the most glaring of these formal defects. Yes, the Executive Presidency is evil but is a Prime Ministerial government buttressed by a staunchly nationalist and racist JHU and a former General whose democratic and pluralist credentials are at best deeply suspect, coordinated by a party that is in essence the progenitor of the Executive Presidency and aggressive neo-liberalisation, and presided over by someone who until a few days ago was Mahinda’s flag-bearer now backed by a bunch of fellow crossed-overs, any better for democracy?

Just ask progressive civil society in Gujarat and elsewhere in India about Modi-ification notwithstanding the active presence of all the institutional checks and balances currently lacking in Sri Lanka. Mahinda’s re-election will be a blow to democracy but his defeat at the hands of Maithripala will not signal a victory for it either. How can a political agenda that melds a JHU piqued at being upstaged by a more virulent strain of itself (the BBS), Fonseka in search of political vengeance, disgruntled SLFP-ers and sundry opportunists with a UNP whose path dependent vote bank masks its political impotence, be substantively democratic? We must recognise the character of the Maithripala bloc for what it is: differently undemocratic, elitist, and an opportunistic alliance between ultra-nationalism, ethno-religious chauvinism, frustrated political ambition, and a variety of liberal pretenses and neoliberal economic orientations. There is no way we can critically support the Maithripala campaign without becoming compromised by and complicit in it. Autonomous and progressive political forces must therefore maintain a principled distance from it.

More than ever, it is at political moments like these that progressive forces must speak out in an independent voice. Even in a context like Sri Lanka, where there is otherwise so little space for progressive independent voices, a Presidential election can and will yield space. But we can only create and claim that distinct space if we take a distinct stand that is in favour of a politics of alternatives not a politics of substitution.

Rather than hasten to rally around Maithripala, and speculate endlessly on the nature of ‘the deal’, who will jump ship, what is the going rate, and how Maithripala can be held to his word if he wins, and so on, those of us who identify with autonomous and progressive civil and political society must stake out independents fields. Ones that are not defined solely or even centrally by regime change but animated by a commitment to social and economic justice and genuine democratic transformation. We must not become complicit in reducing democratic politics to anti-Rajapakse politics.

We must go well beyond putting the repeal of the Executive Presidency along with the issues of 17th and 18th amendments, the lack of judicial independence and media freedoms on the election agenda. We must call for economic justice and democratization including issues of reducing inequalities, cutting external debt, progressive tax reform, checking the power of big capital and finance, and protecting labour rights; a comprehensive reform of land rights to end land grabbing and forced evictions; demilitarizing governance especially but not only in the North and East; substantive political measures towards post-war reconciliation and justice; safeguarding minority rights and reigning in extremist forces like the BBS; strengthening social infrastructure and entitlements; instituting an independent civil service and measures such as freedom of information, and so on.

Yes, this is a democratic rights agenda that goes well beyond the impending election. The question is not whether there are any takers for it or space for such an agenda but rather whether it is ethical for those of us committed to social justice and genuine political and economic democracy to dedicate ourselves to anything less.

We must rescue democratic visions from the narrow electoral bandwidth, anti- and pro- Mahinda, to which they are presently confined. We should instead be going out to the voters and advancing an agenda for a democratic, pluralist, inclusive, and just Sri Lanka. The focus must not be on supporting Maithripala, critically or otherwise, but on how we can engage the public and electorate at large with a deeper and substantive political agenda. The biggest danger to our democratic vision and commitment is not another Rajapakse victory but rushing to support the Maithripala bandwagon because we underestimate our convictions, relevance, resilience, imagination and ability to act autonomously and with integrity despite our many limitations, fears, confusions, and contradictions. We can and must act so.

Indeed, a Maithripala victory, even if realized, is going to be a false dawn, one that will bring fresh impediments to democratization. Long have we waited for democratization from above, now is a time better than ever to recommit to democratization from below, to building a new social and political ethos and setting a foundation for a real alternative democratic political discourse and agenda. Our struggle and striving to do so, even if not immediately effective, is likely to be more credible, leave a stronger footprint and foundation for a democratic future than supporting Maithripala ever will.

Finally, it is crucial to differentiate between what we do on election day when confronted with a ballot list and what we do in the days before (and indeed after). Will we allow the logic of the former to subsume the latter? Indeed, giving Maithripala a vote—only to help dislodge the Rajapakses—and endorsing Maithripala politically (critically or otherwise) are in fact two different things. To reduce this political moment only to the former, assuming there is nothing else and no other way but to do the latter, and failing to articulate and work to advance a substantive alternative political, social and economic justice agenda is tantamount to choosing the easy way out. Before each of us who may identify as part of this autonomous and progressive civil and political society is the challenge of not letting our electoral calculus limit our political imagination and action.