Photography courtesy International Business Times
The active politician is a creator, an initiator: but he is neither creates from nothing nor does he move in the turbid void of his own desires and dreams. He bases himself on effective reality but what is this effective reality?
– Antonio Gramsci, Prison Note Books, 2007,pp.172.
The unexpected defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential elections was followed by a second defeat in the parliamentary elections. Despite these successive defeats, Rajapaksa shows no signs of giving up. He has effectively become an opposition leader outside of Parliament. Reduced political or moral authority has left his confidence unshaken. Rajapaksa and his supporters have sought refuge in a dangerous brand of Sinhalese supremacist ideology, which places them above the law, above democracy and above a multicultural pluralist Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa initially made public statements that he would retire from active politics after he was defeated last year – but he did not retire. He and his supporters keep on spreading communal hatred and upholding communal views through their propaganda meetings as well as the national media every day, a freedom they denied to other parties and individuals when they were in power. In this way they reshape and strengthen their basic political message that Sri Lanka should not have a framework of devolved power and the Tamil community should learn to live with the Sinhala majority. They stand opposed to the reformist project of the new Government that aims to make Sri Lanka a modern nation with a pluralist democracy. Will Rajapaksa and his supporters succeed in their dreams to frustrate the government and if so under what conditions and at what political cost?
This article attempts to answer the question posed by Gramsci in the above quote on the issue of effective reality in party building, looking at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempts to regain political power.
Gramsci identifies three basic elements that are necessary for a successful party building: ‘mass element’, ‘principal cohesive element’ and ‘the intermediary element, which articulates the first with the second and maintains contact between them not only physically but also morally and intellectually’ (Prison Note Books, 2007,pp.172-173). This article aims to analyze to what extent these elements are present in the process of party building in the so-called joint opposition endeavor to form a party, and be capable of developing a functional organizational structure and win state power in the country.
Rajapaksa and the masses
Rajapaksa’s political authority has long been highly dependent on his popularity and depth of support in the country. Not only did he lose political power, he also lost moral authority. Despite these losses, he still commands huge support – a voter base of more than five million. Ideologically and politically, this mass support has some distinct characteristics. It is laden with primordial Sinhala Buddhist nationalist sentiments and anxiously proclaims the superiority of the Sinhala race. These sentiments were nurtured, sustained and strengthened during the Sri Lankan state’s 30-year war against the Tamil Tigers, not just by the state but by all parties across the political spectrum including the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). A failure to distinguish between the Tamil community’s democratic grievances and the fascist nature of the Tamil Tigers and a steady stream of racism contributed to this process. The Rajapaksa brothers therefore found fertile ground for their brand of authoritarian nationalism, winning the war against the Tigers and claiming to be the protectors of the country against a revival of Tamil militancy.
In so doing, the Rajapaksa brothers and their supporters can claim to be the contemporary ideological and political heirs to the founding principles of the SLFP, a crucial part of its growth, its electoral ability to win elections in the South again and again and its ability to capture national power since 1956.
An insecure Sinhala Buddhist political ideology is therefore fundamental to the psychology of the SLFP voter base. It demands a privileged position for the Sinhalese, both politically and constitutionally over other communities. To make such claims, Sinhalese nationalists resort to historical myths and narratives, an imagined past which provides an ideological and political cohesiveness to the base –even as political realities desert them. This mythmaking and cohesiveness is therefore built at the expense of democratic aspirations and the rights of other communities in this country and indeed, at the expense of a peaceful and democratic future.
This supremacist worldview unites the most ardent fundamentalist Sinhala Buddhist groups with socially and economically anxious voters in support of the Rajapaksa project. It is cohesive to the extent that it excuses and justifies the crimes and extra judicial killings during the previous regime led by Mahinda Rajapaksa. They argue that the law should not be applied to those in power during the war against the Tamil Tigers and be absolved of all wrongdoing. The plunder of national wealth by the Rajapaksa family and their cronies is also similarly excused, by blaming the investigations as a Western conspiracy, instigated by the diaspora.
Despite being out of power, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has galvanized the joint opposition to come into an open alliance with the most ardent fundamentalist Sinhala Buddhist organizations, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Rawana Balaya (RB) and the Sinha Le, a newly formed highly propagated Sinhala racist outfit. The BBS and RB are organizations, which have shown mob attitudes and convictions in their attacks on the Muslim community in Aluthgama in 2014, including setting fire to their properties. The previous government did not apply the due process of law to these mobs.
When Galgoda Atte Gnasara stormed Homa Gama magistrate Court in January this year and made a statement supporting the army intelligence officers who are suspects in the murder of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda they showed their contempt for law enforcement. These racist outfits are fanatical movements. Hannah Arendt observes in her Totalitarianism (1996) that fanaticized members can be reached by neither experience nor argument. Their identification with the movement and total conformism seem to have destroyed the very capacity for experience. This observation is valid here as far as the Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalist members of these organizations are concerned. Therefore the joint opposition’s use of fundamentalist Sinhala Buddhist organizations exploiting the fanaticism of these organizations to achieve that cohesiveness is not just ideological and political alone. For any organization fanaticism can provide a great measure of solidity and cohesiveness. In adapting the Sinhala chauvinist line, exploiting the insecurities in a multi religious and multi ethnic country the joint opposition is manipulating their electoral mass base in an attempt to recapture power.
These developments have actively created two factions in the SLFP: one faction that is part of the current government of good governance and the other faction which forms a key part of the joint opposition, which has actively organized themselves within parliament and outside as a separate entity.
Moral and Intellectual Articulation
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempt to regain power has not included any attempt or any capacity to accept political and moral responsibility for the plunder of national wealth, extra-judicial murders, money laundering, corruption and fraud committed during the previous regime. Their only argument is that the current government is victimizing the Rajapaksa family and his supporters. This arguments serves to put them above the law and gives a terrible example to their supporters that it is acceptable to resist just laws. The joint opposition also shows no ability to seriously address post war reconciliation with the Tamil community. After a thirty-year war it was to be expected that many issues needed to be resolved in order to establish a politically united plural democracy, including the devolution of political power to the Tamil community
The joint opposition is opposed to the release of political prisoners and the handover of army-occupied land to their original owners. Similarly, the current government efforts to devolution of political power to the Tamil community and its agenda to reform state structures to devolve political power to the provinces are opposed. This kind of opposition to reforms will drive the their mass voter base into undemocratic and tribal politics that would recreate the conditions that were present the beginning the ethnic war about 30 years ago. In their articulation of anti-democratic and anti-devolutionary rhetoric remains a danger to a democratic and peaceful future, dividing the country rather than keeping it together under a devolved framework where all communities can peacefully co-exist.
This kind of tribal politics, which originates from the Sinhala Buddhist supremacist ideology, calls itself ‘patriotic’. Their patriotism is directly connected with the interests of Sinhala chauvinism that goes against building an inclusive Sri Lankan Nation. This shows a moral and intellectual failure of the joint opposition in addressing the real issue confronting the country today.
Rajapaksa’s ability to make a comeback looks a distant prospect currently. A war-weary country no longer has any enthusiasm for ethnic disharmony or war. This is not to suggest he will have no base but the balance of forces will not be in his favor. His hegemonic position prior to his defeat in January and the second defeat in August has further eroded. There are credibility issues that will be hard to repair because of the scandals, murders, the plunder of national resources and mega corruptions that his family members and cronies alleged to have committed. An ideology of power built on authoritarian rule, popular support and success has been diminished by successive rejections at the ballot box.
The conflict within the SLFP, currently being exploited by Rajapaksa is a result of the SLFP’s longstanding failure to confront and address its infamous historical legacy of Sinhala chauvinism. The same racism, which helped it grow, is now standing in its way at a time when the party has embarked on a progressive journey. Rajapaksa and his supporters are trying to reach into the SLFP’s past in an attempt to stop the party taking the country forward into a modern nation. The Rajapaksa’s new party project, born out of the history of our country, threatens to revive the ethnic conflict and oppression of minorities that so many Sri Lankans now hope to have left behind.
The break up of the SLFP appears to be inevitable and the joint opposition is now looking for the most politically opportune time to leave without incurring the blame for the split. They would prefer to be sacked rather than making a break. If they are sacked they are likely to blame it on a foreign conspiracy.
If the break away happens, the SLFP will be able to get rid of many racist and corrupt lawmakers and fulfill the elections promises made to the country. This will enable them to undertake the most reformist political project for generations. The UNFGG exercising its political and moral authority will spearhead this generational change. Even if the breakaway does not happen the chances for the joint opposition in opposing the reform agenda will not be very decisive. However, they will try to stir the masses and ardent fundamentalist supporters will try to organize demonstrations and mob violence in order to derail the political process. Their resort to violence at this point is a sign of political impotence, not strength.
The political forces will be divided into two basic camps in this instance: UNFGG who will support the reform package along with the civil organizations including the Left Centre who supported the January 8th victory and the Joint opposition headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa who will oppose the reform and reconciliation agenda. The new Left parties such, as the JVP will not support any devolution of power to the Tamil community. This opposition is based on their fervent advocacy of the anti-Indian political discourse of ‘Indian expansionism’, which they see as being aided by any strengthening of Tamil democratic rights.
Rajapaksa’s attempt to regain power embraces ethno-nationalism as its dominant ideology and articulates majoritarian interests within a multi-ethnic and multi religious country. Its leadership also wants to hide its crimes behind an appeal to a patriotism that is based on a divided and undemocratic future for Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa will not abandon his efforts and will wait for a politically opportune time to exploit tensions and anxieties in the future. Its opposition to pluralist democracy will ultimately doom the new party project – but it has great power to exploit the wounds of the past, incite ethnic tensions and propagate racist ideas. Challenging the politics of intolerance, racism and division will be vital to fostering a healthy and inclusive democracy in Sri Lanka.