AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena via Yahoo News
On the morning of 9 January 2015, I shed a few quiet tears. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who sought an unprecedented third term for the highest office, had been voted out by a significant majority. I had stayed up and tracked the election results on radio throughout the night. I was relieved.
I thought that as a country, we had crossed the bridge. I believed we would usher in a more just, equitable, and fair society. That the perpetrators of grave crimes against civilians, journalists, and dissenters would be brought to justice. That we would rid ourselves of corruption and excesses. That we would enact a new constitution.
Nearly five years after, here we are again facing another presidential election. Not only did we fail to achieve most of the goals we set, but we are also faced with the possibility of even the small gains we made over the past five years being wiped out in the blink of an eye. Permanently. Just like that. We are deeply disappointed. And we are very angry.
We feel this way because we view politics as a revolutionary tool for endless, linear societal progress. In other words, we believe that with the right kind of politics we can create a tomorrow that is definitively better than today.
The lesson I have learnt over the past five years is that this is a fundamentally flawed view of politics.
For example, in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a global push for representative democracy, liberalism, and trade liberalisation. Fast forward twenty-five years: right-wing, protectionist, authoritarian regimes are cropping up across the world. Similarly, at the end of World War II, as philosopher John Gray notes, torture was almost universally rejected as an abhorrent evil. Following the suicide attacks of 11 September 2001, torture was resurrected, reinstituted, and rehabilitated in the world’s most powerful democracy. In 2009, Sri Lankans thought we had seen the last of terrorism on our shores; less than a decade later, the Easter Attacks killed and maimed over three-hundred people.
Politics, then, is not the means for endless and linear societal progress, but really an ongoing struggle against recurring and cyclical evils.
When we view politics in this light, we are compelled to, one, be vigilant all the time because our progressive gains are so fragile and can and will be wiped out; two, to come to terms with the (sort of) lesser of the three evils choice – i.e. Gotabaya Rajapaksa Vs. Sajith Premadasa Vs. Anura Kumara Dissanayaka – that is confronting us at the forthcoming presidential election. Such choices are par for the course.
A significant number of people who voted for Maithripala Sirisena, as I did, at the presidential election of 2015 are angry, frustrated, and deeply disappointed at the incumbent government. Many feel personally betrayed. They believe that as a country we need to go beyond the binary of Blue (Maroon) vs. Green in order for real change. It is important, they argue, to register our protest against both the leading candidates and the political dynasties they belong to. Most of them would cast their votes for Dissanayaka on 16 November.
This frustration is wholly valid and it is undeniable that we need a more dominant third force in national politics. Blues and Greens have had 70 years since independence and we have, for the most part, only gone backwards.
But, I think voting for Dissanayaka (or any other third force) at this presidential election is fatal.
First, we must recognise what is at stake at this election. As Prof. Uyangoda surmised, the choice is keeping the space for democratic discourse alive against hurtling headfirst into authoritarianism. Rajapaksa, the leading candidate at this election, is promising a disciplined society. He is refusing to engage in civil debate. He has largely limited his engagement with independent actors – journalists, moderators, etc. His campaign is built almost exclusively on a crude national security logic. Keeping Tamils safe from Muslims at large. Muslims safe from Sinhalese mobs. Christians safe from Muslim terrorists. And Sinhalese safe from both Tamils and Muslims. He is surrounded by a military coterie. These are disturbing harbingers of an authoritarian future and Rajapaksa’s history confirms every detail of our worst fears. We will likely see executive excesses we have previously never seen, even at the worst junctures of our history. His elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, at least cared for populist appeal and was in his earlier life a strong campaigner against the state’s human rights violations
If we agree on the essence of politics and the fragility of societal progress distilled earlier, we would agree that preventing this authoritarian future ought to be our highest priority. Those of you who are more cynically inclined, as I am, may say this ought to be our only priority.
Now, progressives whose primary focus of outrage at this election is the UNP and the largely failed Yahapalanaya experiment might take offence at my grouping Dissanayaka alongside Rajapaksa and Premadasa. Dissanayaka, they say, is wholly unlike Rajapaksa and Premadasa and the parties that are backing him. This brings me to my second point.
For these progressives, Dissanayaka and the JVP are beyond the lesser evil paradigm: he is demonstrably good. Otherwise, what is the point of supporting Dissanayaka and the JVP – if he is only marginally better than the two dominant forces – when he clearly stands no chance of winning the presidential election? At the very least, the JVP must offer the possibility of building a truly progressive, truly good, truly awesome political force – whatever that might be, if such a force is possible at all – beyond this presidential election.
The JVP’s history is a compelling cautionary tale against such fantastic ambitions. In the 1980s, during the second JVP insurgency, the same party that now commands the goodwill of many social activists, university academics, and trade unionists killed dozens of activists including Vijaya Kumaratunge, George Ratnayake, and media figures such as Thevis Guruge and Premakeerthi de Alwis. In 1999, after sacrificing thousands of lives in a failed bid to overthrow the incumbent government and capture state power, the JVP assumed ministerial portfolios alongside some of the same people it had failed to kill off ten years earlier. In the early-2000s, the party put to deadly use its new-found and lethal ideological hybrid of Marxism and racist Sinhala nationalism to grind to a halt the UNP government-led peace process and open market reforms during that time. They brought Mahinda Rajapaksa to power in 2005 on an anti-peace platform, as academic Rajesh Venugopal writes, ’goaded the government into resuming the war in August 2006.’ Dissanayaka and the JVP remain very proud of this history and regularly highlight these achievements on the campaign trail. This grandstanding is particularly tragic considering they have nothing to say about the innocent bloodletting during the final phases of the civil war and are worryingly slippery on the question of devolution.
The JVP’s current progressive mojo, then, is a very recent discovery. And it might not linger for long. The only constant in the JVP’s politics is unmistakable opportunism. This fact crystalises further as one observes its sudden change of heart on a string of policy issues. In the more recent days of the campaign, Dissanayaka has vouched to protect private universities, scale down the state by shutting down state-owned enterprises, strongly endorsed international trade agreements, and just about stopped himself from stating he would sign the controversial US Millennium Corporation Challenge pact with the USA. On paper, there is precious little that separates Dissanayaka’s economics from the other contestants. He is the new neoliberal on the scene.
It is logically and morally impossible to make the case that Dissanayaka and the JVP are truly progressive, truly good, and truly awesome. Even if we were to completely ignore their pre-2010s past and forget that it is easy to virtue signal while in the opposition, we charitably only rate them ‘marginally better than the two front runners’. Such a rating necessarily places them as another option in the lesser of the evils discourse. The question is, are we willing to entertain the risk of a fatal blow to our democratic fabric just so we could give a marginally better candidate and his party a stronger chance at the general election?
Premadasa’s victory, by contrast, would guarantee two positive outcomes. One, it would end the Rajapaksas’ come back project with senior Rajapaksas likely retiring from politics. Such an outcome would relax their firm grip on the Sinhala majority’s psyche, leading to more meaningful future electoral contests centred on policy issues as opposed to fear-mongering. Two, Premadasa’s victory would also spell the end for Ranil Wickremasinghe, the prime suspect in the unraveling of the Yahapalanaya government, and could mark a shift in the UNP’s politics of the last 25 years. These, I believe, are essential ingredients for any form of progressive politics to succeed in Sri Lanka in the future.
In case all of this is not enough to convince the dejected progressive to vote for the candidate who could realistically stop the impending peril and defer the third-force building experiment for the general election, they must at least use their second preference and encourage their friends to do likewise.
Preferential voting, however, is highly risky. To begin with, there is a high probability that many would end up marking their ballots inappropriately, as they experiment with presidential preferences for the first time. Preferential voting is harder than it appears: the number of rejected votes at the General Election 2015 (where we exercise preferential voting) was 4x higher than the number of rejected votes at the Presidential Election 2015. The larger the number of rejected ballots the lower the bar for fifty percent plus one. Since those voting for the Pohottuwa candidate are unlikely to indulge in such risky excesses, experimenting progressives may only be unwittingly enhancing his chances of clearing the halfway mark.
Further, none of the candidates vying to split up the democratic bloc – including Premadasa and Dissanayaka – are strongly, openly encouraging the sound use of preferences. As a result, the number of voters that use their preferences may not be compelling. If you are betting on no candidate clearing the fifty percent mark in the first count and your second choice overtaking the candidate you dread with the counting of the preferences, you might live to rue your vote for an unpleasantly long time. Remember: if no candidate gets fifty percent plus one after the counting of preferences, the leading candidate will be declared the winner.
Editors note: An earlier version of this article appeared in The Sunday Observer, 10 November 2019.