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Parliamentary election & the Crisis of the Opposition

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Parliamentary election & the Crisis of the Opposition
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Independence Day thoughts 2010

Sri Lanka celebrates Independence Day this year with the State in a better state than it has been for three decades. The country is a single united territory; unquestionably a single political entity. The borders of the state are coextensive with our natural borders, the sea. The writ of the state runs from North to South, East to West. The state’s monopoly of organized violence has been restored. The travesty of an armed proto-state within the state has been excised. A Thirty Years war has been won and a hideous, powerful challenger, accurately described by The Economist (Jan 28, 2010) as "a textbook fascist", put down. National independence and sovereignty have asserted themselves against attempts at interference and intervention. Electoral democracy survived both terrorism and the war against it. Truly an Independence Day to celebrate, but the challenge that remains after these triumphs is no less important than the ones that have been overcome. Dominique Moisi, the founder of the French Institute of International affairs (IFRI) and respected geostrategic thinker writes of The Geopolitics of Emotion, arguing that the "cultures of fear, humiliation and hope" are reshaping the world. In the light of this idea, reinforced by the starkly asymmetrical results of the recently concluded Presidential election, we can discern that Sri Lanka, while once again a single political or politico-military entity, it is not yet a single emotional entity, a single psychological community. The domestic ‘geopolitics of emotion’ are marked by unevenness of development.

The parliamentary election looks different now, after the Presidential and takes place against this canvas. While on the one hand, a number of significant factors lead me to expect and welcome a strong showing by the Opposition, on the other, a new factor has intruded (or an old factor re-introduced) which I expect will impinge on voter conduct and militate against a healthy balance between executive and legislature.

In favor of a strong and deserved Opposition showing are the facts that the ruling coalition has been in office for a shade over 15 years, there are legitimate grievances of relating to income inequity and style of governance and well-founded reasons to be wary of a new Constitution, flawed as the old one is.

The country is caught in a paradox. The conclusion of a period of History, the long civil war of secession, warrants crowning with a new Constitution— but we have not evolved a healthy reconciliatory ethos, nor have we accumulated the wisdom, required to make such a Constitution a success. Besides, who knows which aspect of reality will wind up crowned?

These are reasons enough to expect and hope for a legislature that is so comprised and constituted as to function as an adequate check on the executive branch and furthermore, embolden the judiciary into a greater degree of independence.

There is however, a problem which manifests itself in two forms. The problem is one that is common to many other parts of the global South and was evidenced even in the global North at an earlier stage of its development and political history. This is the factor and the perception, of external pressure and externally driven or aided internal enmity towards the state and nation. Such factors and mass perceptions of such often result in a protective reinforcement of continuity and an impediment to change.

The lifting or relaxation of external pressure and the abatement of internal threat usually catalyses internal change. It even proves a prerequisite for such transformation. The Wall was not brought down during the coldest days of the Cold war but precisely after decades of détente, the Helsinki agreements and Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Cuba has made it clear that there will be no consideration of internal liberalization so long as the blockade remains.

Less than year after a Thirty years war, the main opposition is still led by one who triggers negative emotions stemming from that war. The analogy is if post-Liberation France had a major political party led by Marshal Petain or if Britain in 1945 had Chamberlain as an important electoral player. Ranil has turned the party into the country’s largest NGO, far more responsive to so-called civil society than to its old social bases among the rural people. Rid of the millstone of Wickremesinghe around its neck, and with Karu Jayasuriya or Rukman Senanayake as leader, the UNP could do quite well at the parliamentary election; with him at the helm it will return to, and at best only modestly improve upon the dismal performance it put up at the recently held provincial council elections.

The Wickremesinghe factor works with two other factors which threaten to trigger the perception of threat among the majority of Sri Lankan voters. One is the distinct possibility that the Tamil voters will preponderantly opt, not for the moderate EPDP, but for the TNA. The TNA has still not undergone a visible process of abjuring its past as fellow traveler of the Tigers and exhibits a current profile of being Diaspora-driven by the Tamil Tigers’ political wing. The other is the pressure and propaganda from the West; from certain politicians and officials, the media and human rights groups. Their stance is felt to be anti-Sinhala and pro-Tamil; certainly pro-Tamil Diaspora and even pro-Tiger.

Confronted with this triangular ‘minoritarian’ project consisting of Ranil Wickremsinghe’s UNP, the unreconstructed Tamil ultra-nationalism of the TNA and the perceived partisanship of the West, the vast majority of the Sinhala voters would tend to circle the wagons, unwilling to risk the prospect of a UNP-TNA bloc which can form an administration. This is especially so since Sri Lanka has been there once-- during Mr. Wickremesinghe’s term as Prime Minister, while President Kumaratunga was still in office—and have not forgotten the unilateral concessions and transfer of real assets to the LTTE during his tenure. They are unlikely to take that risk again, now that the TNA may be strongly represented in a new parliament.

At bottom is a powerful emotion which explains citizen behavior in Russia and China. It is the memory of weakness and humiliation and the determination that the state and nation shall never be so weakened again. The Russian voter recalls the period of Yeltsin (and the last phase of Gorbachev) as one of being taken for a ride by the West; a period of unilateral concessions and consequent weakness and breakup. Putin is understandably perceived as the hero who reversed this. Sri Lanka’s period of weakness and humiliation were the years covering the CFA, the ISGA and the PTOMS; those beginning years of the 21st century which came to an end with the arrival in office of Mahinda Rajapakse. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mangala Samaraweera are indelibly associated with those years. The domestic ‘geopolitics of emotion’ as reflected in the election results, represents the division between those areas which experienced that phase of history as a relief and those who experienced as a lacerating humiliation. The Sinhala masses (not just the Buddhist, because the Catholic areas, Negombo apart, voted for Mahinda, corresponding to the ethnic mix of those areas) who constituted the main force of the armed struggle for national reunification against separatist fascism, remain the main force that politically defends and protects the political gains of that armed resistance.

What is not understood is that the reaction against excessive devolution is not merely or even primarily powered by rank racism or chauvinism but by the historically embedded fear of the centrifugal which in turn is seen to result in the weakening of the state; and it is the state that guarantees the continued existence of the Sinhalese nation as a distinct entity in the global space perceived as alien and hostile.

Devolution can only succeed if the formula and the agency/recipient are not perceived in the Sinhala heartland - among the main force of patriotic resistance - as weakening the state; the strong centre. This is where the existing 13th amendment and Douglas Devananda come in. Anything more and anyone else, the whole deal may fall through as a backlash bestirs itself. A politico-ideologically hostile North East could even fall victim to an unconscious developmental triage.

Mr. Wickremesinghe probably fantasizes that all this would play itself out by the presidential election of 2017, leaving him a clear crack at the title. Just as Chandrika was, any incumbent and the ruling party are well served by the encouragement of this illusion (which they do not share). I would say he has just as much chance as Mikhail Gorbachev or Jimmy Carter, were either personality to re-contest the Presidential elections in their respective countries.

Of course everything lies in the hands of the UNP. If it offers the Sri Lankan voter a different choice, one that is not identified with and evocative of the period of state weakness and national humiliation of the CFA season; one that will not be suspected of treating with a centrifugal proposal floated by the TNA; then the new parliament may yet turn out to be a prophylactic or counterweight to a ‘one party dominant’ regime and a less than enlightened constitutional experiment, informed by an inflamed, prickly patriotism.


~ The Island ~ By Dayan Jayatilleka
[Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is due shortly to take up a post of Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies].


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