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The New Cycle of Elections

| by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

( January 14, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The upcoming elections to the Western and Southern Provincial councils kick off a cycle of elections leading to the big ones, the presidential and the parliamentary. Contrary to the Opposition’s speculation, it is not likely that Presidential elections will be held this year. The story in the Daily Mirror (14th January 2014- ‘Presidential Polls Early Next Year’) to the effect that that election will be held in early 2015 has the ring of credibility. The Supreme Court is not likely to risk a meltdown in credibility by permitting an election before the four year mark has been passed but can rule without a travesty in logic that the four year stipulation holds even for the second term and that therefore, the incumbent can go for an election anytime after November 2014, i.e. in early 2015. Though the opposition speculates about a parliamentary election this year, it is unlikely that that the President would deviate from the calculation of his predecessors, that it is to his benefit to have the hugely advantageous parliamentary balance in place when he runs for re-election. That in turn amounts to parliamentary elections in 2015 too, on the heels of the Presidential election.

It is in this context that one must read the lead story in The Island (Jan 14, 2014) which quotes UNP strategist Mangala Samaraweera as stating that the common candidate of the opposition must be from the main oppositional party, the UNP. One surmises that this indicates President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s political instinct has not atrophied completely and she has finally understood (or intuited) that her splendid performance of 1994 was the product of a confluence of unique factors: the serial assassination of the government’s leaders by the LTTE and the resultant vacuum of UNP candidates and the availability of two, not just one, political vehicle for re-entry — the party of her parents, the SLFP, and that of her husband and herself, the SLMP. Today, she has none of those advantages. Without a political vehicle she cannot engage in what the Americans call the ‘ground game’, the political organization and mobilization at the grassroots. A spontaneous surge along Cory Aquino, Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel lines is possible only against a regime and leadership that has no mass allure. That is hardly the case in today’s Sri Lanka.

President Kumaratunga must also realize a starker truth: if the electorate was indulgent enough to give her two terms though she failed to win the war, it would hardly limit Mahinda Rajapaksa to two terms and turf him out despite having defeated Prabhakaran and brought a basic sense of peace for the last five years after a thirty year war. In short, the electorate is hardly likely to reward equally, an unequal performance on the most important existential issue.

This does not mean that President Kumaratunga does not envisage a political role or should not play one. What it does mean is that she will probably sit it out until the crisis matures, post election.

A snapshot of the context in which the new electoral cycle commences is provided by, well, the snapshots of young Hirunika Premachandra receiving her letter of appointment as co-organizer of the SLFP’s Colombo Central branch from President Rajapaksa. Colombo Central is politically strategic real estate, being the most populous of the zones of the city of Colombo. If Mahinda Rajapaksa can follow up his achievement at the last provincial council election of inducting one of the most popular young MPs of the opposition, Dayasiri Jayasekara, with the promotion of the most media-genic young dissident within the ranks of the governing coalition, Hirunika Premachandra, there is something going right with (and for) him, and very wrong for (and in) the Opposition.

One obvious answer is President Rajapaksa’s personal appeal and warmth of personality. He partially offsets the exclusionary dynamic of the clan-based oligopolistic character of the regime, by his personal charm and capacity for outreach, both social and individual. Paradoxically, despite the glass ceiling within the Government and state, the Opposition fails to retain still less attract, while the President continues to do so. It is only a perverse myopia that can attribute this to crass material incentives.

There is a deeper reason than Mahinda Rajapaksa’s personal charm. A glimpse is provided by a report from a wholly objective outsider, a travel writer. Writing in TravelMag on ‘The Pulse of Peace in Today’s Sri Lanka’, Brain Fisher observes that:

“Having toured Sri Lanka many times over the past two decades, I thought that to return now that the war between the government forces and the ‘Tamil Tigers’ had ended, would be a good idea. Choosing three distinct regions to visit would give me the best overall impression of the present situation (tourist wise) and how they and the local population viewed it.
Every ethnic (non-Tamil) Sri Lankan I spoke with, held strong beliefs that their government had acted correctly and that the charges of genocide cited by the UN and other World bodies, were wrong. They became quite incensed when the subject of the Channel Four documentary film was mentioned, protesting to ‘yours truly’ that it was all faked by the British cameramen, sound recordists and journalists.
Many opposite views were expressed by tourists of certain nationalities, opining that the film must have some merit but the war was over and would be best forgotten.” (Travelmag.co.uk, Jan 10th 2014, my emphasis- DJ)
Thus the social winds and tides are still heavily in favour of the incumbent administration, basically because it is able to monopolize the representation and articulation of these strong feelings shared overwhelmingly by almost three-fourths of the island’s citizenry.

Of course, this does not mean that the crisis will go away. President Jayewardene and his administration faced a crisis of survival in the 1980s, despite his decisive re-election in October 1982. The crisis exploded six months later and escalated for years. However, there are three significant differences between that administration and this one. Firstly, President Jayewardene made the mistake of postponing— in effect, cancelling— the parliamentary election and thereby shutting off some of the safety valves, depriving his administration of a considerable measure of legitimacy. President Rajapaksa has not and sees no need to do so. Secondly, President JRJ was on the wrong side of patriotism/nationalism while President Rajapaksa is hardly likely, in fact congenitally incapable, of being so ill-positioned and vulnerable. Thirdly, though the ethnic crisis and Indo-Lanka relations were the shaft of the spear so to speak, the war and the LTTE were the spearhead of the crisis in the JRJ-Premadasa-CBK (CBK/Ranil) phases, which taken together amounted to the nationally humiliating long downturn or retrenchment of the Sri Lankan state. Under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political leadership the war was won, the Tiger army decapitated and decimated, thus smashing the spearhead of the crisis within the national territory and political space of Sri Lanka.

Given the current socio-political balance of forces, the clear ethnic or ethno-regional polarisation that will probably be reinforced by the new cycle of elections, will exacerbate the crisis. Frustrated by the immobility of the regime and emboldened by external factors and propellants, Tamil nationalist politics will head off into a Satyagraha/First Intifada mode. The almost inevitable heavy-handed response of the State — a rolling of the tanks—will trigger, no less inevitably, calls for R2P; a ‘1987’ but this time by blockade, drone, stand-off weapons and airpower. This would of course, be the endgame aimed at by the radical Tamil nationalists.

That’s all too simplistic and linear to work, though. Check out Syria. If a regime such as that of Assad, based on a minority or a coalition of minorities can hold on, fight back and impose a hurting stalemate, the resistance of a popularly elected regime— however damaged by economic attrition or hollowing out—supported by the sentiments of a vast majority and the armed forces, can have incalculable tenacity. External intervention in an ethnically polarized space is especially fraught when that polarization does not neatly correspond with clear spatial demarcations. It all amounts to a ‘lose-lose’ scenario.

Is there then a possibility of avoiding such a mutually destructive, lose-lose scenario? Yes! The solution resides in an astutely realistic —‘rational choice’—political intervention in the electoral cycle. Two scenarios may be envisaged.

Scenario A: the Opposition retains a leadership and fields a candidate who virtually guarantees the widest possible majority for the incumbent and therefore the widest majority for the government at the parliamentary elections and the resultant heightening of all the negative trends and features of the present.

Scenario B: the Opposition switches to a leadership and a candidate who can minimize the margin of victory for the incumbent by pulling out the probable maximum UNP vote, and uses the campaign as a springboard to register considerable successes at the parliamentary election which will swiftly follow. This is possible because the UPFA has been in office for 20 years while this President has been around for far less. If a viable opposition candidate makes a good showing (35-45%) at the presidential elections, and is able to ‘flip’ the parliamentary election or register a strong oppositional surge, President Rajapaksa will find himself in approximately the same situation that President Kumaratunga did in 2001/2. A measure of equilibrium — even bipolarity—will be restored, space will re-open and the oligarchy can be weakened through ‘salami tactics’ as finances are controlled by parliament, the composition of which can change kaleidoscopically.

The choice of which of these two scenarios, A or B, is to be preferred is almost entirely up to the Opposition and more specifically, the UNP and its supportive elites. In a conversation the other day about the most recent UNP Convention and the nationally televised behaviour of the aspirant leader of the country—who would be running against Mahinda Rajapaksa, mind— a prominent surviving member of JR Jayewardene’s A-Team which spearheaded the truly historic electoral victory of 1977 told me that he regards the present leader of his party as “an alien”. The reference wasn’t Sri Lankan and cultural; it was planetary, perhaps galactic. It wasn’t the Mahawamsa; it was the X Files.

Leon Trotsky once asserted that “the crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of leadership”. My claim is far more modest in scale and scope: the crisis of Sri Lanka is reduced to the crisis of the Opposition leadership.