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SLFP Dissent, The Executive Presidency& The Folly Of The ’80s

| by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

( April 27, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) If we are to avert a bloodbath in the coming years we must avoid the mistakes of the 1980s, but both the Government and the Opposition are making the same mistakes once again.

If we do not strive for peaceful, democratic regime change by internal electoral means, there will be external attempts at regime change.

If those external attempts succeed, we shall have one or more pro-Western puppet regimes (in Colombo and/or the North and East). This/these will be violently resisted by Southern nationalism.

If these external attempts fail, or succeed only in the North and East, we shall have a far more militaristic, religious fundamentalist regime than we now have. The present intermediate regime will give convulsive birth to a “rough beast” (Yeats).

Thus an internal, electoral change of either regime behaviour or regime composition or the regime itself, is the last best hope of avoiding such scenarios.

The horrors of the 1980s stemmed from gross errors and miscalculations by Government and Opposition. What were these?

There were two main errors on the part of the administration of President Jayewardene.
• It was felt that with his convincing re-election as president, the artificial extension of the two thirds, actually five sixths, majority in parliament, a booming economy, and support from the USA, Pakistan and Israel, Sri Lanka could ignore, defer, and deflect the ethnic and external relations crisis i.e. the Tamil Question, Tamil Nadu and Delhi.
• Devolution, which President Jayewardene himself was almost certainly willing to implement from 1984 to 1986, was delayed because the two top security personalities, Minister of National Security Lalith Athulathmudali and the Presidential Advisor on Security, Ravi Jayewardene (the President’s son), both of whom were early converts to the Israeli model, vastly overestimated Sri Lanka’s capacity to hold out in the face of external realities and the intermestic character (international-cum-domestic) of the Tamil issue.

As a result Sri Lanka’s economic miracle went into a tailspin, while the country experienced multiple civil wars, external intervention, bloody anarchy and suppression in North and South.

If President Jayewardene had a project of open-ended continuity or worse, familial succession, the forces of anarchy would have overrun the state. Mercifully he did not, and handed over the “torch burning at both ends” to Prime Minister Premadasa. The System survived, though tragically, President Premadasa did not.

Today the Government is on the cusp of the same errors in relation to the ethnic issue and external relations, with the added problems of a vastly more globalised pan-Tamil nationalist network and consciousness, and external pressures on two rather than one front. Most dangerous is the burden of the two dimensional project of (a) familial dominance of the regime and state and (b) familial succession. This closes off the safety valves.

What is often and quite conveniently forgotten by politicians and commentators is that all the carnage of the ’80s was made possible by the criminal errors of the Opposition. There was at least one chance when everything could have gone in a different direction. That was the Presidential election of October 1982. What if the SLFP’s centrist deputy leader Maithripala Senanayake, a man with rural appeal, supported by Anura Bandaranaike and the democratic Left, had been the Presidential candidate and successor to Mrs Bandaranaike as Party leader? Instead, Maithripala Senanayake had been so alienated by Mrs Bandaranaike that the SLFP was badly fissured. She agreed to a weak if decent candidate, Hector Kobbekaduwe, who found when he went to the polling booth, that his vote had been impersonated! Kobbekaduwe performed limply in his TV addresses while JR’s personality won the day.

Had Maithripala contested, JR may have still won against the backdrop of a growing economy, but it would have been a close fought race and he would not have dared have a referendum instead of a parliamentary election. He did so, because the main opposition was headless and enfeebled. The referendum and the artificial retention/extension of the two thirds majority in parliament resulted in the shutting off of negative feedback loops and safety valves, thus overheating the system. The first, defining explosion came in six months in the form of the anti-Tamil pogrom of Black July 1983. In 2014, we are still living downstream from July 1983 and there would have been no July ’83 if not for December 1982 —the Referendum— and no Referendum if not for the fiasco of October 1982— the Kobbekaduwe candidacy.

Madam Bandaranaike’s reckoning was that it was OK for Kobbekaduwe to fail, so long as she retained control of the real estate, the SLFP— and that she would eventually be re-elected to the country’s leadership. This was never to be. Mass memories of economic deprivation caused her defeat in 1988. Her party was unelectable until Chandrika took over and rebranded it radically.

Today the Opposition is about to make the same mistake. The candidates spoken of — Ranil, CBK, SF, and Karu— will fare as badly against Mahinda as Hector Kobbekaduwe did against JRJ or at best, Mrs Bandaranaike did when losing against Premadasa in 1988. CBK and Fonseka are strong personalities, but so was Mrs Bandaranaike. CBK is as connected with failure to defeat Prabhakaran, Norwegian mediation etc as her mother was with the closed economy. SF is appreciated for his services to the nation and would be cheered on into parliament but is felt to be too rough and ruthless and would not come anywhere close to MR in the popularity contest that is a presidential election.

In October 1982, the Opposition should have picked a candidate who could have secured the maximum possible SLFP vote. In 2015, the Opposition must pick the candidate who can secure the maximum UNP turnout and the maximum possible UNP vote.

If the Opposition rallies around a ‘minoritarian’ candidate, strategy and message (Ranil, Karu, CBK), it will be vulnerable on several counts: (i) a security lockdown of the North in the wake of violence by a resurgent LTTE (a Tonkin Gulf incident or a Reichstag fire scenario) (ii) a Gajan Ponnambalam or Ananthi Sasitharan ‘Tamil candidacy’ or boycott movement (iii) a pan-Sinhala backlash.

An Opposition candidate with a minoritarian profile will not only will he or she lose badly, but worse still, Mahinda Rajapaksa will have no incentive to bid for the centre space and the minority vote, indeed he will have every disincentive to so doing.

On the other hand if the UNP candidate has a patriotic-populist profile, both the President and he will be forced to bid for the minority vote which can compensate for the loss of Sinhala Buddhist votes to the other. Whatever the outcome, it would be easier to engage constructively with the ethnic issue in the aftermath.

If on the contrary, President Rajapaksa were to be convincingly re-elected (even in the run-off) with only the Sinhala vote, then he will not — as the optimists think— be more willing to devolve power, because he will have to think of the effect of any such moves on the electoral future of his son. The only guarantee of post-election progress on the ethnic issue is if he has had to compete for the Sinhala vote with a populist candidate and has therefore had to bid for the votes of the minorities as well.

For better or worse, there is only one UNPer who has fought the Rajapaksas up close and personal since the year 2000 on their home turf, and not acquitted himself badly. That is Sajith Premadasa. The disgraceful incident at Mattala shows that the rest of the UNP just cannot face the conditions of competition — the pace bowling as it were— that Sajith has faced with his wicket intact, at every election for the last decade and a half. He alone has the measure of the opponent. Karu Jayasuriya also faced the Bandaranaikes in Gampaha and did well but that was over a decade ago, and his electoral performance has declined since.

A Sajith candidacy would be the same tactic that the UNP leadership used so well in 1956 when it fielded the young firebrand and first-timer, R Premadasa, against the giant NM Perera in his home turf of Ruanwella. Premadasa lost by only a few thousand votes. Imagine if it had been a presidential election under proportional representation!

The fissures in the ruling coalition which were evident in parliament during the ‘casino vote’, is a significant new development which must surely be capitalised upon. Despite the personal canvassing by the leadership, over 50-60 coalition members abstained. Sadly it appears as though this dissent is to be squandered by erroneous political assessment and tactics.

In an engaging, scholarly presentation on the National Question at the SJV Chelvanayakam memorial oration, leading lawyer Jayampathy Wickremaratne makes the following observation and implicit suggestion:

“While President Rajapakse is in no mood to abolish the executive presidency, doing so under pressure cannot be ruled out altogether. Already, there is talk of a ‘single-issue’ common opposition candidate, the single issue that could unite the entire opposition and catalyze dissent within the SLFP to turn into revolt being the abolition of the executive presidency. If there is a serious challenge to his position, Rajapakse may well take the wind off the sails of the opposition by abolishing the executive presidency. However if he maintains his current stand, there is every likelihood that abolition would become a rallying point for the opposition and dissidents within the SLFP.”

This is so wrong in so many ways and for so many reasons, that one cannot help but recall the absurd, abortive ‘Constitutional Revolution’ project of President Kumaratunga and the politically pathetic end of her tenure as President.

If there is a single issue Opposition candidate and that single issue is the abolition of the executive Presidency, the same candidate will find that he or she is totally out of touch with mass sentiment.

In the first place, the Sinhala voters are simply not going to countenance the devolution of power to provinces while abolishing the strong centripetal executive presidency and leaving the control of the provinces— especially the restive North— to a weaker centre as represented by parliament. The 13th amendment barely squeaked past the Supreme Court only because the ultimate control exercised by the Executive Presidency was deemed to guarantee that devolution would remain within the parameters of the unitary state as inscribed in the Constitution.

Thus the goal of political reconciliation would be adversely affected. A parliament cannot countervail the potentially centrifugal dangers of a devolved Northern and Eastern Council, proximate to a hostile Tamil Nadu. Abolish the executive Presidency and the entire deal on devolution— the 13th amendment— would have to go with it, like a domino.

Furthermore, the abolition of the Executive Presidency would weaken, not strengthen the struggle for democracy. The military has grown much stronger in relation to civilian institutions during a Thirty Years War. The elected executive Presidency is the only institution strong and legitimate enough to maintain civilian supremacy and prevent Sri Lanka becoming like the Pakistan of old, where the prime Minister was dictated to by the armed forces.

Contrary to Prof Jayampathy Wickremaratne’s prognostication, President Rajapaksa will not abolish the Presidency in order to take the wind out of the sails of either a single issue common candidate or a rebellion in the UPFA ranks which has as its rallying cry the abolition of the Presidency. All he needs to do is to call a referendum on the issue, pitch it as a danger to the Sinhalese in the face of external and irredentist pressures and he will win a crushing victory over the dissidents. He can then go into the Presidential and parliamentary elections with an even stronger hand than he otherwise would. If this is the slogan that Chandrika’s collection of intellectuals from the ridiculously unsuccessful ‘Sudu Nelum/Package/Solheim/constitutional revolution/PTOMS’ experiments can come up with, they will inadvertently but stupidly hand President Rajapaksa three rather than two election victories, each of which will add to the momentum.

If the important first fissure in the UPFA is mistranslated and badly invested, all President Rajapaksa will do is go for elections, dumping the lot and giving nominations instead to the younger family loyalists. What options do the dissidents have? They don’t have a party under the banner of which they can contest (the SLMP remains with Hirunika, who remains with whatever degree of disappointment, understandably loyal to the President). Even if they did, they cannot rally the SLFP voters with the issue of the abolition of the executive presidency.

What the pro-Opposition policy intellectuals fail to comprehend is that as Regis Debray observed in his masterly ‘Critique of Political Reason’, economic structures change fairly fast but political structures change far more slowly. His point was that societies which are historically and culturally accustomed to certain patterns, be they monarchies, caudillos (strongmen), or high regional autonomy tend to remain in or fall back into the same grooves under which ever banner, disguise or label. Thus the quasi-anarchic revolutionary Mao became a (Red) Emperor occupying the same Walled City in Beijing as his predecessors for millennia, Fidel is El Jefe Maximo (the Maximum Leader) —essentially a caudillo, De Gaulle and Mitterand were essentially neo-Napoleonic.

So it is with Sri Lanka. It was JR Jayewardene who announced while ascending the Pattirippuwa to be sworn in as the country’s first Executive President, that he was the 168th (or whatever) in an unbroken line of monarchs who ruled this island!

The Presidential system corresponds to a structure rooted in the Sinhala consciousness and that need for a strong centre or strong leader, is heightened at times of external and/or ethnic challenge and pressure. There is no way that any candidacy or SLFP rebellion that makes the issue of the abolition of the Presidency its centrepiece can take off, still less succeed. The Sinhala voter will not fault Mahinda Rajapaksa for not playing Sirisangabo.

Does this mean that no dissent is possible on the issue of the Presidency? Certainly not! Valid, politically intelligent slogans would be the return of the 17th amendment, independent commissions, and term limits—the reform rather than the repeal of the Presidency, reducing its quasi-absolutist powers.

Opposition strategists and ideologues placing their bets on abolishing the Executive Presidency while the Presidential election is less than a year away, is quite as sensible as placing one’s bets in one’s final year at university, on agitation for the abolition of the final exams, instead of studiously preparing to face them!

There is a far more powerful rallying cry that the UPFA dissidents can adopt for the future. That is to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, to the people. Avoid a head-on targeting of a popular President to whom the people are grateful, and go instead for the phenomenon of family control of the regime, the SLFP, and economic resources; the huge power of an unelected and therefore unaccountable member of the family; expose the structures of ruling clan control and the nexus with crony capitalism; denounce the project of familial succession; decry the misuse of state resources and facilities; expose the cost to the masses of Mihin air etc. This, and not the lead balloon of the abolition of the executive Presidency, could be the vehicle of a successful and necessary future rebellion within the SLFP and UPFA.

[Dayan Jayatilleka is the author of Long War, Cold Peace: Sri Lanka’s North-South Crisis, Revised 2014 Edition with a Foreword by Godfrey Gunatilleke, Vijitha Yapa Publishers.]

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