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The Postwar Opposition: A Strategic Perspective

| by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

( April 4, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Isn’t it amazing just how many people don’t connect up the dots? Take this chap Gobi for instance. What if he (or a clone) were to pop up from under a bed and pop a cop just before the presidential or parliamentary election? Would it not warrant the imposition of a massive security blanket? Would that not generate the ‘Dec 2005 effect’ of an enforced boycott of the electoral process by the contented citizenry of that region?

Now this is where the lack of foresight of the opposition’s strategists, tacticians and ideologues comes in. Since one can never know when and where Gobi or one of his pals from the LTTE (or the GTF or BTF) will show up, and one cannot control the response of the state to such a fiendish manifestation, it would be singularly stupid to base an electoral strategy on the Northern or Eastern Tamil vote, especially since that was the stupidity committed not once but twice by the Opposition’s planners. The second time was in 2005, when the UNP counted on the Northern vote. The first was in 1999, when the UNP candidate actually got the Northern Tamil vote, courtesy of the Tigers. On both occasions, the UNP candidate—Ranil the Reclusive Recalcitrant—lost.

In 1999 and 2005, Chandrika and Mahinda won, because neither of them made the mistake Ranil did and both of them aimed at the same goal. Neither CBK nor Mahinda Rajapaksa based their game plan on the Tamil vote in 1999 and 2005, which is what Ranil did. In 1999 he obtained it —and lost; in 2005 he was denied it— and lost. In 1999 and 2005, Chandrika and Mahinda aimed at and obtained a majority of the majority, which is the only viable electoral strategy in the Sri Lankan context.

The Opposition today has forgotten that fundamental fact. It is, incredibly, basing itself on the same minoritarian strategy (and minoritarian candidate) that failed twice. Even the Sarath Fonseka campaign saw a swing of the undecided patriotic Sinhala voter to President Rajapaksa the moment the TNA gave the general the electoral kiss of death, thereby compounding the confusion caused by the ‘white flag’ issue.

If the opposition is serious about giving the President a bit of a hurry up, then its strategists should be looking at someone whose record shows a halfway decent chance of bidding for the majority of the majority.

The present leader of the UNP and Opposition has the same political–ideological profile of which Boris Yeltsin has in the eyes of the Russian voters i.e. someone who was a lackey of the West and weakened the state. Chandrika has the same profile as did Mikhail Gorbachev i.e. of a confused and unsuccessful reformist who paved the way for such a weakening. The strategy of Sri Lanka’s Opposition planners and ideologues revolves around the equivalent of fielding a Yeltsin or Gorbachev (or a combination) against a Vladimir Putin who won the Chechen war after earlier administrations had failed to and restored the strength and self–respect of the state. Mahinda Rajapaksa is Sri Lanka’s Putin equivalent, but his vulnerability is that in contrast to Putin who leads the world’s largest country, Mahinda is on a smallish island with no strategic natural resources.

Pro-Opposition commentators read off from the Provincial Council election results and posit a decline of the regime, which is true but only partly so. The decline is only in relation to its own earlier performance rather than to an upward surge in the main rival’s performance. The regime’s decline is not matched by an uptick in the main Opposition. It is meaningless to talk of a united opposition because the JVP and Gen Fonseka will in all probability reject the leadership of either Ranil Wickremesinghe or Rev Madoluwawe Sobitha thero and are unlikely to accept Chandrika in the leading role either. Even if there were more than one Presidential candidate, it gets whittled down to two in a run-off, and only the most deluded could view Ranil, CBK or Rev Sobitha as capable of beating Mahinda in an electoral duel for national popularity. A privately commissioned public opinion poll should put paid to such silly fantasies.

The fact is that Mahinda Rajapaksa is probably a little more popular, and certainly no less popular, than his party and government, while Ranil Wickremesinghe is probably less popular than his party. Thus Mahinda will probably get more than his party obtained at the PC elections while Ranil will get less.

The mainline Opposition’s strategic slogan of the abolition of the executive presidency is almost too corny for words. There is no popular agitation or groundswell on that score. Furthermore, it is colossal arrogance for the Opposition to seek to abolish the Presidential system without a referendum throughout the island on its retention, abolition or reform. This is not the single issue that agitates the mass mind. It is probably not even one of the top three issues that do so. The slogan is also vulnerable to a Mahinda counterpunch. He could hold a referendum on the matter and win. Or he could pray for a ‘single issue’ candidate— preferably the loquacious monk— whom he could bat out of the electoral ballpark while hardly batting an eyelash.

The fundamental point I seek to make here and the basic perspective I suggest is quite close to that which the late Stuart Hall, founding editor of the New Left Review and “a hero of the intellectual Left” (as the Telegraph obituary put it) attempted to hammer home in his project of interpreting Thatcherism and striving to transcend it (rather than assault it frontally). Hall’s major, incisive contribution to Labour strategy is summed up by the evaluations of him in the Guardian and the Telegraph respectively:

“Before the election, Hall, convinced that the emergence of this new Conservatism marked a profound cleavage in British political history, coined the term Thatcherism, in a visionary article in Marxism Today. Drawing...on his long involvement with Antonio Gramsci's theorisation of the forms of political hegemony...he emphasised the role of race in Thatcherite politics, particularly in relation to the creed of law and order which he characterised as ‘authoritarian populism’. In ‘The Politics of Thatcherism’ (1983), he insisted that the left's traditional statism was in part responsible for creating the conditions that had allowed the Thatcherites to win ascendancy, pointing to the degree to which Thatcherism had rooted itself in authentically popular sentiment – something he believed the left had failed to do. This generated fierce controversy among those who might otherwise have been among his political allies. His conviction that Thatcherism would define the politically possible, long after Thatcher herself had departed, proved enormously prescient, providing a key to understanding the politics not only of New Labour, but also of the subsequent coalition.” (David Morley and Bill Schwarz, The Guardian, 10 February 2014)

For its part, the Telegraph wrote: “A trenchant critic of Thatcherism (a term he coined), Hall had a huge impact on the reconfiguration of Left-wing thinking that underpinned the rise of New Labour ... The Conservative leader had been patronised by many on the Left as little more than a shrill housewife. Hall was one of the first to acknowledge that Britain was entering a new era of politics. He characterised the phenomenon of Thatcherism as something more significant and more insidious than the personal style of one politician. He later described Mrs Thatcher as Hegel’s “historical individual”, a person whose politics and contradictions “instance or concretise in one life or career much wider forces that are in play”. To Hall, Thatcherism’s popularity originated in errors on the Left. Socialists, he argued, had failed to recognise the disillusionment of many working class people with the bureaucratic state, while British trade unions, although industrially strong, had not offered any alternative vision. Thatcherism had “redefined contours of public thinking” by grasping that the way to people’s hearts was not just through Westminster...” (‘Stuart Hall was a Cultural Theorist’, The Telegraph, Feb 10th 2014)

At bottom, the failure of the strategy of Sri Lanka’s Opposition is a failure of analysis, which in turn reflects a conceptual failure which is in the last instance indicative of a profound intellectual weakness. The Opposition has simply not understood that its track record, stance and profile are as responsible for the Rajapaksa entrenchment as the profile of Old Labour was for the victory and durable hegemony of Thatcherism. It has also not understood the tectonic shift a society and national consciousness undergo, in and after a war, especially a prolonged one against a hated enemy. It becomes a defining factor for quite some time and no one who was on the wrong side of it gets another chance politically. There is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. Ranil and Chandrika represent ‘before’. They are the Ghost of Ceasefires Past and the Ghost of PTOMS Past. I still recall the anguish of Lakshman Kadirgamar at the sharp right about-turn made by Chandrika after the welcome recapture of power from Ranil— a recapture that Kadirgamar, his friend the literate progressive Indian High Commissioner Nirupam Sen, Jaffna SF Commander Sarath Fonseka and the JVP all played a part in. Shortly after the election which legitimised the retrieval of power, CBK took up the process of appeasement of the Tigers where Ranil had been forced to leave off, sabotaging the Karuna rebellion, marginalising Kadirgamar in favour of personalities who negotiated the PTOMS, and even attempting to run the Foreign Ministry through the officials, much to LK’s sorrow and frustration.

Only someone who was part of the heroic wartime narrative in some capacity, or has a patriotic profile as a supporter of the war, the military and sovereignty, and is opposed to external interventionism, stands a chance of turning the next Presidential election into anything akin to a real race. With the question of the legality of a Sarath Fonseka candidacy hanging in the balance, a firm promise of the portfolio of External Affairs or Justice could swing the decision. If the Presidential election is won by the same margin or a larger one than the provincial election, then the domino effect will impact on the parliamentary election, but if the presidential election is a tightly fought contest, there is every prospect of a dramatic change at the parliamentary election (which could set off a chain reaction).

Certainly the Opposition has to shift social and national consciousness to win, but that can only be a shift — a displacement of emphasis and a progressive reconfiguration—within or congruent with the larger wartime tectonic shift. Ranil and Chandrika have no chance of presenting a viable political challenge because they are not with the Zeitgeist and in fact the Zeitgeist evolved in opposition to what they represented. Ranil and Chandrika represent a throwback to a past that the national consciousness views as a time of retreat and defeat.

In Sri Lanka today, the political status quo cannot be changed unless the much older status quo in the Opposition is changed. The nationwide political status quo rests upon the status quo in the main Opposition. It is no accident that the most conspicuous relative decline of the regime and relative success of the opposition took place in the regime’s very citadel, at the hands of an opposition personality who is opposed to the Opposition Establishment. It is also no accident that the anti-government/pro-Opposition pundits make no reference to what should be touted as the regime’s greatest setback and the Opposition’s greatest achievement this time around. The silence of the pedantic pundits makes one realize that there are discernible limits to their professed wish to see a change in the country— and these are the limits imposed by pseudo-cosmopolitan social snobbery masquerading as ideological rectitude. By blocking the only change that is historically and socially possible, the Opposition’s ideologues entrench the ruling cartel.

For their part, the vast majority of voters desire a change that does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. They wish an improvement in their circumstances as well as the style of governance; they want more democracy and fair-play, not less— but with the gains of the military victory and the reunification of the territory of the state still intact. The masses want a patriotic alternative which is that of an alternative patriotism. The UNP Establishment and the civil society ideologues that support it stand for an unpatriotic, non-nationalist alternative, not a liberal patriotism. This is why they oppose or do not support or remain conspicuously silent about the UNP’s achievement in Tissamaharama. The masses know that this UNP (and the comprador-cosmopolitan CBK) would replace Mahinda Rajapaksa with a pro-Western puppet regime that would sell out to the Tamil Diaspora. That is why, if the choices were Ranil or CBK versus Mahinda—or a farcical ‘single issue’ abolitionist candidate— the people would vote for the latter. That is also why if the people were to be persuaded to vote against the regime, they have to be offered not just an oppositional alternative but an alternative opposition within, not outside, the national-patriotic space.

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