| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“If the people fail to defeat the insane dictatorship of Mahinda Rajapaksa at this point, there will be no turning back for Sri Lanka.”
Anura Kumara Dissanayake

( November 23, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The opposition has cleared, spectacularly, the first hurdle in the presidential race. The honours of that victorious engagement belong to Maithripala Sirisena – and to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera.

A Rajapaksa defeat is by no means assured. But for the first time it has become a credible, viable possibility. And that is a great leap forward. 

Maithripala Sirisena is no better or worse than most Lankan politicians. That is the most reassuring thing about his candidacy. Sri Lanka is suffering from an overdose of heroes and saviours; she can do without another leader who is in thrall to the messiah-complex and believes that he is infallible and indispensable.

The country needs to return to the messy, bumbling democratic normal. The country needs the return of the ordinary politician – who is not immune to ordinary corruption, ordinary repression or ordinary vice, but does not entertain imperial dreams or dynastic passions.

Perfection is not a secular virtue and it is out of place in politics. When perfection – or the search of it – is enthroned in political agendas, the fine print says, ‘by any means necessary’.

That is the way Sri Lanka is headed under Rajapaksas. Today we have a realistic chance to stop that journey.

All Lankan problems will not vanish if the Rajapaksas are defeated. In fact most Lankan problems will survive the fall of the Rajapaksas. But some of the greatest dangers besetting the country today can either be ended or alleviated with the departure of the Rajapaksas. The anti-democratic familial rule and dynastic project can end; Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism can, hopefully, return to the margins and the minorities accorded a modicum of security; militarization of civil spaces can be halted and perhaps rolled back; the North can return from de facto occupation to democratic rule; economic policy can be rescued from its current focus on wasteful and unproductive physical infrastructure projects; a semblance of justice can perhaps be restored to the judicial system and a dose of professionalism to the bureaucracy; some of the lost democratic freedoms and rights can be restored; the sprint towards the Chinese camp can be halted and a return to a non-aligned foreign policy (regionally and internationally) effected. These and other problems of mainly – or even exclusively – Rajapaksa provenance can indeed be resolved or mitigated by a non-Rajapaksa government. That is a realistic expectation, a non-delusive hope.
That is something worth fighting for.

The abolition of the all powerful presidency and its replacement with a more balanced system is a political necessity. But this slogan alone cannot win over the Sinhala voters discontented with Rajapaksa rule. Two findings of the CPA survey are helpful in forming a factual understanding of where a majority of the Lankan electorate is at currently, in terms of knowledge and comprehension: 73.4% of all Lankans and 81.8% of Sinhalese think that ‘Sinhala’ is the only national language; 64.1% of Lankans and 61.9% of Sinhalese have not heard of the LLRC. Given this level, it is unreasonable to expect a majority of Lankans (and especially a majority of Sinhalese) to understand the true dangers of the executive presidency. Their mind is focused on ordinary rice and curry issues; their discontent with Rajapaksa rules stems mainly from their own diminishing economic conditions and hopes.

International experience demonstrates, again and again, that politico-cultural liberalism cannot flourish – or even survive – in the absence of socio-economic democracy. The abolition of the imperial presidency is important per se, but it is not an election-winning formula. Just as a common oppositional platform must include certain guarantees and reassurances to the minorities, it must also promise some immediate economic relief to the masses. Without such an economic angle, many votes will be lost unnecessarily. There must be a minimum economic programme, just as there is a minimum political programme. Without that the opposition will not be able to reap the full benefits of the general economic discontent – and the Rajapaksas will win.

What will they do now?

On Friday, Ranil Wickremesinghe informed a gathering of UNPers that the Rajapaksas had printed posters worth hundreds of millions of rupees attacking him, in the confident expectation of him becoming the UNP candidate. A laughing Mr. Wickremesinghe advised the regime to destroy the posters, as his audience cheered.

The Rajapaksas were brilliantly blindsided. But they are beginning to get their act together. The first hurdle cleared does not mean the race won. Far from it. The Rajapaksas still possess the might of the state. They are fighting for more than just governmental power; they are fighting for a way of life, a way of being in the world. Therefore they will fight hard, dirty and violent. Already two UNPers have been injured by UPFA mobsters, one seriously. This is just a foretaste of what will come.

Rajapaksa rule represents a rapid march towards a ‘permanent state of exception’ . In the Lankan version, Rajapaksa rule is the first axiom of national security – ergo opposing Rajapaksa rule is a national threat. In this rendering, loyal opposition is not an opposition which is loyal to the country/people but an opposition which is loyal to the Rajapaksas and does not challenge familial rule. Consequently any serious attempt to defeat the Rajapaksas democratically and peacefully is equated with an attempt to betray the country. In this scenario constant elections are nothing more than opportunities for the patriotic people to express their faith in the Rajapaksas, again and again.

This mindset is evident in the regime’s response to the Maithripala-candidacy . Already the opposition is being accused of treachery and conspiracy, of being paid agents of foreign powers and of course the ‘Diaspora’, of trying to divide and destabilise the country and usher in anarchy. The danger of this mindset is that it excuses and legitimises the use of extraordinarily anti-democratic measures vis-à-vis the democratic opposition.

The Rajapaksas will unleash legal and illegal violence on the opposition. What else will they do? Will they create a ‘political/fictitious state of siege’ ? Will there be a Rajapaksa version of the Naxalite plot - bomb attacks by neo-Tigers or Jihadists? Will they create a spurious national security crisis, which can be used either to postpone the election or steal the election via a generalised crackdown on the opposition?

Amartya Sen points out, “A great many dictators in the world have achieved gigantic electoral victories even without any overt coercion in the process of voting, mainly through suppressing public discussion and freedom of information, and through generating a climate of apprehension and anxiety” . That was what the Rajapaksas were planning to do with the upcoming election. But the Maithripala rebellion has upset their well-laid plans by punching a massive hole in the fear factor. In the coming weeks the Rajapaksas will try to re-impose it, by whatever means necessary. Everything conceivable and inconceivable will be done to terrify and delude the people, silence critics and destroy the opposition.

The opposition has performed brilliantly so far. But the harder times are still ahead.

  1. Sirasa – 22.11.2014 – quoted in Maithripala to form a National Government – The Colombo Telegraph – 22.11.2014
  2. Giorgio Agamben - http://roarmag.org/2014/02/agamben-destituent-power-democracy/
  3. http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2014/11/23/main_Editorial.asp
  4. http://www.dailymirror.lk/57147/common-candidate-is-a-foreign-conspiracy-slfp
  5. The State of Exception – Giorgio Agamben
  6. The Idea of Justice