We are living in a new country. We just need the Government to catch up with that fact. Mahinda Rajapaksa led a political formation that has emerged as the largest single party in the country, comfortably displacing the UNP. He did so while neither having a share of governmental power nor the status of the official Opposition. What is most telling is the sheer verticality and velocity of the Pohottuwa’s take-off and rise. Only Mahinda Rajapaksa could have pulled this off.
The Yahapalana elite and their Western and Indian backers thought they had acquired Sri Lanka on January 8, 2015. They were wrong. A cynical geo-strategist would say the West and India lost the Local Government election and China won. That’s not strictly true. Counterattacking from below, the people have almost taken back their country from the neoliberal-globalist elite. As in November 2005, when successive leaders had failed to defend the country from the Tigers for a quarter century and the people turned to Mahinda Rajapaksa, they did so again in Feb 2018.
In my last column in these pages, this is what I wrote:
“I wager that when this column reappears on February 14 the electoral outcome would have shocked the UNP and the country’s pro-UNP, pro-Western elite. This has happened more than once before…
In this country, History moves in cycles. The present PM’s parents were the ideologues-cum-strategists of the insensitive, myopically arrogant rightwing elite that was ousted by the nationalist-populist ‘Silent Revolution’ of 1956. Today, the Second ‘Silent Revolution’ against the UNP-driven government is led by five sons of two iconic patriarchs of 1956, DA Rajapaksa and Philip Gunawardena: Mahinda, Basil, Chamal, Gota and Dinesh. History is about to repeat itself.” (‘Fast and Furious: the Populist Pohottuwa Phenomenon’, Daily Mirror, Wednesday, January 31st 2018)
Okay, so it is February 14 and here we are. One does not have to be smart to see the writing on the wall – which is where it was–and to read that writing.
It is moronic to argue today that the combined ‘Hansa’ vote of January 8, 2015 remains intact while the Pohottuwa has ‘only’ 45%, when the year is not 2015 but 2018 and the ‘Hansaya’ has turned Humpty-Dumpty. It cannot be put back together again — the SLFP will never support a Ranil-Chandrika axis at the cost of electoral extinction. The SLPP is the powerfully rising force while the UNP and SLFP are clearly in decline. The UNP has no viable presidential candidate while the SLPP and SLFP in alliance can comfortably vault 50% and Mahinda (as prime ministerial candidate) can nominate a personality as presidential candidate who can not only secure the loyalty of both SLPP and SLFP but gouge out the urban middle class UNP vote.
The seeds of the February 10 defeat were embedded in the January 8, 2015 victory. I am not speaking with the benefit of hindsight, but as one who was not only on the Nugegoda platform on February 18, 2015 and was privileged enough to be invited to read former President Rajapaksa’s message on the occasion, but as an active participant in the crucial small-group discussions that led to the Nugegoda mobilization, “the single spark that starts the prairie fire” (Mao).
The flaw in the January 8, 2015 regime change was that it was propelled by a large majority of the minority and only a large minority of the majority. In a country in which the majority is almost two-thirds of the population, the composition of the result contained a fault-line. That fault-line need not have broadened into a fissure and then a fracture had the government and the TNA stuck to a middle course, but no, the UNP was radically neo-liberal in its economic, external, ethno-Constitutional and foreign policy, while the TNA was pushing – or was pushed into pushing — for both ‘accountability’ and a quasi-federal Constitution. It was a replay of the 1950s and 1964-1970, which could not but lead to a 1956 and 1970 outcome. The result of February 10 is the electoral equivalent of the anti-UNP uprising of August 1953, the ‘Hartal’, combined with an electoral rejection a la 1956/1970.
Embedded in the January 8, 2015 outcome was a crisis of national legitimacy. A crisis which could have been avoided by adopting policies which would have won back the majority of the majority. But that was not the Ranil-Chandrika-Mangala agenda. The implementation of their neo-liberal globalist agenda drove the Sinhala voters, including UNP and SLFP voters, away from rather than towards the government.
It is manifestly not the single issue of corruption and/or the failure to prosecute that caused the defeat of the government. If that had been the case, the JVP and the official SLFP of President Sirisena would have done better. The February 10 result was a full-spectrum rejection of the policies, practices and profile of the government. It was a massive populist backlash against neo-liberal globalism. I’m not surprised that the university/think-tank/NGO/INGO based social scientists and ‘intellectuals’ didn’t see it coming.
The inevitable socio-economic downside of the neo-liberal policy package was compounded by yet another Western device peddled in Sri Lanka by Chandrika and Ranil. That was the so-called Unity Government model, which plugged the SLFP in as the junior partner of the UNP. The SLFP’s role and function in Sri Lankan politics was as the centre-left, moderate nationalist alternative to the centre-right UNP. Deprived of that function and turned by CBK into an adjunct of the UNP which, post-Premadasa and under Ranil had long converted to neo-liberalism, the space was cleared for Mahinda to fill, while the official SLFP shriveled through its close proximity to the Kryptonite of the Greens.
The consequence is clear; as SLFP organizer for Attanagalle, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, daughter of SWRD and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, lost the Bandaranaike pocket borough to the Rajapaksas. Dompe, another SLFP stronghold (once held by Felix), went the same way. Representing the Bandaranaikes poorly and betraying everything they stood for ideologically and programmatically, Chandrika has now utterly and completely lost the battle for the SLFP to the Rajapaksas. Nothing that she could have done about it.
The Mahinda camp swept the Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society (MPCS) elections in almost all parts of the island last year, and this column was one of two to take note. The February 10 results merely mirrored those results.
The lessons of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s earlier stint in office were forgotten. He was elected in 2001, became so unpopular through his combination of minoritarian appeasement and economic shock therapy that he was dismissed in 2003 and badly failed to make a comeback in the elections of 2004 and 2005. The Ranil who came back as PM in 2015 was the same Ranil as in 2001-2003. He started from where he left off, with the sole difference that he and CBK thought they had it sewn up with a bipartisan ‘Unity’ coalition and an SLFP President as camouflage.
It was obvious that the same ideology and policies, profile and attitude as in 2001-2003, without which Ranil would simply not be Ranil, would lead to the same majoritarian backlash with the same politico-electoral results, except that this time, thanks to the new bipartisan-coalitional model, there was no SLFP or JVP to benefit, only Mahinda and his new party.
My favorite moment of the campaign was in its closing days when Mahinda was addressing gargantuan crowds. He responded to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s threat in Parliament during the recent debate on the Presidential Commission and PRECIFAC Reports, to amend the Constitution and remove his civic rights, with a deadly dismissiveness. He growled a diminutive as term of address and warning: “Ranilo…” Then came the mocking Muhammad Ali one-word knockout punch, the growl becoming a leonine roar: “Heenen-da?” (“In your dreams?”) The crowd went wild.