“The proper functioning of a pluralist democracy presupposes the free interplay of diverse opinions. The freer and more active, the better…”
—Mervyn de Silva, Inaugural editorial, Lanka Guardian May 1st 1978
The very last thing this island needs is to slide into another cycle of conflict. But that’s where we are headed unless we stop, think and make choices and changes of the correct kind.
This is the first time that mainstream society and politics both in the North and the South, have seen a simultaneous rise of extremism. What we face today is the dangerous phenomena of (negative) symmetry and simultaneity. Despite a neoliberal cosmopolitan government which has been rightly criticized for appeasement of Northern bellicosity and has been crippled electorally as a result, the slogans and symbolisms from the North, the political discourse and behavior of the Northern Provincial Council and civil society movements, have escalated in their militancy.
The combination of a spike in Northern stridency and the economics of neoliberal globalization on the part of the dominant drivers of Government policy, has generated entirely predictable results: a displacement of mainstream social opinion towards populist neo-nationalism.
As in many other parts of the world, in Sri Lanka, it is neoliberal economics that is threatening liberal democracy by implementing policies which have generated an inevitable mainstream backlash. Cosmopolitan neoliberalism has bred nationalist neo-conservatism.
By converting to neoliberal globalist evangelism, the traditional centre-right UNP has lost its centre, its national credentials and mass base, thereby creating a Frankenstein’s monster of a radical neo-nationalist New Right. There is an emerging bloc of tendencies and strata making up the backbone of a rising New Right neo-conservatism. The foot-soldiers are a vast current of the petty bourgeoisie. The ideology or rather the social psychology is one of resentment (Nietzsche famously used the French term “Ressentiment” while relentlessly combatting it). The animating spirit and style are of rancor and intolerance.
Reason and Realism tell us that Sri Lanka must eschew the two rival rightwing projects, a neoliberal globalist Right (in decline) and a neo-nationalist Right (in ascendancy). The neoliberal globalist Establishment, in its cosmopolitan elitism, does not understand the country’s heartland and will not transfer leadership to the one in their political formation who can. The neo-nationalist Right, in its nativist parochialism, does not understand the texture of the terrain beyond the heartland, be it on the island or outside; be it the Tamils, India, the West or the world-system. Soon, the ideological centre will no longer be the political centre of gravity.
The real political and ideological challenge is to open a Middle Path to a centrist outcome. If it is not done, if there is no political de-escalation in the North and the South, this small island will face for the first time, an election which could be the last free national election we have, because it will result in the victory of extremist, politically and ideologically fundamentalist forces in the North and the South.
We are heading for a frontal political and ideological clash. In the North it is propelled by the university student body, Gajan Ponnambalam and Wigneswaran, and in the South by hardline ultranationalists in civil society caucuses and networks. One can imagine just how chronically weakened our pluralist democracy would be, just how intolerant a society this would be if these two stratums wielded power, authority and influence.
A country in which such forces face each other, wielding power at the centre in Colombo and at the periphery in the Northern Provincial Council and the parliamentary seats representing that area, will be a more sharply polarized country than at any time in our memory. It will no longer be extremist minorities, mostly plebian, on both sides; it will be extremist majorities including elites, elected to office and supported by their respective Diasporas. The polarization between the communities will not be merely island-wide but global. It will be a global zero-sum game.
The only way in which this nightmarish scenario can be avoided is by identifying and strengthening the populist’s centrists, the moderates, the progressives in all political camps. There are three sources of moderation in this country’s politics:
I. In the growing anti-government space it is Mahinda Rajapaksa who stands head and shoulders above the others, supported by the mature oppositional personalities like Dinesh Gunawardena and Vasudeva Nanayakkara. They head the largest centrist progressive or pluralist-populist ensemble in the country’s politics, namely the Joint Opposition-Pohottuwa bloc.
II. President Sirisena and the SLFP, especially the Rebel Sixteen, are pluralist-centrists.
III. Populists in the UNP like Sajith Premadasa, and liberal-democratic UNP semi-dissenters such as Vasantha Senanayaka, Navin Dissanayake and Ruwan Wijewardena are the UNP’s moderate centre. It is pointless speaking of the UNP’s globalist neoliberal elite as “moderates”, because it is precisely this Establishment that has by its very nature and policies, constituted the most effective growth medium for the neo-nationalist Alt-Right. If things remain as they are and go the way they are going, the electoral swing may be as in 1977. The North is far more ‘out of control’ than the South, because the politics of fanaticism has been the norm. The North has to make its mind up soon: Will it actively work towards an alliance with moderates across the Southern spectrum, and will it limit its demands to that which Southern moderates can take to the ballot box and win or at least stay viable? Is the North willing to accept that the only political solution any Colombo administration can be held to, and which it can sell its constituency, is “to proceed with the implementation of the 13th amendment” as per the 1987 Accord and the wartime understanding with India?
Will 2019 be the last democratic election we have before the State and System are tightened, and society straitjacketed preventing a free swing of the pendulum and democratic alternation in office? Will it be a soft landing, or a catalytic and combustible change, triggering a chain reaction leading to a catastrophe which turns us into a former Yugoslavia?
Never have I witnessed mainstream society in the South react against moderation, liberalism and even social democracy, embracing a New Right ‘common sense’ that “democracy is dispensable/we need a tough leader”, as I have seen in the past few years and months. The hierarchy of the Buddhist clergy and the more hawkish-ex-military brass are the secretors and purveyors of this ideology. They are trying to pull off a political putsch for the candidacy.
The problem is not the candidate. It is the constituency and the ideology; the project. The project entails a retrogressive remodeling of the State, in which the clergy is above the law and dictates (“vidhaanaya” as Ven. Elle Gunawansa, the orator of Kanatte July ‘83 recently pronounced) to the State. It is the shift from the civilizational and cultural reality of our Sinhala Buddhist heritage to a notion of 21st century Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist state ( or simply, a Buddhist state).
To be sustainably successful in a complex and challenging external environment, the Opposition’s candidate has to pivot away from this fringe and relocate and root himself firmly within the pluralist democratic political mainstream, avoiding a regime project that is a junta installed by electoral means.
If the hawkish Alt-Right project wins, Sri Lanka, which was once the most advanced democracy in South Asia, may have a remodeled state in Sri Lanka along the lines of (Zia’s) Pakistan or Myanmar, which this time would surely seek a unilateral solution as the perennial North-South problems surface in a cycle of revolt-rebellion-repression. A regional response will be triggered. It is only a fusion of the moderates in the Opposition that can shape a different and safer outcome.