The 20 June election may be the last chance to keep President Gotabaya Rajapaksa safely anchored to the Parliament and the SLPP; lodged within the electoral democratic mainstream, its institutional milieu, mechanisms, processes and political culture—and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to know it.
Block that opening, kick the electoral can much further down the road and that last chance goes with it. This is not the time for prissy proceduralism and legalistic literalism, but for a sure grasp of the intersecting realities of politics, power and history, or liberal legalism will be brushed aside by executive ‘decisionism’.
All the legalistic-constitutionalist points made by liberal critics may be true and for the most part are, but these are also irrelevant, because the real-world question is what if the Executive ignores all the “simply can’t do” points they make and simply does them? It is not that his action will be cost-free over the longer term, but who or what is going to stop the directly-elected Executive and Commander-in Chief and the implementation of his decision, how, and with what?
The Prime Minister has, consciously or as a subconscious slip, already signalled the danger in political Morse Code. As quoted in an English-language daily and noted by columnist D.B.S. Jeyaraj, he said: “…In the meantime, many opine that there is no need for elections at all as the police, security forces and other essential services continue to carry out their services, irrespective of the danger prevailing. But we uphold the democratic values and are for holding elections at the due time.”
Clearly the PM does not place himself among the “many [who] opine that there is no need for elections AT ALL (my emphasis – DJ) as the police, security forces and other essential services continue to carry out their work…” Nor does he seem to include in the category of those who hold this opinion, the SLPP and most parties allied under his leadership. It could hardly be the case that he is attributing this view to the Opposition parties. He contrasts the zero-elections view with his own and that of his colleagues: “BUT WE (my emphasis – DJ) uphold the democratic values…”
The subtext is “use it or lose it!” intended for those who share the ideas, values and norms of electoral democracy, have grown within the parliamentary tradition and been socialised in the broad democratic movement and its struggles; its political space and process.
It is not that President Gotabaya has a zero-election project or extra-constitutional preference, but his ideologues, strategists and hardcore followers do. He is the candidate the postwar Far Right switched to from an earlier (martial) choice in 2009-2010 when one first heard the “elections aren’t necessary” rhetoric from influential religious figures. There was a differentiation in the postwar Far Right ranks between those who openly said “we need a monarch” and the others who said “we need a military dictator”. Today those slogans have fused; the model is a hybrid.
President GR’s option is clearly for an early election, but if that chance is passed up and a constitutional deadlock created/provoked, then he may go off the constitutional reservation and his new encampment could be the Far Right’s “exceptional regime” model.
The Opposition doesn’t get it because it is still under the influence of the (neo)liberal intelligentsia. That is the intelligentsia that thought the LTTE would not return to war, and when it did, thought that the Sri Lankan state couldn’t defeat it. A few months ago, the leading luminaries of that intelligentsia were scornfully opining that no one should waste money and energy running for the Presidency because that Presidency, after the 19th Amendment, was (supposedly) puny, powerless and paralysed.
Take the deal
What would the Opposition do if the 20 June deadline lapsed, the electoral schedule was to be kept open-ended, and President Gotabaya is tempted or feels himself provoked into doing a J.R. Jayewardene 1982 later this year, substituting a Referendum for the scheduled Parliamentary Election? The pitch will be multipurpose: a long moratorium on elections, shutting Parliament down, abolishing the 19th and 13th amendments—the bucket list of the radical New Right. The question may karmically return as to whether to “roll up the electoral map for ten years” – as UNP Leader J.R. Jayewardene arrogantly declared having won the Presidential Election in October 1982 and opted to postpone Parliamentary Elections for six years through a referendum.
Meanwhile the JVP and TNA have obviously not learned the lessons of 1989 and 2009 harshly administered by history to Wijeweera and Prabhakaran: you should take the damn deal because it’s the last one going.
There aren’t three choices for the Opposition and/or the country. While it is absurdly irrational for the ultranationalists to argue that the result of a Presidential Election negates the legitimacy of a Legislature elected for five years, the actuality is that an election in September-December just isn’t on the table and there’s no one to put it there.
There are only two choices. Take the 20 June deal, which is the best the EC can do before the decision goes out of its hands or is taken away from it and we find ourselves stranded in a political desert with no election on the horizon, except maybe for a “roll-back” Referendum.
Socially, the greatest danger is a corona-proliferating premature election. Politically, the greatest danger is the growing momentum of the extra-constitutional ‘zero-election/exceptional regime’ project. “All things must pass” and so too shall COVID-19, but the retrieval of democracy won’t be as predictable and will surely be more protracted. As a Realist, I’d say, better any election and a parliamentary Opposition, than no election. As philosophy argues, “is” must not be derived from “ought”. It’s what it is.
COVID and consent
Sri Lanka has done relatively well, albeit after a slow start, in the campaign against COVID-19. The credit goes to President Rajapaksa and his administration which has led the campaign driven by medical professionals and the health services, ably backed by the military and the intelligence services. So too does the criticism for the slow start in the face of repeated warnings in Parliament.
There are few citizens who are not thankful that it is this administration rather than the previous one, in charge at this time. The armed forces and personnel of the State machinery as a whole are going flat out, motivated and functioning as they never would have been under the decrepit, languid, lackadaisical Ranilist UNP governmental sub-culture.
From the bond scam through the tardy handling of the Salawa blast and the garbage mountain tragedy, right up to the terror on Easter Sunday, the Wickremesinghe UNP-driven Yahapalana Government has left behind a memory of utter dysfunctionality and total incompetence.
It is a pity that the Gotabaya Government is on the verge of jeopardising at least some of its own positive achievement in retarding the rate of spread of the coronavirus. We are at a crossroads. The right approach, which begins with a positive assessment and commendation of our relative achievement so far and proceeds to roll out a realistic exit strategy, is best set out in a report by the Sri Lankan medical body most qualified to pronounce on the subject, the College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka (CCPSL). The 17-page report contains a phased and nuanced plan of exceptional detail and impressive clarity. (https://economynext.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Exit-strategy-CCPSL-V10-Final.pdf)
The Report asserts that we are at Stage 3 of the epidemic, chiefly characterised by clustering. Given the knowledge and professional credentials of the drafters it is no surprise that the analytics and presentation are superb. (I must admit that the College hosts an Annual Oration in memory of my paternal uncle Dr. A.V.K.V. de Silva, Univ of Edinburgh gold medallist, top epidemiologist and WHO program coordinator on AIDS.) The CCPSL’s report didn’t reach the TV news or the front page of any newspaper, though it should have been serialised. A reputed website did break the story, however.
This sophisticated report by top professionals was completely obscured by the orchestrated applause for a victory over COVID-19 that puts Sri Lanka above all others—instead of reaping the credit for a well-fought and ongoing battle of a defensive character, while alerting the public to the fact that we remain at a stage of contention and in a holding pattern. Exaggeration only confuses a defensive stage with an offensive one, a mistake that historic wartime leaders such as Churchill who clearly distinguished between the “end of the beginning” and “the beginning of the end”, never made.
Embellishment also strains the credibility. The loudly trumpeted global rating for Sri Lanka’s performance is in the Grid report of the Australian CMA. As my late father Mervyn de Silva, who edited the Daily News, the Times of Ceylon and the Lanka Guardian, would certainly have asked: “which Australian newspaper or TV station carried the story?” The answer so far seems to be, “none”. Mervyn would have followed up with “did you see the Forbes story? Run it, starting on page one.”
The world-famous Forbes magazine has run a long, serious ‘deep analytics’ report by the ‘Deep Knowledge’ group, on the anti-COVID-19 campaign. Israel rates highest in terms of comparative performance.
It is noteworthy that as early as 14 March, Prime Minister Netanyahu disclosed on TV that sophisticated digital anti-terrorist technology was being deployed by Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence agency, to track and monitor corona-infected citizens—apologising that the unprecedented invasion of privacy of Israeli citizens’ communications was done with extreme reluctance. The news made headlines in the world’s media precisely because it was the first of its kind. Israel has followed it up with an Emergency National Unity Government to fight COVID-19, bringing together Netanyahu and his bitter rival Benny Ganz.
Sri Lanka is nowhere on the Forbes ‘Deep Knowledge’ list of global ‘High Safety’ performers. In the Asia-Pacific section, Sri Lanka is indeed listed, not among the ‘High Safety’ performers, nor even the ‘Medium Safety’ ones which include Vietnam and India, but in the third category, the ‘Low Safety’ countries. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/cognitiveworld/2020/04/13/covid-19-complexity-demands-sophisticated-analytics-deep-analysis-of-global-pandemic-data-reveals-important-insights/#673529012f6e)
Exaggeration leads one to believe one’s own propaganda and to view anyone who doesn’t as an enemy. By misleading the citizenry to overestimate what has been done it misleads the Government to underestimate what needs to be done. That sets you up for a COVID-19 “second wave”.
What is worse, a premature claim of (pioneering) success on a global scale no less, makes you take the kind of risk such as a premature election instead of a consensual political ceasefire (as in Israel), thereby opening you up for such a second wave which may wipe out your own commendable achievement in a long, defensive war.
Furthermore, an exaggeration of your own success gives you a sense of smug, self-sufficient superiority which closes you off from learning from the successes of others and applying global ‘best practices’ to your own situation.
For instance, the prestigious New Yorker has a prominent feature on ‘Seoul’s Radical Experiment in Digital Contact Tracing’, which notes that “In Seoul, local governments have been on the front lines of containment efforts: testing, monitoring, and tracking patients and disclosing critical information to the public.” More significant is the article’s insight into the ‘secret’ and style of South Korea’s success:
“South Korea’s COVID-19 policies reflect a larger regime of transparency. In daily press briefings, Jung Eun-kyeong, the head of the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (K.C.D.C.), has been delivering detailed reports in measured tones. In addition to sharing the routes of confirmed patients, the agency has been distributing infection and testing data to journalists with remarkable frequency. Emergency text alerts about significant developments are sent to every smartphone in the nation. Such openness has been rewarded by an abiding trust in the government’s containment protocols. Panic has been minimal…”
David Kilcullen, highly reputed counterterrorism and counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. David Petraeus and a strong sympathiser of the Sri Lankan armed forces, gave some sagacious advice at a Defense symposium in Sri Lanka a few years after our military victory. He said we had a very good case internationally, provided we stuck to a factual explanation of the situational logic of the battlefield and the actuality of the war, rather than hyperbolic claims of “zero civilian casualties policy”, “humanitarian operation,” etc. At an earlier Defence seminar, Gerard Chaliand, renowned specialist on the comparative study of rebellions, argued that a political settlement with the Tamils must follow the military victory to complete it (Putin’s Chechnya model).
Neither proposition had takers. That wasn’t the plan, and it would have been an admission of imperfection. The credible LLRC report was never implemented by the Government. By overstretch, our global defence perimeter was made vulnerable and we were left wide open in the battlespace of narratives, world opinion, soft power.
The root is the failure to comprehend the concept of ‘credibility’, its organic relationship with ‘legitimacy’, and the combination’s strategic importance. Credibility is not what you or your hardcore constituency see when you look in the mirror. It is not built on claims of virtue and perfection according one’s self-image. It is persuasion of the largest number, including elements of the adversarial camp, based on evidence and reasonable argument. The iconic national liberation leader Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, who beat the Portuguese colonial army while also radicalising sections within it, famously instructed his cadre: “tell no lies, claim no easy victories; the best propaganda is the truth.”
What are the ethics, values and morals of those who would put hundreds of thousands of people in harm’s way, by fudging or embellishing evidence in a severe epidemic which has dealt suffering, death and bereavement to so many around the world?
It would be wrong to reduce these hyper-inflationary claims to a need for a snap election. The roots are deeper and located in the very mentality of ultra-nationalism, which is why many have cautioned President Trump against declaring “Mission Accomplished” in the anti-COVID war—with the reference being to the notorious victory banner aboard the aircraft carrier when President George W Bush made the claim of victory in the Iraq War, when the US had just begun to be drawn into a bloody quagmire.
It is not that there is no political motivation as well, but that isn’t a simplistic one of pushing for a premature general election. It is a more complex two-pronged tactic, or more to the point, an ambush, a trap. The two prongs are on one flank, a snap election on unfavourable terrain for the Opposition and at a dangerous moment for the voter, and on the other, the project of zero-elections and open-ended rule by the President plus a “power cartel” –to borrow the phrase of my old friend and fellow doctoral student of Immanuel Wallerstein, Prof. Jan Nederveen Pieterse of the University of California, Santa Barbara.