Mexico is an important country. It is not only the neighbor of the USA, it is a large and populous nation with a political history that has had an impact on the whole of Latin America. Just as the Right was cheering the receding of the “Pink Tide” that had swept Latin America, and the jailing of its iconic figure ex-President Lula of Brazil, comes the revival of the democratic, populist left in one of the most significant countries of Latin America. A few days ago, a veteran left populist leader Lopez Obrador swept the presidential election in Mexico in what was reported in the world’s media as a “populist landslide”.
Lopez Obrador is a veteran politician which is an important point to note in a global and Lankan context in which rightwing nationalist populism denounces politicians and celebrates being outside the democratic system. Lopez Obrador was Mayor of Mexico City before he made his first run for the Presidency in 2006 and was deprived of victory by electronic rigging. He is thus a highly experienced politician at both municipal and national levels.
The term ‘Populism’ was coined primarily in relation to Latin America. The paradigmatic populist was Juan Peron of Argentina. But there is populism and there is populism. There is a populism of the Left, the Center and the Right. Lopez Obrador is not a doctrinaire leftist. He is a left populist. He emphasizes the state sector, the social community, and the small peasantry—unlike the populists of the Radical Right from the US to Sri Lanka who emphasize none of these and instead fetishize the nation, religion, language and technological fixes.
Left populism stresses what unites the people, such as social justice and material welfare. New right populism stresses what divides people, such as race, religion and ethnocentric culture and tradition. Left populism looks forward. It is therefore classified correctly as progressive. Right populism looks backward at some glorious age. It is restorationist and reactionary.
The victory of Lopez Obrador also brings out the issue of nationalism. Lopez Obrador is a nationalist but not in the sense that President Trump is a nationalist. Left Populism doesn’t try to instill fear and anger. It is not a narrow nationalism, emphasizing race and religion. Left populism is nationalist but not nativist. It is a progressive nationalism, not an exclusivist or hegemonistic one. Left Populism is a nationalism that unites from below. In the nationalism /populism mix, left populism is more populist than nationalist while Right populism is more nationalist than populist.
Lopez Obrador’s slogan was “DEEP CHANGE WITHOUT DICTATORSHIP”. This slogan sums up the difference between Left populism and right populism. Left populism strives for deep-going change; change that immediately benefits the people at the grassroots; people in the communities in which they live. It is change from below. Right populism or rather Rightwing nationalism wants top-down change which empowers big business, technocrats, managers and the military along one axis and races, ethnicities and religious groups on the other axis.
Left Populism believes in the people especially at the community level, and the state. Right populism believes in market forces and big business.
Left Populism’s notion of “deep change” also stands squarely against “dictatorship”. It does not believe in change through dictatorship. It does not agree that dictatorship is necessary for or justified by change. Left populism understands that any kind of change that requires or results in dictatorship is the wrong kind of change; change that will only benefit the few, not the many.
Rightwing nationalist populism loves authoritarianism, even military rule and totalitarianism. Left Populism is rooted in democracy; it just extends and expands democracy and human rights from the political to the social, from the individual to the collective, without infringing upon political democracy and human rights.
All populism has a streak of nationalism but not all nationalism is populist. Furthermore, not all types of nationalism are alike. There is progressive nationalism and there is reactionary nationalism. The progressive nationalism of Left Populists such as Lopez Obrador, is an anti-imperialist nationalism which solidarizes with the oppressed of the whole world, especially Palestine. Rightwing nationalism or Right Populist nationalism is narrowly sectarian.
Mexico is not the only country or place in which Left Populism has shown the way. In a society quite different from Mexico, namely the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party almost won the last election and is tipped to win the next one, running on a manifesto with the thematic slogan “For the Many, not the Few!” (That phrase is an adaptation from the concluding line of a poem by Shelley, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’.) Corbyn emphasizes the need for social justice and equitable growth, enhanced social welfare such as housing and health, more scholarships for students, improved public services and the recovery by the public sector of some areas which had been privatized.
From the USA itself comes the next example of the electoral rise of Left Populism. A mediagenic 28 year old woman, Hispanic, an alumni of Boston University and part-time waitress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won the New York Democratic primary beating a Rightwing Democrat. She describes herself as a Democratic Socialist and recently condemned as a “massacre” the Israeli shooting of hundreds of unarmed Gaza demonstrators.
What are the lessons for Sri Lanka?
Firstly, there is a global populist wave sweeping away neoliberal democracy, and that is operating in Sri Lanka too. It will successfully peak in 2019-2020.
Secondly, the Populist wave has two antithetical, antipodal expressions. One is a rightwing nationalist populism, also known as the New Right or the Radical Right. President Trump is its best known exemplifier. The alternative types of Populism are Left Populism and Centrist Populism. Lopez Obrador and Jeremy Corbyn represent the former while Emmanuel Macron represents the latter.
Thirdly, there are also two ways of defeating neoliberal democracy. One is by defeating economic neoliberalism while retaining and strengthening democracy—which is the Left Populist and Centrist Populist way. The other is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which is to depose both neoliberalism and democracy, enthroning Right authoritarianism, a civilian-military hybrid rule, military rule or outright fascism.
Fourthly, the very worst option is to combine the worst of both worlds, i.e. retaining some aspects of economic neoliberalism while truncating democracy and installing a harsh, rigid rule.
We in Sri Lanka face these choices, these sets of existential choices. We stand at a crossroads. If we make the wrong choice, Sri Lanka with its democratic and social welfarist heritage, its multi ethnic distribution and its proximity to a giant neighbor which contains the ethnic kin-state of our Northern minority, will enter a cycle of conflict which will end in partition. If on the other hand, we make the correct choice, we can have a conflict free transition to a better future.
Do we have an equivalent of Lopez Obrador? I believe so. It is a collective, but also an individual. Mahinda Rajapaksa would most certainly be the closest equivalent but he cannot run for the Presidency. MR, Dinesh and Vasu make up a collective Lopez Obrador. But I do not wish to dodge the crucial issue of the candidacy. Given his leftist past from his student days at Richmond College Galle, his long political career as a progressive populist, and his diplomatic demeanor and calm, consensus-building style as Speaker of the Parliament, Chamal Rajapaksa would be our closest equivalent of Lopez Obrador as a presidential candidate. This is perhaps why Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn, namely Vasudeva Nanayakkara is urging the choice of Chamal as the JO candidate for the 2019 presidential election. I cannot but agree with him.
But these are not the only reasons I do so. There is also the human factor. Last night, in our regular telephone conversation, Roma de Zoysa, the 82 year old daughter of SWRD Bandaranaike’s Finance Minister Stanley de Zoysa, a founder member of the SLFP, had this to say: “Chamal and I had a long chat at the Buddhist temple in LA, about Sri Lankan politics from 1956 on, reminiscing about Lakshman [Rajapaksa] and my late husband Benny [Jinadasa]. What struck me most about Chamal is that he has a very rare combination of dignity, maturity and modesty.”