Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Any one of us indulging in melodramatic weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth on Wednesday’s election victory of the Rajapaksa-led ‘pohottuwa’ (Sri Lanka Podujana Party, SLPP) must heed the admonition that this has come five years too late down the line.
The sum of failed political legacies
Clearly, these lamentations should have been evidenced when the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance commenced betraying key electoral promises in its 2015 upset win which was hailed as ‘stunning,’ in much the same way that editorialists gush over the Rajapaksa comeback in 2019 and 2020. Then we had lame justifications as to why corruption cases against fraudsters of the Rajapaksa regime were not progressing, a whitewashing of the Central Bank bond scams under its own watch and a constitutional reform initiative influenced by political jockeying as much as a spluttering transitional justice process.
By all this, it must not be thought that no democratic gains ensued. On the contrary, there were significant advances. Regardless, the whole was undercut by the sheer inability of the ‘yahapalanaya’ alliance to reach out to the pain and travails of the electorate, from Devundara to Point Pedro. Instead, a debilitating elitism persisted, becoming the persistent stamp of that administration.
The ‘yahapalanaya’ elite believed condescendingly that Colombo could dictate what was good to the great unwashed and could pull the wool over everyone else’s eyes. When the Central Bank financial scandal erupted, some Ministers were heard to say that villagers would probably mistake James Bond for the bond scams.
What we see today are the consequences of that failed thinking. If the United National Party (UNP)’s top tier leadership thought that entering into deals with the Rajapaksas to delay key prosecutions would split the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) into Rajapaksa and Sirisena camps, that cynical strategy badly backfired.
In turn, former President Maithripala Sirisena’s sheer inability to fill the Presidential seat with authority and his foisting of electoral rejects to Parliament through the National List were no better.
Finally, that Sirisena-Wickremesinghe legacy is not only the decimation of their political parties but also setting the democratic movement in Sri Lanka back by decades.
‘The fault is not in our stars’
Yet critiques to that effect, very early on in 2015, were swept aside. The fault, as Cassius said, ‘lies not in our stars but in ourselves, in that we are underlings.’ At a point when we could have taken control of our own destinies, we stepped back and allowed the rot to deepen.
Similarly, we must stop falling into convenient traps of self-delusion at this stage. As much as ‘pohottuwa’ flag bearers fall into error in drum beating that the 2015 ‘yahapalanaya’ win was due to the minority vote, the 2019 and 2020 poll outcomes are not solely attributable to racists in our midst. To say that is both patronising and inaccurate.
True, some results are explainable on that basis, witness high preferential vote holders from ruling ‘pohottuwa’ ranks from Colombo and Gampaha. Even so, both poll results go beyond that simplistic rationale. This was a vote by an electorate fed up of democratic labels which not only yielded precious little at the kitchen table but also belittled them as rude yokels.
The capturing of a sizeable amount of seats by the UNP breakaway and still wet-behind-the-ears Sajith Premadasa-led Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) in Wednesday’s polls signify that the old dynamic has changed. The adage ‘kapuwath kola, kapuwath nil’, (loosely translated to say that even if one is physically cut, allegiances to one or the other of the two old parties will not change), no longer holds sway.
And as the SLPP and the SJB is born out of the detritus and dust of the SLFP and the UNP, that may be no bad thing after all. In fact, the beaten UNP’s post election statement issued under the hand of the General Secretary who was unceremoniously tossed out of his electoral seat, entirely misses this point. It bewails that ‘movements have replaced political parties.’ But what did it expect, pray?
That despite going so grievously wrong in both internal and national policies, its constituents would just continue to vote for the party because of its name? Or that clever legal games, backstabbing and adroit manipulation by a few would suffice to quell sheer disgust by the electorate at its failure upon failure, betrayal upon betrayal of the public trust?
Other lessons to be learnt
Akin to the demise of the nation’s old political parties, the liberal school of thought (or more accurately, what remains of it) will meet a fate worse than death absent critical self-reflection. In other words, it will merely become irrelevant to the long march of Sri Lankan history.
Months ago I wrote in these column spaces that constitutional rights and equality under the Rule of Law must re-anchor themselves to the fundamental tenets of social justice and community rejuvenation. It must capture at least some of the passion of the 1980’s and the 1990’s where activism was rooted in like-minded civil societies that went beyond Colombo’s elite.
As proudly part of a once vibrant brand of lawyers whose commitment to social democracy went beyond the monetized professionalism of legal practice, the practice of public interest law was fuelled by that passion. Through the decades, that determination has died a slow and torturous death at the hands of a glory-driven preoccupation with Colombo’s power politics linked to cripplingly dependent donor dominated agendas. This must change.
Formation of ‘radical centres’ irreversibly linked to old, tired and failed ideologies will not do. That much is clear. Yet as we enter upon a new Rajapaksa era, politicians must not be elevated into toweringly frightful monstrosities who cannot be combated. To do this is counter productive. It would sap, at the very onset, any viable resistance as the nation confronts new perils of militarisation and dynastic power.
Strategic and not sledgehammer-like
In fact, despite the entry of the odd murderer or two and openly communal voices who are bound to claim the floor of the House as their own, Sri Lanka’s post election environment points to potential reversal of democratic gains being strategic, not sledgehammer-like.
As some noises from the victorious SLPP made clear on Friday, scrapping the 19th Amendment is distinguishable from its reform. There is a past here which cannot be forgotten. The gently democratic 17th Amendment was succeeded by the Rajapaksa-dynasty 18th Amendment, obediently rubber stamped by a compliant Court and passed by a genulfecting Parliament. It was this which led to the 19th Amendment. Are we really going to repeat that same, weary cycle all over again?
Time will tell as to what is in store. But our history is replete with politicians who were stripped of their seeming invincibility. This includes the war-winning Mahinda Rajapaksa-led SLFP which occupied 144 government seats in the 14th Parliament but was ejected from power a bare four years later.
Two-thirds majority or not, there is no reason to think that the impermanence of power will be different this time around. For that, Sri Lanka’s democratic resistance must go beyond mere regime change, that hugely deceptive facade of 2015 which catapulted the country into this instant quagmire.
On that success or failure will depend much.