The President’s gear-shift on 20A, which showed flexibility, followed by his shift-back to the original hawkish position and a posture of rigidity, made nonsense of some basic assumptions of the Opposition, and pointed to the imperative of correcting these dangerously flawed notions. What are the lessons of the recent dramatic turnaround?
It disproved the nonsensical assumption that the GR regime is a replay of the post-18th amendment MR regime and/or the post-1978 JR regime.
It was in the MR second term that he weathered a storm at the longest Cabinet meeting in post-independent Sri Lankan history, and pushed through the decision to hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council, while knowing the government would lose. Can anyone imagine GR doing that?
JR see-sawed from 1984 to 1987 on devolution because of crosscurrents in his Cabinet. Can anyone imagine GR doing likewise?
The GR regime is of a very different type. The Opposition must avoid the fatal error of those who regarded Germany in the 1930s as yet another rightwing, reactionary, conservative regime or the not-so-fatal error (unless you are a black youngster) of those who thought that Donald Trump’s administration was yet another Republican one, unaware that the far-Right or the Alt-Right is not just another conservative Right.
While familial succession is a driver of the ruling party’s project, it is not the most important factor. This regime is not like the Bandaranaikes nor was it the Rajapaksa family regime of the MR years. If it were so, the 20th amendment would have been modified to provide a bigger role for MR and to accommodate the revisions suggested by the MPs in the report of the Committee appointed by MR.
Those analysts who think that the fact of a familial succession project rules out contradictions of any significance within that project, have neither studied Nicos Poulantzas on the ‘Crisis of the Dictatorships’ and the crucial importance of contradictions within the ruling bloc, nor, more importantly have they understood JR Jayewardene’s recognition and targeting of the two most authoritarian elements within the United Front coalition: the rightwing Felix Dias Bandaranaike and the leftist Janavegaya Group.
However, the contradictions within the Rajapaksa ruling bloc cannot be the main driver of change, because the bloc itself—and arguably the family—now has a clear hegemon: President GR.
The Pohottuwa parliamentary group and the ruling party and coalition are not the most decisive—hegemonic—fraction of the regime, which is why the MPs 20A revisions, subscribed to by Weerawansa and Gammanpila, were ignored or rather, tossed back by President GR.
Even the pro-GR Sinhala ultranationalists and influential Bhikkhus, who had been promised the space for an amended draft by President GR, who later revised his position and sent them back empty-handed and somewhat embarrassed, are clearly not the ones who call the shots.
If the legendary PM, the Pohottuwa MPs and the ultranationalist caucuses including the bhikkhus were turned away disappointed and promises made to them broken, and they in turn backed-down, what is the real driver of the GR regime? Is it the Deep State or the Not-So-Deep-Any-Longer-State, i.e. a Junta, and their civilian ideologues and professionals in the Viyathmaga-Eliya?
This is not a ‘populist’ regime by any means; not even a nationalist-populist regime. It is the regime’s nationalist-populists who responded to their base and prepared a revised draft, who were pushed back. It is an ultranationalist-autocratic regime. Therefore, the Opposition’s enemy should not be populism or even Sinhala nationalism; it should be despotism, tyranny, autocracy i.e. dictatorship.
At its core the regime is a quasi-Junta or proto-Junta with the Pohottuwa as its political wing-cum-human shield. The political wing has just begun to be cut down to size in the same way that Prabhakaran and the LTTE cut down its own political wing (PLFT) and negotiators/spokespersons to size. The return of rigidity in the presidential pushback on 20A indicates the exact character and content of the coming Constitution. It will be a mere cover for a de-facto Junta.
The democratic Opposition has to reposition itself so that the regime does not enjoy a landslide at a referendum on the Constitution. On 19A/20A and the new Constitution it must take the middle-ground, standing for an effective democratic presidential system as is the norm in democracies from the USA to South Korea, France to Mexico, Chile to Indonesia.
It must not let itself be misperceived as standing for a weak Presidency. If the Opposition takes the same old neoliberal Ranilist-Yahapalana stand, it will be given the same treatment by the Sinhala voters that the Ranilism received this time—and all prospects of democracy will be buried under an avalanche of Sinhala votes.
The Left – the JVP and FSP—must not continue the suicidal ‘Ranilist-UNP’ political culture of not being seen to be self-critical about and rupture with its erroneous policies and practices of decades –from the killing of leftists such as Vijaya and Daya Pathirana to tolerance of university ragging.
It is these memories and images that are being and will be exploited by the regime in its repression (e.g. the SIS into universities) to the applause of the public. These prevent the Left from occupying the moral high ground.
As for the ethnic Minority Opposition—the Tamil and Muslim parties- they must grasp that the only option is to defend the presidential system and back a moderate Sinhala candidate who can win a plurality (not a slice, as in 2015) of the Sinhala majority; who can take back most of the Sinhala heartland. All three currents of the Opposition—the new democratic Opposition (under progressive populist leadership), the Left and the Minority Opposition, must unite in a broad Democratic Resistance Bloc, for sheer survival.
As N Sanmugathasan used to say, illustrating the principle of the United Front, they “must swim together or sink separately”.