By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose political support base the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its allies secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament and leveraged it to pass the hyper-centralising 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Sri Lanka had its most unipolar political moment since 1977-’78, which resulted in two civil wars and an external intervention.
Though the 20th Amendment still remains on the books and is wielded by an unelected President, leaving the fundamental task of toppling a new tyranny yet to be undertaken, the unipolar moment in Sri Lankan politics is over. That horror will almost certainly never return in my lifetime.
The SLPP-led coalition is shattered and now the SLPP itself has suffered a schism. The ruling party, no longer a ruling coalition, is barely clinging to a simple majority in Parliament.
In a clearly positive development, the exits made by various tendencies of the 2020 ruling coalition has led to a significant centre-left space reopening in Sri Lankan politics. That space is not obvious because of its splintering but it has nevertheless been re-born.
Centre-left to new right
The ruling SLPP is not the centre-left it was in 2017, and it is certainly not the centre-left that the Joint Opposition (JO) was in 2015-2017 and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its allies had been for decades before that. The SLPP had shifted from slightly centre-left to centre, very briefly in 2017, and then was hegemonised by the explicitly Trumpian rightwing ideology of the Gotabaya campaign.
From its roots in an SLFP that had always been closer to the US Democrats and UK Labour than to the US Republicans and the UK Conservatives, the SLPP and the Rajapaksas shifted firmly to the far-right. The Gotabaya campaign and indeed the SLPP Cabinet contained personalities who were openly pro-Hitler. Globally and universally, you can’t get more rightwing than that.
Today’s SLPP is a rightwing reactionary party in alliance with a rightwing reactionary UNP Leader as President. The SLPP opted for its and the centre-left’s traditional adversary Ranil Wickremesinghe despite the catastrophe that befell the SLFP when it made the same choice, and despite the fact that the available alternative was Dullas Alahapperuma, ideologue of ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ and the MR Project, an SLPP political personality so untarnished that his house was untouched during the arson attacks of 9 May.
This is utterly telling: the SLPP has degenerated into a mere proxy of the Rajapaksas and a party of the reactionary right.
The only difference between the SLPP and President Wickremesinghe (and his UNP splinter), is that the former is neo-conservative and the latter, neoliberal. However, Ranil has reconverted to his 1970s-1980s neo-conservatism on the Aragalaya, while the SLPP has embraced neoliberal economics (more sell-offs means more chances for loot), thereby closing any ideological gap there might be.
The sheer uninhabitability of the SLPP environment, its toxicity under Rajapaksa rule which has destroyed its own traditional rural vote base, causing it to be reviled by the public, resulted – as if by a law of physics – in the exit and reassertion of the centre-left tradition of the SLFP, the Podujana Peramuna, the JO, and the early-SLPP, in the form of an array of consequential groupings.
The ruination of peasant agriculture by Gotabaya Rajapaksa has destroyed the rural peasant base of the SLPP and the Rajapaksas, even in the South. This vote has doubtless shifted partly to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and partly to the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) but there is a distinct possibility of a significant slice being won over by a reformed and renovated centre-left emerging from the wreckage of the SLPP coalition.
It is not that the centre-left space in Sri Lankan politics is vacant. Both the JVP and the Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB) and the SJB are competitors.
However, the JVP-JJB may find it challenging to push beyond the space occupied by the Marxist left at its zenith in the 1940s-1960s, which was that of leadership of the Opposition. In short, the JVP-JJB may remain left rather than centre-left or social democratic.
The SJB could easily have filled the centre-left space but it is not fulfilling its [Ranasinghe] Premadasaist developmental-populist potential because of the drag effect of its economic right wing which insists that it shares and supports the economic direction of President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Though the SJB and Opposition Leader explicitly articulate a “progressive, social democratic third way,” the SJB may prove centrist or may even be perceived as centre-right, rather than centre-left. In short, it stands in danger of being unable to transcend a para-UNP (United National Party) profile and enclave, which amounts to a vote of 30+% at best.
This leaves a considerable potential for a centre-left option; a market niche for the recently resurfacing shards of the old SLPP-led coalition.
To put it in more prosaic terms, the dissenting tendencies can give the 2019-2020 vote base of the SLPP-led coalition an option other than the remaining Rajapaksa SLPP, the JVP-JJB, and the SJB. That vote base was so massive that even if much of it has gone to the JVP or SJB, there’s enough to be picked up by a new centre-left which can appeal to that vote base because it comes from the same root and is therefore closer to the ideology of that vote base.
Roadmap to revival
The dissident factions should commence by comprehending that the challenge takes them back to their roots – in the case of the SLFP — and to their early decades, though not quite roots, in the case of the left.
The starting point is 1951. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike faced a solid right or centre right in the form of the UNP of D.S. Senanayake, and a formidable Marxist left – the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Communist Party (CP), led by its founder-leaders.
He succeeded in carving out a centre-space, drawing from right and left. It was a progressive centre-space as the founding documents of the party in 1951 and its election manifesto of 1952 clearly prove. Indeed, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike set out to found a social democratic party. The 1952 manifesto called for the national languages (plural) to be the State languages (plural).
1956 had a progressive aspect and a reactionary aspect. The social aspect of 1956 was progressive while the linguistic aspect was reactionary. In 1957, Bandaranaike sought to compensate for the retrogressive aspect by signing the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (B-C) Pact but was unable to push it through (which he could have, had we had a presidential system).
The progressive aspect of the SLFP’s ideology, i.e., its social democratic roots and attempt to implement Regional Councils, were to return in the personality of Vijaya Kumaratunga and the project of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) that he and Chandrika founded in 1984. Vijaya attempted to present a democratic left alternative to the ruling reactionary rightist UNP, the decrepit SLFP, and the radical Marxist JVP.
In June-July 1986, Vijaya led the left (Colvin, Pieter, Vasudeva, DEW) in a roundtable dialogue with the UNP termed the Political Parties Conference (PPC) which yielded a detailed agreement on semi-autonomous Provincial Councils; a document officially published by the Government Press. This was a full year before the Indo-Lanka accord. Had it been implemented, instead of obstruction by the SLFP and (violently) by the JVP, there would have been no airdrop and no Accord would have been necessary.
The document drafted by the left, including Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, and agreed upon by President Jayewardene did not mention the abolition of the Executive Presidency because it was not thought necessary for a devolution-driven reformist solution to the Tamil national question. In fact, Vijaya made it clear in December 1986 at the New Town Hall that he intended to run for president.
Two major displacements, two massive deviations, firstly from the founding platform of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s SLFP (1951-’52) and his B-C Pact (1957) and secondly, from the project and platform of Vijaya Kumaratunga and the SLMP (1984-1988), on the part of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) in 1994-2004, resulted in the crisis and collapse of the centre-left, triggering a Sinhala nationalist-populist backlash that was surfed by the Rajapaksas, initially utilised by Mahinda Rajapaksa to end the war over the LTTE in a historic victory amounting to a progressive change, gradually deteriorating over time, especially during his second term, to incubate the rightwing Gotabaya presidency project (‘Gota’s War,’ 2012).
The road back for the contemporary centre-left has to lie between extremes, which are not only external to it but also internal to its own trajectory and experience. The internal (to its own history) extremes it has to self-critically eschew are the neoliberal right deviation of the CBK administration (e.g., privatising ownership of the plantations, Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure [P-TOMS] with Prabhakaran) on the one hand and the ultranationalism, militarism, and oligarchic economics of the Rajapaksa cartel.
The contemporary centre-left project has to find its way, via Vijaya Kumaratunga, back to the SWRD of 1951, 1952, and 1953 — the year he chaired the Hartal rally on Galle Face Green. Proposing managerial reform while combating Ranil’s agenda of privatisation of the public sector can constitute the common platform for convergence of the centre-left.