Partially paralyzed by contradictions above and within, and under mass pressure from below and without, a crisis of governability is looming
Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga
With the election result, the Yahapalana coalition Government is like a predator with a poison arrow embedded in its flesh, which has lurched into a quagmire. The end may be a long-drawn and painful process lasting 500 days, but it will neither exit the mire nor recover from the wound.
While the PM has been strengthened with the addition of Law and Order, the UNP is manifestly discontented with the mini-reshuffle.
Vasantha Senanayake, State Minister for Foreign Affairs and great-grandson of UNP founder and the ‘Father of the Nation’, D.S. Senanayake, pressed for the second time by the media on the issue of the replacement of the PM as part of a course-correction, said on prime-time TV news that “it was bound to happen the easy way or the hard way”.
The contradictions have been exacerbated within and between the UNP and the SLFP. Both will be in a downward spiral at the next election.
Partially paralyzed by contradictions above and within, and under mass pressure from below and without, a crisis of governability is looming. What is the wellspring or taproot of the crisis?
By any standard of good governance and political decency, Mr. Wickremesinghe should have resigned as PM or been removed. Firstly, he was responsible for the appointment of Arjuna Mahendran, against the explicit advice of the President. His crony Mahendran, interestingly his appointee in 2001 as the head of the BoI, has been responsible for enormous damage to the economy, the citizenry, the Government and the UNP. Mahendran is now safely back in Singapore, where he was beamed in from.
Secondly, Mr Wickremesinghe has been responsible for the crash in the electoral fortunes of his party.
Roughly 15 years ago, the NGP Panditharatne Report into the UNP’s performance noted that testimony from “party supporters” at the “grassroots-level” showed conspicuous lack of support (only 14%) for the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe and its continuity!
In 2018, the UNP that had just celebrated its 70th anniversary has been beaten into second place by a party that is just a few months old, and that too, by a wide margin.
The UNP is the predominant force in the Government, and yet, after three years in office, it was convincingly beaten by a party that neither enjoys the status of being in Government nor that of being recognized as it should, as the official Opposition.
Thirdly, Mr. Wickremesinghe based his strategy on the alliance with and the subsequent split in the SLFP. It failed abysmally. The SLFP retained but a residue which was hopelessly inadequate in preventing a Pohottuwa victory. Mr. Wickremesinghe proved himself a dreadful political strategist, though a shrewd tactician in power struggles. He is also pilot of a long-term trend and trajectory of the UNP’s electoral decline.
Fourthly, Mr Wickremesinghe is not on the same page, in political, ideological, economic, foreign policy and programmatic terms as President Sirisena, while he sees himself as the co-leader if not the de facto leader of the country and conducts himself accordingly. This creates a deadlock and worsens the crisis.
Fifthly, Mr Wickremesinghe is structurally unpopular among the Sinhala and especially Sinhala-Buddhist voters and has proved enormously toxic to his coalition partner the SLFP and its leader, the country’s elected President.
There are obvious questions raised by the SLFP split: Why did the liberal-reformist faction in Government/State do so badly while the populist-nationalist faction in the Opposition do so well?
Why did the official SLFP, with all the advantages of office including the Presidency fail, while the SLPP-JO with none of them, succeed? Why did the SLFP/UPFA’s August 2015 voters shift as a bloc to Mahinda Rajapaksa who is not even the Opposition Leader and cannot run for the Presidency next year?
Why did the SLFP voter not stay with the incumbent President who is also the leader of their party? Why did the Attanagalle SLFP voter not stay loyal to the two-term former President and daughter of the legendary SLFP founder and the first woman Prime Minister?
The answer is that subaltern affiliation of the SLFP with the Ranilist UNP is anathema to the SLFP vote-base, which is overwhelmingly Sinhala and broadly nationalist. That partnership gutted the SLFP, the President’s political power-base.
The strategic value of this island is high in the context of ..the US-India-Australia-Japan Quartet’s Indo-Pacific Project on the one hand, and China-Russia strategic alliance’s OBOR-Greater Eurasia Project on the other
Flying in the face of survival instinct, the UNP opted to retain Mr Wickremesinghe as its leader, and the SLFP’s Chandrika faction opted to remain in alliance with him. Why so?
The strategic value of this island is high in the context of the competition between the US-India-Australia-Japan Quartet’s “Indo-Pacific Project” on the one hand, and the China-Russia strategic alliance’s “OBOR-Greater Eurasia” project on the other.
And there must be some of that bond scam money sloshing around or black money coming in
Then there is the ideological factor, a matter of social psychology. The Ranilian UNP is not dominated by classic bourgeois values and virtues, liberal or conservative—thus the dissent expressed by Vasantha Senanayake, Pradip Jayewardene, Navin Dissanayake and Rajiva Wijesinha.
The UNP is currently dominated by a stratum of political and economic Neoliberals branded (even proudly tattooed by themselves) as the “Toiyyas”, while the opposing Rajapaksa camp is trashed and trolled as the “Baiyyas”.
I find it impossible to translate either term—I am guessing that “Baiyyas” means plain folk (or rustics)--but “Toiyyas” is an updated version of the 1950s term “thuppahi” which is an update of an earlier epithet, “Kalu suddhas”.
The closest rendition in the English language would be Philip Gunawardena’s Leftist label of “Rootless Cosmopolitans”, a social stratum which the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist L.H. Mettananda referred to as a “microscopic minority”.
Writing in the Ceylon Observer Magazine edition of May 1967, my father Mervyn de Silva commented on the same sociological phenomenon:
“The Western-oriented Ceylonese is the perfect pasticheur. He is the intellectual counterpart of the Japanese manufacturer—he will copy anything or anybody.”
While the Cabinet mini-reshuffle has set off a chorus of jeers from the media and society, it has a dark dimension. During the election campaign, Sujeeva Senasinghe et al threatened the voters with a return to the UNP of the 1970s and 1980s.
The transfer of Law and Order to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe (or Field Marshal Fonseka) sets up a hard-power node in the System potentially rivalling the President, and augurs a more confrontational approach.
The UNP will confront not only the JO-SLPP but also the SLFP, and crackdown on protest movements headed by the JVP and/or the FSP.
The prospect is a classic situation of a Government in decay and decline. As the examples of Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan demonstrate, the national electoral response to a pro-Western, cosmopolitan, elitist Establishment’s rot and repression, is the retaliatory fusion of Statism, Populism and Alt-Something.
What is the likelihood that Mahinda’s Pohottuwa, which scored 45% on its first outing, in several months, will be unable to top it up with 5% and vault the 50% mark in the coming elections?
How difficult can this be when it is suctioning SLFP votes and those are down to 13% of which 5% can slide easily to Mahinda? If the SLFP remains in coalition with Ranil’s UNP, how long will it be before it fights the JVP for third place?
The augmentation of Mr Wickremesinghe’s ‘hard power’ will polarize society and dialectically summon up its nemesis. The natural, irresistible, organic convergence of SLPP-JO plus SLFP-UPFA vote bases (45% +13%) is underway. But that isn’t all. Already the mood is shifting in Sri Lankan society.
It is waiting with a mix of patience and restlessness, for the return of Mahinda’s leadership, but also something else. I sense a public in ferment, across classes. Society is waiting for ‘MR Plus’: Mahinda’s magnetic Center-Left Populism, upgraded and ‘weaponized’ to finish strong, with an Alt-Something.