This May Day I resisted the siren song of being participant-observer (engaging in “participatory action research” as the late GVS de Silva termed it), and preferred to stay home, surf the three channels that provided live coverage of the main May Day mobilizations, track the newscasts on all channels, and peruse the social media and still photographs, especially the overhead shots, over the next few days. On the morning after, my impressionistic conclusion was that the UNP (whose demonstration was more impressive than its meeting) came first by either a nose or a whisker, followed by Kirillapone and Galle, in that order.
Kirillapone with its gigantic inverted T shape consisting of thick crowds on Baseline road, High Level Road and up to the Arpico Nawinna showroom, was perhaps one and a half (or quarter) times as large as Galle—and this without any state patronage or even the official status of the Opposition.
That said, for all effective purposes what we saw on May Day were three political formations, which while not of identical size, were (to borrow Dr. Henry Kissinger’s phrase) of “essential equivalence” or “rough equivalence”.
Of these, two are in alliance, namely the UNP and the official SLFP, which in turn can count on the TNA. This gives them a preponderance of position. That however, could be temporary. I learned from my sagacious father that politics in Sri Lanka in a context of crisis tends to resemble a kaleidoscope. Therefore what is crucial is not only how the political forces were clustered on this May Day, but the trend-lines, how the picture is likely to decompose and recompose; to evolve, between now and, let us say, the next May Day.
It depends on context. It is only in a stable situation that a balance of political forces remains stable. We are not in such a situation and we certainly aren’t heading into one. If we were, the citizenry wouldn’t have been subject to economic ‘shock therapy’ starting with the 15% VAT hike including on hospital bills. The electricity and fuel hikes are sure to follow, with their consequences of price hikes of goods and services across the board and shrinkage of disposable household incomes.
The text of the IMF deal pledges a “fundamental re-set of economic policies”. This is absurd, when the Singaporean Deputy PM and Minister of Defence of the day said a few years back that wartime Sri Lanka had maintained an impressive growth rate of 5%, and postwar Sri Lanka has the highest growth rate in Asia outside of China!
While policy adjustments are necessary and economic management needed streamlining, what is the need for a “fundamental reset of economic policies” that have worked? The answer is a dogmatic commitment to the economic doctrine of neo-liberalism and free market fundamentalism. No IMF package makes an implementing government popular. Indeed it has been said that more governments have been toppled by the IMF than by Left parties or guerrilla movements! Thus the UNP’s electoral support will shrink before it starts to expand again, if it ever does.
We are in for a non-economic or extra-economic crisis too. That is a “crisis of transition”. The UNP and its TNA ally are attempting a transition from one form of state, the unitary, to something else, in a federalist direction and animated by a federalist spirit. This is the pith and substance of the process of Constitutional change. It would be fraught under the best of circumstances, which is why all such attempts failed in our post–Independence history. Now things are even riskier, because the attempt will be made against the backdrop of economic pain.
The local and foreign pundits who designed the Yahapalana project of regime change are secure in the conviction that they have cobbled together a bipartisan consensus which can under-gird the effort at de-facto federalization. As a glance around the globe as well as the contemporary history of Sri Lanka (the so-called ‘peace process’) shows, these pundits usually get it far more wrong than right.
In the first place, the Mahindaist May Day mobilization exposed the myth of a bipartisan consensus. The Government is UNP, with a segment—in all probability not even the larger swathe—of the SLFP as junior partner. The bulk of the SLFP’s support base is not in or with the Government.
Secondly one doesn’t know the impact of the Kirillapone gathering of the SLFP at grassroots and up the party ladder. Would the Mahindaist mass manifestation act as a magnet whose gravitational force field would draw in part of the Galle constituency? How would the official SLFP view its electoral prospects post-May Day?
Thirdly, even if there is greater animosity between the two wings of the SLFP after May Day, how would mounting economic pain affect the behaviour of the SLFP? Would the competitive Mahinda factor mean a greater or lesser propensity for the SLFP to compromise with the UNP on economic and Constitutional reform especially when they entail enhanced ethnic autonomy in the midst of expanding embitterment over VAT-led economic shock therapy?
Fourthly, the crisis of transition involves the transition to so-called transitional justice, with the Government striving to implement the Geneva resolution and open an insensitively insolent inquiry into the war.
Fifthly how can the bipartisan coalition compensate for the loss of the moral high ground and erosion of legitimacy over the issue of the removal of Mahinda’s security?
The disgraceful attempts of “Yahaps” ideologues/propagandists, including an NGO pasha and Govertment-appointed Reconciliation Task Force tsar, to point the needle of suspicion at Sri Lankan Military Intelligence for the Chavakachcheri suicide vest and the cell of revivalist Tiger operatives, is strongly reminiscent of the UNP’s charge in the 1999 Presidential campaign that Military Intelligence was conspiring to kill Mr. Wickremesinghe, which was followed by the Millennium City raid and incarceration of DMI operatives when the CFA commenced in 2002.
No target felled would cause more elation in Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora than Mahinda Rajapaksa (followed by Gotabaya). Students of international politics would recall that the killing of a much loved populist leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, in Columbia in 1948, led to a massive uprising followed by decades of unremitting, nationwide civic violence (dubbed ‘La Violencia’) which still persists in the form of the FARC insurgency (albeit residually and with receding intensity due to talks in Havana).
The UNP leaders have needlessly and stupidly handcuffed one arm (economic) of Sri Lanka to the IMF and the other (sovereignty) to the Geneva Resolution. How -- and for how long --will the bipartisan coalition take the strain when the country is stretched on the rack and pulled from both directions?
While the official SLFP leadership may shortsightedly provide the UNP the numbers in parliament to implement the economic, constitutional and accountability packages, it will lose its own actual and potential voters to the Mahindaist Opposition. Alternatively the President may feel constrained to press the political re-set button. The official SLFP may decide that the only way out of the trap is to rupture with the right-wing UNP leadership on any one or a combination of these three national issues and re-position itself either as a partner of a recomposed UNP or realign with its SLFP comrades in the JO or ‘federate’ with elements of both in a new centrist political architecture.
How will the three essentially equivalent forces (UNP, JO and SLFP) sustain their tri-polar relationship in the context of a crisis that leads to a bi-polar, zero-sum game: pro-UNP government or anti-UNP government, pro-Right or anti-Right, pro-comprador or anti-comprador, pro-federal or anti-federal, pro-neoliberalism or anti-neoliberalism, pro-Ranil or anti-Ranil? It is the PM rather than the populist ex-President who is fast becoming the country’s most polarizing personality.