What did the Joint Opposition achieve by marching from Kandy to Colombo? What does it say about the strength of the joint Opposition? Does it say anything about the strength or otherwise of what is being called, tongue-in-cheek, the ‘Official SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party)’? Has to solidified the alliance between the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP)? Was it an exercise poorly timed because the SLF and the UNP government have been in power only for a year and a half and as such there’s little chance of this kind of agitation transforming into a mass upheaval resulting in regime-overthrow?
Let’s consider the facts. . Yes, it was organized a mere year and a half after Maithripala Sirisena became President and less than a year after the UNP won the General Election. There are two ways of looking at it. Some might say ‘too early’. True. There’s another way. If such numbers could be drawn to Colombo a mere year and a half after Maithripala Sirisena became President and less than a year after the UNP won the General Election it does indicate discontent of a significant nature. Putting it down to the ex President’s charisma or the stupidity of his followers will not rob it of this significance. Loyalties of protestors, ‘true objectives’ of the organizers, the reasons that drew the crowds are relevant of course, but in a political sense it is the show of strength that counts. We are not talking any more, after all, about the merits and demerits of one regime over another here.
The march attracted massive numbers. Contrast it, for example, with the ‘marches’ that other Oppositions under different regimes organized at the tail-ends of terms. This has put all those to shame. Contrast it, also, with the rally that the United National Party (UNP) organized at Hyde Park a few months ago. On that occasion the organizers had to shift the venue to Lipton Circus fearing that Hyde Park might not be filled. This time Hyde Park was literally dug up by the Government, forcing the demonstrators to Lipton Circus. The five roads leading to Lipton Circus were ‘peopled’ to a considerable distance. If numbers matter, these do.
That numbers matter is in fact confirmed by the response of the Government to the march. The United National Party started off with a bold statement, vowing to affirm the democratic right to protest. Good. It went downhill thereafter. The Government sought support of the courts on the flimsiest of pretexts, threw obstacles in the way of the march, issued dire threats of ‘disciplinary action’, threatened to expedite investigations (obviously against the big names of the Joint Opposition), found a sudden ‘need’ to dig up Hyde Park, indulged in endless rubbishing of the protest, abused state media especially Rupavahini; in short embarrassed itself at every turn. Hardly the behaviour one might expect of a confident and secure regime!
The UNP, at least in secret, might say ‘not us, but them,’ with ‘them’ meaning sections of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) loyal to the President, but that excuse is no longer valid; after all the two parties, their leaders and the key supporters of the leaders, have reiterated marital vows and claimed conjugal bliss ad nausea. In fact, the response, in its entirety was reminiscent of the ‘dirty tactics’ used by the previous regime and indeed all regimes that came before. ‘Change’ (‘venasa’) was not evident.
Interestingly, the bleeding-heart advocates of yahapaalanaya who shed buckets of tears over the abuse of state media by the Rajapaksas, the ‘dirty tricks’ in dealing with dissent/protests etc., are silent. Instead we have people claiming that the march actually made the Government stronger.
Fine. Now why should a ‘strong alliance’ fall over itself to rubbish a ‘weak’ protest which did not pose an immediate threat? Was it a case of old habits dying hard? Had they not been tutored enough in yahapalana-practice? Had they junked whatever notes were thrust into their hands when they got into the yahapalana bandwagon? Did someone whisper, ‘scared out of their wits’?
It’s not hard to understand why Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ‘inner circle’ of march-organizers want to re-capture power. It is not hard to understand why they have to paint things black. However, it must be acknowledged that things are not as rosy as the government wants people to believe. And it’s not the Mahinda loyalists who are saying it. When someone like Dr Razeen Sally, a respected economist and academic who now heads the Institute of Policy Studies calls it ‘an unwieldy unity government’ and mentions bad appointments, messy decision-making, lack of coordination and above all faults the government for not having a credible economic plan, talking about political consolidation is downright silly.
Let’s forget all that. If anyone thinks the march somehow consolidated the ‘alliance’, then one must talk of the constituents of that alliance and their relative strengths, never mind that the ‘point of consolidation’ is at best wishy-washy given the character certificate issued by Dr Sally. The UNP is intact but has embarrassed itself by the attacks on the media, foot-dragging on key election pledges and the about-turn and worse on Port City. Intact, nevertheless.
And the SLFP? Well, there’s a party office that is shunned by the membership. There’s an ex-leader who invites incessant booing by the mere mention of her name. There are ministers who’ve been rejected at the polls issuing statements about political power, democracy and what not. And there’s a leader who broke party lines, divided the party, was elected by default with the full support of his party’s arch rival, the UNP, and who whiles about Mahinda Rajapaksa ‘dividing the party’. Is the section of the SLFP that he has some control a solid political force? If this is the case, then the march forcing it to strengthen ties with the UNP would amount to ‘consolidation’. But the march clearly showed where the rank and file of the SLFP stood. The louder they shout about conjugal bliss and solidity of marriage, the less convincing it all sounds.
All this is good news, probably, for the Mahinda camp. It has to be bad news for those who truly believed the January 8 result would usher in a different way of doing things. The generous thing is to put down the silence of such people to a sense of shame or helplessness. The unpalatable truth, however, could be that they were never serious about ‘change’; they just wanted friends in power, never mind what they did and how they did it. The verbal contortions that yahapaalanists have been forced to take recourse to tell a tale.
There’s one positive though. The marchers did not get to undress the yahapaalanists. The yahapaalanists stripped of their own accord.
Malinda Seneviratne is a
Twitter: malindasene. Blog:malindawords.blogspot.com.