Is Sri Lanka ready to cash in on the trends created by the populist political tsunamis sweeping around the world? Tectonic shifts in voting patterns began to dominate democracies with the arrival of Le Penn in France (she sacked her father, the founder of the party for being too fanatical) is on the threshold of winning the next Presidential election. Triumph of Trump and the emergence of Brexit in Britain added a new dimension to populism. Winds of change bring Syrias to power in Greece and Bernie Sanders surfaces in USA in a bid to halt Clinton rather than to beat Trump and witness the arrival of a gun totting hero in the Philippines in the form of Rodrigo Duterte.
Fresh winds are indeed blowing and would Sri Lanka with its inherent nationalistic trends, innate anti-elite tendencies and its integral hostility to the establishment, enjoy the full blast of this draught? Sri Lanka has it all, except the vital ingredient of leadership material to make the initial move.
In Sri Lanka, contenders with character or background have not emerged to set a trail to catch the populist cross - currents. Delay is fatal: a sound showing at the local authority elections is a requisite for new contenders otherwise old elites will regain their lost space. Granting more time to hold local authority elections will give an opportunity for a new face to emerge much to the chagrin of the joint opposition. Government could backpeddle the evil day; being currently the obvious loser. That picture could shift.
The environment is ideally conditioned for populism to gain a foot loose foothold on the local political scene but the lack of a charismatic leadership at the helm could delay the coming of a quiet revolution. Populism in Sri Lanka needs a centrist yoke since Buddhism is the middle way of life embedded in the People. Internationally populism has left/right tendency but it’s continuing characteristic is being angry with a weary establishment.
In Sri Lanka populism originates out of the veins of middle - income society - more youthful than elderly (formerly known as ‘middle class’ now expanded with the inclusion of the income earners) brings forth, numeral disenchanted floating voters crying out for a change from the tired Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) – Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) axis. Old men do not attract young minds; the nation loses its young talent, fed up with corrupt politics. Both RW and MR will be in their haggard 70s and having long over-stayed in politics by the election year, in 2020. If they are returned due to the lack of a populist alternate, it could lead to a bloody and cruel phase, as populism will re-emerge coupled with venom, outside the democratic woodwork, as it did with the JVP outbreaks of the seventies and eighties in times both SLFP and UNP.
Populists send out the message that there is an upsurge of nationalism carrying home laboured tags of “Made in the USA” or “Made in France” or “Made in the UK”.
In Sri Lanka populism would turn into nationalism if the Wickremesinghe government propelled the need to implement the six-committee report. That would divide the country and the nation, dismantle the RW-MS administration and temporarily bring a MR administration carrying the “Made in Sri Lanka” badge purely because of the amended Article 70 of the 19th Amendment,on which the Supreme Court maintained an stoic silence on the question of the exercise of the franchise. Constitution taboos the holding of elections for four years and six months. Impossibility could become a probability. A parliamentary majority can usher MR as the Prime Minister before the general elections of 2020 and shift the UNP to the opposition benches. If so, a UNP revamped could be elected on a stand-alone basis in 2020 - a crafty move to stay away from the establishment during difficult days. Being out of office during a troubled period is wise and to hand a troubled administration to MR is wiser. Yet it is too risky a gamble for RW or MR to make but is an inevitable constitutional reality, if RW loses his majority in Parliament.
The limited cry could enlarge into an outcry of nationalism moving into the classless society, jingoistic in sound effects, asking to erase all treads of terrorism- the bane of the nation that would receive a positive response.That might activate a magnetic impact islandwide due to the rumblings up in the north.
Chief Minister of the North has set the stage for it. The TNA was irresponsible in appointing untapped mavericks to high offices. It would also keep the good governance kids of 2015- a mighty force disintegrating to fragments - with their NGO up bringing would never support tribal sound bites: rather sit on the fence pontificating. Ineffective are the old fogies of the ’56 class, panders to politicians to lose their credibility. It’s time for the youth to awake from slumber, as it is their rightful turn to clear the garbage since my generation served the nation well by eliminating terrorism. Sadly my peers are greedily hanging on to power and making a right royal mess of it, instead of making way for the young except for their near and dear.
All this bodes ill: as communal tension might arise but reading our legislature on the recent Development (Special Provisions) Bill - if the six committee reports are to follow suit, they too are likely to be permanently shelved to gather dust. Indeed a prudent avenue to follow for those desiring a return to parliament.
Yet the six - committee report when debated in Parliament will be watched carefully. Sure will give an impetus for nationalism to emerge and grow into a state of populism. Might unite the south that can produce a convincing majority in Parliament. Neither RW nor MR will permit a challenger to rise against them, working in tandem through the UNP or SLFP. There is bi – partisanship unseen.
Understandable, as they cannot with grave allegations standing against their names – justly or unjustly, survive without holding on to power. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the popular bearer of a populist revival is entrenched between brother MR and a set of handlers pinning him down. An appearance after the local government elections may find him having to play a second fiddle to MR. Obviously it will please MR, but might lead both brothers to play less than subsidiary roles, that will sure please neither.
JVP is too stubborn; to revisit its policies or discard Wijeweera’s outdated cadre bound philosophy and sail on the winds of populism. Their vision is not wide to intake the middle – class, middle - income society with mixed up Marxist jargon.
JVP remains named and blamed as a protest party that enables the aged leaders of main political parties to regain ascendency. JVP must grow up after wasting time fashioning their policies more to destabilize Wimal Weerawansa’s unseen front. None desire to accommodate the JVP with their dodgy demands that are impossible to fulfil and is badly in need of a qualitative think tank to think afresh.
Having arrived on the back of the UPLF to parliament lost its direction by over estimating its stock; polled the highest votes in the districts by strategically placing only three candidates on each district list- their last act of wisdom. Most were returned on top of the UPFA list. JVP is no longer the home of the disenchanted voter because populism in Sri Lanka is a roadrunner on the centre track that seeks stability and durability.JVP is far out on that count. Leadership is a quality that is sadly lacking in our society. Can you name a name for leadership whom you are truly proud of ? Try your hand.