- Politics today is one of tremendous ideological confrontation
- IMF and WB were forced to concede on failures of their market oriented policies
- Anti-Muslim attacks have continued under the UNP’s watch
The SLPP presidential campaign of Gotabaya Rajapaksa is gaining steam and the JVP has announced Anura Kumara Dissanayake as its candidate, but the UNP is in crisis without a candidate.
Presidential elections, in addition to consolidating the power of future rulers, raise and debate the politics of powerful social constituencies that either ideologically emerge victorious or are defeated. In the months ahead, there are the dual dangers of the consolidation of chauvinist politics on one side and the middle of the road politics of surrender on the other side.
The Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy did not emerge out of the blue, his candidacy is the culmination of reactionary social constituencies coming together to bring about tremendous political change. Over the last decade and a half, Islamophobic discourse has been spread by chauvinist demagogues, which in recent years has set off organised mobs carrying out anti-Muslim pogroms, which are characteristic of a proto fascist base. Linked to such a virulent nationalist ideology and a chauvinist social base are sections of retired military officers, segments of the entrenched bureaucracy and an urban business and professional class constituting a new rich, all of whom are committed to a project of majoritarian dominance.
The social base and politics of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime of the past is different from that of the GotabayaRajapaksa regime in the making. The political manoeuvre of Mahinda Rajapaksa was to bring under his fold a broad spectrum of political actors; the Sinhala Buddhist Right, the Old Left, Muslim political parties and even some Tamil political actors. This broad coalition of patronage was maintained even as majoritarian policies and the neoliberalisation of the economy were accelerated. The cunning capacity to negotiate and coalesce a diverse and even polarised section of the political class under the hegemony of a regime, and the consolidation of authoritarian politics in combination with the deployment of populist and nationalist discourse, was a unique characteristic of a master politician with decades of experience in parliamentary politics.
"UNP’s politics are outdated, not because of the current crisis. They are having difficulties in deciding on their candidate, over the last four years in office, the UNP and its economic ideology are regressively behind even their global neoliberal guardians"
A Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime in the future will be different, as both the leader and his base are only familiar with the naked use of power and its consolidation through any means. As resistance emerges to their project of rapid urban development and disciplining society, drastic measures will be deployed with a military mind-set of smashing opposition. Such fascist measures will be balanced by conceding to the interests of powerful international actors that only a consolidated regime in power can deliver. Indeed, fascism in a small country cannot survive without international backing. In these times of global hegemony unravelling, global powers are only concerned about their immediate geopolitical interests of extracting concessions such as bilateral military and trade ties from small states, as opposed to instituting a liberal order in smaller states useful for their longer term interests of consolidating hegemony through for example with international legal and market norms.
The UNP in crisis
In a global environment where authoritarian populism with strongman leaders are on the rise, the UNP’s politics are outdated. That is not just about the current crisis of the UNP having difficulty deciding on its candidate, rather, over the last four years in office, the UNP and its economic ideology are regressively behind even their global neoliberal guardians.
"The Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy did not emerge out of the blue, his candidacy is the culmination of reactionary social constituencies coming together to bring about tremendous political change"
The IMF and World Bank have been forced to concede on failures of their market oriented policies with the mounting economic crisis at the heart of the West itself, but they continue to have double standards for Third World countries. In other words, the UNP is wedded to the neoliberal mantra of free markets to be taken forward by technocratic experts characteristic of the Washington Consensus of the 1980s, long after aspects of this ideology are being questioned from within the global establishment. Thankfully, the weak coalition government could not even implement a fraction of its stated policies to liberalise the economy.
This political bankruptcy of the UNP is reflected by not only its flawed economic vision, but also its inability towards liberal defence of the rights of minorities and its problematic engagement with the rural communities. Anti-Muslim attacks have continued under the UNP’s watch. And it did little to address the long drought and agrarian crisis. It is only after the UNP got hammered in the local government elections of February 2018 that money was thrown at the rural communities to build patronage, but the rural electorates have in the past received hand outs and voted the other way. If the UNP could not see the political crisis in the making four years ago, it seems to have learned little to address its own crisis into the future.
Friends and enemies
The world over, politics today is one of tremendous ideological confrontation. Politics now are of “friends and enemies”, of “us versus them”, of attacking the minorities and immigrants, of xenophobic discourses and of international conspiracies. However, underneath such virulent nationalist politics, the power of global finance capital continues untouched with mounting accumulation and rising inequalities. Indeed, the Trump regime in the US may lead a global trade war, but it will not touch the global financial interests of Wall Street. This politics is working for Donald Trump,Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson, and it is also the politics embraced by the Rajapaksa campaign. How will the UNP and for that matter the JVP respond?
Sadly, the UNP and the JVP are yet to figure out the politics of ideological confrontation that can challenge the Rajapaksa juggernaut. If the UNP and the JVP skirt around the nationalist, re-militarising and anti-minoritarian discourses, it will be akin to a politics of surrender. Going down the path of limping behind in the chauvinist race is a sure route to defeat. Furthermore, the corruption discourse will not work this time as that has been over deployed during the last decade, and all sides are now seen to be corrupt.
"How will the JVP challenge the Rajapaksa regime on the verge of consolidating state power? The JVP as a political party, constrained to keep its membership, may have no option but to challenge the Rajapaksa mobilisation through a presidential campaign"
The JVP in seeking to speak to middle class constituencies has not put forward an agenda of class politics. Perhaps it believes it can make some gains with its image of clean oppositional politics and the group of intellectuals and experts it has attracted, but what is its programme to address the current crisis? For those who are admiring the large JVP rally to announce its candidacy, my issue is that a rally is only a momentary show of power. How will the JVP challenge the Rajapaksa regime on the verge of consolidating state power? The JVP as a political party, constrained to keep its membership, may have no option but to challenge the Rajapaksa mobilisation through a presidential campaign. But for the intellectuals, who are so crucial for dissent, without an answer to the question of ideological struggle to challenge the consolidation of fascist politics, and merely joining the JVP campaign, is tantamount to surrendering to the victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
This election whether we like it or not is going to be about Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his social base. If he wins the election it is going to be major victory for majoritarian state policies, militarisation of the country and an economy that serves urban cut throat businesses and chauvinist professionals. And those interests will be taken forward while scapegoating Muslims and other minorities.
"If Gotabhaya wins the election it is going to be major victory for majoritarian state policies, militarisation of the country and an economy that serves urban cut throat businesses and chauvinist professionals"
The ideological opposition to the Rajapaksa campaign also needs to think in terms of “social bases” and “friends and enemies”. How does one coalesce the interests of rural communities, working classes and urban people that is pluralist in character creating “friends” of people of all religions and ethnicities, while taking on the “enemies” of pluralism and democracy? In this election, soft peddling on fundamental issues of class and ethnicity are a sure recipe for defeat. On the other hand, ideologically taking on the reactionary Rajapaksa base and defeating them in this election will be important for not only stopping the long-term consolidation of a repressive regime, but also to demoralise and defeat chauvinist forces. Looking back, the great failure of regime change in January 2015, was not just the frustration of a constitutional political solution and the flawed vision of economic development, it was also the surrender of the political terrain to the re-emergence of chauvinist politics.