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Rejoinder to Krishantha Cooray: SJB’s strategic edge

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social democracy and the Premadasa Paradigm

 

If you ask the wrong question, you inevitably get the wrong answer. The entire burden of Krishantha Cooray’s strategic perspective for the SJB is contained in the penultimate paragraph of his latest article. It reads:   

“…In effect, do they [the SJB] want to borrow from the strategy that propelled Maithripala Sirisena to the presidency and succeed where he failed, or take a page out of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s path to victory in 2019 with a promise to succeed where he has failed?”
Why assume that ‘Sirisena Plus’ or ‘Gotabaya Minus’ are the only or main choices? Indeed, why assume that they are choices at all?   
I dismiss both these as non-choices. Instead, I argue that the most viable option for the SJB is, as a first step, to return to the point its’ parent party’ the UNP was last successful in leading the country, and avoid going down the wrong turning it made which prevented it from electing a leader for almost thirty years.   

Premadasa Re-loaded

When Joe Biden campaigned against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political role-model, President Trump, registering a historic victory, and in his first acts of legislation as President (I refer to the Recovery Act), to uplift, the American people hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis and President Trump’s heartless economic policies, there is one name and one set of policies that kept coming up in political commentary and discourse in general. That name was President Franklin D Roosevelt and that policy paradigm was the New Deal.   
So much for Krishantha Cooray’s objection to my perspective, namely: “Most examples he cites are from a time before there was an internet or cheap international communications before we understood climate change or the full extent of our natural heritage, and in an era where all Opposition to governments was centred around political parties.”   


By this set of criteria, FDR and the New Deal would have to be ruled out. But these two references were emblematic in the Biden candidacy and indeed his Presidency.   
Who is/was Sri Lanka’s equivalent of FDR? What was the period in which the closest equivalent of Biden’s policy template, FDR’s New Deal, was implemented in Sri Lanka?   
The answers to these questions are amply clear: President Ranasinghe Premadasa and 1989-1993 respectively.   
The UNP’s long downswing and shrinkage of its vote-base began with the deviation of the Premadasa paradigm, post-1993. Of course, the Premadasa paradigm must of necessity be updated and upgraded to fit the 21st century.   

"The UNP’s long downswing and shrinkage of its vote-base began with the deviation of the Premadasa paradigm, post-1993"

What should be the starting point of the discussion of the SJB’s future? Should it not be, as I suggest, strategic clarity and precision as to objective? And should that overarching objective not be a clear commitment and determination to winning the Presidential election of 2024, which, since it precedes the Parliamentary election, is also the first chance the citizens have of ridding the country peacefully and democratically of the ultranationalist autocratic regime that now rules it?   


Isn’t winning the presidential election of 2024 far easier than winning the parliamentary election, and isn’t Sajith Premadasa by far the obvious candidate, given that at the zenith of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s popularity, which neither he nor a successor SLPP candidate will reach, Sajith fell short only by 10%, and his 42% is only 8% short of that which is needed for victory?   

The Presidency: Reform not Abolish

No candidate can win the Presidency now if the electorate seriously thinks he/she is going to abolish it, any more than any board of interview is going to employ a candidate who says he/she will abolish the job he/she is seeking. What the people want at a presidential election is someone who will best lead the country; not someone who will abdicate that responsibility. Given that Sajith’s profile and obvious political lineage is one of caring and concern for the citizenry and of ensuring rapid yet equitable growth and high human development, he is the obvious candidate and likely winner of a Presidential race against a manifestly heartless regime that has caused a sharp drop in the living standards of the people as a whole.   


The best chance the SJB has of winning a Parliamentary election is its chronological positioning downstream from the presidential election; i.e., on the wings of a Premadasa victory as in 1988-1989. Even if the regime somehow inverts that sequence, it is Sajith Premadasa and the policies he is associated with—as noted by Ronnie de Mel—that is the main asset of the SJB at a Parliamentary election. I would add that it is also the fact that he, like his father before him, is an unmatched campaigner; energetic and passionate.   


As Ronnie de Mel put it, Sajith is the country’s only hope. put it very bluntly, the best chance the SJB and the country have to get out from under, is Sajith Premadasa’s combination of liberal democracy, pluralism, developmental populism and devolution within a unitary state.   
Having won the Presidency his sacred task would be to use the powers of that office to radically re-charge the economy as President Jayewardene did and do so while ensuring equitable growth as President Premadasa did.   

"What the people want at a presidential election is someone who will best lead the country; not someone who will abdicate that responsibility"

Without the Executive Presidency, neither the first economic revolution by JR Jayewardene nor the second by Ranasinghe Premadasa could have been made.   
Sajith and the SJB must also reintroduce and strengthen the separation of powers, but that must be along the lines of the American and French presidencies. The question of the abolition of the presidency, perceived by the great majority of the citizenry as weakening the state, should be removed from the discussion. If the Sinhala voters think that a vote for the SJB candidate is a vote for a return to the unaltered 19th amendment and its weakening of the state at the hands of unaccountable civil society to the detriment of the Sinhala nation, a significant percentage will either vote against or abstain, which could make the difference between defeat and victory.   


Furthermore, the abolition of the executive presidency will never secure a majority at a Referendum and even if it does, it will not obtain the support of a majority of the Sinhala majority, which means the regime will be perceived as illegitimate in the eyes of the Sinhalese and dangerously prone to instability, if not ouster by the nationalist, overwhelmingly Sinhala-Buddhist military.   

Yahapalanaya

Recommitting in any way to Yahapalanaya, the disastrous Ranil Wickremesinghe quarter-century or indeed the near thirty years of the post-Premadasa UNP which witnessed its slow-motion implosion is a self-destructive idea. Yahapalanaya ended with the UNP eliminated from the Parliament, its leader eliminated from his home base Colombo, the SLFP reduced to a residue and the JVP which supported it from outside, halved in its parliamentary representation. Most important of all, it culminated in the shift of 72% of the support of the Sinhalese, who comprise 75% of the populace, away from the UNP to the Rajapaksa led coalition, and most dangerously a far-right, ultranationalist, autocratic personality and project. It is difficult to imagine a greater social and politico-electoral disaster.   


It is also important to remember that while the SLFP and President Sirisena barely survived the Yahapalanaya experiment, the UNP did not. What survived was the Sajith Premadasa led lifeboat, the SJB. Thus, the policies of the UNP, domestic and foreign, constitutional and economic, during the Yahapalanaya period are radioactive. In his repeated public forswearing of neoliberalism, Sajith Premadasa has already begun that rupture.   


This does not mean that the SJB must turn its back on the heritage and policies of the UNP. The SJB must, as one of the several wellsprings of its inspiration, return to those decades of the UNP’s success in leading the country. It must lay claim to and critically absorb the heritage of 1947-1993, abandoned by the UNP of the last quarter-century: DS Senanayake’s pluralist patriotism and pro-peasant policies, Dudley Senanayake’s welfarist liberal democracy, JR Jayewardene’s Open Economy and Executive Presidency, and perhaps above all, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s growth with equity and national sovereignty.   


These decades constituted the UNP’s Golden Age; its Great Tradition, while the policies and ideology that Cooray et al want the SJB to swear allegiance to, are the detritus of the UNP’s decades of decline, downfall and demise.   
To put it succinctly, the SJB must commit to liberal-democratic values and their sole guarantee, namely social democracy. By contrast, the SJB must and its leader repeatedly has rejected the neoliberalism of its decades of downfall.   


Cooray’s insistence that the SJB take the Yahapalanaya policies as a touchstone is an echo of exactly what ruined Yahapalanaya. It wasn’t an absence of good, effective propaganda. It was that the Yahapalanaya UNP took as its starting point, the UNP administration of 2001. That administration was not merely dismissed by President Kumaratunga but that dismissal was endorsed by the electorate in 2004 and 2005. Instead of a critical analysis of what went wrong during those years, including the CFA with Prabhakaran and the resultant Sinhala swing from which the UNP never recovered, the UNP of 2015 took up from where it left off. Since it had not got the point, the masses made that point clear this time around by wiping it out electorally.   

The MR Factor

Mr Cooray refers to my support for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a charge to which I proudly plead guilty. Proudly, because he was the leader who liberated us from thirty years of separatist terrorism which no other leader succeeded in doing, while his rival, the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe was engaging in Neville Chamberlainesque appeasement of Prabhakaran.   
Cooray strangely says that I was appointed as Ambassador to Russia twice, once by President Rajapaksa and once by President Sirisena. No informed, lucid Sri Lankan commentator could make that mistake. For purposes of record, I was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN Geneva (2007-2009), appointed by President Rajapaksa, Ambassador to France and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO (2011-2013) appointed also by President Rajapaksa, and Ambassador to Russia (2018-2020), appointed by President Sirisena.   

SJB Strategy

In a situation in which 72% of Sinhalese who is 75% of the populace have shifted away from the neoliberal UNP policies, personalities and profile of the last quarter-century, how can the SJB win a majority of that majority back? It certainly cannot do so by being tainted by association with those policies, profile or personalities. When the UNP was led by JR Jayewardene and R Premadasa since 1973 and became the force that won a sweeping victory in 1977, it did so by a dramatic rupture with the past, including most decisively with the 1965-1970 UNP administration. When Ranasinghe Premadasa snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by beating the formidable nationalist personality Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, he did so by rupturing with the policies and platform of the UNP government he had been PM of. The SJB has an even greater challenge to overcome and gap to bridge—and can do no less. 

 
Nowhere in the world, especially in the global south, has ultranationalist autocracy been beaten without recourse to some variant of populism; nowhere can it be beaten by a return to neoliberalism, which created the swing which brought ultranationalism to power in the first place. That entails a two-pronged approach: (a) adopting what was progressive and positive in policies endorsed by the voters, while cutting away anything and everything that was/is racist, retrogressive and reactionary and (b) reaching out to the masses through the revival and resetting for the 21st century, the ‘growth with equity developmental success story of President Ranasinghe Premadasa’—a terrain on which no one can compete with Sajith Premadasa.   
The SJB is perfectly positioned to introduce its new policies, studying, I hope the US Democratic policy platform while drawing on what is most vibrant from all points of the political and ideological compass. In foreign policy, this would mean the policy perspective and practice of Lakshman Kadirgamar rather than of the disastrous Yahapalanaya UNP.   
Editor’s Note
This is the end of the correspondence with regard to the above subject matter.  

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