Following is an article written by Sri Lankan academic, diplomat and writer Dayan Jayatilleka as a response to an article penned by Krishantha Cooray titled ‘SJB:Fast asleep or a sleeping giant?’ and published on April 19 (Page 7) in the Daily Mirror.
Krishantha Cooray’s most recent article is an assault on the SJB of which Sajith Premadasa is the founder-leader. His accusation is that the Opposition is not strong; that it is weak. This is amusing since he does not have a word of criticism of the UNP of Ranil Wickremesinghe which headed by definition the weakest Opposition in the history of the island’s politics. It failed to lead the country for over a quarter century and enabled the UNP’s rival the SLFP and its successor the SLPP to do so instead.
When a writer criticises a one-year-old party of being a weak Opposition while failing to criticize the UNP for having failed to elect a President since 1994, that is an exhibition of hypocrisy. Mr. Cooray does not suggest that Mr. Wickremesinghe step down immediately from the leadership of the UNP.
Mr. Cooray fails to acknowledge that the SJB’s performance has been quite remarkable given the odds it faced. Sajith Premadasa and the SJB have had to emerge from under the deadweight of the most unsuccessful mainstream party in our history.
When SWRD Bandaranaike broke away from the UNP, it was a successful ruling party. He didn’t have to live down a disastrous heritage; only to challenge it. Even without the deadweight that the SJB had to emerge from under, SWRD’s SLFP scored fewer seats and a smaller percentage than did the SJB did in a much shorter time, in its first national electoral outing in 2020.
When the SLMP of Vijaya and Chandrika Kumaratunga broke from the SLFP, that party had failed to lead the country for only seven years.
When Chandrika took over the SLFP it had been out of office for seventeen years.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa took over the leadership of the SLFP it had been leading the country for two terms.
When Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa founded the SLPP, they split from SLFP which had been leading the country since 1994.
Never had a new leader faced an inheritance of almost three decades of failure. Never did a new leader, still less a new party start with such a burden of liabilities as did Sajith Premadasa and the SJB. And yet in its first electoral outing it beat SWRD Bandaranaike’s historic achievement on his first time out in 1952.
If the SJB is in any sense ‘weak’ today it is because the very last time that camp had been elected to state power was when Sajith Premadasa’s father was President three decades ago. Whatever the SJB’s shortcomings, they are debilities directly sourced in the near- Thirty Year Curse of the post-Premadasa leadership of the UNP and most particularly the Ranil Wickremesinghe leadership.
Krishantha Cooray makes the nonsensical suggestion that Ranjan Ramanayake’s seat should have been left vacant. This would have meant one less member of the Opposition at a time when, certainly at a future mid-term vote, numbers could be crucial. We know that even in the USA, Kamala Harris’ casting vote is of decisive importance in the Senate. Can the opposition take the risk of subtracting a single one of its number? What if the regime keeps jailing MPs? Are we to play into the hands of the regime and keep their seats unfilled, thereby reducing the opposition’s numerical strength?
Cooray poses the question: “Does the SJB share its mother party’s economic vision?” Did anyone ask this question of any new party or new leader of a party, from SWRD Bandaranaike to Mahinda Rajapaksa? Why pose it to Sajith Premadasa and the SJB, which have clearly and explicitly broken with neoliberalism and professed a centrist social democratic vision?
Cooray says that “This Government reversed many foreign policy decisions taken by the Yahapalanaya Government, many of which boosted our image and drew us closer to our traditional democratic allies. But the SLPP said these policies violate our Sovereignty. Does the SJB agree with the SLPP, or does it stand by the foreign policy of the Yahapalanaya Government?”
Again, was any new leader of a party or a new party asked whether it stands by the policy of its predecessor or with that of the Government? Did Presidential candidate Ranasinghe Premadasa stand with the foreign policy of his parent party and the Government he served in as PM? Did Mahinda Rajapaksa? Did they stand instead with the foreign policy of the party they ideologically opposed? Surely every new leader and more so every new party carves out his/her/its own space and pulls together elements from friend and foe, in a new synthesis?
Cooray adds “At the most fundamental level, the SJB has yet to forcefully assert that were they to come to power, they would reintroduce key provisions of the 19th Amendment and abolish the executive presidency.”
The SJB at the leadership level has openly supported the Presidential model as exists in the great democracies like the USA and France i.e., Presidencies with the separation of powers. There is absolutely no reason to assume that the SJB leader will not, as President, follow in the developmental footsteps of his father and use the powers of the Presidency as an instrument for uplifting the people and the economy.
This time around, the non-Rajapaksa camp has a candidate who is the most viable in decades; one who lost the election in November 2019 when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was at his height, by only 10%. This time around the democratic camp has a candidate whose concern for the people, for the citizens, is manifest and a complete contrast with that of the incumbent.
What then is Krishantha Cooray’s game when he seeks to revive the old, failed slogan of the abolition of the executive presidency, at a time when the USA has given us the example of exactly what attitude to take towards an ultranationalist autocratic president, which is to defeat him at a presidential election?
Cooray goes on to query “As the main Opposition party, what is the SJB’s stance on exercising our country’s right to assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help resolve our fiscal challenges? How would they tackle our debt crisis? Would they follow the Yahapalanaya example …?”
If the SJB agreed with the UNP it would surely have remained with and within it. If it agreed with the Government of the day surely it would have joined it. It has the guts to see and say whatever is correct in the policies of its opponents which enabled them to secure the massive endorsement of the electorate. It has the creativity to come up with its own synthesis which may involve elements from the old opposing camps, thereby transcending the old polarizations and constituting a new centre, carving out a new Middle Path.
Cooray asserts that “By now, with so many Government failures on so many fronts, many expected the SJB to have taken the lead in calling for a United Opposition Conference (UOC), rallying the other opposition parties and civil society groups into a combined front”.
The SJB is quite aware that the regime would like nothing better than for it to be tainted by the sins of the past and the profile of the past, so recently and decisively rejected by the people. It has no need for props nor seems in the mood for piggy-backing liabilities. The SJB needs to unite, to combine, in the first place, with the immense majority of the people.
No new political party entered a political front or alliance within a year of its birth. The UNP of 1970-1977 which set the gold standard of an Opposition, facing the autocratic United Front government of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, entered into an alliance (with the CWC) just before the general election.
Ronnie De Mel, a Sri Lankan who made a great contribution to his country, made the following pronouncement on his 96th birthday (April 11th) to Sajith Premadasa, as seen and heard on TV news and the social media:
“I think that the only hope for Sri Lanka to make a comeback is if you can get the whole thing going under your control and the control of policies that you represent. That’s the only hope for Sri Lanka. I will say that openly, and have said that to many people…Sri Lanka is in a dire situation…I am very fearful at times at what might happen…I hope you will be able to save Sri Lanka…I always feel that you are the only hope…”
If 42% supported the idea of Sajith Premadasa as President and leader of Sri Lanka in November 2019, despite these odds, it is wildly improbable that over 50% will not do so after the heartlessness and material privation the citizenry, including the middle classes, have experienced under the Gotabaya presidency, whichever sibling is the SLPP candidate in 2024.
The SJB led by Sajith Premadasa, is potentially better positioned than any other, in government or opposition, in the country today, to succeed in 2024, the centenary year of the birth of Ranasinghe Premadasa.