by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
Leon Trotsky may have been pushing it a bit when he wrote that “the crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of leadership” but it is certainly true of Sri Lanka: contrary to the apocalyptic “wailing and gnashing of teeth” among the civil society ‘intellectuals’, the crisis of Sri Lankan democracy is primarily (if not ‘reduced to’) the crisis of opposition leadership.
What if the 19th Amendment is to the electoral system? How many seats will the opposition get under its present leadership, when elections are held under a system which is preponderantly ‘first past the post’? Let me put it simply: Imagine that Colombo has only one seat. If the UNP were still led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, on present data, that one seat would be won and Colombo represented not by the UNP but by a certain Mr. Weerawansa.
There will be no revival of a democratic opposition without an opposition politics that reassures the majority of the electorate about its toughness on issues of secessionism, terrorism, national security and national sovereignty. Any doubts on this score, or associations with the past of appeasement will have at the very least the same effect as memories of the closed economy of 1970-77 had on the electoral fortunes of the SLFP and therefore those of the UNP administration.
How can anyone think that the citizenry, the electorate, will take the side of those – local or foreign – who are critical of Mahinda Rajapaksa but were never critical of Velupillai Prabhakaran? Or were and are far more critical of Mahinda Rajapaksa than they ever were of Prabhakaran? Or were more critical of Mahinda than they were of Ranil and his CFA?
In a passionate statement Karu Jayasuriya has said that “Having supported this government while it was in the process of waging war against the LTTE, however brief that alliance might have been, I now believe that I have a bounden duty to rectify the mistake.”
This still being a democracy, Jayasuriya is not only entitled to his opinion but his free expression of it in the mass media. If by his own reckoning, it was “a mistake” warranting rectification to have “supported this government while it was in the process of waging war against the LTTE, however brief that alliance might have been”, what does his conscience tell him about his alliance, however prolonged it has been, with Ranil Wickremesinghe when he was not in the process of waging war against the LTTE and was in fact in the process of appeasing and unilaterally ceding ground to the LTTE? Does he not consider that a mistake requiring rectification?
What of opting out of the inner party struggle of 1997-2000, especially ’99-2000, which hoped to install him as leader of the UNP, an outcome that would have pre-empted everything that Karu now condemns? Does he not regret that?
Has anyone figured out the connection between the sad story of Sarath Fonseka and the inadequacies of the Opposition leadership? Sri Lanka’s best known soldier made the strategic error of judgement of taking on a strong foe frontally and at the wrong time; the time of greatest popularity. He could never have been tempted into this except for three factors: (a) the obvious need of the UNP because of the weakness of its leader as a presidential candidate (b) the efforts by dissident yet cowardly UNP high rankers to induct a Sinhala hardliner for the ‘front desk’, neutralise the Ranil liability but not replace him with a popular party figure like young Premadasa, due to social prejudices and the agenda of keeping the seat warm for other young politicians from the old elite families and (c) the not-so-obvious manipulation by the overseas friends of the UNP and its leader, who wanted a schism in the state and a strengthening of the UNP while providing Ranil with a human shield and safety net in the form of Fonseka.
With the election over, Ranil was so weak as to perceive a threat even from the drastically defeated Fonseka, but still strong enough to cut the latter loose, leaving the latter vulnerable to the counteroffensive of his own provocative adventurism.
None of this has been to the benefit of the country or its citizens. The point is that the Ranil leadership of the UNP is such a zone of toxicity that it affects and damages not only the UNP but many others, and the nation as a whole. Without him the UNP will no longer be a helipad for external intrusion into Sri Lankan affairs. With a patriotic leadership at the head of the UNP, the anti-Lankan Tamil Diaspora will no longer have a prominent Sinhala puppet.
Contrary to the ‘theorists’ of the Opposition, the historical moment is not one of a civic democracy movement but of the revitalisation of the political party system through the revivification of political parties. Non-party political movements are fine but they can be regarded the crucial political agency of change only in a system in which the opposition parties have been actually repressed – not when they are simply unpopular and unelectable.
The civic resistance strategy was the right one for unelected despotisms (the Shah), military juntas or communist party dictatorships, in which there was no multiparty system and elective principle. Only someone with a fragile grasp of reality could claim that it is true of Sri Lanka today, and only someone who has no political memory or is ignorant of our contemporary history could deny that the closest we came to it (apart from Prabhakaran’s fascist rule which surpassed these forms) was between July 1980 (the smashing of the trade union movement by sacking 60,000 workers), through December 1982 (JRJ’s referendum in place of parliamentary elections) and July ’83 (the proscription of the JVP, with the SLFP already decapitated through civic disabilities and incarceration).
In Sri Lanka, the ‘intellectual’ critics of the administration are those least conspicuous in the search for an alternative to the prop that holds up the status quo which they condemn as ‘totalitarian’ and ‘fascist’. Ironically, these civil society ideologues prop up the prop; not support the alternative. Is it purely coincidental that those civil society personalities that opposed the military victory and Mahinda Rajapaksa and advocate an international war crimes probe, are pretty much the same ones that opposed President Premadasa and supported the impeachment motion against him? There are echoes and residues of that political struggle, also in today’s polarisation within the UNP.
Lenin famously said that without a revolutionary theory there cannot be a revolutionary movement. Similarly, without a viable alternative political project, no party can put itself forward as a political alternative and expect to be taken seriously by the citizenry. Such a project is inconceivable without returning the main democratic opposition party to its roots as the multi ethnic, multi-religious representative of the patriotic Sinhala peasantry and provinces (D.S. Senanayake) and the urban and rural ‘have-nots’ (Ranasinghe Premadasa).
The pathetic, retrogressive pseudo-politics of the prevailing UNP leadership can have no resonance with the people – and as Lenin said “serious politics begins where tens of millions of people are.”