by Sumanasiri Liayanage
Marx began one of his brilliant essays, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte with a correction of Hegel’s idea that history necessarily repeats itself. According to Marx, Hegel "forgot to add the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce". Last autumn when I was in London, I had a long discussion with a Tamil gentleman who had left Sri Lanka in the early sixties and settled down in the UK. He does not seem to be sure that his decision to migrate to UK was directly linked to the national conflict in Sri Lanka. The subject of our discussion was democracy in Sri Lanka. He identified multiple and complex factors both local and international that had led to deterioration of democracy in Sri Lanka in the last 35 years.
Let me deviate a bit from the main story. I am not that enthusiastic about democracy for two reasons. First, democracy and the related ‘goodies’ such as human rights and good governance are being increasingly used in the recent years for the protection and defence of the rule and domination of finance capital. Hence, recently I have become suspicious of ‘democrats’, liberal or social. Secondly, I believe that if the marginalized classes and groups capture the state power in a country, they cannot afford to be at least in the initial phase democrats. Moreover, I would like to add that they should not adhere to the known principles of democracy.
Back to the main story! Having identified and agreed on the causal factors, our discussion gradually switched over to the concrete issue of how to overcome this deplorable situation. Leaving his mug of coffee on the table, he suddenly asked me: "what is the main obstacle today (we talked about LTTE leader, Velupillai Piripaharan before) that prevents reestablishing democracy in Sri Lanka?" My answer was: "The main obstacle is Ranil Wickremasinghe".
Democracy needs strong and dynamic opposition. Wickremasinghe for the last ten to fifteen years has prevented the United National Party from becoming a strong and dynamic opposition. As I have argued in my previous articles and essays, owing to the predominance of political society, the civil society cannot play a positive role in the post colonial societies in defending democracy. The UNP, the major potential contender to political power, under Wickremasinghe has played NGO politics rather than party politics aiming at governmental power.
If we compare the UNP with the UPFA, the UNP has more intelligent and dynamic young group with leadership potential. I include Rosy Senanayake, Buddhika Pathirana, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Thalatha Athukorala, and Sujeewa Senasinghe in this category. Reflecting on the past, one can easily observe how late J R Jayewardene succeeded in transforming a young group with similar potential in the 1970s into an effective political leadership to capture political power in a massive electoral victory in 1977. Re-capaturing power invariably needs reorganization and reshuffling of the party as such an exercise is an essential element in reinvigorating a political party that has been thrown into wilderness by series of electoral defeats.
In 1994, the SLFP regained power under a new leadership. Wickremsinghe has proved during the last 15 years or so that he is not capable of capitalising on even most beneficial situation to lead the party to an electoral victory. He will be portrayed in history as a politician without a strategy for capturing power. Sajith Premadasa, the leader who happened to confront Wickremasinghe, has raised a very simple slogan that the party wants to win elections. This simple slogan has generated so much of enthusiasm among not only the rank and file but also the provincial and local level leaders. It happens in a historical conjuncture that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government began its second term badly, without a plan in spite or may be because of pompous statements. The UNP in the national convention held last month has passed a amendment to the party constitution to the effect that the party can change the leadership if necessary.
This amendment is positive as it has removed the main obstacle to removing the present leader from party leadership. But, will it happen in practice? This seems to be biggest question that the party is facing at on the eve of series of mini-elections. In a system that does provide space to have by-elections, the only way to test the government popularity or the lack of its performance at the provincial and local government elections. Like in by-elections, the party that is in power invariably uses State resources in order to win such elections. However, Sri Lankan electorate has shown time and again that it could counter such an effort if the people really need to express their displeasure at the government.
The government has become unpopular as it has shown its ineffectiveness in curbing inflationary pressure on main wage-goods and as it has failed to fulfil its promise to grant a pay hike of Rs. 2500. Its promise to keep the size of the cabinet to 40 has also been reneged on. The limited checks and balances that were introduced in 2000 have been repealed making the institution of president highly authoritarian. In spite of the government’s claim that average per capita income has gone up substantially, many people experience that their living standards are continuously falling. The ad hoc policy decisions on all matters create enormous problems to the country and its people.
One of the recent examples is the warning by tour operators on the issue of visas and the possible adverse impact on tourism (The Island, January 7, 2011). Averages are always misleading. Can the UNP cash in on this situation? If it fails to change its leadership prior to the local government election, as Marx said, the party’s tragedy will turn into a farce even if the party gets some electoral gains. And the result may be more terrifying.
In an article published in the respected journal, the Economic and Political Weekly, an Indian Marxist remarked that history repeats itself not twice, but thrice: "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce and the third time as joy". If Sajith Premadasa and his group can take over the leadership prior to the local government election, as party leader and Leader of opposition, he would be able to use this favorable situation to re-build the party as an alternative. In doing so, he should form a small shadow cabinet of ten with integrated subjects. Hence my Tamil friend understood very well my remark that Ranil Wickremasinghe is the main obstacle to reversing anti-democratic trend in Sri Lankan politics.
The strong and dynamic UNP would pose a continuous challenge to the UPFA government and that in turn would create a more healthy space for other political parties and organizations that engage in different kind of political activities. Whether the UNP will be able turn the past tragedy into equally terrifying farce or promising joy is yet to be seen.