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  • Writer's pictureDr Chamindra Weerawardhana

Liberals for Gota? Politics at the hour of populism/s

Colombo Telegraph, 18 August 2019

As the SLPP National Convention was taking place in Colombo, an intriguing dialogue was taking place on a social media platform between two people this writer seldom agrees with, but nonetheless acknowledges their commitment to their convictions, their experience in the political and media [and in the case of one of them, the diplomatic] fray. One of them was the editor of the Colombo Telegraph [CT], and the other was Sri Lanka’s serving ambassador in Moscow. The former wrote the original post, making a remark about the SLPP Convention’s stage décor. The latter’s intervention came in response to this post.

The CT Editor’s point was that the décor, which clearly resembled the front façade of the Rajapaksas’ ancestral home in the village of Madamulana, was an indication of the Rajapaksa family’s commitment to its own brand of dynastic politics. In a country in which a considerable segment of the electorate, especially first time and young voters, are increasingly inclined to oppose such dynastic inclinations and the feudalistic ways in which the political class behaves, the CT Editor’s point could well serve as an eye-opener to many. He was one of the first, if not the first, media figure to call out the dynastic symbolism of the SLPP Convention’s stage.

The Ambassador, himself a political scientist, responded in an emphatic “my reading of the stage is that the voters won't give a flying f...k about it”.

This response, as blunt as it may sound, provides much food for thought about the current political ferment in Sri Lanka. On this one, and despite her credentials as a liberal-cum-centre-left analyst, [with political affiliations with the likes of [formerly] Labour and [presently] Liberal Democrats in Britain, Sinn Féin in Ireland and the newly-created Samabhimani Collective in Sri Lanka], this writer stands in full agreement with Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Moscow.

Indeed, there is a segment in the liberal lobby in Sri Lanka and in expatriate demographies [such as that which our Ambassador to Moscow refers to in a social media comment as “a few dumb London Lankans”], who are desperate to associate Gotabaya Rajapaska’s candidacy as an expression of dynastic, if not regressive politicking. This point may be of interest to political analysts and students of political science. However, readings of this nature carry zero traction in the current Sri Lankan political context. What we are witnessing in Sri Lanka is the local manifestation of the global trend of rising populist leaders, from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro to far right politicos across Western Europe and indeed, Narendra Modi. Public support to this brand of populism has witnessed a rise in the aftermath of post-Easter Sunday 2019 Sri Lanka. The arguments for [to borrow from Theresa May], “strong and stable leadership”, and a strong focus on national security, now carry a great deal of traction with the Sri Lankan electorate – a reality that is markedly different from the situation that prevailed prior to Easter Sunday 2019.

In this situation, Liberals will have to be a lot smarter than calling out the Gotabaya candidacy as an example of dynastic politics, as a path to the return of white vans, or portraying Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a ‘violent’ leader. The key here is that we live in a time of an acute national security crisis.

Polarised discourses: Still carrying traction?

As Mahinda Rajapaksa clearly affirmed in his speech [kudos, by the way, to the speechwriters of Mahinda and Gotabaya!], the rationale for the creation of the SLPP emerged with the CBK-influenced SLFP entering a bonne-entente with the neoliberal UNP. One could also note that at a more ambiguous level, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe joint government further contributed to what one may call the SLFP’s quasi-alignment with the UNP.

To the discerning political analyst, this argument is only marked by its emptiness. This is because in today’s Sri Lankan politics, the bottom line is that both UNP and SLFP position themselves at the same place.

However, each party still possesses the social capital of “speaking” to their traditional electorates, using a language, if not a discourse, of yesteryear. Politicians understand the continuing power of this discourse. This is why Mahinda Rajapaksa took his “anti-imperialist”, “national-ising” if not “nationalist”, and “man of the people” line when speaking to his elated audience at the 11/08/2019 SLPP Convention. He knows very well that this line of extrapolating works with his primary target electorate.

National Security and Nationalism: Post-Easter Sunday Realities?

Post-Easter Sunday 2019 Sri Lanka is marked by a renewed, if not unprecedented emphasis on national security. A neoconservative, national security-focused discourse therefore carries a great deal of traction during an election year. Irrespective of whatever tug of war that may have existed in Rajapaksa family circles in the past couple of years, their fine understanding of this ground situation is what became very clear – in their quasi-unanimous decision to endorse the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their presidential candidate.

Gotabaya: The Man of the Match?

Yet another non-negligible factor is the reputation Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa developed during his years in office as a ‘doer’. Irrespective of how things were done, what rationale, strategies or approaches were pursued, he came to be known as the one man who could get stuff done. That reputation, as the 2019 SLPP Convention demonstrated, continues to hold sway. It will be a hugely powerful weapon for him in crushing to bits whoever comes up has his primary opponent at the forthcoming presidential election.

Here’s the bottom line – if not the naked truth that many liberals [including, at some level, this writer herself], are somewhat reluctant to affirm, but is right there – neither the UNP, nor the forthcoming JVP-led coalition, nor the plethora of independent candidates represent a challenge to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Just like Boris Johnson’s 2019 candidacy for the leadership of the British Conservative Party and consequently, to British premiership, the forthcoming Sri Lankan presidential election, – at the present stage at least – is a contest already won. Gotabaya, by the look of it, has a relatively easy ride to presidency.

The ONE and ONLY way to Challenge Gotabaya?

The only way in which Gotabaya can be challenged with relative success is by creating a very large, broad church coalition that includes the UNP, the JVP, and a range of ethnic minority parties, and a segment of Sinhala nationalist discourses – represented by the likes of Ven. Athuraliye Rathana and Patali Champika Ranawaka. Some analysts have flouted the idea that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, known for his credentials as a man of the middle ground, could be the “candidate-factor” who could bring the UNP and JVP under one coalition, with endorsements from a pro-CBK faction of the SLFP, ethnic minority parties, the non-governmental lobby and a segment of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. However, presidential elections are political events where elements of charisma, personalities, personal images, and related external factors play out, big time. Only time will tell whether Karu could represent, in the eyes of the electorate, a substantive challenge to Gotabaya.

The Anura Factor?

Yet another way, and in this writer’s reading the one and only way, in which Gotabaya could be challenged is if a JVP/UNP/JHU/TNA/SLMP/other Tamil and Muslim parties-led coalition presents Comrade Anura Dissanayake as presidential candidate. The neoliberal establishment of the UNP, however, is far, if not farthest of the far, from endorsing any candidacy of that nature. In this sense, Goabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP have no reason whatsoever to fear.

New Twists: Always Possible?

However, let’s not forget that such dramatic twists are not impossible in Sri Lanka, come presidential polls. The advents of Messrs Sarath Fonseka and Maitripala Sirisena in 2010 and 2015 respectively, are living examples.

The battle, by all means, is now on. The regret, from where this writer stands, is that it continues to be a man’s world, a men’s battle, and a very phallocentric sphere of politics and politicking.

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