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Whither Sri Lanka’s opposition? Interview with Jayadeva Uyangoda.

Himal Kotelawala.

ECONOMYNEXT – Political scientist Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda likens Sri Lanka’s powerful ruling party to a house with a very wide roof and no walls to speak of. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), he says, is like a house with only old-style short walls, atop which anyone can sit and enjoy the breeze. An apt metaphor for a party that opened its doors to virtually everyone from Karuna Amman to Wimal Weerawansa, from Vasudeva Nanayakkara to Ajith Nivard Cabraal, on its way to a historic two-thirds majority in 2020.

SLPP leader and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Uyangoda told EconomyNext in a phone interview last week, has correctly understood the social, political and economic transitions currently taking place in Sri Lanka including the new kinds of nationalisms that have emerged in the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim political and civic spaces over the recent past, and cleverly used them to the Pohottuwa’s advantage.

However, the SLPP’s capacity for machiavellian machinations and rabbit-out-of-a-hat victories notwithstanding, the party’s resounding success at the recently concluded parliamentary polls may be attributed in large part to the abject failure of another. Though an SLPP win was a foregone conclusion, nobody, not even a seasoned analyst such as Uyangoda, expected it to nearly annihilate what was left of Sri Lanka’s beleaguered opposition and win a stunning 145 seats, just five short of the magical 150.

“I was surprised by two outcomes. One was the decimation of the UNP, which was totally unexpected. The second was the SLPP getting a near two thirds majority,” he said, surmising that hundreds of thousands of United National Party (UNP) voters either did not go to the polling station at all or cancelled their ballot paper in frustration. If UNP supporters had voted for the elephant, he reasoned, the UNP would’ve secured 15 to 20 seats, preventing an SLPP landslide.

In what was the worst setback suffered by Sri Lanka’s grand old party in its 78-year history, the once invincible UNP was unable to secure even a single seat electorally, with party stalwarts including leader Ranil Wickremesinghe losing their seats in spectacular fashion. Swept away as it was by the electoral torrent that was the SLPP, the UNP only managed to desperately cling to the straw that was the national list, with the one, almost concessional seat saving it from total humiliation. This is, of course, to say nothing of the damage inflicted by the mass exodus of party members, senior and newcomer alike, to the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) in the months preceding the election.

“Under normal circumstances, had UNP voters gone to vote, the Pohottuwa (lotus bud, the SLPP’s symbol) would’ve won between 115 to 125 seats,” said the academic formerly of the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo.

Despite its disastrous performance, however, he does not wish to write the UNP off yet. “It is a serious setback, but let’s wait and see how they try to bounce back,” he said.

Too early to pronounce the elephant dead?

At the time of writing, the UNP has announced that Wickremesinghe will continue as party leader for the next five months, apparently paying scant regard to repeated calls for his resignation. A number of names have been suggested to take his place, with Wickremesinghe reportedly in favour of UNP Deputy Secretary General Ruwan Wijewardena.

Asked if the UNP can hope to bounce back in the current political climate, with the SLPP seemingly unstoppable and the SJB occupying its former space in the opposition, Uyangoda said: “Sajith Premadasa’s leadership has not yet been tested. The SJB’s ideology and programme are not very clear. It’s also a brand new party, a party in transition.”

If the UNP continues to exist as a party, he said, the SJB will have to form its own identity in terms of ideology and vision.

“Premadasa has given signals – during the presidential campaign and during the general election campaign – that he was not fully in agreement with the neoliberal economic policy of Wickremesinghe. He presented something like a pro-poor economic and social policy. That, as far as I can see, is probably the only significant theme that makes the SJB different from the UNP,” he said.

Now that the SJB is the country’s main opposition party, it has the unenviable task of preventing Sri Lanka drifting towards what Uyangoda calls post-democratic authoritarianism. “They’ll have to defend parliamentary democracy, human rights and minority rights. There’s a whole lot of things the SJB has to do,” he said. Asked if the SJB is up to this task under the leadership of Premadasa, the senior academic said the party has to prove it.

“It’s not fair by Premadas to make a pronouncement in that regard even before parliament begins. I think you have to be fair by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well. We must not make big pronouncements before they do or do not do something,” he said.

Curtains for 19A?

For better or for worse, an SLPP government, headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (also of the SLPP), now enjoys a two-thirds majority in parliament with the support of smaller parties aligned to it and is likely here to stay. With such immense power at its disposal, what can Sri Lanka expect in the coming years?

Says Prof Uyangoda, with a note of caution: “Soon after he got his 5/6th majority in 1977, J R Jayawardena said that he was quite conscious of the fact that he had the strength of an elephant but insisted that he did not wish to exercise that strength. JR wanted to use caution and prudence. However, that’s exactly what he did not do in power. Mahinda Rajapaksa was in parliament at that time. I hope he remembers the words of JR and what happened to Sri Lanka under his rule with a mammoth majority.”

The SLPP rode to power on a platform of constitutional reform, promising, among other things, a repeal of the 19th amendment to the constitution which curtailed certains powers of the executive president while strengthening the office of the prime minister and also establishing independent commissions. Many civil society activists and opposition politicians have expressed fears that the amendment, often referred to as the most progressinve since the 17th amendment, will be abolished. Uyangoda doesn’t seem to share this concern.

“I’m not worried about it. I don’t think it’s easy for them to annul the amendment because of the current political reality. Their election slogan was to repeal the 19th amendment. Now there’s a political reality in which the Sri Lankan people have elected a parliament more powerful than the president. Sri Lanka now has a prime minister who is constitutionally more powerful than the president under the 19th amendment.

“It would be very interesting to see how this relatively powerful prime minister under the 19th amendment would want those powers to be taken over by the president, who happens to be his own brother. That will be a major compromise that the president and the prime minister will have to make. As a student of politics, I’m keenly watching what kind of bargaining, quid pro quo, and compromise-making would be there when it comes to constitutional amendments,” he said.

Though Uyangoda hesitates to comment on the nature of the relationship between the two brothers (“I have no understanding, no information whatsoever about their personal or political relationship”), he wonders whether a compromise could be reached at all.

“I think there would be changes, but we have to wait and see. It’s easy to abolish the independent commissions without affecting the powers of the prime minister. They can repeal the clause on citizenship and also repeal the clause on the presidential term limit, but they’re not significant provisions in the 19th amendment. The most significant theme they wanted to change – at least during the election campaign – was to make the president the centre of power, to reduce the powers of parliament and the prime minister. I’m not sure whether that would be possible unless there was a major compromise between the president and the PM,” he said.

Of course, it is also possible that the government, armed with its two-thirds majority in parliament, will go for a new constitution altogether (which would require a referendum).

“The tricky thing would be the return to a system similar to the one under the 18th amendment. That would be politically tricky,” said Uyangoda.

The Champika factor

In the run-up to the polls, among the many allegations thrown about was a charge that Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) leader Patali Champika Ranawaka, who critics swear harbours presidential ambitions, is using the Premadasa-led SJB to gradually position himself as the main challenger to the Rajapaksas in the coming years.

Asked to comment on this, Uyangoda said: “In Sri Lanka, there have been a number of people who maintained such ambitions. Sajith Premadasa, Champika Ranawaka, and on the Pohottuwa side, Wimal Weerawansa, all have had that ambition. Namal Rajapaksa has presidential ambitions. Prof G L Peiris had prime ministerial ambitions. Dinesh Gunawardena at one time thought he would be a presidential candidate. It is quite natural for politicians to maintain those high ambitions. I don’t find anything wrong with that.”

With regard to Ranawaka specifically, however, Uyangoda agrees that the enigmatic politician has significantly altered his image over the years. Once a vocal Sinhala Buddhist nationalist, the JHU leader has spent the past four to five years distancing himself from that image and presenting himself as a ‘Sri Lankan’ nationalist – not dissimilar to the kind of “positive nationalism” advocated by the SJB.

“Ranawaka has I think fairly successfully reframed and reconstructed his image as a political leader. Very clearly he has national political ambitions. For him, to give up the Sinhala Buddhist identity as a candidate in the Colombo district is a costly political experiment since he has a fairly significant electoral following in the urban areas as a new leader of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist constituency. It’s very significant that he has changed that image. He now has a more cosmopolitan image – somewhat similar to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s image – as an efficient, no nonsense leader,” said Uyangoda.

However, Ranawaka did not fare as well as his supporters would’ve hoped for, in the Colombo district, finishing at fifth place with 65,574 preferential votes, trailing behind Dr Harha de Silva who polled 82,845 votes.

“I don’t know what the reason is for this particular result. He has managed to get himself elected, which I think is very significant. I never expected him to be number 1 or 2, so the fact that he didn’t top the preferential list doesn’t surprise me,” said Uyangoda.

Viyathmaga vs loyalty

Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara polled the highest number of preferential votes for the SLPP in the Colombo district, securing 328,092 votes – the highest in the island after Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s record-breaking 527,364 in Kurunegala. And yet, Weerasekara was not rewarded with a cabinet portfolio, while Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalist Wimal Weerawansa who was behind Weerasekara by some 60,000 votes was given the Ministry of Industries, as the former had indicated on the campaign trail. Weerasekara’s appointment received some criticism from SLPP voters who had expected better participation of Viyathmaga affiliates in the cabinet of ministers.

Uyangoda believes Weerasekara was able to obtain the highest number of votes in Colombo including Sinhala nationalist votes due to the strong backing he received from President Rajapaksa.

“I think there was competition between Weerasekara and Weerawansa for the Sinhala nationalist vote. A majority of that vote in the Pohottuwa camp went to Weerasekara, who had the advantage of being backed by the president. My understanding is that Weerawansa was backed by the prime minister, but not by the president, though I could not be certain of it. I don’t want to speculate about it too much since I don’t know the nature of the equilibrium between the Viyathmaga constituency and the prime minister’s constituency,” he said.

NPP’s defective compass

This election was a reality check for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), too. Its parliamentary strength was reduced to just three seats, one of them from the national list. The JVP-led National People’s Power (NPP), a coalition with smaller parties, managed to win only two seats electorally, barely passing the dreaded and heavily memed 3%.

In a previous discussion with EconomyNext some months ago, Prof Uyangoda said the JVP and other progressive parties must form a broad coalition in order to make a significant difference electorally – something the JVP has yet to do.

“If the JVP wants to remain a credible alternative force in Sri Lankan politics, they will have to enter into a broad coalition with non-left parties who are committed to defending democracy in Sri Lanka. But that would be very difficult for the JVP to accept as a strategic line,” he reiterated, adding that the JVP has to win over voters from the SJB and UNP as well.

According to Uyangoda, a new generation of voters who voted en masse for President Gotabya Rajapksa may not be inclined towards the JVP. The party now has five years to look forward to in the opposition, which according to the professor is enough time for them to reflect.

“In parliamentary democracy, political leaders have to learn to be patient and wait. That’s how old school politicians always worked. Among many negative pronouncements of J R Jayawardena, one of the most positive things he said is that he patiently waited and waited and waited. Patience is the essence of parliamentary democracy. It is about compromise, bargaining, negotiation and manipulation,” he said.

The professor is also of the opinion that the JVP has to learn to be more trusting of the ordinary voter.

“The ordinary voters that have voted for the UNP, for the SJB, even for the SLPP, are not like their leaders. Ordinary voters are, in large part, committed to democracy and social justice. The JVP will have to win over those voters to their side. But they don’t seem to make a distinction between party leaders and party voters,” he said, adding that not every UNP kaaraya is a reactionary.

“Ordinary voters are the people who have defended Sri Lakna’s democracy. They are the real heroes of this country’s democracy. It is party leaders who have abused democracy and used it for their own personal agenda,” he said, explaining that Sri Lankan voters have regularly and faithfully exercised their franchise to peacefully replace their rulers.

Even with all the setbacks and abuses of democracy by political leaders, ordinary voters have repeatedly and consistently maintained an unshaken faith in democracy, he said.

Changing landscapes

Many a post-election analysis over the past week have pondered whether Sri Lanka is shifting to a post-democratic state. Does this mean the people have lost some of the unshaken faith in democracy that Uyangoda speaks of?

He believes it is not the people, but a new elite, comprised of an increasingly affluent business/professional class, that wishes to see Sri Lanka undergo this transition. He also dismisses the idea that the people gave the SLPP – which, according to SLPP architect Basil Rajapaksa, wishes to emulate the Bharathiya Jantha Party (BJP) in India and the Communist Party (CP) in China – a two-thirds majority.

“It’s the UNP that gave them a two-thirds majority. Between 2015 and 2019 they created all the conditions for this kind of political transition. It is the UNP that provided legitimacy for a post-democratic transition,” he said.

Asked to elaborate, Uayangoda explained that the Yahapalana government was given a mandate to restore parliamentary democracy, restore good governance free of corruption and introduce a new constitution to abolish the presidential system – promises the UNP-led administration failed to take to their logical conclusion.

“Within three months into power, they started corruption on a massive scale,” he said, adding that during the Yahapala period, democratic governance was made to be seen as weak and inefficient governance.

“The popular discontent was not only with the UNP leadership. There was a very significant and very serious governance failure. The UNP in a way created a very strong argument for replacement of parliamentary democracy with a strong, autocratic political order,” said Uyangoda.

President Maithirpala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, he said, didn’t understand the significance nor the meaning of the political change that occurred in 2015.

“It’s very likely that they misunderstood the commitment to political power by their opponent. There is a fundamental difference between Wickremesinghe’s camp and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s camp. Rajapaksa and his brothers have what one may call a very clear will to power that Wickremesinghe did not possess,” he said, faulting the latter for not consolidating his power as prime minister following the December 2018 Supreme Court judgement that came in the wake of Rajapaksa’s soft coup in October that year.

“Wickremesinghe allowed Sirisena to continue to work outside the constitution, with no resistance whatsoever. He betrayed all the expectations the people had of him, expectations that he would restore democracy after the Supreme Court judgement in December 2018. It’s a very unusual absence of any will to power, very much like Rahul Gandhi in India. There is a very significant similarity between the two Rs,” he said.

Perhaps this feeling of betrayal by Yahapalana voters was reflected in this year’s election result, particularly in the Colombo district? At the 2015 parliamentary polls, Wickremesinghe polled the highest number of preferential votes in the country – well over 500,000 – a record broken by Mahinda Rajapaksa this year. Wickremesinghe couldn’t even save his seat.

“Certainly. That’s why the UNP lost credibility, particularly Wickremesinghe, among non-UNP sympathisers. A lot of non-UNPers voted for him in 2015. He lost all the support of the middle of the path, non-aligned, educated, liberal, left, non-racist voters. He lost the support of all of them,” said Uyangoda.

Needless to say, however, things might have turned out differently for Wickremesinghe had Premadasa decided not to walk out of the UNP. Uyangoda concurs.

“The strategy of Wickremesinghe and Premadasa should’ve been to contest the parliamentary election together and then go for a split. This way, they would’ve gotten about 70, 75 seats. In that sense, they should’ve gone for a better split,” he said, adding that Wickremesinghe would have won Colombo, had this been the plan.

Minority matters

Tamil politics also took an interesting turn this election. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), long considered the main representative of Sri Lankan Tamils in the north and east with 16 seats in parliament over the past five years, lost six of its seats. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam’s All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) won two seats, while former Northern Province Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran also won himself a seat. Parties aligned with the SLPP also did remarkably well in what some analysts have called a clear message to Tamil leaders. The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda, Angajan Ramanathan of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) won a seat each.

Uyangoda opines that the fragmentation of Tamil politics was seen in this outcome.

“What is really magical about the proportional representation (PR) system is that it allows all the fragmentations of a polity to manifest themselves concretely. There’s nothing to be surprised about there. Sri Lankan Tamil politics is totally fragmented. It has been expressed in the electoral outcome, which I think is quite good,” he said.

Nor is he surprised by the performance of Tamil parties aligned to the SLPP.

“To me, it’s very interesting that there’s a new trend among Tamils that they should explore different paths by aligning themselves with hardline Sinhala nationalists. There are two new participants outside the TNA: Gajan Ponnambalam and Vigenswaran. They think the TNA no longer represents the aspirations of Tamil nationalism. So they wanted to establish a new political entity, or two separate entities – a new political alternative to Tamil representing the orthodox Tamil nationalism. Then you have what one may call unorthodox or moderate Tamil nationalism, in addition to the reemergence of orthodox Tamil nationalism,” explained Uyangoda.

“There is a third version of Tamil nationalism, which is most interesting to me as a student of politics. This is represented by Angajan Ramanathan and a few others. This new nationalism deemphasises the political rights of the Tamil people. They’re not bothered about devolution or power-sharing at the provincial level. They want power sharing at the national government level. They want ministerial portfolios. They want access to government power, access to ruling party leaders,” he added.

This emphasis on economic rights over political rights can be seen in Muslim socieity too, said Uyangoda, as spearheaded by Justice Minister Ali Sabry.

“Ali Sabry’s project is to tell the Muslim people that their future and security depend on the participation at the central government. This new Tamil nationalism is built on a similar argument,” he said, referring to development-oriented nationalism pushed by an emerging class of affluent transnational Tamil capitalists, somewhat parallel though by no means identical to what is seen in Sinhalese society.

“This affluent business class wants to have access to the central government, rather than underdeveloped Jaffna. These are Tamil people who have businesses in France, Germany, America, Eruope. They’re transnational Tamil capitalists, as opposed to Jaffna-based Tamil capitalists,” he said.

Uyangoda theorises that natonalisms in Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities are undergoing significant, though undeniably unique, changes that came in the wake of social transformations observed in each community after the economic liberalisaton of 1977 as well as economic globalisation over the past few decades.

“In a talk he gave before last year’s presidential election, Ali Sabry came out with the idea of inclusive nationalism. Inclusive naitonalism means that Muslim citizens in sri lanka should accept their second class status.They should not challenge it politically. That’s exactly what Archbishop Malclom Cardinal Ranjith has been saying to Catholics,” said Uyangoda.

Both Sabry and the Cardinal, said Uyangoda, have essentially asked their respective community to accept their secondary political status, with a view to obtaining economic and professional benefits that come with such acceptance.

“This is a new trend in Sri Lankan politics. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa more than anybody else – more so than the president – has very cleverly sensed this change in Sri Lankan society and politics and has opened the doors of his party to all these forces,” he said. (Colombo/Aug18/2020)




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