Monday, November 24, 2014

Dayan Jayatilleka's point

"Two cheers then for Maithripala Sirisena, whose act of resistance and rebellion is truly heroic. Why cheer at all? And why two cheers instead of three? Hearty cheers are entirely warranted because Maithripala Sirisena has produced a Black Swan event; a real game changer."

Dayan Jayatilleka gets things right, once in a way at least. He neither criticises nor absolves Mahinda Rajapaksa. He has, to the best of my knowledge, criticised the lesser things Rajapaksa is known for while critiquing the opposition as well. Over the years, the man hasn't changed much. Predictable. Commendable.

The point to be gained from this is that while he berates the present regime, he has also berated the opposition's and in particular the UNP's ineffectual campaign against it. This does not make him a regime-lover, but it doesn't make him a regime-hater either. I haven't met him, which means that whatever I write in this piece is based purely on what I have gathered from his writings.

The quote above prefaces Dayan's latest article, titled "The Sirisena Surge: Why Mahinda Is Still Way Ahead", written for, among other media outfits, Groundviews. Now Groundviews isn't exactly comfy when it comes to praising the government, but it's eclectic enough to appreciate the occassional critique of those who criticise the regime. Which is what Dayan has effectively done in this piece. It's from this end that his article should be approached, because while I do not share much of what he has claimed in it, it sheds some light on the presidential election.

Dayan's premise, as evidenced by his "preface", is that making Maithripala Sirisena the common candidate is something to get relieved about. He talks about the ineffectiveness of Ranil Wickremasinghe as a viable candidate, and goes onto point out, rightly I should say, that Sirisena's sudden defection has transformed the election into a multipolar as opposed to a unipolar race. From what I know of Sirisena's background, this also would mean that it pits him against Rajapaksa's "populist neo-conservatism" (Dayan's words) as a more left-oriented, and democratic, alternative.

This however is only part of the story.

After praising Sirisena's candidacy, he begins to unearth its pitfalls. He starts with the press conference. According to Dayan, it seemed to be more about Rajitha Senaratne's political autobiography and Chandrika Kumaratunge's self-congratulatory lament. It doesn't take a political scientist (which Dayan is, incidentally) to figure out that the entire conference lost its lustre the minute Kumaratunge opened her mouth. Senaratne's self-righteous claims didn't help, either, but I know this: there are enough and more disgruntled SLFPers who, if presented a choice between Rajapaksa and Kumaratunge (or Kumaratunge's proxies), would immediately think "Mahinda".

This isn't the only problem, obviously. Dayan talks about Sirisena foregrounding himself behind CBK. That's a valid claim. He's spot on with the claim that Sri Lankans infinitely prefer the "Mahinda Rajapaksa present to the Chandrika past". Kumaratunge's presidency was a disaster from day one. She came to power via a promise to abolish the Executive Presidency, the same post she claims she will abolish through Sirisena. That's bankrupt. People aren't stupid. They know. Track records can be compared. Assessments can be made. It doesn't take much to figure out that if it's a race between Ranil Wickremasinghe and her, very many would prefer the former to the latter. This is just conjecture, of course, but I'm making it to raise a point.

The way I see it, the entire thrust of the Sirisena project is aimed at EP-abolition. That's commendable, unlike the fiasco we saw in 2010. Maithripala Sirisena is more focused, obviously, with the caveat that his focus may be hindered by including the likes of CBK and the TNA in his alliance. There is however a bigger problem, and, according to Dayan, the biggest of them all. That's to do with the "other" figure to this entire drama, Ranil Wickremasinghe. It's not to do with the man himself (unlike Kumaratunge), but to do with what his manifesto for 2015 holds. Let me put it shortly here: Sirisena's in danger as long as his calls for EP-abolition go side by side with handing power over to him. This is what Dayan thinks, and I quote him in full:
"Why should anyone vote for Maithripala if he is not going to be the president after a hundred days while Ranil is going to be PM? What happens to the man the people have voted for, after the act of abolition? Since the Prime Ministership is going to be the power center after the Executive presidency is dismantled, would the people wake up to find they had unwittingly elected Ranil as their leader? If not, and if Maithripala is going to the Executive PM, then what happens to Prime Minister Ranil?"
Dayan has criticised Karu Jayasuriya for a similar reason. Karu's candidacy, according to him, was based on abolishing the Executive Presidency, a problem if the entire thrust of the election was aimed at that and not at winning the race. It's the same argument here, with the added qualification that as long as Sirisena's "victory" is going to last until he hands power over to Ranil (100 days, to be precise), voters aren't going to be ruffled by him. "Why vote for Maithripala when he's anyway going to stay for a hundred days at most?" is the gist of this argument, one that holds water so long as Dayan's overall critique of the opposition is valid. It is.

It's no open secret that many of the traditional UNPers are divided on Sirisena's candidacy. Let's assume that they have accepted, for better or for worse, that Mahinda will win. In that case, supporting Sirisena, even if he does back down after a hundred days to let Ranil Wickremasinghe take the reins, would be considered futile. Still, this is an assumption. It's not just UNPers who oppose Rajapaksa now. There are other people. Other voters. They'll vote for Sirisena, firmly convinced that he'll abolish the Executive Presidency. In the event that he can't, it still won't matter. There's talk that most of if not all the defectors from the SLFP will "move" after the elections. That's smart. It'll bring down the government, in parliament at least, and at least partly live upto the anti-EP thrust of the "Sirisena surge".


Dayan Jayatilleka, like every other political commentator, has his "perfect scenario". This is the (unlikely) event of Sajith Premadasa pitting against Rajapaksa. Hasn't happened, will not happen. To Dayan, however, Sajith is the ideal candidate, mostly though not only because he's his father's son. Maybe that is why he has criticised Sirisena. I don't know. I do know that this has in turn earned him criticism, as seen by the following comment: "'Dr' Dayan never saw this coming. Let's not listen to this fellow". That's an offhanded observation I agree, and I also agree with most of what Dayan has written in his latest piece. There are other observations he has made, of course, and while I don't intend to go through them all, I'd like to put my two cents' worth on them.

Dayan makes some calculations. Well, not calculations per se, but some simple math. To him, "Mahinda + Gotabhaya" is still heavier than "Sirisena + Ranil + Chandrika". In a way, I concur with this. As Malinda Seneviratne has aptly pointed out, Sirisena's biggest flaw was to let himself be flanked by Kumaratunge and Senaratne, the former because of her vendetta and shows of arrogance, the latter because of his self-inflating, feel-good statements. Seneviratne claims that it would have been better for Athuraliye Rathana Thero or Anura Kumara Dissanayake to have been by Sirisena's side in the press conference. That would have lent credence to an all but complete voice-cut political battle. After all, it was Rathana Thero (along with Patali Champika Ranawaka) who really began the opposition drive, by distancing the JHU from the government over the Executive Presidency.

There's more to this, by the way.

To Dayan, Mahinda embodies a slightly insular leadership, appealing to the populist instincts of the Sinhala Buddhist voter. He wants a kinder populist, the sort who will be able to reach out to other communities while allaying fears of succumbing to the West. He makes this an imperative "must" for Sirisena, if he ever wants to battle out with Rajapaksa effectively. Kumaratunge slipped a little, I must admit, when she said that "for the first time, we have produced a village-boy from the SLFP." It's obvious that the only if not main reason why Sirisena was chosen was for his "village roots". That's not really effective. I'm sure Dayan will agree.

Bottom line, hence: Maithripala Sirisena has great potential. As Dayan notes, however, as long as he stays in the top post for about a hundred days (or 24 hours), no-one's going to take him seriously. If it's about regime-change through and through, a better alternative would have been to go ahead with the elections, win the leadership, abolish the Executive Presidency, and then hold fresh elections. That's not what J. R. did, back when he promulgated the 1978 constitution and without as much as a referendum elected himself Executive President. It's about being more democratic than this. Problem is, the democracy-thrust is exactly what the current anti-regime movement is missing.

Sirisena is from the SLFP. He purports to stand for its values, not at all difficult considering his background in that party. In the event of his winning the election, however, Ranil Wickremasinghe, a "nobody" as far as this election is concerned, will jump over him. I don't know about you, but if ever I'll be voting for Sirisena, I'll want him to lead the country, not abolish his post and hand it over to someone I will never, as long as I (and the rest of my fellow SLFPers) live, vote for. That's not democracy. That's slipshod politics. What mandate has Ranil to succeed Sirisena, after all? Certainly not the people's. Certainly not mine. It is here, more than anywhere else, where Dayan's argument is spot on. Sadly, the opposition remains silent on this matter.

There is talk of several to-be defectors holding back. The provision to "elect" Ranil as Sirisena's successor hadn't been revealed to them until now, apparently. I don't know whether this is true. What I do know is that the cat's out of the bag: "2015" is going to be Ranil's last shot at becoming leader. He's going to do this by jumping over Maithripala Sirisena. Let's be honest here, hence: which SLFPer would want that?