Monday, February 19, 2018

The anger of the people has spoken

Whenever I failed to get the grade or mark I wanted at school, at a term or a monthly test, I used to brood over it for a long, long time, often for hours, sometimes for days. I would first console myself with the fact that there would always be a tomorrow and another chance. When that wasn’t enough, I’d try to rationalise my failure by dishing the blame on someone else. The teacher wasn’t good enough; that particular chapter was too hard; compared with those who got the lowest marks I was much better off; my handwriting was probably not legible enough for the teacher; my concentration during the exam was disturbed by a friend laughing. It didn’t take long for me to realise that these excuses absolved the only real person who could be blamed. Me.

It’s probably not uncharitable of me to note that most of our politicians remind me of my juvenile years. That’s why I can’t help but smirk when the recent Local Government Election results, profoundly unsettling as they are, compel enough hysterics from those who thought they would win (when they did not and could not) that they contort those results so as to tide over their failures. Mangala Samaraweera, for instance, suggests that the percentage of those who voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa rose from 51.28% in 2015 to 55.35% in 2018. Anura Kumara Dissanayake argues that the final results justify neither the government (the UNP and the SLFP) nor the Joint Opposition (which begs the question: does it justify him?). And Rajitha Senaratne, whose seat (Beruwela), like Samaraweera’s seat (Matara), his party unexpectedly lost, says that while the election was a setback, “the majority of Sri Lanka is still anti-Rajapaksa” (can he get any more obscurantist there?).

The premise for any political commentator when arguing about the post-2015 political scenario was that Mahinda Rajapaksa lost to Maithripala Sirisena. If those who shouted for the government used this as their rationale, it’s only fair to say that the premise for any comment on the LG Elections is that the Pohottuwa (the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna) not only won hands-down, but also won so decisively that it created history by being the second outside-the-mainstream party to defeat the mainstream (the first, of course, being the SLFP, which has now been relegated to the dustbin of history). This was a protest vote. The people weren’t necessarily voting out of love for Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brand of expedient populism: they were fed up of the UNP and the UPFA. The anger of the people has spoken, in other words.

The voting patterns bear this out. Even in areas inhabited and overseen by parliamentarians and MPs, whose monopoly over their regions were virtually unassailable – the UPFA in Polonnaruwa, the UNP in many areas in Kandy and Beruwela and Kalutara – the Pohottuwa won. The numbers are so overwhelming that they simply transcend any attempt made by naysayers and disbelievers to contort them. Mr Samaraweera’s view, to give just one example, can be countered by the fact that unlike in 2015 the SLFP, the UNP, and the other coalition parties, including the TNA and, to a certain extent, the JVP, were not canvassing for votes as a single entity. In August 2015 the situation was different: the bitter memories that Rajapaksa evoked in the minds of his critics at the grassroots were enough for them to cast him aside. Last week, on the other hand, was surely not a case of the hansaya fighting against the kesara sinhaya. It was a one-man party, led by his cohorts and loyalists, against the two oldest political parties in the country. As far as electoral battles go, that one-man party, and that man, won decisively.

Dayan Jayatilleka contends, in three separate analyses written days after the LG polls, that the United National Party should take note of the election results and reform itself gracefully, because, in his own words, “the February 10th shrinkage of the UNP is the consequence, not the cause, of the UNP crisis.” But I rather think that the vacuum at the centre of that party – despite arguments to the contrary made by the likes of Dr Jayatilleka I can’t think of a plausible alternative for Ranil Wickremesinghe, never mind the last-minute attempts (alleged as they are) at trying to replace him with Karu Jayasuriya – will continue for some time, which logically leads me to surmise that the LG Elections was less about the UNP, less about the centre-right economic and political agenda of Ranil Wickremesinghe and his loyalists (EconomyNext, which Dr Jayatilleka notes as “well established” and “UNP and West-friendly”, describes those loyalists as members of the FRCS, or Former Royal College Student, Cabal), that about the wildly oscillating behaviour of the UPFA and the SLFP. True, voters were tired of the UNP’s involvement with the Bond Scandal (most if not all of those MPs tarnished by the Scam – Sujeewa Senasinghe and Ajith Perera included – had to concede defeat in their seats), but they were even more tired of the man at the top and his party.

The first mistake Maithripala Sirisena committed was to take over the reins of the SLFP. This move, expedient and clearly necessary though it was at the time (the only way you could chase the Rajapaksas was by purging the party he’d led of his loyalists), soon grew to besmirch the president’s image as a non-partisan leader. He would have done better, I thought at the time, had he handed over the party leadership to another person, obviously a loyalist, and then gone back to the parliament to become the benign Asokian leader he got us to idealise him as. Instead what we got was a foggy, dense presidency, where the president would speak of reconciliation and the need for interethnic harmony on one day and rant against the Army being tried at a court for crimes against humanity on the very next. What this necessitated was a tussle, apparent in all but name, between the two arms of the unitary government, and what that tussle compelled was the rise and empowerment of the cast aside predecessor. That cast aside loser had to win again, magnificently so.

Had he and his cohorts not won that magnificently, though, even if they came first, the SLPP would not have the numbers to turn victory into celebratory rhetoric. Neither Dulles Alahapperuma nor G. L. Peiris nor Gamini Lokuge nor Dinesh Gunawardena would have been able to hold press conferences and smile at the journalists and make flippant jokes about not joining the government (Gotabaya Rajapaksa to a journalist at the Airport: “Who’d want to be Prime Minister in this mess?”) if they had got even two or three or four points below what they expected. My own prediction, with the UNP coming first and the Pohottuwa a close second, would not have been adequate, and if it had not been adequate, the government would have moved on. Everything clicked in one place, to the advantage of the Pohottuwa AND the UNP, the latter of which now has the numbers to run a government of its own.

The SLFP, for all intents and purposes, is dead. It will be a natural, though temporary, death, because the principles it claimed to stand for were denied by the family members of its own founder and later by the men who clinched power by chasing the Rajapaksas away. Those who were associated with it from 2015 to 2018 – including Duminda Dissanayake and Wijith Wijayamuni Zoysa and Mahinda Samarasinghe – cannot survive politically unless they get out of the SLFP, and even if they do, it will take a long, long time for the people to forgive them. The SLFP, for a still longer time, I suspect, will be laid to rest, unless a more convincing leader – not the president, not Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and not Mahinda Rajapaksa – takes over its reins. Gunadasa Amarasekara said something to the effect that the SLFP, despite its many self-contradictions, has the ability to throw up a Mahinda Rajapaksa. I rather think that Mahinda will stay for some time in the SLPP, until a resilient, nationalistic, and able person decides to lead the SLFP.