Saturday, 7 June 2014 00:00
The news, based on an exclusive interview – that Gotabaya Rajapaksa may formally enter mainstream politics by contesting Colombo at the parliamentary election (Deshaya and Daily FT) casts a significant light – some may say shadow – on the character of the regime as it will emerge recomposed after that election which will almost certainly be in the first quarter of 2015.
The declaration of willingness by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to toss his hat into the ring is a response to two factors; a challenge and an imperative – secession and succession. It is a combination of intra-clan dynamics, the logical progression of the increasing influence of the security establishment, and above all, an entirely predictable response to perceptions of external and ethnic siege from afar and the ‘near abroad’. We have the ‘Gang of Four’ of David Cameron, Samantha Power, Jayalalitha and Navi Pillay to thank for the prospective radicalisation of the Rajapaksa regime and the darkening of the island’s prospects.
In its second post-war metamorphosis the regime will be hardened. The centre of gravity will shift. In Rajapaksa Regime Mk III, President Rajapaksa will play Shimon Peres to his younger brother’s Benjamin Netanyahu. The panoptic National Security ideology and ethos will become dominant – not only determinant as it is now. It will be prescriptive; not merely parametric.
Rise of the ‘deep state’
With or without Gotabaya, the SLFP is about to be totally recomposed and not in the nicest way imaginable. In the process of nomination for the parliamentary election, the centrist old guard of the ruling party will in all probability be replaced by nominees of the ruling family, most especially those of the heir apparent and his intra-family patrons.
If Gotabaya is elected, which is quite likely, he will doubtless be included in the Cabinet. Given his well known views on security, human rights and allied issues, his presence in the Cabinet will render the Government far more hard-line than it is now. He will push his line through the Cabinet almost totally unopposed. That line will include hawkish positions on the north and east as well as on southern dissent. The north will get the Gaza treatment. In the south the Weliweriya Doctrine will be more in evidence than not. There will be “two, three, many” Rathupaswelas. The hard-line will include neo-isolationism in foreign relations, a firmer positioning on an Islamabad-Beijing axis, and greater reliance on Israel.
The ‘deep state’ will rise. Post-war Sri Lanka will be transformed into a garrison state. The role of the security establishment in society, economy and the state, as well as its weight in the policy process, will take a quantum leap to the proportions of pre-Nawaz Sharif Pakistan or worse, the ‘military-civilian junta’ model of the National Security State in pre-democratic Latin America, Turkey and South East Asia.
Long harboured wish of ‘Sinhala Right’
The ‘Sinhala Right’ – which includes the ‘Religious Right’ – has long harboured the wish to see Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the successor to President Rajapaksa. The former’s induction into parliamentary politics and the Government will permit the project to be positioned and move forward. An avuncular interregnum may be acceptable to the heir apparent or may be presented as a fait accompli, since it will be less contentious and socially more legitimate than a generational leap. The Sinhala hawks’ project is two-step: Induction of their champion into the Cabinet and succession after the incumbent’s third term.
Of course, in the final analysis, the strategic project of the Sinhala hardliners is not viable, given the sheer facts of location (India’s doorstep), economic vulnerability (an island without natural resources such as fuel, and susceptible to economic embargos), and the geostrategic pincer of the West and India. While this is the long range scenario, an irresistible external force meeting an immovable domestic object does spell combustion. Given the ethnic demography of the island, all external endgames will turn into a Mexican stand-off (if not a bloodily sectarian Lebanon-Syria scenario) in the Indian Ocean.
There is one last chance to avoid or reduce the magnitude of this drastic dual shift to a far more compliant SLFP composed of ruling clan clones and a far more hawkish regime and State which will raise the drawbridge and shrink democratic civic space. That last chance is constituted by the two national elections of end-2014/early 2015. If the opposition puts up a decent fight in the presidential race, it can do well at the parliamentary election. If it puts up a good candidate, it can put up a good battle at the presidential election, which can facilitate a breakthrough at the parliamentary election.
What makes a ‘good candidate’?
Who is and what makes a ‘good candidate’? What would he/she look like? Two objective factors must form the base of this decision. Firstly the terrain of the battle field itself: The presidential election will not be fought and won or lost at the Tamil speaking periphery of the island but rather in its Sinhala Buddhist heartland. That also corresponds to the lesson of the recent Indian election. Secondly, the Modi model and message: Pick a candidate who can win the majority of the majority; eschew a ‘minoritarian’ electoral strategy; do not force the electorate into a choice between economic improvement and ethnic pride; choose a candidate who offers a win-win scenario; find a good public communicator, a media-genic man or woman.
Right now, the opposition is deadlocked. Not only is it divided between the UNP, DP and JVP, the UNP is itself divided between Ranil, Karu and Sajith. Here’s my betting: If Ranil is the candidate the UNP will secure 20%-25% of the vote. If it is Karu it will be 25%-30%. If it is Sajith it will be 30%-40%. If it is a Karu-Sajith ticket it will poll 30%-35%. It would be nice if the UNP picked a candidate who could secure a percentage of votes that is larger than the gap between him and Mahinda Rajapaksa. This would have a cascade effect on the parliamentary election.
A broad opposition front is certainly desirable but it must not be on the laughable basis of the abolition of the Executive Presidency; a slogan which has no rural resonance whatsoever. The TNA provides a contrary example. It didn’t waste its time on building a common platform with Gajan Ponnambalam’s TNPF and putting forward a common slate. Instead it picked Wigneswaran as candidate and got its electoral act together.
If the Sri Lankan opposition behaves in a rational way, or at the least, a less than decidedly suicidal fashion, a Rajapaksa regime reinforced by Gotabaya in its Cabinet can be contained by a strong parliamentary counterweight. If not, a halved parliamentary opposition will face a hardened regime.
(Dayan Jayatilleka, PhD, was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva (2007-2009) and Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to France and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO (2011-2013).)