Erroneous political thinking and analysis obscure and obstruct the path of the political recovery of the Opposition in Sri Lanka. They can be disaggregated into six myths:
Myth 1 is that unity at all costs in the ranks of the main democratic Opposition party is a necessary and sufficient condition of political success.
The reality is that as in mathematics, any number into zero is zero. If the leader or candidate of the main Opposition party is an electoral liability, internal unity only suffocates rather than liberates. If internal unity within parties is an absolute condition of political success, there wouldn’t be a gruelling season of primaries in US politics aimed precisely at putting the party on the right track and choosing the candidate with the best chance of winning. France went a step further with a nationwide election for the leadership of the French Socialist party.
Myth 2 is that unity of the Opposition ranks is a necessary and sufficient condition for constituting a viable counterweight to the regime and projecting a credible alternative government.
The reality by contrast, is twofold: not only is a united Opposition under an unappealing leadership and on the basis of a wrong-headed program an insufficient condition for victory, a disunited Opposition can still cause regime change if a single one of the divided Opposition proves to have the winning strategy and candidacy. Pakistan’s recent elections and the victory of Nawaz Sharif and his PML is a stark case in point.
Myth 3 is that the latent or growing economic crisis, taken together with the fulfilment of conditions one and two listed above, can defeat the regime.
The reality is that economic crises, however serious, can play themselves out an infinite variety of ways, given the intersection and interplay with and the overlay of other factors, most notably nationalism, ethnicity, religion and language. The rise of fascism in Germany against the backdrop of the Depression is of course the classic case in point.
The philosopher Louis Althusser, while noting that for Friedrich Engels the economic factor is said to be effective only ‘in the last instance,’ wryly observed that nonetheless ‘the lonely hour of the last instance’ in which ‘ His Majesty the Economy’ strides forth as all other factors step back with a curtsy, ‘never comes’. Instead he unrolls the concept, borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis, of ‘over-determination’; of a complex compound of unevenly developing factors exceptionally reaching a point of condensation in which however, the dominant factor is hardly ever the economic ( or to say the same thing, is almost always non/ extra-economic).
The greatest political thinker of the 20th century, Antonio Gramsci, whose concepts have had to be rediscovered and grasped by parties making a victorious breakthrough, ranging from Britain’s New Labour to Brazil’s PT, characterised the notion of an economic crisis ultimately sweeping all before it as ‘mechanistic’ thinking and an almost religious faith that sustains opposition parties in long years of adversity but does not really bring them to a position of ‘hegemony’.
For hegemony to be achieved, an indispensable factor is not the economy but the ‘national-popular’ or the ‘popular-national’, and the Opposition as presently led, consistently fails that test, not only on the ‘ national’ aspect (‘can we Sinhalese/can we as Sinhalese trust him? Will he betray us?) but also the socioeconomic (does he care about us? won’t he privatise everything?).
Myth 4 is that it is not necessary to win over a majority of the majority of voters; the securing of the fullest support of the minorities would render necessary only a quarter of the majority vote, which would be almost automatically obtained due to the coming economic crisis.
The reality however, is that in conditions of a perceived existential threat such as that posed by/from Tamil Nadu, any swing of minority votes to the Opposition candidate could be compensated for by a corresponding or greater swing of an ethnic majority to the rival candidate, especially when the opposition candidate is indelibly associated in the collective memory of the overwhelming ethnic majority, with a period of national humiliation. Even without such a polarising dynamic, electoral victory is sometimes possible with strong support from a large ethnic group: the support of the Punjab was the basis of Nawaz Sharif’s victory.
Myth 5 is that a spoiler candidacy can guarantee the victory of the Opposition.
Here again, the reality is that in a presidential election, even if a breakaway pushes the race into a run-off, it is a choice of two national leaders and the question is who do we trust to be our leader in these difficult times? It is difficult to imagine that choice being the current leader of the Opposition under any circumstances; still less if he competes against the present incumbent. This negative factor cannot be transcended, however the Opposition is configured.
Myth 6 is that successful street protests are a precursor or indicator of nationwide political strength and momentum.
The truth is that public protest and social movements are of considerable importance, especially as catalysts, but even the most impressive protest constitutes but a fraction of the voting citizenry of any country; social protests do not automatically translate into political success and may prove electorally irrelevant or even generate an electoral backlash.
From the protestors at Tahrir Square to those in Moscow, massive demonstrations in the recent past have not been reflected in the national political endgames. This was of course true of the dramatically romantic ‘events’ of May ’68 in Paris and the paradoxical June ’68 victory of the Gaullists in the National Assembly election, the anti-Vietnam demonstrations in the US followed by the election of Richard Nixon, and the protest years in the UK ranging from the Coal Miners’ strike to Greenham Common which proved run-up and backdrop to the enthronement of Thatcherism.
In Ceylon, the Left famously launched the Hartal of 1953, while the non-participating SLFP won the election of ’56. Much depends on whether the demonstrations accurately reflect the nation’s social composition (albeit in miniature), whether they fail to resonate with the broader public, or whether the protests do resonate with respect to the specific issues at hand but do not constitute/present an acceptable alternative leadership and political project for the nation.
Though Egypt and Russia are superficially contrasting cases in that the former represented change and the other continuity, there are underlying factors common to both. By-passing the urban demonstrators and their dramatic manifestations, the bulk of the citizenry voted for patriotic or nationalist populists who had retained the support of the provinces and the clergy and stood for a strong nation-state.
Mohammed Morsi and Vladimir Putin were both more ‘organic’ – to use another concept from the Gramscian canon — than their rivals. Putin rescued Russia from its seemingly endless retreat as a state during the years of pro-Western appeasement under Yeltsin and won the Chechen war. The first half of the last decade, the CFA-PTOMS years were Sri Lanka’s Yeltsin years and the UNP leader our Yeltsin, while Mahinda Rajapaksa is seen to have redeemed Sinhala self-respect and restored the strength of the state.
As in Egypt, Russia and Pakistan, he or she who can break through and swing the provinces can win the election in Sri Lanka. As Mervyn de Silva once wrote, [in Ceylon] the road to power through the ballot box runs through the paddy fields. The UNP has and can pull it off, but only under an ‘organic’, ‘national-popular’ leadership. It has always failed when its leadership is seen as ‘comprador’ and/or minoritarian. However much the policies of the incumbent administration run contrary to the objective interests of the Sinhalese and Buddhists, including those in the provinces, the Opposition’s current leadership is not and will never be subjectively, normatively, regarded as ‘organic’ and ‘national-popular’ as Mahinda Rajapaksa is, and certainly not more so.
Given public perception of two equally patriotic candidates (or two equally unpatriotic ones) the electorate will opt for the one who can be trusted on socioeconomic issues, which is why welfarist Labour party leader Clement Attlee, who had been in the wartime coalition government, defeated Winston Churchill and Prime Minister Premadasa beat Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1988.
If peaceful democratic regime change is to take place, the only way it can and at the earliest time it can, namely at the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2015-2016, the UNP and the Opposition at large, must visibly, audibly and credibly close that ‘patriotic’ gap.
No student of history can underestimate the fund of legitimacy derived from a historic military victory over a deeply hated foe in a ‘fault-line war’. No student of politics should assume that the parabola of such patriotic legitimacy is easily intercepted by an Oppositional project moving on a purely economic and governance trajectory.
When I say that successful interception would take a Patriot missile, the pun is intended. A caveat: Mahinda Rajapaksa’s appeal does not derive exclusively from patriotic achievement. Even among those who can lay claim to that achievement, he communicates more personal appeal. He comes across as resolute but affable; more personable, less dangerous.
No political formation that fails to carry with it (a) the provinces and (b) the armed forces and their families, can win an election. Without the support or benign neutrality of the latter, a level playing field may be difficult to secure. The UNP can win in the context and under conditions of an economic crunch but not if – and not as long as –it is led by someone who triggers the collective ‘memory Claymore’ of the CFA and thus generates apprehensions of the weakening of the national state, national security, the erosion of sovereignty, the bartering away of the military victory and a sell-out of the Sinhalese in the face of ‘external’ and ‘alien’ pressure, threat and imposition.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s significant speech at the Victory Day parade this year demonstrated that he retains much of his appeal, and remains the figure with the most credible narrative and discourse in the Lankan political landscape. His speech also demonstrated the sources and components of that discourse: the invocation of the memory of national retreat to the brink of defeat and dismemberment, followed by resistance, recovery and victory. The narrative is encased in a larger longer chronicle of Sinhala history and the emergence of the ‘great leader-saviour’ who heads the resistance and thereby the revival. The underlying theme is national resolve, faith in the patriotism, the resilience and heroism of the people, especially the youth, to resist.
The narrative is emotive and credible, tapping into deeper wellsprings than all other available discourses. The audience is the majority of the overwhelming majority, the Sinhala families living in the provinces.
The impressive parade also has a message, whether intended or not, in the run-up to the Northern Provincial Council elections which the alphabet soup of Tamil ultranationalists in Tamil Nadu and the diaspora need to take on board: this is what you will have standing in your way in case you are tempted to opt for an exit strategy, and there’s plenty more where they come from. These men and women, this generation, this leadership and future ones will fight any attempt from which ever quarter, at dismemberment of the island and a return to the dark days of retreat and appeasement.
That’s a discourse that’s hard to beat and can neither be negated head on nor ignored; it can only be superseded. It can only be superseded by an alternative discourse which respects and incorporates these themes and supplements them with others, rather than rejects them.
The Opposition as currently led has no credible narrative, no discourse, which has any comparable emotive power. No leadership which is embedded in the public memory and the historical narrative as having appeased the Tiger has the chance of a snowball in hell of beating a leader whose story is a stark contrast – one of victory.
Anyone who watched Mahinda Rajapaksa’s V-Day 2013 speech and thinks that whatever the material hardships, the present leader of the Opposition can come remotely close in terms of credibility and appeal, or assumes that the latter’s CFA track record can be brushed under the rug, or that this memory of national disgrace will not turn the entire Opposition electorally radioactive; anyone who thinks that the voter will entrust the leadership and future of the country/‘nation’ to such a person over and above Mahinda Rajapaksa, is rendering the status quo a great service by refusing to identify what fundamentally needs to be rectified and the strategic re-positioning of the Opposition that is imperative. Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography notes with considerable pride, his long struggle to replace the unelectable Labour Left and shift to a nationally acceptable and electorally viable strategy, program and leadership.
Shifting the terrain
The majority of the citizens are Sinhalese; the majority of Sinhalese are patriotic or if you prefer, nationalist. They will remain especially so in the face of the combination of Tamil nationalist challenge from the diaspora and Tamil Nadu and Western/West-based criticism of the armed forces and the war on grounds of accountability.
So long as it led by ‘CFA-Ranil,’ the main democratic Opposition cuts itself off from that patriotic majority of citizen-voters who support the victory over the Tigers. It cannot compete with the incumbent on the terrain of patriotism/nationalism. That terrain must and can be shifted but it cannot be shifted beyond certain parameters (outside of which the present UNP leadership will always tend to fall).
Not even a severe economic crisis can shift the terrain fundamentally, because what is involved is a collective perception of an existential challenge or threat. Anyone who thinks this terrain can be fundamentally altered or profitably abandoned as toxic, lacks a sense of both history and politics and how they work (not least in Eurasia and the post-colonial global South).
This is why every serious and responsible political analysis, commentary or discussion today must revolve around the elections that are on the horizon, in the middle distance. Regime change in the UNP/Opposition remains a prerequisite for democratic change in the larger polity. Without such peaceful, democratic, internally-generated change, we may be unable to prevent the escalation to ‘hard options’ by powerful external actors; options which may cost us our sovereignty, security and territorial integrity; our existence as a single state and country.