Trying to gauge the political pulse of the people through protests can be a complex task. This is largely because protests should ideally be the result of a strong grassroots movement. In present day Sri Lanka, rallies are manufactured by political parties on both sides of the divide. This means that their success or failure can only be seen as a semi-reliable estimate of the genuine thoughts of the masses.
The ‘Jana Balaya’ protest in Colombo on Wednesday organised by the Joint Opposition is a prime example of this fundamental contradiction. Thousands of people were predictably bussed in from around the country and led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family in a badly organised protest that ended in a standard speech by the visibly tired but upbeat Rajapaksa.
In a short speech that was received with thunderous roars of approval from his supporters, Rajapaksa trotted out his standard points of Government short comings, his war effort and demand for elections. His pledges for a comeback notwithstanding the speech had a rehearsed quality to it. The same statements had been made by the former President scores of times before and are now taking on a threadbare quality. Even though Rajapaksa enjoys a cult-like status with the masses and is likely to retain his fan base, there is a genuine question as to whether he can attract moderate Sinhala Buddhists and minorities at a future election.
Ultimately, there was nothing new in the protest march. After an almost hysterical build up, during which the Joint Opposition charged the Government was so threatened they were trying to ban the protest altogether, it ended in an anti-climax that impressed no one. Only a few thousand of the promised 200,000 turned up and no Arab-style sit-in was held. Most commuters chose to stay home and even schools were closed early, leaving Fort a largely empty stage for the ‘Jana Balaya’.
One could be forgiven for thinking of Shakespeare’s quote in Macbeth “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” to describe the rally.
Many photos and reports, especially on social media, highlighted the inebriated state of some of the protestors and still others dismissed the marchers as having been “bought for money and a rice packets”.
Government representatives, as expected, were also quick to dismiss the protest, pointing out that more people could be seen at typical May Day rallies, and the protest was simply a sign of deepening divisions between the Rajapaksa clan. Many were vocal about the prominence given to MP Namal Rajapaksa as the chief organiser and the backseat taken by both former Minister Basil Rajapaksa and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
However, this is where the United National Party (UNP) and the Sirisena faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) need to be careful. These participants, even the inebriated ones, should not be dismissed out of hand. As the results of the Local Government Elections in February showed, there is deep incumbency fatigue and dissatisfaction over the Government failing to adequately carry out its pledges. Stamping out corruption, keeping cost of living moderate, fostering development and addressing other major issues of the masses remain critical if the Government is serious about keeping the Rajapaksas out of power. The protest should be a symbol of the need to step up in the time left if ‘Yahapalanaya’ really wants to win another term.