Election rides a Gotabhaya surge and blends to a Sinhala-Buddhist ethos
by Kumar David, The Island, Colombo, August 8, 2020
Let everyone first congratulate Deshapriya, Hoole, N.J. Abeysekara and the election staff for conducting a truly first-rate election under trying circumstances – COVID, political interference, a not very helpful AG and numerous court challenges by different interest groups against each other. We will be the poorer when their term expires and I dread to think who their replacements will be.
Recently I read somewhere that Abraham Lincoln mused “Elections belong to the people. If they choose to turn their back on the fire and burn their rumps they will have to sit on their blisters”. On August 5 the people of Sri Lanka singed their bums rather badly. The outcome is nothing to be happy about. In broad summary the results point to this:
a) We are a land soaked in Rajapaksa mystique and sodden in Sinhala-Buddhism.
b) The SLPP held on to 72% of the Sinhala-Buddhist vote and will form a strong government with MR as prime minister.
c) GR-MR have cobbled together enough for a new constitution without cross-overs or the need for Sajith who has now been rendered redundant. In this the siblings have defied predictions including even Basil’s; the way is clear for a constitutional dictatorship.
d) Sajith has wiped the floor with Ranil’s shirt and pants. He is in a position to take over the UNP name, Sri Kotha and the Elephant symbol if he is so inclined.
e) Sajith will be ineffective against Mahinda and Gota; he is no fighter. The anti-authoritarian space in Sri Lanka is a vacant lot.
f) A further reason for (e) is that the Sajith-UNP is hobbled by tensions between populists (Champika, Rajitha, Harin, Kiriella) and neo-liberals (Malik, Eran, Harsha, Fowzie). The Sajith-UNP, or SJB if it does not take over the UNP, will replace the Ranil-UNP as the focus of liberalism. From Champika to Fowzie and incorporating Sajith’s mild support of Tamil-rights that’s inevitable. In the 21-st Century liberalism will not dissolve into the village.
g) The poor performance of the JVP-NPP makes mobilisation against authoritarianism an uphill task (Sajith is of limited use for this purpose, but better he is in than out).
This and the next paragraph say things that has been on my mind for a long time but I could not utter due to electoral exigencies. That is, that there is empathy between the politico-cultural character of the people (mainly but not only the Sinhalese) and the Rajapaksa phenomenon (mystique and siblings). There is an intrinsic connection between the ethos of the people and Rajapaksaism. What the Rajapaksas signify and evoke are what Sri Lanka is; it is as comfortable a blend as fish and water. It is too simplistic to reckon that war victory enamoured Gotabhaya to the masses. No, it’s a deeper psyche than that; what the Rajapaksas denote is what the Sinhala masses are; they gel. Despite much corruption, alleged criminality, excesses of the clan and ugly crudeness “They are us; they our ours”. This landslide election victory cannot be assimilated without sensitivity to that nexus.
The formal UNP has been wiped out NOT because of corruption, ineptitude and the bond-scam. There are far bigger and bolder rogues per square centimetre in the SLPP than the UNP or in Sajith’s bandwagon. The seamless blending of Gotabhaya mystique into Sinhala consciousness, the symbiosis of the personal with the political-cultural, this is the true choreography of the drama. What the Rajapaksas emanate is what Sri Lankan polity breathes today. The motto of the government going forward will be Gotabhaya adoration more than Sinhala-Buddhism.
The small upside (c) is tempered by the realisation that MPs can and will if needed be purchased. The big downside is (g). An implacable Executive leaning on an obedient military whose loyalty to the Constitution remains untested, now supplemented by a pliant Legislature, in the context of a feeble Judiciary and a chaotic Court situation is no pretty sight. I am surprised that not many see what I see ‘darkness at noon’. Responses like Mangala Samaraweerra’s Radical Centre (RC) launched on 6 August are inadequate to the task. RC envisages a middle way of democratic decentralised governance, abolishing distrust between communities, and flourishing in pluralism and secularism. “RC is where all can discover a common humanity beyond race, creed and caste”. Decentralisation, that is devolution of administrative and political power is good, and I am pleased by RC’s call for pluralism and secularism. Mangala’s denunciation of saffron-robbed thugs and Harin Fernando’s exposure of the cardinal trickery of the Anti-Christ are in line with my own outlook. It’s high time we in Sri Lanka stood up and denounced these Neanderthal cave dwellers. But . . .
My concern is that a liberal stance will not be adequate to counter the emerging authoritarian threat. Although there are no pogroms or race riots right now, no Kristallnacht and only some state sponsored demonization of Muslims and “Eelamists”, the state of affairs in this country today is more serious than in Germany after the 1932 election. In the April 1932 presidential elections, Hitler polled 1/3 of the votes, but was defeated by Hindenburg in the July runoff. Even in the March 1933, two months after the Nazi seizure of power and after storm troopers unleashed a campaign of violence and terror, the Nazi’s could only muster 44% of the vote in federal elections. The 72% Sinhala Buddhist landslide to the SLPP last week sends a chilling message about what kind of society we are going to be. Have the days of pluralism, multi ethnicity and multi faith been buried? Of greater significance is that this is a repeat message, first broadcast at the November 2019 presidential election. Both left and liberals stand on the common ground of pluralism, but the frightening difference with Nazi Germany is that pluralism in Sri Lanka is being buried not by fascists but by the mass of the Sinhala-Buddhist population. (“Father forgive them for they know not what they do”).
What needs to be done urgently is for the minority communities, the masses who voted for the SJB and will eschew a sell-out, and the left to all pull together on a minimum programme to resist the worst, and the worst is yet to come. The economy will grind down in the coming period and a kilo of onions whether you ask for it in Sinhala, Tamil or Arabic will cost the same. Up to a million jobs will disappear by mid-2021. Whether the government defaults on foreign debt servicing remains to be seen (if it does the rupee will collapse). This is the scenario that the state is preparing to meet and deal with by repression. The people have chosen to turn their backs to a raging fire and to embrace racism, to indulge in adoration of the Rajapaksa cult and to revere antiquated cultural baggage. To use Lincoln’s terminology, they will have their posteriors fried.
Ranil is finished. At this time of writing not all the results are known but it is being said that he may not win a seat at all. The performance of the Sajith-UNP too is surprisingly poor, just 20% to 25% even in some traditional UNP strongholds. The cry of Gotabhayaism and Sinhala Buddhism was not something the Sajith-UNP could withstand. The UNPers who went with Sajith, not Ranil, are traditional greens. It’s as simple as that.
The left was quite unable to withstand the Rajapaksa tidal wave. There was no animosity that I felt during the campaign on the count that we were not Sinhala-Buddhist enough, there was no backlash of that nature at all. (I was on the NPP-JVP platform). It was much simpler, thousands said how wonderful the JVP had been in parliament but then went right ahead and voted otherwise. Ninety-five of every one hundred I spoke to were scathing in their scorn of SLPP and UNP “bloody crooks”. And of that 95%, ninety four proceeded to vote for these crooks. It’s a schizophrenia that I have not seen anywhere else in the world.
The last matter of interest that I will reserve for another day after more information leaks out is how the MR-GR dynamic is panning out. It’s more than a MR-GR thing, its about the balance and sharing of power between Cabinet-Parliament and Executive – Military-Viyathmaga cabals. This tension will be a source of friction in the early months until the new normal settles into place. The elections have strengthened MR’s hand as he is the custodian of Parliament but his health does not seem to be very good to judge from public appearances.