Sri Lanka’s liberals face a choice: they can ride the horse they’ve been riding for the last 30 years, or they can exchange that horse for one that can, and will, win the race.
The lessons from Peru and Mexico are clear. No socially progressive movement trying to tip the scales against a right wing Government or Opposition will win the race if it focuses on principles to the exclusion of material factors. The superstructure of ideological values does remain, and its relevance cannot be denied. But the material base – issues of class and privilege, relevant to not just ethnic but also economic minorities – continues to hold higher ground. Any Opposition that refuses to engage with these issues can only expect to remain where it is.
Since 1994, liberals have attempted to get closer and closer to their conception of the Sri Lankan polity, only to paradoxically get further and further away from it. That it has had to contend with the nationalist right, Sinhala and Tamil but predominantly the former, cannot be overlooked. Yet, as the recent backlash against neoliberal populism across the Americas, including not only Peru and Mexico, but also Bolsonaro’s Brazil (where a left wing candidate, Edmilson Rodrigues, won the mayoralty of Belém, bordering the Amazon, against an ally of the regime) shows, a viable Opposition must focus on winning the race rather than on what that polity ought to turn into after winning the race. The latter is the afterword; that comes later.
The stakes were particularly high in Peru. Pedro Castillo, the populist who got through with a lead of a little more than 60,000 votes, didn’t just hail from the Left: a dedicated teacher turned trade unionist, he hailed from the country’s marginalised indigenous peasantry.
From the word go, Castillo made clear where his sympathies lay. His opponent, the right wing daughter of a neo-liberal-populist-authoritarian ex-president, indulged lavishly in red-baiting and anticommunist rhetoric. This may surprise some, given that 2021 marks two decades since the Cold War formally came to an end, but in Peru the Cold War never really ended: ruling elites and urban sectors alike continue to view politics through a Cold War prism, associating left wing politics, as Jacobin notes, “with terrorism and criminality.”
That explains not just how Keiko Fujimori could rally support from liberals despite her father’s human rights record, but also how Mario Vargas Llosa, who ran against her father in 1990 on a neo-liberal platform not too different from the latter’s, could lend her his support.
Castillo’s prospects were dismally slim. No less so were Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s, in Mexico. Obrador doesn’t fit the leftist’s mould; he’s more Populist than Marxist. Yet this didn’t help stave off a cascade of right wing alliances, including parties, cartels, and NGOs, from piling up against his party, MORENA, at recent midterm elections. MORENA got through with much better results than what it obtained in 2018, up from 191 seats to 203. As with Castillo’s alliance, however, it lost electorates swinging to the right, especially in Mexico City. Even there the vote bifurcated between working-class and middle-class districts.
If there’s one lesson to be drawn from these elections, it’s that class still matters. Fujimori ran on the promise of a $2,500 one-time dole to all families with at least one COVID-19 patient, plus a 40% tax on corporations engaged in mineral extraction (to be distributed among families living near mineral fields). But she also went about advocating free market reforms; unlike Castillo, she hardly touched the indigenous peasantry. In Mexico, Obrador didn’t really pass himself off as an anti-American populist, and yet his positions on multinational businesses whipped up almost as much anti-left hysteria as it did in Peru. It’s certainly not accurate to view these as pivotal shifts in Latin and Central American politics, but the shift is seismic: it promises to restore the balance from the region’s recent tilt to the neoliberal authoritarian right.
Ironically, Fujomori lacked even her father’s strongman appeal; the mould people expected her to fit into was that of a Benazir Bhutto. Yet due to the divisions that have come to define politics in Peru so dismally well, she found it difficult to cut such a figure. Gaffe after gaffe – including her remark, which, made at an indigenous electorate, sounded for many like a rebuff, that it took time to hitch a ride from Lima to the outstations – revealed the classist arrogance underlying her populist credentials. That a backlash was in the air was inevitable; not a landslide victory for the leftwing maverick, as many thought, but a victory all the same.
In his very radical programme, the man has prescribed a complete turnaround for the economy, reversing three-plus decades of neoliberal populism that has served to widen the divide between rich blancho centres and poor cholo outposts, getting the government to serve the most deprived, and regulating multinationals more tightly. That Lima’s stock exchange recorded a 7.7% drop is to be expected: this is perhaps the most reformist-radical candidate who has emerged in Peru in over a quarter century. While Obrador has made attempts to bridge the gap between his country’s elites and marginalised communities, Castillo, due to the tectonic plates that underlie disparities in his country, has declared war on the Spanish-speaking upper-class.
If Sri Lanka is to learn from Mexico, and more so from Peru, both Government and Opposition must take stock of the material factors that drove Obrador’s and Castillo’s campaigns. It’s a sign of the damage neoliberal authoritarianism has inflicted on Peruvian society that one of Castillo’s proposals is the formulation of a new Constitution. The Constitution is to be enacted by way of a referendum; unlike the reformist goals of liberals and left-liberals, it’s set to incorporate positive rights for marginalised communities, to restore what much of that country’s elite is considered to have taken back from those communities, to set things right. In other words, from constitutional reform onwards, Castillo seeks to restructure the material base underlying Peru’s social contract: a volte-face from how things have been there for over a quarter-century.
Commentators across the West, and elsewhere, have not unjustifiably censured Castillo for his social conservatism: he opposes abortion, same-sex marriage, and gender perspective education. This is not to say that those opposing him rank any better on such concerns. Fujimori herself has adopted similar positions on these issues: the only difference between them is that while one has advocated the continuation of policies that have perpetuated economic disparities, the other has called for a reversal of those policies. Regarding other concerns, the leftwing teacher turned trade unionist has remarked that, relevant as they may be, they remain, at best, secondary to the “battle between the rich and the poor, the struggle between the master and the slave.”
With marginalised indigenous communities in particular, material incentives, the promise of a better deal, resonate well. Despite having adopted controversial stances on single-issues, Castillo was able to communicate his understanding of the importance of such incentives. Sri Lanka does not have to adopt those controversial stances, but it can take a leaf from the Peruvian book based on how people responded to Castillo’s call. This is where both liberals and nationalists have gone wrong: the former believe institutional reforms will set everything right, the latter believe greater security will do the trick. Is it any wonder that our liberals and nationalists have ignored Obrador and Castillo? Not really. Their myopia is telling; they should wake up.
In the meantime, Sri Lanka’s Opposition must remould and recast itself in a Left Populist light, discarding its neoliberal heritage and embracing a model that focuses on both winning the race and winning hearts and minds. I believe Dayan Jayatilleka put it best: “[t]oday… it has proved almost impossible to defend liberal-democracy without populism, the market economy without social democracy, the centre without a left orientation.”
This becomes particularly relevant when one realises that the then Joint Opposition, led by the Mahinda Rajapaksa wing of the SLPP, touted a Left Populist Bonarpartist line. That it morphed later into a centre-right Bonapartist outfit, flanked on the one hand by a nationalist clergy and on the other by the Colombo bourgeoisie, should therefore inform the present Opposition’s strategy: unlike the JO, which gave way to the SLPP, the SJB cannot afford to give way and yield place to the UNP. To do so would be to risk political suicide. Peru and Mexico are reminders of what the Opposition can do. They are also reminders of what the Government should do.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
The government and its vaccination drive
by Uditha Devapriya
Having shot itself in the foot, the government seems to be picking up. It may well be too little too late, but this is a silver lining: after dithering for too long on the vaccination front, we are leading the world with 300,000 jabs a day. If critics of this regime aren’t wholly taken in by the speed at which it’s inoculating the country, they are impressed. Its supporters, on the other hand, are jubilant. They have reason to be. For the first time in a long while, there’s evidence of clear leadership: not the sort that rants and rails, that brags and brawls, but that actually delivers, that gives the country what it needs. And right now, we need the jab. Every vaccine we can get, we have got. The jabs keeps coming.
Health experts warned of a third wave. That’s what we got in April. They are now warning of a fourth: imminent according to some, already here according to others. Of course, the risk of Delta spreading is no longer a risk, nor is it incipient: it’s already out there, on its way to become the dominant variant. If we ignore or tone down the hysterical overtones of most of our newspaper headlines, one must admit that hospitals are running out of beds and oxygen supplies, worrying as it may be and is. While some officials dismiss the possibility of a fourth wave on the scale of India’s second wave, others are less optimistic.
Delta is unlike any variant we’ve come across until now. Panagiotis Arkoumaneas, president of the National Organisation for Public Health in Greece, calls the Delta strain the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Recent studies reveal mutation rises of about 10 percentage points a week, 60% more transmissible than the Kent mutation, twice as infectious as the original coronavirus strain, it’s making its way to every corner of the planet. A Yale epidemiologist, F. Perry Wilson, has noted that what’s unique about the variant is “how quickly it is spreading” compared to other strains and viruses. What’s most worrying about the variant is not that it infects more rapidly within shorter time frames, but that there’s much we don’t know: some studies conclude it’s more severe, but others are not so sure.
Given Sri Lanka’s diminishing prospects, then, vaccination is the way to go. We have been doing little else since last April. In late March, we got 600,000 Sinopharm doses; since then the Chinese government has donated more than 7.1 million doses. July has been kind, with more than 800,000 Pfizer and 1.5 million Moderna doses. This is not the time to be thinking of geopolitical preferences: getting those shipments is the way to go. By December, we will receive more than five million Pfizer doses through the COVAX facility, while more doses of Sinopharm are to arrive from China, and of Sputnik from Russia as well.
As refreshing as these developments may be, they are a sobering reminder of what the government should have done. There is little excuse for the dithering we saw for over half a year: this administration is the most powerful to come to power since J. R. Jayewardene’s in 1977. It enjoys a two-thirds majority in parliament and is led by a man who did away with an ambitious but flawed anti-presidential act of legislation. Derided and divided, the opposition poses much less of a threat to him than did the unofficial opposition led by his brother when the country was run by the yahapalana brigade. Ambitious to the last detail, the vaccination drive confirms almost every hope everyone had, and maybe in a way still has, about the man calling the shots. The tragedy is in taking this much time to prove one’s mettle.
The drive makes clear three very important points the government must note. The first lies in the domain of international relations. As anyone with a modicum of knowledge of world affairs will agree, we did not source vaccines from one part of the world: owing to soaring case numbers and mortalities, we sourced them from every corner of the planet. This means that we had to rely on every geopolitical power, taking in whatever shipments were sold or gifted us. The government must understand that this is the direction its foreign policy ought to take. It must not turn to one friend in need, less so a fair-weather friend. It must identify what friends helped it in times of crisis and, without alienating the rest of the world, ensure it maintains ties with those friends. This is a mistake the UNP has committed over and over again, a mistake the SJB is trying not to repeat. The vaccination drive, put simply, has helped us all realise the pitfalls of hanging on to one bloc over others.
To remain friends with the world as a whole, it is imperative that we understand who our friends are. It is also imperative that we look for other friends. The West is not some magic antidote to everything; nor, indeed, is the anti-Western front. What are our interests? How should we ensure meeting and achieving them? Which countries can help us achieve them? Most importantly, how can we get their help without alienating the rest? In the 1950s, the then ruling UNP, or at least a considerable section in it, thought that it could wade through economic difficulties by relying on Whitehall and Washington, to a point where it alienated two of the world’s key players, China and the USSR. It paid a price for its ideological idiocy in the long term. Given these inescapable facts, neither the SLPP nor the SJB must emulate the UNP. Sri Lanka’s interests are Sri Lanka’s. It cannot afford to be selective.
The second point has to do with allegations of militarisation levelled at, and against, the administration. These allegations are not entirely unfair. The anti-KDU protests have made a very convincing case against the regime. In a country where a major war was won without resort to conscription, militarisation does not exactly sound welcoming to civilian ears. This is not because we are opposed to the military, but because we are so close to it: as Dr Dayan Jayatilleka correctly pointed out once, the greatest asset the army has is not its ammunition and stock of weapons, but the love it enjoys of the people. In Switzerland, South Korea, and Israel, forced militarisation has not generated opposition to the military. Sri Lanka enjoys, in that sense, a triple advantage: it has a popular army, it does not conscript, and unlike the US the army remain servants of the State rather than of private contractors.
The present vaccination drive shows us just how much can be achieved by a much appreciated army. Contrary to the prognostications of the critics, the army is preferred by a great many people to bureaucratic officials. A distinction can, and must, be drawn here between those who (rightly) deplore the intrusion of the military in public and private affairs and those who rail against the military because of their antipathy towards government intervention. For all their good intents and purposes, the latter group, which opposed the war when things were not going the LTTE’s way, does not seem to comprehend ground realities. The army can be, and indeed is, used in times of crisis, especially at a time when public opinion of officials and representatives has sunk quite low. This is not militarisation in any classically fascist sense. It is common sense. It is a resort used by other countries. Why not Sri Lanka?
The third point is perhaps the most important. It is an open secret that the government has, at least since the second wave hit last September, committed one blunder after another and given enough raison d’etre for future electoral losses. Its prospects are diminishing, fast. The people are angry, not so much because the leadership is too strong as because for them it is not strong enough. Not all the PR cosmetics from Washington and Beijing can or will salvage the administration unless it shows it is doing something with anything, projecting the kind of leadership both supporters and critics expected of it in 2019. The vaccination drive provides one opportunity, among others, for it to reset and course correct. To an extent the drive has raised hopes among people again; while it is nowhere near the hopes they had in 2019, they see in the president’s vaccination campaign an opportunity for reversal.
As things stand, both the government and the opposition (the SJB, not the JVP, the TNA, or the UNP) stand to gain a lot and lose very little if they depart from their respective legacies. The government has ample time to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, while the SJB, which its critics have tragically misinterpreted and are badmouthing for no rational rhyme or reason, must consolidate its position as a populist alternative to a populist government. The problem with critics of the government is that they are not aware that what is needed is not some vague outfit that questions democratically elected regimes and democratically elected oppositions, but rather a state of affairs that consolidates the best of ruling and oppositional alliances and responds to the people. Sri Lanka does not need another 2015.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
WORLDS POOREST PRIME MINISTER – W.DAHANAYAKE
by Nihal de Alwis
Most Lankans would by now have forgotten the poorest prime minister the world ever had, the late Dr W. Dahanayake. “W” was a poor man’s politician. When he lost his Galle seat as prime minister in the 1960 elections, he packed his suitcase and asked his Secretary, Mr. Bradman Weerakoon, to drop him off at the Fort Railway Station to take a train to Galle. Bradman told him that it was his responsibility, to see that he got home safely and provided him with a ‘pool’ vehicle in which the former PM drove to Galle where he lived with his twin brother K. Dahanayake. He had no vehicle of his own, nor did he have a house, and it was his twin brother “K” who provided him free accommodation with an office room in front.
W. Dahanayake commenced his political career with local politics becoming the first Mayor of Galle in 1939. Later he contested the State Council seat of Bibile in 1944 and won. But he returned to contest his home constituency of Galle at the first Parliamentary election of 1947. His opponent was businessman and planter H.W.Amarasuriya, one of the richest men in the South, spending a lot of money on his campaign. At his political meetings W, said in Sinhala “I’ll shake the money tree. Pick up what falls and vote for me”. In Sinhala ” Mama Salli Gaha hollanawa. Sahodarawaruni, vetena salli ahulagena mata chande denna”.
In 1956 he was reelected to Galle from the MEP, headed by the late Mr. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, who chose him as Minister of Education in the new Government. As Minister he provided a free bun to all school children, earning the nick name “Bunis Mama”. In 1957 “W” was invited as the chief guest for the Richmond College annual prize giving and I recall the Principal Mr E.R. de Silva saying in his welcome speech “’The two Dahnayakes ( including his twin brother “K”) were one class lower than I, but when I reached the Senior Cambridge form they had already passed the exam as both were brilliant students who had earned double promotions.”
As Prime Minister in 1960 he lost to bus magnate W.D.S. Abeygunawardena (Patti Mahattaya) but returned to Parliament a few months later at the election which followed the then government losing the vote on the Throne Speech . In 1965 he became the Minister of Home Affairs. He was always the poor man’s politician. Anyone could walk into his office at Richmond Hill Road, Galle, and meet him to discuss their problems and obtain relief. Any number of free calls were permitted on his official phone with no questions asked. He was present at any funeral, wedding or public function in Galle even if uninvited. He traveled by bus and train. Once I met him in a bus to Imaduwa and he asked e where I was going. I told him I was going for the funeral of an old teacher in my village school at Imaduwa. He said he too was going there and asked me what I knew of the teacher as he wanted to make a speech at the funeral. He did that, delivering an oration in good Sinhala using the information I had provided.
He had no wealth but had a big heart. Whether rich or poor, a high a government servant or day labourer, anybody with a problem who sought his help was always assisted. A man with great values, he lived by them everyday and did what he could for all who came to him. His values had nothing to do with the outcome of his good deeds, wealth or position of the beneficiary, but in accordance with the standards he lived by – service to the public, honesty, accountability, fairness, independence, dependability, loyalty and other noble principles .
He goes into history as the only Government Minister who never went abroad, never leaving these shores during his long political career which must surely be a world record. My cousin Gerald De Alwis who served as a senior public servant in the Galle Kachcheri (later retired as Director Land Reforms Commission) has this to say : ” The GA Galle. Mr Navaratnarajah one day asked Daha, ” Sir, how is it that you being one of the most senior politicians never went abroad?” His prompt response was “Socrates never left Athens”.
During Mrs. Bandaranaike’s 1970-77 regime there were severe controls on sale of textiles. In protest he walked into Parliament in a span-cloth (“Amude”). He will also go down in history as the politician who made the longest speech in Parliament extending over 13 hours. My cousin Gerald in his Memoirs sums up Daha’s career thus : “He was a shining star in the galaxy of politicians and added lustre to his vocation.” He was a statesman par- excellence, whose dedication to service to the common man was sometimes misunderstood by many public servants, a man who used “poditricks” in politics.
Srilanka can be proud of politicians of his caliber rather than talk about Presidents of other countries, like Uruguay. Whilst today some politicians make use of their positions to amass wealth for generations to come, especially in our country, he would remain a shining example and a role model to all budding politicians.
Richmond College Galle can be proud of this politician who was poor and humble and never sought high positions , but preferred to abide by his principles and live with a clear conscience. Daha was a good listener. He was a polite person who listened with care to ensure that he respects the thoughts, feelings and ideas of others, whatever their status or skills.
It is my belief that he never sought approval but always did what he thought was right. He had immense confidence in himself and did not care whether anybody liked him or not, but was happy to serve all even if they disliked him.
WHY AKD’S SECTARIAN OUTBURST IS MISPLACED & COUNTERPRODUCTIVE
DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
The JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) used rude language in Parliament to criticize the No Confidence Motion moved by the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). He called it “stupid, moronic”.
Curiously he and UNP leader Wickremesinghe seemed to share a similarly negative view of the No Confidence Motion. Ranil thought that the NCM qualifies the Opposition to belong in the Guinness book of records.
AKD’s remarks and their timing weren’t exactly a model of political wisdom and intellect.
Firstly, one would have thought that any attack by the SJB on the government, however amateurish one thought it was, would be a positive thing. After all, in his famous ‘Message to the Tricontinental’ Che Guevara commended “battles won or lost—but fought—against the enemy”.
The leader of a party that led two unsuccessful uprisings should know better than to judge a battle simply by its immediate outcome and its strengthening of the enemy.
Secondly, the timing of AKD’s crude sideswipe was atrocious. A major battle has commenced and is about to move to the next level with the presentation of the KDU bill in Parliament in the first week of August.
That battle is being waged against an enemy that is qualitatively different from any that the JVP has ever faced. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his closest associates aren’t planters and volunteer army officers like Gen Ranjan Wijeratne or Oxford-educated hawks like Lalith Athulathmudali.
This battle therefore needs a broader front of alliances, partnerships and blocs than ever before in Sri Lanka’s history since 1947. Insulting the country’s largest Opposition party isn’t perhaps the best way to built a broad united action front or to secure covering fire in parliament. Rather, it is “moronic”.
AKD’s sectarianism is not limited to the SJB and its recent no-confidence motion. Given the stakes in the coming confrontation over the KDU bill, AKD should be ready to appear on the same stage as his counterpart Kumar Gunaratnam, leader of the FSP. If the JVP and FSP leaders appear on the same stage and address the crowds, it would give a huge boost to the Movement. However, AKD remains the guy who said on TV that there was never a JVP member, let alone leading personality (who by the way worked hard, clandestinely, to rebuild the party) known as Kumar Gunaratnam. Kumar Gunaratnam’s older brother Ranjithan, who was eliminated by the state, was one of the JVP’s hero martyrs.
Thirdly, AKD’s situation is both absurd and hypocritical. He purports to lecture the SJB on political stupidity. Under AKD’s leadership, the JVP which had 40 seats in 2004 has dropped to three in 2020. He is also a leader under whom the JVP’s vote-share dropped to 3%. If the SLPP rolls back the low cut-off point that President Premadasa instituted and restores the original cut-off point that JRJ imposed, AKD’s party would be in dire straits.
Fourthly, AKD is attempting to talk down from a lofty height to a party which has achieved much more than his. Rohana Wijeweera had the ambition—as announced in his two master classes which he took around the country, about the fate of the LSSP and the SLFP- to become the main left party (which it is) and then the main opposition party. Having existed for 55 years it has failed to achieve the latter status.
By stark contrast, Sajith Premadasa’s SJB did so shortly after its formation. In the first general election it faced it obtained more seats and a higher percentage of votes than SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP obtained at its first general election in 1952.
It achieved the status of the biggest Opposition party in a few months; a status the JVP long aspired to. This was Sajith Premadasa’s achievement, coming on the heels of his ability to score 42% of the vote against Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 Presidential election. It is amusing when he and his party are given lectures on political unwisdom from someone who reduced his party from 40 seats to three.
While Sajith has been able to secure the leadership of the Opposition by making his party the largest in the Opposition space, the zenith of AKD’s achievement has been to knock Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dead UNP into fourth place and gain the third spot (and three percent of the vote).
Fifthly, a glance around the world will show that however dramatic the protests and upheavals, the endgame is either electoral-democratic or a military coup perhaps in electoral form.
The Arab Spring and its Egyptian outcome provide one example of the latter. Latin America provides the better example, of the former.
It would take the wildest leap of the imagination and the widest deviation from reason, to assume that a candidate who obtained 42% on the deep downswing, and a party that is the main opposition formation, can be outpolled by anyone from a party that cannot get into double digits.
A little modesty is in order therefore, from AKD; not an outburst of misplaced arrogance.
I was there, watching and listening, the last time the JVP, on a high, was dismissive of a Premadasa. It was at Nugegoda in June-July 1989. The event was a well-attended JVP rally by the roadside, which went on into night. President Ranasinghe Premadasa had released over a thousand JVP detainees, declared a unilateral ceasefire, invited the JVP to re-enter the democratic electoral process, offered it three portfolios- and the JVP had spurned it all, returning to violence. By mid-year Premadasa invited all parties to attend a Roundtable. Advised by Anton Balasingham and Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah (‘Mahattaya’), the LTTE agreed and participated for tactical reasons, to gain time and space.
At the Nugegoda rally, the JVP declared it was not the LTTE and would not bend, and announced that it would fight on till victory. That was June or July 1989. In six months, the party that AKD now leads, had learned a lesson about being “politically stupid, moronic”.
He should not repeat the mistake of talking down to another Premadasa; especially not the only son of the Premadasa that AKD’s predecessors thought themselves superior to.
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