“Will the Rajapaksas actually let go of power?” is a question that I have been asked frequently by ordinary people in recent days by people of all walks of life. They are asking about the future of governance in the country in the event of Mahinda Rajapaksa losing this week’s presidential election. In my entire professional career as a journalist since 1978, this is the first time that I have had people ask the question whether the incumbent will attempt to unconstitutionally stay on in power despite electoral defeat.
In the past, I have only heard my radical Leftist colleagues theoretically speculate on this possibility during previous critical elections, especially in relation to governments led by their designated ideological enemy, the pro-business UNP. Such speculation is inherent in Left or Marxist thinking because, by the general logic of capitalist political-economy and by sheer experience of modern global history there is much evidence of the ruling class politically manoeuvring to retain hold on state power, if not by legal and constitutional means, then by brute force using military power and political repression.
But never before have so many ordinary people – Sri Lankan voters – asked me this question and, so often. That such ordinary, non-politicised, citizens have reached a stage where they see such a prospect in the event of a Rajapaksa defeat, indicates two things, both with serious implications for our country. It means that ordinary people (whether rightly or wrongly) perceive, firstly, that the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime has done many wrong things, especially in bending laws, in amassing illegal wealth and, victimising people some of whom are aggrieved enough to want to obtain justice for these wrongs. And people feel that those now in power will not want to face retribution or revenge. Secondly, many ordinary people today perceive the Rajapaksa regime as one that has indulged in the arbitrary imposition of its will irrespective of laws and the rules of justice, of using military force and police force and even thug force to get what they want. And the Rajapaksas are thought likely to use these same methods to stay in power if electorally defeated. It is this perception that leads people to ask this question from a journalist. That none other than the Reverend Bishops of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka also reportedly asked the Secretary of the Defence Ministry the polite question about a ‘smooth transition’ in the event of defeat, indicates to what extent Sri Lankan society thinks such unconstitutional behaviour is possible.
As an experienced journalist I hasten to reassure people not to fear “the worst”. I personally doubt whether the current government will move in this direction. Even if Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, and perhaps his family and a few loyal friends, were to attempt such a seizure of power, they are not likely to receive any significant political support or even legitimacy.
The general political culture of Sri Lankan society and, the general professionalism of the bureaucracy and armed forces is institutionally democratised to the degree that such a seizure of power will find it impossible to legitimise itself. Moreover, the many allies of the Rajapaksa clan in the main ruling party, the SLFP, and also the allied parties of the UPFA coalition government, are not likely to support such a seizure of power. That is because, unlike the President, they are dependent on parliamentary elections to obtain their popular legitimacy and such an illegal seizure of power – on whatever legal pretext – will then require them to avoid facing parliamentary elections. The parties in the UPFA’s now depleted coalition represent too many diverse social constituencies, some with conflicting interests such as the ethnic minorities, to be able to coordinate such large scale repressive moves.
Even though I am happy to reassure people in this regard, the implications of this “seizure of power” speculation point to a very serious deterioration of the institutional strength of the Sri Lankan State. The State in Sri Lanka has been authoritarian in various ways for long. But such authoritarianism while suppressing whole ethnic communities and the dominating the working classes, was not wielded in ways that undermined the State itself. Not until today.
The ethnic minorities, especially the Tamil community have long had to grapple with forced political impositions of life-affecting nature, like the deprivation of citizenship (for the Hillcountry Tamils), basic language and cultural identity rights, land rights and, access to economic development and state employment.
Today, for the first time, it is the ethnic majority Sinhalas who are experiencing this scale of authoritarianism. Today, the Sinhalas are reacting to and anticipating forceful political impositions that they see as undermining fundamentally the very State they have strived to ethnically dominate. It is the Sinhala-led political parties who are now raising the cry of massive social injustice and political repression – although the nature of the injustices are different from those suffered specifically by the ethnic minorities.
“We must save the country from collapse under the Rajapaksa despotism and mis-rule,” exhorts ousted Sri Lanka Freedom Party General Secretary and sacked Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena in his election campaign as candidate for Presidency. His one-time party leader and political mentor, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, also echoes this powerful call to citizens. Sacked General Sarath Fonseka as well as UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe also jointly lead this movement to end autocratic rule and related mis-governance.
The general reasoning of all these political leaders was a prognosis of impending national disaster – of a collapsing Sri Lankan State under the multiple shocks of despotic rule, nepotism, corrosion of the bureaucracy and public administration by arbitrary and corrupt governance and, economic mis-management, among other ills. Their remedy is not simply “better performance” by their own ‘Common Candidate’. Rather, they offer a concrete programme of constitutional reform to address what an increasing number of Sri Lankans are beginning to realise as the major problem of an over-powerful executive presidency, along with the ancillary problems of judicial and administrative institutions subject to arbitrary political control.
But the political leaders named above are in the more liberal mainstream of national politics. What of the Sinhala ultra-nationalist and ethnic supremacist forces who have long dreamed of ethnic dominance over Sri Lanka and have supported the Rajapaksas for this purpose?
Given the ethnic divisions in this country that have worsened after the forced “military solution” to the Tamil separatist insurgency, it is necessary to examine the current politics of the presidential election to ascertain the trajectory of the movement for Sinhala ethnic hegemony.
With the ending of the internal war through the defeat of the LTTE, the Tamils of the North and East, formally know as “Sri Lankan Tamils”, have suffered massive and brutal subjugation by the Sri Lankan State. This is the logical outcome of two major characteristics of the State. Firstly, there is the Sinhala supremacist domination of the State that has evolved from the ‘Sinhala Only’ language restrictions of 1956, through the racist violence of the 1980s, to the rampant and crude supremacism of today. Secondly, there is the highly centralised political administration under the current presidential system and 2nd Republican constitution that dilutes rather than strengthens any devolution power to regions and ignores the mass human rights aspirations and resistance by the minorities.
In my past writings I have long argued that the persistent trend of centralised power and authoritarian governance has facilitated the Sinhala supremacist movement to dominate the State at the cost of multi-culturalism and social harmony. In recent years, the savagery of the war waged by both the Government and also the Tamil separatist insurgency groups, especially the LTTE, has seen a strengthening of the Sinhala supremacist groups and political parties, culminating in the successful participation of such Sinhala supremacist forces in the government itself under the Rajapaksa regime.
Who are these Sinhala supremacist forces? Most prominent and most effective for their cause is the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and this party received political support from a range of Sinhala ethno-supremacist civilian groups. Some of the earlier groups, which were among the founders of the JHU, were the Sinhala Veera Vidhaanaya, National Movement Against Terrorism, the ‘Joint National Committee’ (an umbrella of several Sinhala supremacist groups), and the now defunct Sinhala Aarakshaka Sanvidhaanaya. Parallel, but not related, is the most recent Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). The Rajapaksas, due to their simplistic political outlook, have long indulged in using these ethno-supremacist forces to bolster their own popularity and further strengthen their hold on power.
In my previous writings I have often argued that the Sinhala supremacist forces were deploying the entire Sri Lankan polity for the purpose of “winning the war” against the Tamil self-determination movement. Indeed, I have previously called it a ‘cannibalisation’ of the State. In recent decades, with short-sighted and ethno-centric logic, these forces have attempted to devote the entire energies and resources of the State on “winning the war” – ignoring the fact that this military victory is at the cost of violently subjugating a section of the country’s own citizens.
Today, however, the most political developed of these groups, the JHU political party, has had the political maturity and, leadership intelligence, enough to understand the deterioration of the State under the Rajapaksa regime and to act to try to save their dream of a blossoming Sinhala civilisation in Sri Lanka. Perhaps it was the sheer crudity of the Bodu Bala Sena itself and, the stupidity of the regime in simplistically deploying this ‘Sena’ for the purpose of further arousing inter-ethnic fears and mis-trust that prompted the far more clear-headed and politically sophisticated JHU to act to stop this dangerous trend. It was a combination of this perception of a desperate regime resorting to inter-ethnic violence together with the perception that the Rajapaksas were losing popularity among the Sinhalese, that prompted the JHU to look beyond the Rajapaksas.
After all, unlike the Rajapaksas, the JHU’s political goals were genuinely ‘political’ – even if one does not agree with these goals of ethnic supremacy. While the Rajapaksa clan never really showed capacities to govern and develop, but merely to plunder and manipulate for their personal benefit, the JHU and other sophisticated Sinhala ultra-nationalist elements have had the goal of Sinhala hegemony over the State as their only goal and they have a history of consistency with this vision as a movement.
Thus, once they perceived that the Rajapaksa rule was reaching its limit as far as the building of post-war Sinhala hegemony is concerned, these forces realised the need to discard the Rajapaksa option for a political vehicle that would not undermine the very State they wished to dominate. To this degree, it is possible to see the JHU as beginning to mature as a political party within a parliamentary democracy: a party that is conscious of its role as part of that democracy and, thereby, aware that its own political vision and goals as a party must necessarily be defined and limited by the structural and normative contours of the system in which they operate.
In abandoning the blundering and clumsy Rajapaksa regime as the vehicle for Sinhala ‘supremacy’, has the JHU abandoned its own simplistic vision of ethnically exclusive hegemony over State? In joining the opposition coalition, which brings together a whole spectrum of Sri Lanka constituencies, both ethnic as well as ideological, the JHU has shown that it is no longer simplistic in its politics and is aware that in a multi-cultural society like Sri Lanka, any group exclusivism ultimately imperils the whole society and country.
How much the JHU is capable of negotiating with its partners in the opposition coalition on the issue of Sri Lankan ‘nationhood’ will only be seen in the coming year irrespective of the outcome of this week’s election. If the JHU remains with the opposition coalition after January 8th and continues to resist the Rajapksa autocracy, then its politics will be neccessarily be partly defined by the coalition’s pluralistic nature and outlook. The JHU’s willingness to do so may prove its genuine patriotic loyalty to the whole Sri Lankan society rather than it previous simplistic delusions of ethnic exclusivism and false grandeur. Given the entire country’s exhaustion with inter-ethnic warfare, such a new track is likely, on the one hand, attract more voter support for the JHU and, on the other, serve as an electoral lever to reign in tendencies for ethnic supremacism.
Lakshman Gunasekara is a professional journalist, political analyst, social activist and, communications consultant in a range of social action areas including gender issues advocacy, environment and disaster management, and, ethnic conflict resolution.