By all accounts the much delayed local government elections will likely be held in January 2018. It will be a couple of weeks after January 8, the day SWRD Bandaranaike was born and the day Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated – with the long century of Lanka’s modern history in between. In all likelihood, the elections for 335 local bodies – stretching from the power-hub of Colombo to the smallest drought-stricken Pradeshiya Sabha, will be seen as a national referendum. Except for the President and the Prime Minister who, after apparently planning on a constitutional referendum before the local elections in which they would have been on the same side, are now getting ready to fight it out between their two national-unity parties (the UNP and the SLFP) and the new third-party of the Rajapaksas (the SLPP). It is not going to be a dramatic high-noon shootout between the good, the bad and the ugly. It would instead be an ugly brawl among the bad, the worse and the worst – depending on which side you are on, that will leave everyone wounded, with some more than the others. And the body politic – to recall a grandiloquent phrase from the 1950s parliament – will lie prostrate in electoral debris.
The President’s SLFP has got off to a sputtering start. By some method or madness the party went on a purging and filling spree involving 50 SLFP district offices. Obviously, President Sirisena’s left hand and his right hand did not know what each other were doing. With one hand, the President appointed Chandrika Kumaratunga as SLFP organizer for Attanagalla, and with the other he picked a notorious Provincial Council sexist bully and convict as the former President’s counterpart for Anamaduwa. Hopefully, the latter blunder will not last long, if it has not been rescinded already. Either way, it is not going to bring in a good harvest of votes either in the January local government elections, or later in the staggered Provincial Council elections.
A politically significant outcome of the President’s actions, however, is the ushering in of Chandrika Kumaratunga to the electoral fray, as the SLFP organizer for the Attanagalla electoral district and the larger Gampaha District, and with that the potential for the former President to reactivate the old Troika of herself, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe. The ‘hope’, I am suggesting here is premised on the assumption that together the three of them have a better chance of thinking and acting politically wisely, than when they are left to their individual resources and compulsions. There is no guarantee that Ms. Kumaratunga will try to or succeed in reactivating the troika, and that the three will act wisely, but what can be guaranteed is that without the troika getting together and acting collectively wisely, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government is on a fast track to foundering, electorally and otherwise.
Take the electoral arithmetic or algebra, not to mention the electoral vectors. In the 2015 January Presidential election, Ms. Kumaratunga went flat out to make sure that Attanagalla and Gampaha both registered a majority vote for the Common Opposition candidate, the current President, and against her nemesis successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa. She managed a small majority in Gampaha, but it was still a big victory after what the Rajapaksas had been doing for ten years to usurp the political estate of the Bandaranaikes. But the small majority that Kumaratunga worked hard to win for the Common Opposition candidate was largely made possible by UNP votes. Take the UNP votes out of the equation, and where will the President’s SLFP stand in the upcoming local and provincial elections – not only in Attanagalla and Gampaha but also nationally, in seven of the nine provinces excluding the Northern and Eastern Provinces?
As for the UNP, it must not count its chickens before even the eggs have been collected for hatching. The UNP’s calculation that it could come up the middle, with the SLFP vote divided between the President’s SLFP and the Rajapaksa SLPP, is just calculation and not proof it has victory in the bag. The more likely scenario is a smorgasbord of an electoral map with control of local bodies in seven provinces distributed among all three parties, their alliances, and even the JVP. In the North, there will be local arm-wrestling between the TNA and its detractors – a Tamil referendum writ small. The East – the provincial microcosm of national plurality – will be a three-way split (not quite 50-50) between the Muslims, the Sinhalese and the Tamils – going by the alphabetical order in neutral English. Provincial elections will invariably lead to different coalitions in different provinces. Electoral entropy (disorder) will be released nationally, thanks in no small measure due to the prevailing constitutional interpretation that rather mistakenly renders the exercise of the franchise – coeval, coequal and co-extensive, at the national, provincial and local levels.
Even if the UNP alliance were to secure the largest number of local government councils, it will be a Pyrrhic victory at best. At worst, it would be a disaster for the ‘national-unity’ government in Colombo and whatever positive energy it still has left in its tank before it runs out of its term in Colombo. How can the President and the Prime Minister and all the Ministers in the grand cabinet drawn from their two parties cohabit in the government in Colombo for another two years after proxy-fighting in the local elections in January 2018 and Provincial Council elections thereafter? How can they, after tearing themselves apart throughout the country in the local/provincial elections, present a united front in a constitutional referendum before the same voters? Wouldn’t that be the height of political, and even constitutional, cynicism? And what role, if any, can Chandrika Kumaratunga play in the unfolding disorder of elections?
Saving yahapalanaya by ‘devolving’ it
There is a necessary and legitimate question to be asked first. Could the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government be saved at all, or does it even deserve to be saved? The inveterate school of CBK detractors will raise the corollary question as to whether she can save anyone from anything. The prima facie answer to the first double-question is – the government could be saved, but it does not at all deserve to be saved. Not after all the full-serial exposes from the ongoing Central Bank bond scam inquiry. Not after the government’s parliamentary chicanery of passing laws by abusing the committee process. And not after a government minister insists that no one should question the legitimacy of tender awards in his ministry because he is incorruptible owing to his large bank balance and the tens of thousands acres of land his and his wife’s grandparents owned by divine blessing, or had come into possession of through human (mis)appropriation. In other words, a government of superrich ministers must invariably be considered super-clean. This is not evidence of ministerial smartness but manifestation of open-mouth-idiocy (OMI).
If the government does not deserve to be saved, why should it be saved at all? It is because the alternatives are worse – especially when the choice is between throwing out the lesser rascals and letting back the bigger rascals. Equally, the present government, given its two-party structure, is more vulnerable to public pressure between elections than the family-monolithic Rajapaksas ever were, or would be, if they were to return to power. The Rajapaksas have shown no intention of changing but only the calculated readiness to cash in on the copycat blunders of the present government. On the other hand, the ongoing Commission of Inquiry into Central Bank bond scam is clear evidence of the government’s vulnerability to pressure. There should be more of them for the government’s own good.
To ‘save’ the present government at the local and provincial elections is to subject the government to even greater public pressure. The first indication of successful pressurising would be the government replicating the 2015 ‘common opposition’ strategy in the 2018 local and provincial elections by launching a common platform and fielding a slate of ‘common government’ candidates rather than UNP and SLFP candidates. The second indication of success would be to force the government leaders to field ‘clean candidates’ and avoid corrupt and deadwood candidates.
Put another way, a potential strategy is to carry over the yahapalanaya movement and momentum that emerged in the January 2015 presidential election to the 2018 local and provincial elections. In the current contentions over terminology, you might even say yahapalanaya could be saved only by devolving it. The intended direction of intervention is appropriate because the yahapalanaya movement arose from the people and their organizations quite spontaneously and quite independent of the political calculations surrounding the dramatic emergence of Maithripala Sirisena as the common opposition candidate to challenge the incumbent president. That movement arose because the people were disgusted with the Rajapaksa government and wanted it gone.
There has been plenty of theorizing that Maithripala Sirisena would never have left the Rajapaksa government if he had been made Prime Minister by President Rajapaksa. That theory misses the point that if it was not Maithripala Sirisena who defected, it would have been someone else. It misses even the greater point Pieter Keuneman made in 1952, speaking dialectically during the vote of condolence to Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, that the measure of politics is not in the subjective intentions of political actors but in the objective results that flow from their political actions. Objectively, therefore, in 2015 the common candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena came into confluence with the common urge of the people for a change not just in government but for changes in the ways of the government. The ways of government badly in need of change are at the local and provincial levels, as much as they are at the national level.
The new government, for reasons well known, has not changed its ways. But the yahapalanaya movement is still unfinished business. But it does not have the luxury of choosing from a range of politically promising alternatives. It has to work with the same old bandicoot within the country’s constitutional and electoral constraints. The thrust of my argument is that people interested in changing the ways of government could use the upcoming local government elections to save the present government in spite of itself, by reviving the old momentum of 2015 for good governance with renewed commitments by government leaders. Chandrika Kumaratunga is the acknowledged architect of the coup that precipitated the common opposition candidate in 2015. Now she has the opportunity to play a more open but catalytic role in launching a common platform for the government parties to contest the local and even the provincial elections. The logistics of working that out is for the party operatives to figure out. The alternative is collective shipwreck.