Will Maithri be forced to commit political hara-kiri?


Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Opposition Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena greeting supporters outside New Town Hall recently. (File Photo)

Power and tradition destroy good people. In Sri Lankan standard, Maithripala Sirisena (MS) is a good politician. Resigning from the post of the General Secretary of the SLFP and announcing that he would stand against President Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) at the forthcoming presidential election would appear as a very courageous decision. Nonetheless, the events as unfolded may also give the impression that MS has become a secondary actor moved by other powerful political forces.

In the political arena we have seen in the last ten years two parallel conflicts. Dynastic politics is not uncommon in this part of the world. Since Independence we have witnessed many a political conflict between leading dynasties, Senanayaka- Bandaranaike, Bandaranaike-Wijewardena after the decline of Senanayakas in the late 1960s. Since 2005, we have seen the emergence of a rural small dynasty that was ‘nobody’ and did not go beyond its power of influence from remote Giruwa Pattu as a leading political dynasty in Sri Lanka.

The Rajapaksa dynasty has been able to defeat effectively both the Bandaranaike and Wijewardena dynasties in the arena of Sri Lankan politics and to rise as a formidable opponent to the existing political dynasties. The second conflict is blurred and not clear. This conflict is between traditional bourgeois and the nouveau riche that emerged in the neoliberal phase of Sri Lankan capitalism. The conflict between these two contenders has focused on the issues such as who gets the bigger share? Whose economic interests dominate in decision-making? Traditional bourgeoisie, no doubt, supported political parties during elections but did not actively play a role in political conflicts. For them, of course with some exceptions, economics and politics are separate specialties.

Since 1977, we have seen a rise of new economic grouping that I call in the absence of a better phrase economico-political bourgeois class. They were equally active in both spheres—a phenomenon that Prof. Wendy Brown recognised some time ago as a new development in world politics. As she argues this new group not only helps existing parties but also involves in political parties. In the Sri Lankan political scene, these two conflicts, namely, (1) conflict between political dynasties, (2) conflict between two bourgeois groups, were visible especially in the last ten years. However, these conflicts have surfaced not in explicit form but as conflicts between various binaries such as civilized/ uncivilized; orderly/ disorderly; clean/ dirty; urbane/baiyas.

The system of executive presidency that was crafted by the late President J R Jayewardene to maintain the power of the Wijewardena dynasty forever has failed to achieve its objectives partly because of the ‘unanticipated’ events. Exceptional situations invariably require unconventional aberrations! The brief rule by a commoner, President R. Premadasa was the outcome. Power shifted, the Bandaranaikes came to power once again for 11 years. Once again, two leading dynasties showed they could not handle the Tamil uprising by the LTTE. A new leader with strong Sinhala-Buddhist support was required. A rural dynasty was brought in, and the Rajapaksa government’s success in defeating the LTTE helped consolidate its power while addressing to the new needs of the emerging economico-political bourgeois class.

President Rajapaksa was able not only to consolidate his power but also to consolidate his and his extended family as a new ruling dynasty at the center eclipsing both the Bandaranaikes and the Wijewardenas. After so many defeats, two dynasties have realised that the new Rajapaksa dynasty cannot be confronted by adopting conventional political mechanisms. So, the two dynasties together brought in a ‘common’ candidate from Polonnaruwa. In this sense this is a very Machiavellian move and all the credit should go to President Chandrika Bandaranaike.

Maithri’s political future

If the summation is the only law in mathematics, there is a reasonable chance that MS will the presidential race on January 8, 2015. The issue that I am trying to raise is what would be the political future of MS. How does this exercise affect the country, especially its multitude? There are many ‘black elephants’ if I use the term recently coined by someone combining black in ‘black sawn’ and elephant in ‘elephant in the room’. How would Maithri regime address these ‘black elephants’? Since Maithri would most likely to be a stop-gap person, maybe it is not pertinent to expect him to address all these issues. But, he is ambiguous even on the issues people around him want to address. He stated at the outset that he would abolish the executive presidency in 100 days, but he changed this position near the Horagolla Bandaranaike Samadhi a couple of days later by saying that he would reduce the powers of the Executive President.

What would get written finally in his election manifesto is yet to be seen. In case he abolishes the executive presidency in hundred days and if he signs an MoU with the UNP that Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe will be appointed as the Prime Minister, Maithri will be just a rubber stamp after 100 days. After winning the presidential election, if he forms a Cabinet consisting the prominent UNPers and SLFPers, this so-called national government would not be qualitatively different from the present government headed by MR except the Rajapaksa family members. Hence, my submission is that the way in which Maithripala Sirisena emerged as the presidential candidate will not allow a big turning point in Sri Lankan recent political history notwithstanding the brief respite it would generate after the presidential election. Let us ask the following questions? Will his regime abolish the executive presidential system or scrape only some of its executive powers? Will his regime ensure full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution? Will he open up the files kept by MR and take action against all the corrupt elements in the UPFA government? Will he allow the UN Commission to come and continue the inquiry on war crimes? Will he implement the LLRC recommendations? These are in fact big questions even if we leave out the question about the neoliberal economic policies that have been adopted since 1977.

Correct decision but

incorrect path

I believe that Maithri-Rajitha took the correct decision by quitting the Rajapaksa government that has been increasingly moving towards authoritarianism. Sri Lanka needs a strong social movement to counter three main trends in its recent history, namely, towards authoritarianism, towards economic policy framework that is biased towards the interests of the upper classes and layers of the society, and towards majoritarianism. Both Maithri, who came from rural peasant background and Rajitha, who continuously stands for the rights of the marginalised and oppressed layers of the Sri Lankan society have the potential to lead such a movement for democracy, equality, social justice. Of course, one important dimension that has to be added to this list is ensuring ecological balance.

However, they have entered oppositional politics not from this perspective but from the short term perspective of presidential election becoming secondary actors in two bigger, but parallel, conflicts mentioned above. If they had taken a different path in or after taking the decision to quit the MR government, Maithri would have become a real organic leader of a Sri Lankan first ever peasant party raising all the issues faced by the downtrodden rural masses. Such a part together with the urban lower classes and marginalised nations, ethnic groups and social groups would have been the real force that can address the issues outlined above.

The writer is the co-coordinator of the Marx School.

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