JO ensnared in a Thucydides Trap

Yahapalanaya versus Rajapaksas: The issue is not the Constitution, it is Power


Thucydides (c.460 - c.400 BC)

Kumar David

Confrontations are resolved in win-win resolutions or in Thucydides Traps. Win-win, coveted in business negotiations, is when differences are ironed-out such that both parties are satisfied they have won something essential and reach a settlement acceptable to both. Examples from the world of politics are the deal between Scotland and the Britain for investment and profit sharing in North Sea oil, the Mason-Dixon Line settling the border between Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania in colonial America in the 1760s, and the short-lived B-C Pact. The delineation of borders in South and Central America in the post-colonial era was a win-win compromise except in a few instances such as Chile’s denial of maritime access to Bolivia.

Herodotus and Thucydides were great Greek historians and the latter wrote an account of the 30-year Peloponnesian War that ruined Greek society. Sparta was the hegemonic military power in the 5th Century BC but the influence of Athens was rising. Greatly alarmed, Sparta launched a pre-emptive strike and soon all city-states were embroiled. Thucydides reasoned that the Peloponnesian Wars arose from "the growing power of Athens and the alarm it stirred in Sparta".

A much-mulled topic these days is whether the US has been trapped into a Sparta-style pre-emptive strike dilemma against nuclear armed, ICBM deploying, North Korea. Another concern is does China’s economic dominance and likely military equivalence with America within a generation portend a train crash that neither can avoid? Harvard professor Graham Allison coined the term Thucydides Trap for such scenarios.

JO-Pak and the imperative of

political power

I will use the term JO-Pak for the congregation comprising the Joint Opposition interwoven with the often mutually hostile strands of the Rajapaksa clan (Gota, Namal, Basil and Mrs. R) and the ex-President running on a sometimes parallel, sometimes erratic, track. Notwithstanding its fitful gymnastics the amalgam can be identified as a single entity. I have foisted the moniker JO-Pak upon it.

The next point is crucial. Nobody should fall for the swindle that JO-Pak wants to ensure that the new constitution includes certain important provisions is passed. No! JO-Pak does not care a farthing what the constitution actually says; it will oppose it because of issues of power. It is not what the constitution says or does not say; the crucial question is Power with a capital P. The Sirisena-Ranil administration must be driven out, JO-Pak must make a grab for power. Who cares what’s in the draft; if it says up we say down, if it says left we say right, if it says abc we say xyz. Recall Congressional antics during Obama’s second term. Whatever he proposed, whatever compromises he offered, were unacceptable. The objection was not content; no, the objective was to undermine Obama and oppose anything and everything. The Republicans were making a play for political power.

I am amused by charlatan assertions adorning newspapers and websites that if this-and-that amendments were made, JO-Pak would endorse the constitution. Ranting in the Sinhala media is unabashedly vitriolic and luridly racist ("Rata bedane maga kapadeneva"). And what pray the ‘this-and-that’? No to devolution as it will encourage Tamils to go on a rampage and divide Mother Lanka; the Executive Presidency is a bulwark against a secessionist cancer lurking in every Tamil pore, etc. If you search the written and spoken words of JO-Pak you will be hard pressed to find anything not related to Sinhala-Tamil animosity and imagined secessionist threats. Just as, in the social domain, JO-Pak is bereft of a socio-economic programme, so in the domain of constitution making it has no contribution apart from stirring up communal animus.

The reason is that JO-Pak is driven by a singular motive, political Power. How to bring down the Sirisena-Ranil regime and make a bid for power; this is its Thucydides Trap, the obsession it cannot detach from. This singular overriding fixation has possessed JO-Pak from the start. Year 2015 was all disarray and confusion from January 8 to the August defeat in the general elections. The first foray into toppling the government was an effort to disrupt the Sirisena-Ranil tie-up. Strategy sessions were held (the discussants are well known) and work distributed. "You write like this in English; you meet and influence this segment of the Sirisena-SLFP; you work media, you intervene in parliament". The plan hit a dead-end because Sirisena and Ranil were not hara-kiri prone. The second attempt was to focus on specific issues like the government’s obvious discomfiture at the Geneva processes and the disgraceful bond scam. This backfired because Sirisena took the initiative to defuse tensions and Ranil stepped back and let him go ahead with his stratagems.

A Thucydides Trap is an obsessive manoeuvre from which it is not possible to retreat because at least one party is fixated on the end-game and there is no way back. Defeating the constitution is JO-Pak’s last gasp prior to the 2020 election cycle. Yes, the government’s economic doings are a flop, but JO-Pak, with no programme of its own, is unable to cash in. (A ‘third alternative’ can make headway as I have argued previously, but I cannot divert to a different topic now). Derailing the constitution is JO-Pak’s final fling; it will not change course whatever the draft says. I repeat this because it is the theme of this essay. It is the Thucydides Trap that has ensnared JO-Pak.

A Constitution suspended in time

Quantum physicists are familiar with the notion of suspended uncertainty in probability space (Schrodinger’s cat). Likewise, no one can say for sure whether the draft on which Jayampathi et al have been labouring will reach a final vote and secure the requisite two-thirds. Local Government elections have thrown another spanner in the works. If it clears the two-thirds hurdle, I am confident it will clear the referendum but there is unease that about 10 of the SLFP’s 40-plus pro-Sirisena MPs are in a double game with MR to scuttle the constitution and they are pressuring Sirisena to renege on his pledges. If JO-Pak scares the government into backing out - as the UNP and Vasu compelled Chandrika to dump her laudable if cumbersome draft in 2000 – it would have inflicted a defeat on Sirisena-Ranil serious enough to have repercussions in presidential and parliamentary elections.

The government’s economic botch (What can it achieve in the next two years unless you believe in magic?) will not confer an advantage on JO-Pak because it is programmatically dumb. But deferment or defeat of the constitution may be fatal; Sirisena-Ranil will be objects of ridicule for not keeping their second biggest election pledge next to restoring democracy (for which they are entitled to a good grade). Again and again I underline: JO-Pak cannot permit a two-thirds majority for the constitution. The glory of enacting will be a feather in the yahapalanaya cap and spell populist doom for JO-Pak in the 2020 election cycle. This is JO-Pak’s final fling, and if it loses will be its Waterloo. Bogus offers that if ‘this-and-that’ were conceded JO-Pak will support the constitution is hypocrisy; intentional, unmitigated lies; a trap for Sirisena who will thereafter have his throat cut.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election manifesto (reproduced recently in the Colombo Telegraph) undertakes to go beyond 13A on devolution. Communiques after meeting Indian Ministers and his own APC proposals echo promises beyond the current draft. All JO parties, expressly the CP, Vasu’s DLF and Vitarana’s LSSP-minority, are committed to unconditional repeal of an executive presidency. What aliment has now overcome them other than the virus old Thucydides diagnosed? The Dead-Left is more a desperado in a Power-play than a turncoat on principles.

The Referendum

If 2/3rds is secured in parliament, if not the question does not arise, I reiterate the referendum will be won. However, two objections have been raised and I will respond briefly. It has been argued that a constitution carried with huge minority support (say 28% of the national vote) but attracting only a third of Sinhala Buddhists (say one-third of 69%, chosen for easy division by three) secures 51%; but a charter, so overwhelmingly rejected by the nation’s Sinhala-Buddhist majority, will have no political credibility; point taken. But one-third is the minimum Sinhala-Buddhist support needed for ratification. Two-thirds-plus in parliament would mean that perhaps sections of the JO-SLFP and perhaps the CP, DLF and Vitarana-LSSP have said "yes". Add whatever this is, to the UNP, Sirisena-SLFP, JVP and most important, vibrant civil society movements, and Eureka, over half the Sinhala-Buddhist populace is on board. Point was taken, point is now dismissed.

The second argument is that in the light of the government’s economic botch (point conceded) there will be abstentions of erstwhile pro-government voters, hence a referendum will be hard to win. This is the bind of those weak in politics as well as arithmetic and algebra. Minorities will overwhelmingly vote "yes", the economic cock-up not withstanding; TNA, other Tamil entities, Mano Ganesan, CWC, Muslim parties and Catholic civil society will ensure that. The silliness of not thinking things through is the assertion that pro-government Sinhala-Buddhists, disillusioned with Ranil’s economic let-down will abstain, but JO carders will march out in droves to vote "no".

Experience worldwide is different. High or low turnout spreads across the political divide when the motive for abstention is one issue (economy in this case) and the referendum is on another (constitution). The differential impact of the economic poor-show on the constitutional plebiscite will not be large; there will be abstentions on both sides but the variance will not decide the outcome.

If two-thirds is secured in parliament the referendum will be won. Therefore, it is a matter of life and death for JO-Pak to avert the former. If this manoeuvre is stumped, it may go bananas and boycott the referendum, or pre-emptively boycott both referendum and parliamentary vote.

Correction: I made a typo on 29 October and wrote that Henry VIII reigned from"1509-1557"; it should read 1509-1547.

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