Since results of last weekend’s local government election were released, Hindu kovils were vandalised in Mannar, Muslims were subject to violence in Veyangalla and Uguraspitiya and an ebullient Mahinda Rajapaksa has commanded the media gaze. Much to unpack here.
The election result itself is an indication of many things that were foretold and forewarned, and a re-run of the technocratic gaze that ultimately ousted the Wickremesinghe led UNF government back in the days of the ceasefire agreement. Lessons unlearnt then, remain unheeded now. The lack of any official press release from the PM or President after the election and the inability to even convene a press conference suggests the ferocity of the SLPP’s electoral sweep took even them by surprise. The former President on the other hand, ever the mediagenic genius, had no problem whatsoever commanding the headlines. While the UNP and SLFP descended into a kindergarten mode of you said, they said, he said, I’m never speaking to you ever again, here’s a toffee so be my friend style politics, and in full display of an already disgruntled and disgusted voting public, the SLPP’s media blitz was on par with its electoral performance – excellently executed, and for the most part, effective.
The mainstream media’s frothing fascination with every titbit of political gossip since last Sunday has been to the detriment of more sober reporting and reflections on the result and its aftermath. Lost in the melee of updates was reportage on the license some felt, as a result of the SLPP victory, to act violently against religious and ethnic minorities, with memories of guaranteed impunity. When this was flagged on Twitter, a barrage of insults and bitter invective followed by self-styled champions of the SLPP, reminiscent of the violence online that mirrored the awful censorship offline under the Rajapaksa regime. The fact that the SLPP swept the local government poll is not a surprising. This was the government’s election to lose, not the SLPP’s to win. What’s disturbing as a consequence are the immediate and distinct markers of extremism and violence, now pent up, that lie in wait within the SLPP’s constituent socio-political make-up, salivating at the chance to take and be in power again.
Revealingly, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s celebratory messages on Facebook, just after the result and during the week, are only in Sinhala and English. Tamil, even a hint of it, doesn’t feature. This speaks to a singular mindset unchanged in the three years since we last felt its megalomaniacal impulse. Tamils still continue to be marginal, at best, for the SLPP. And by extension, any democratic impulse to recognise and accommodate legitimate Tamil grievances is moot. This was evident in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement at the SLPP’s press conference. Pointing to a map of Sri Lanka and the wards the SLPP had won, Rajapaksa noted that even the territory of Eelam had reduced. This is a remarkable statement, even as a Freudian slip. For the former President, the North and East of Sri Lanka are still, predominantly, Eelam – or as a reflection of popular Southern imagination, partial to and under the influence of, to date, the violent separatism of the LTTE – militarily defeated nearly ten years ago. The former President continues to frame citizens in these areas as terrorists, violently separatist by nature. What is more interesting is the support he gets for this viewpoint. Over Twitter, Rajiva Wijesinha averred that the reason Rajapaksa declaring Eelam was reduced was because “the people [in these areas] supported a range of viewpoints including the SLPP, not just [a] UNP/TNA combine”. The defence is a curious one, even by Wijesinha’s standards. If the North and East vote for the TNA or UNP, they are justified in being called a territory of Eelam. By contrast, the argument goes, only if they vote in Rajapaksa or now the SLPP do they demonstrate they have eschewed violent separatism and are truly part of Sri Lanka.
This essentially racist mindset is not surprising to associate with the JO and SLPP. It is far more violent when one encounters it in the present government, and soon after last week’s electoral drubbing. No less than Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, a senior member of the UNP and close to the PM, believes that the party’s poor performance at the local government election was because the Sri Lankan anthem was sung in Tamil on Independence Day. News reports suggest that Marapana believes the Sinhala-Buddhist vote base of the UNP lost fifty-thousand votes every time the Tamil version of the national anthem was sung. How this precise figure was arrived at is anyone’s guess. Couple Marapana’s ridiculous assertion with Government spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne’s view that 55% voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa and that the key take-away for him from the local government election was that the 8th January 2015 mandate was strengthened, and you find a government as I noted on Twitter that doesn’t know what they’ve lost, how they’ve lost or in fact, that they’ve lost.
Thus, it isn’t the potential resurgence authoritarianism and violence that is worrying – or what Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda calls a ‘democratic setback’ in the event the President and PM fail to agree on a reform agenda moving forward. It is the fact that the political huddle within the SLFP and UNP, to consolidate power, block the other party and stop the haemorrhaging of votes will in intent, focus and execution, match the SLPP’s huddle to consolidate electoral gains. Southern polity’s chief focus henceforth will be driven by a fear of losing more votes in the South, or the interest of recapturing what was lost. Even with the best of outcomes in the form of continued cohabitation and an extension of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, the window of opportunity for meaningful reform is now comprehensively gone. It is unclear to what degree even incrementalism can succeed, given what will be a deep, enduring hesitation to promote anything radically different to the status quo that can be used or perceived to be ripe for exploitation by the SLPP to whip up angry opposition.
The fun and games have already begun. The SLPP, perhaps privately embarrassed by the violence meted out by the party’s supporters and interested, temporarily, in not alienating a minority vote, now wants an investigation into the anti-Muslim communal riots in Aluthgama, from June 2014. It also distances itself from the BBS. The chutzpah of G.L. Peiris to want an investigation now into events Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, despite promises of redress and robust investigation at the time, didn’t deliver on, is perhaps lost on the majority of who voted for the SLPP. Memories are short, and the existential burden of living under a government that hasn’t delivered on its promises perhaps outweighs what was known and even reviled about the previous regime.
And that’s precisely the point. The SLPP won for the same reason Sirisena was elected to power three years ago. It was a vote in opposition to the incumbents – a score card on their inability to deliver what was expected or promised. It was much less a vote in support of a party or individual. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe 2015 mandate, in reality, was less about constitutional reform writ large or transitional justice. It was more about bringing to justice those who were corrupt, and visibly eschewing the political culture that defined the Rajapaksa regime. It was about the abolition of the Executive Presidency. In all these efforts, the present government has failed miserably. The SLPP won not because Mahinda Rajapaksa gained new fans. It won because the present government comprehensively lost many who believed in it and voted for it, three years ago, and offers nothing by way of a compelling vision anchored to ground realities. It is pathologically unable to communicate. If voters see no difference between government today and what they endured in the past, it is likely they will go with the known devil, instead of present day leaders who cannot even agree amongst themselves.
It matters little to me therefore about what the President and Prime Minister will say and do in the weeks ahead. The consolidation of power and its negotiation will be, whatever the end configuration, to the detriment of genuine reform, the Tamil national question, accountability, meaningful constitutional reform and justice. The jolt of fear around a Rajapaksa resurgence will most likely only result in pandering to the fears of Southern polity and society, instead of crafting public opinion and mature political leadership, that demonstrates by example what it is to not be racist, reductionist or retrogressive. My disappointment with the local government result is not that the SLPP won so much. It is that the government, three years into power, has won so little.
First published in The Sunday Island, 18 March 2018.