By Vishvanath



President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had worry written all over his face when he spoke at a ceremony to mark the completion of a road development project, at Weeraketiya, last week. He said many of the 6.9 million people who had voted for him wanted him to rule with an iron fist, but he had chosen to do otherwise.

The world has changed, and so has Sri Lanka, where the present-day rulers cannot resort to the same coercive means as their predecessors to suppress their rivals and critics with impunity. So, the President is not doing the public any favour by acting ‘democratically’. He cannot be unaware that his elder brother, Mahinda, adopted such undemocratic methods, but they boomeranged on him, and he suffered a humiliating defeat at the 2015 presidential election.

The Lankadeepa newspaper has recently quoted State Minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa as saying, at a public function, something to the effect that the government will suffer a sure defeat if an election is held at this juncture. He has read the political situation accurately. This must be the thinking of the ruling family as well.

What one gathered from the President’s above-mentioned speech was that he was worried about the anti-incumbency factor and other problems weighing on him and his government, which has failed to live up to people’s expectations. The government’s vaccination drive has been a considerable success, but people do not live by vaccines alone. Inflation is increasing at an alarming rate, with the country’s foreign reserves dwindling fast. Profiteers are having a field day. Farmers are holding protests, demanding fertiliser and other agrochemicals at least for a few more cultivation seasons. But the government is determined to go ahead with its organic fertiliser campaign come what may for two reasons; it cannot sustain the fertiliser subsidy and has no foreign exchange to pay for agrochemicals, and having crossed the point of no return in its fertiliser experiment, it does not want to suffer another loss of face by making a U-turn.

Puzzling phenomenon

It is only natural that the popularity of any government begins to drop with the passage of time; the public always finds the grass greener on the other side of the fence. The ruling party’s loss is usually the Opposition’s gain, but today the SLPP government is becoming unpopular without any corresponding increase in the Opposition’s popularity, especially the SJB’s approval ratings, as such. So, the question is what will happen at a future election?

SJB MP and former Army Commander, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, is known for straight talk. On Sunday, speaking at an SJB event in Meerigama, he came out with something that his party leaders did not want to hear. He said the SLPP government had become extremely unpopular and lost about one half of its voters, but the public did not consider the SJB an alternative! He said the SJB had to work extremely hard to win over the voters who had become disillusioned with the government, if it wanted to achieve any electoral success.

Fonseka has riled the Opposition activists, who have flayed him on social media, but his is a realistic assessment of the situation.

Where will the SLPP votes go?

There is no simple answer to this question. Perhaps, the erosion of the government’s support base is not complete yet; the SLPP backers have only distanced themselves from the government, and may vote for it again if it gets its act together. It is also possible that the disillusioned SLPP supporters are looking for an alternative to both the government and the mainstream Opposition, as was the case in France, where Emmanuel Macron, a political novice, and his party, scored upset wins at the French presidential election and the parliamentary polls, in quick succession, in 2017.

Macron’s meteoric rise in French politics has inspired politicians the world over. Here, SJB MP and former Minister Champika Ranawaka is said to be confident that Sri Lankan voters are so fed with the main political parties that they will do as their French counterparts did. Members of Champika’s ’43 Brigade think he will be able to do a Macron at the next presidential election.

It is also possible that the SLPP’s growing unpopularity, and the failure of the SJB or any other mainstream party to capitalize on the situation, could lead to the emergence of a force from the least expected quarters, which could even be extra-parliamentary but not necessarily revolutionary or destructive. We saw something similar happen in Germany following the 2013 federal elections, which led to a formidable extra-parliamentary Opposition with the FDP and the new AfD obtaining about 5% of votes each. It took three years for these two parties to get elected to the German legislature.

Rare instances

There are however situations where powerful governments fall and Oppositions capture power in spite of being weak, uninspiring and not so popular. But they come about rarely under fortuitous circumstances. The 2015 government change may be considered a case in point. But for the defection of the then SLFP General Secretary and Cabinet Minister Maithripala Sirisena himself from the UPFA government, the UNP and its allies would not have been able to win the presidential election or form a government.

Intelligent as humans are, not all their decisions are rational; much more so when they elect their representatives. This is why they vote into office the very politicians they have rejected previously as being unfit to rule them. We have seen this happen in this country several times in the past.

There have been instances where political parties and politicians bounced back, after crushing defeats, and obtained steamroller majorities, the latest being the stunning comeback of the present-day rulers, who failed to retain power in 2015. The UNP, which was left with only 17 seats  at the 1970 general election, made up lost ground and formed a government with a five-sixths majority seven years later; and the SLFP, which together with its leftist allies obtained a two-thirds majority in the parliament in 1970, was reduced to eight seats in 1977. But such instances are rare and are mostly due to leaders’ charisma and sheer hard work.

Element of danger

Situations where powerful governments lose popularity with the Opposition being unable to move in to kindle hope in the masses, recover lost ground, and improve their electoral performance are fraught with an element of danger, for they could provide disruptive elements with an opportunity to advance their sinister agendas. We saw this happen here in the late 1980s, when the powerful UNP government became hugely unpopular and the SLFP was too weak to act as a countervailing force due to splits and a crippling leadership crisis. The JVP capitalized on the situation and plunged the country into a bloodbath, which lasted for about two years. Today, the JVP has come out of its revolutionary cocoon, and its leader is an MP, and its splinter groups are not obviously in a position to take up arms. So, the possibility of another violent uprising is remote.

But there are other ways in which public anger could find expression, and the possibility of leaderless uprisings like the Arab Spring cannot be ruled out. A cursory look at the bazillions of caustic social media posts about Sri Lankan politics and politicians will reveal how resentful the people, especially the youth, are. This kind of resentment could act as jet fuel for hitherto little-known fringe groups with anarchical tendencies. Thus, the government had better realize that the ongoing trade union protests and farmers’ demonstrations are the least of the country’s problems, and do everything in its power to assuage public anger and mend its ways. The SJB, for its part, should sort out its problems and play the role of the main Opposition party effectively to the satisfaction of the public. The same goes for other political parties such as the SLFP, the UNP, the JVP, the SLMC and the TNA.


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