By Dr Kumar David
The Lankan government suddenly and unnecessarily dissolved three provincial councils two months ago. The rumour was that it was testing the waters for early parliamentary elections in 2013 as a precursor to presidential elections before the cut-off date of January 2016. It is beneficial to have a pliant parliament in situ during a presidential poll. Since there is little prospect of price rises ending, the economy improving, or anger at scandalous corruption and abuse of power subsiding, the logic was that it’s better to hold elections before unpopularity reached rock bottom.
However, it has bitten off more than it chew and an outburst of strike activity in the state sector has caught it flatfooted. This may have some impact on the provincial elections, but not much since these provinces are rural, not urban. I opine the government will win two of the three, but it will be interesting to see to what extent anger and unrest in the urban areas (in the business sector, the educated upper and middle classes and the working class) will affect the voting pattern of farmers and the petty bourgeoisie (traders, small businesses, rural elite).
But this is not my topic of the day. Important and interesting as the spread of strikes, strike threats, and imminent strikes may be, and though the government has lost control of the strike scene in the state sector, there is another no less significant development; identifying a challenger to Mahinda Rajapakse has taken initial but concrete shape during the last fortnight.
Enter Sobitha and Warawewa
Enter Sobitha and Warawewa – or to give them their full titles Ven. Maduluwewa Sobitha Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Kotte Naga Vihara and Justice W. T. M. Warawewa recently retired from the Court of Appeal. This process has gained momentum in that a substantial and growing number of political organizations and individuals have begun to promote the candidacy of Sobitha and to a lesser extent Warawewa. This was implicit at a meeting of Sobitha’s National Movement for Social Justice in Colombo on 15 August. It was well attended; General Fonseka and his stalwarts, many UNP types mainly but not only from the dissident faction, several leftists out of curiosity, and a large contingent of Buddhist clergy made up the audience. The podium was reserved for religious big-wigs including Buddhist high priests, two bishops and one body each as token reps of the Hindu and Islamic creeds. It was an impressive launch with upside potential.
The mass movement prefers Sobitha because he is a known personality with a political history. UNP leader Ranil Wickremewinghe however is promoting Warawewa, for reasons I don’t quite get. I don’t get it because if the UNP throws its weight behind Sobitha it will make for a strong candidacy and if Sobitha presents himself as a one-issue challenger, the UNP has nothing to fear on the day after the elections – I will explain in a moment.
A one-issue candidate is someone who comes forward saying “I will abolish the Executive Presidency (EP), set a Constituent Assembly in motion and once its work is completed bye-bye, my job is done; I have no further political ambitions.” This approach can gather together the forces needed to defeat Rajapakse. Abolishing the EP is the one cry on which large swathes of the population – left, right, democrat, businessman, socialist, conservative, Sinhalese, Muslim, Tamil, Buddhist, Christian – can come together. When the parliamentary model is restored the new president has no executive powers and may as well go home. This is what I mean by saying the UNP has nothing to fear; the parliamentary road is open to Ranil and the UNP if they can find the votes.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question is can the challenger do it? Can a new challenger pull off victory where Fonseka flunked? Given the drought of credible alternatives to the incumbent whose popularity remains high, who is the stronger challenger, and does this look like a winning strategy? The second question first; I think the challenger will win if two conditions are met:-
a) The challenger presents himself as a clear-cut single-issue candidate.
b) The UNP can be persuaded to drop counter bids and throw its weight behind him.
Both are doable and in the interests of everyone except the Rajapakse clan, however, I emphasise unless both conditions are met the challenge will be blunted. A hundred other things will happen on the political and economic front between now and the elections, so I am not yet offering any bets.
Who is the stronger challenger?
I have not met either but know a little about Sobitha’s politics since he has been in the news. I know nothing about Warawewa’s politics (the White Flag dissenting judgement that brought him to prominence, strictly speaking, is not politics); hence it is inappropriate for me to venture an opinion on who is the better choice. What I will say is that Sobitha will be the better vote fetcher. More important he is on record having made single-issue promises, but I am not aware of Warawewa’s position on the same point. If anyone stands on a broad-based manifesto and not as an “abolish-the-EP” one-issue slogan, sections of the community will raise their own concerns and weaken the advantages of focus.
There is a sharp and unmistakable divergence of attitude towards the UPFA and the Mahinda Rajapakse government along class lines at the present time. The educated elite and business has turned very hostile and the working class is drifting in the same direction, while the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie are more accommodating. The indictment of the government by the upper classes is merciless. Received wisdom was that the post-war dividend would take the shape of a flood of foreign investment; businessmen smacked their lips. Imagine the shock when the roguery of the government turned the expected flood into a trickle, ventures between local and foreign investors failed to materialise on the hoped for scale, and public life declined into the gutter. The bourgeoisie holds the government responsible for the rot; the rule of law and good governance has evaporated.
The petty bourgeoisie, that is those engaged in small businesses and informal activities, are reaping a post-war dividend; so are the farmers. More vans ply their trade selling cooked food and providing transport facilities than ever before, and small construction business is booming. Farmers are reclaiming and cultivating marginal land that fear had kept them away from during the war. This boom in the informal and semi-formal economy is a post-war dividend, albeit the one least expected and least talked about. These classes, the majority of the population, are reaping post-war dividends and are blind to corruption and abuse of power.
However, they will bask in the post-war sun only for a short while. The factors driving the urban working class to the wall will soon come to the countryside – ubiquitous, painful price increases. Headline inflation, the one that matters and includes fuel and food, is now at a shade below 10% and will reach double digit magnitude before the end of the year. Workers and city folk on fixed incomes are hard hit, hence the strike wave, but when farmers and the petty bourgeoisie find prices rising and sources of incomes drying up, they too will turn. What I am saying is that the economy is deteriorating overall and pain will reach the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie eventually, after a time lag.
My guess is that Sobitha Thero, as a monk with strong Sinhala-Buddhist credentials, can better ride the mood of the rural majority while benefitting from the incandescent fury of the urban upper classes and the mounting anger of the workers.