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Emerging Presidential election campaigns in Sri Lanka: Liberal consensus and fringe politics

In the lead up to Presidential elections, the three leading political camps—the President Ranil Wickremesinghe-led Government, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), and the National People’s Power (NPP)—appear to converge on two key issues, namely, an International Monetary Fund (IMF)-led path to economic recovery, and the continuity of the Provincial Councils (PC) system.

On the economic front, the current IMF program is now backed, to varying degrees, by all three camps. The SJB and the NPP, from the Opposition, argue that they would negotiate the Government’s IMF deal to more favourable terms that especially benefit the more vulnerable, poorer sections of society. This indicates one side of the policy convergence that ‘there is no alternative’ to the IMF.

On the ethnic issue, President Wickremesinghe has reiterated the usual United National Party (UNP) position on full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The SJB made similar commitments during a recent visit by its leader Sajith Premadasa to the North. The NPP too has indicated that a government under its leadership would continue the PC system. These convergences reflect an emerging consensus on the liberal economy and liberal peace.

NPP shifts in discourse

At the 2020 general elections, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Government sought a mandate to abolish PCs under a new Constitution. Opposition to PCs has been the mandate of left nationalism since the 1980s. In the 1980s, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the main party within the NPP, called on youth to overthrow the Government for signing the Indo-Lanka Accord, which introduced the 13th Amendment of the Constitution and entailed power sharing through PCs. The JVP mobilised support on the agenda of abolishing PCs and went to the Supreme Court in 2003 against the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

In 2020, NPP leader MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) promised to support the 20th Amendment to the Constitution if it abolished PCs. The party publicly expressed a position against PCs as late as 2023, when Sunil Handunneththi stated that his party is not in agreement with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, particularly on issues of devolving police and land powers.

Therefore, while the NPP has not shifted to the extent that it supports full implementation of the 13th Amendment (with police and land powers), its recent commitment to continuing the PC system is an important shift in the party’s position. This is likely driven by the NPP’s increasing popularity and recognition that it needs to appeal to a broader electorate, including the Tamil minority vote. This is especially necessary since the NPP does not appear interested in forming alliances with any of the other mainstream political parties for the moment.

The shift also indicates how the NPP is trying to be different from the JVP’s policy outlook. This is likely due to a key opposition campaign narrative against the NPP being the violent past of the JVP, especially during the 1988-89 period. In an appeal to disown its past, NPP leader AKD said during a discussion with representatives of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) in Jaffna, in June 2024, that the NPP is not focused on the past, but thinking how to create the future.

On economic policy, the JVP has, in the past, held an antagonistic policy towards the IMF. The party’s secretary-general Tilvin Silva ridiculed the Wickremesinghe-Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Government’s latest IMF program, saying that a pittance of a $ 2.9 billion loan cannot fix the country’s economic woes. The NPP also questioned the logic of taking more loans from the IMF as a solution to the debt crisis in Sri Lanka. Before the 2022 economic crisis and in the context of the Government debating whether not to go to the IMF in 2021, AKD said in an interview that an IMF deal would amount to floating the rupee, removing import restrictions, cutting down on public expenditure, and social security concessions. Given these statements, the NPP’s endorsement of the IMF-led path as the only solution is a stark change of position.

Flashback to the ‘90s?

This policy convergence on economic recovery and the ethnic issue is reminiscent of governance during President Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike’s first term (1994-1999). During this period, the two main blocs led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and UNP reached a liberal consensus. There was a policy shift in recognising that Sri Lanka had an ethnic conflict, and that the ongoing war could not be reduced to terrorism. This happened as the UNP, in the early 1990s, shifted its position to admit the prevalence of an ethnic conflict. Previous leaders of the UNP, such as Presidents D.B. Wijetunga and Ranasinghe Premadasa had maintained that Sri Lanka’s war in the North and the East was mere terrorism and that it could be defeated militarily. As the UNP moved more towards the SLFP in its policy on the national question, the inverse happened on the economic policy.

On the economic liberalisation spectrum, the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) Government moved closer to the liberal agenda espoused by the UNP. Under the Kumaratunga-led coalition Government, the economic liberalisation drive took a new phase that came to be known as the second phase of economic liberalisation—an ‘open economy with a human face’. This was partly due to the strong global neoliberalisation drive that continued since the 1980s, and the ongoing economic restructuring under an IMF program. Many sectors, including telecommunications, plantation, port terminals, and liquid petroleum (LP) gas were privatised during this period.

In this context of liberal consensus, where there were no alternatives to ‘open economy’ to remedy the country’s economic worries, or a ‘political solution’ to the ethnic conflict, a political vacuum was formed. This was the space crafted by left-nationalist forces such as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, and occupied by the SLFP since the 1950s, as well as the more conservative-nationalist forces close to the UNP. This unoccupied and politically unaddressed position was ultimately captured by small, fringe political parties and groups, such as the Sihala Urumaya (later the Jathika Hela Urumaya) and the JVP. 

These groups, while able to mobilise only a marginal vote, drove the national policy on the war and economic liberalisation well into the 2000s when Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power. They built the momentum which gave the Rajapaksa government the strength to finish the war by military means, and implement a development regime which relied largely on re-nationalisation of SOEs, infrastructure development and foreign loans by private creditors, and heavily subsidised a new local patron business class.

A new nationalist-business alliance

In the present day, policy convergence on liberal economics and identity-based power sharing has created a space for fringe politics appealing to the extremes and alternatives. The emergence of the Sarvajana Balaya as a new political alliance tries to capture this politically attractive radical conservative space. The Sarvajana Balaya held its inaugural rally on 18 June at Nugegoda, where Mahinda Rajapaksa’s relaunch on the platform of Mahinda Sulanga was held in 2015. It was attended by MPs Wimal Weerawansa (Jathika Nidahas Peramuna), Udaya Gammanpila (Pivithuru Hela Urumaya), Gevindu Kumaratunga (Yuthukama Organisation), and Dilith Jayaweera (Mawbima Janatha Party), and the Communist Party, among some others.

The political rhetoric of this alliance was explicitly economic nationalist and anti-power sharing. The speakers opposed the IMF programme and carried a strong anti-India narrative, alongside its anti-state-owned enterprise (SOE) privatisation arguments. The slogan was ‘fresh hope for 69 lakhs’, referring to the majority Sinhala Buddhist electorate that voted in former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019. Speakers such as Wimal Weerawansa also took a strong conservative and nationalist line, opposing the Gender Equality Bill which had been proposed in Parliament and raising concerns over the foremost place of Buddhism in the Constitution being lost in the future. Weerawansa also emphasised the three main political forces (the UNP, SJB, and NPP) being more or less the same and providing no real alternative. This was true, he said, of their economic policies (pro-IMF and pro-India) and policy on the ethnic issue (pro-devolution and pro-Provincial Councils).

Meanwhile, the addition of businessman Dilith Jayaweera as the apparent leader of the Sarvajana Balaya (looking at the order of speeches at the rally), ahead of senior and ambitious politicians such as Wimal Weerawansa, is interesting. As much as Dilith Jayaweera was an insider in the Rajapaksa electoral machine, he is running his campaign as someone who is compelled to do politics because the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency he supported has failed in its mandate. In this way, Sarvajana Balaya tries to appeal to the Rajapaksa voter base while trying to look fresh. 

Within the Rajapaksa political machine, there were two loosely organised camps—one of them was the ultra-nationalist and local industry-oriented ideological lobby represented by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the other was the more liberal policy-oriented patronage political lobby represented by Basil Rajapaksa—the Mahinda Rajapaksa political brand being a mix of both. Dilith Jayaweera belonged to the former, nationalist nucleus of the SLPP, and this explains the easy alliance with the likes of Weerawansa.

Appeal of the ‘entrepreneur’ politician

Dilith Jayaweera calls himself an entrepreneur (vyavasaayakayaa). It is important to note here the distinction implicitly drawn between an entrepreneur who enters politics and the businessperson who enters politics. While most ‘political businesspersons’ acquire their wealth through political patronage or generational wealth, the entrepreneur who enters politics has more political legitimacy. This legitimacy derives from two main sources: One, the entrepreneur has a rags to riches story, which is very appealing to societies with high inequality, as traditional modes of social mobility such as education increasingly fail to support the narrative of redistribution. Two, the entrepreneur in politics claims that they can translate and upscale their business skills to provide products and services that fix other people’s problems at the social and national level, in this way, becoming ‘political entrepreneurs’.

Individuals outside of politics such as business leaders or professionals may look attractive at times of low public trust in politics-as-usual, as reflected in weakened approval rates of politicians. Moreover, during times of economic crisis, especially when it is due to political mismanagement, individuals who can demonstrate financial literacy and network capital provide attractive alternatives to the discredited political class. If initially politics was an arena that was supposed to be not motivated or influenced by money, the performance of successive corruption scandals and financial mismanagement have hard-nosed popular expectations. This has been observed in other countries too, such as in Berlusconi’s Italy and Trump in America, both incidentally having made their reputation in the media industry like Dilith Jayaweera.

Dilith Jayaweera’s use of the entrepreneur label is understandable for the political capital it gives him. Despite this, he has a record mired in many scandals and shady dealings reflecting government patronage. This is not an anomaly; in countries where opportunities are low for equal play among businesses, it is hardly possible for an entrepreneur to get ahead of others without seeking state patronage.

Besides Dilith Jayaweera, business tycoon Dhammika Perera has already entered politics as a parliamentarian, and the likelihood of him running as the SLPP’s candidate cannot be discredited. If the two businessmen, Dilith Jayaweera and Dhammika Perera, run for Presidential elections this year, the core of the once larger than life Rajapaksa politics is fronted by them, minus the popular vote that is likely to be captured by the NPP this time. 

The FSP and the People’s Struggle Alliance

On 19 June, a new alliance called the People’s Struggle Alliance was launched. The alliance comprises the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), the New Democratic Marxist-Leninist Party, the People’s Left Forum and a number of individual activists and professionals who took part in the Aragayala (people’s protests) that ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2022. The national organiser of ‘Youth for Change’ Lahiru Weerasekara, former convenor of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) Wasantha Mudalige, lawyer Nuwan Bopage, Tharindu Uduwaragedara of the Young Journalists’ Association, and human rights lawyer and trade unionist Swasthika Arulingam, are among the members of the new political movement.

It is important to contextualise the new People’s Struggle Alliance against the People Struggle Movement, more popularly known as the Jana Aragala Vyapaaraya, which is a platform that the FSP founded even prior to the start of the Aragalaya in 2022. It served as the social movement arm of the FSP and was the driving force behind protests in Colombo in solidarity with Indian farmer protests in 2021. The movement was broad-based and included left-leaning civil activists and was relaunched on 27 March 2022 in a rally in Nugegoda, just before the Mirihana protests on 31 March 2022. Thereafter, the Peoples’ Struggle Movement played a key role in 2022 Aragalaya. In this context, the People’s Struggle Alliance appears to be a development of the Peoples’ Struggle Movement, as some key spokespersons of the two platforms are also similar. Moreover, the Peoples’ Struggle Alliance provides a platform for civil activists to enter electoral politics.

On the policy outlook, the People’s Struggle Alliance characterises its agenda as ‘radical, left progressive’. On the economic front, this includes a rejection of the IMF program and a renegotiation of debt restructuring outside the IMF framework, on terms more favourable to Sri Lanka. On the question of the national issue, they advocate for more substantial power sharing. In addition, the alliance carries an anti-India narrative—the former IUSF convener, Wasantha Mudalige, raised concerns regarding a railroad to be constructed through Anuradhapura to Trincomalee, in an economic zone which would give India access to national assets such as the Trincomalee port and natural resources.

In comparison to the Sarvajana Balaya, which is chauvinistic in terms of ethnic rights and individual rights (such as on gender), the People’s Struggle Alliance is progressive on both these accounts. However, the two groups share the economic nationalist, anti-IMF, and anti-India positions. As discussed previously, in crisis situations such as in present day Sri Lanka, when there is a degree of policy convergence among the main political forces, a space for a ‘challenger party’ is created, forcing their mainstream counterparts to readjust some of their narratives. 

These challenger parties sometimes take ultra-nationalist (Sarvajana Balaya) and ultra-left (both Sarvajana Balaya and People’s Struggle Alliance) positions. It is also expected that these fringe parties are unlikely to secure a significant vote. While the People’s Struggle Alliance is trying to leverage Aragalaya credentials for its legitimacy, mainstream parties may subvert this narrative to delegitimise the Aragalaya and make the case that the Aragalaya was not a movement with a popular, majority backing.

Establishment party realignments and elite contestations

Meanwhile, the lower rungs of the UNP appear to be testing the waters to potentially postpone elections. Although it appears highly unlikely by constitutional means, even such a dubious act requires considerable support from the parliament and judiciary. Some recent developments such as the unprecedented attempt by the President to extend the tenure of the Attorney General and his recent clashes with the judiciary over the Gender Equality Bill determination, suggesting the appointment of a parliamentary committee to override the determination of the Supreme Court, fuel suspicions that the President is trying to overpower the judiciary, and create a precedent for parliamentary overriding of judiciary.

Meanwhile, the present Parliament’s power balance is uncertain given a series of public political contestations that are unfolding in real time. These includes the rumoured response by SLPP’s Basil Rajapaksa to the Nimal Lanza and Duminda Dissanayake faction suggesting that the President drop the SLPP-Rajapaksa clan as an election strategy, by saying “If they say they do not want us, we do not want them a hundred times”. In another show-down in Parliament, SJB MP Sarath Fonseka accused his party leader Sajith Premadasa of not being leadership material or representing a system change, clearly parting ways with the SJB. This is in parallel to SJB stalwart MP Rajitha Senaratne greenlighting President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership and indicating that a group of SJB members will crossover to support the President when the time is right. While the major traffic seems to be in the direction of President Wickremesinghe, former SLPP MP Thilak Rajapakse was reported to have crossed over to the SJB on 4 June. 

These developments cumulatively indicate that we are entering into a more intensified period of political contestations and bargains among the elites, including the judiciary. The emerging liberal consensus among mainstream parties in Sri Lanka may likely decide the outcomes during this electoral cycle, while the fringe parties show potential for shaping the mainstream narratives significantly.

Harindra B Dassanayake and Rajni Gamage

This article was originally published in the Daily FT on 26 June 2024.

Image Copyright (c) 2024 Johanns Rogers.

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