MAY DAY 2017: THE TIPPING POINT
Dayan Jayatillake (Daily Mirror)
“And it’s all over now, Baby Blue” (Dylan)
When you’ve passed the tipping point, things are never the same again. You cannot sustain the existing equilibrium nor can you go back to the old one. May Day 2017 was such a tipping point.
In Sri Lanka, May Day is the mirror of the balance of political forces. It is only the motivated, the committed, and the mobilized; those who do not mind displaying their political identity, who physically participate in May Day. They can be classified as distinct political armies.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has the biggest political army – the biggest political movement and organized force– in Sri Lanka today; arguably bigger than any combination of his victorious rivals of the Battle of January 2015.
A young American researcher embedded with the state’s flagship newspaper the Daily News confirmed in a video report filed while spending May Day on foot in Colombo at each rally (nope, he didn’t go by drone camera angles):“the Joint Opposition rally was the biggest by far…”
The fact is that no one can credibly point to a bigger May Day rally or a bigger rally on Galle Face Green or a bigger May Day rally on Galle Face Green in Ceylon’s/Sri Lanka’s history. In all three categories, the Oscars went to Mahinda Rajapaksa and the JO’s May Day 2017, the organizational wizard behind which was Basil Rajapaksa, playing Sirisena Cooray to Mahinda’s Premadasa.
Recognizing the TNA and the JVP rather than the JO as the official opposition reminds me of the decades that the US recognized Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic of China, with 800 million people, as China!
There is hardly a question that this UNP-led administration will be a one-term government and more certainly, that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will, yet again, prove a one-term leader, doubtless for the last time. The only questions are what irreversible damage will be done by his administration to the country between now and then; whether there will be a mid–term re-composition and decompression which allows a soft landing; whether there will be a mid-term hardening and resultant social explosion leading to a hard landing; whether the blow back from the polarizing effects of this neo-liberal, pro-western,Rightist administration yields a more decidedly populist-nationalist government after the election as in 1956, 1970, and 2005.
Galle Face Green was only the spear-point of a very long spear. The MR/JO/SLPP movement can probably win any legislative election beating the official SLFP into third place and the UNP into second place except where the minorities are in a majority. The Government suspects this and is conspicuously ducking elections, rather like Madam Bandaranaike’s government suspended Local Govt. elections and delayed the by-election to Chavakachcheri for several years. It didn’t help that Government which was buried by an electoral landslide in 1977—and it won’t help this one either.
More dangerous is the inordinate delay in opening up the electoral safety valves at a time when mass disaffection is spreading. The lesson of contemporary history is that President Jayewardene (barely)managed an intense crisis, precisely by holding Provincial elections throughout 1988, leading up to the Presidential elections by year-end.
Today there are no elections, and still worse, the democratic Opposition –the JO — is frozen out of the space of the official Parliamentary opposition. Though the trade union based Left of the 1940s through the 1960s seemed fiercely formidable, it was comfortably accommodated in Parliament and thereby co-opted into the system. What was on display on Galle Face Green this year is an enormous oppositional force that is not accommodated as the recognized Opposition, still less co-opted. Even the ‘Hartal’ eve Galle Face crowds of 1953, the United Left Front of 1963 and the UNP of 1976 could be regarded as far more assimilated into the system than the multitude on Galle Face Green in 2017.
Recognizing the TNA and the JVP rather than the JO as the official opposition reminds me of the decades that the US recognized Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic of China, with 800 million people, as China! Due to the Yahapalana government’s refusal to recognize the JO as the Opposition and Mahinda or Dinesh as Opposition Leader, what you had on display at Galle Face this year was a huge, organized oppositional force that has been driven into a space and role that is a-systemic or extra-systemic.The right issue or the wrong move by Government and this massive force could turn anti-systemic. The bullets shot by a policeman which cracked the glass box outside Sirikotha and hit the brass elephant—the party’s symbol—could prove but the opening salvo. As Mao said, “a single spark can start a prairie fire”.
To forestall such an outcome, the Government has to change its attitude and agenda. Instead, the UNP’s Campbell Park rally showed a hardening. Several personalities – newcomers to the party–are bidding to become the ‘strongman’ who saves the UNP from the MR/JO challenge. The time for that is gone. Socio-historical circumstances and socio-economic currents have turned yesterday’s strongmen into today’s “paper tigers”. The televised public recommendation at Campbell Park (in the presence of the PM who didn’t contradict it) that President Rajapaksa, unarguably and by far the most loved and respected politician in the country today, be “hanged by his shawl until life leaves him”, will doubtless be remembered by the voters.
With his security contingent being repeatedly reduced, it appears that President Rajapaksa, surely a prime target of the LTTE throughout his lifetime, is being set up to be killed by Tiger infiltrators. This is an invitation to assassination.
The Aristotelian concept of justice held that the equal should be treated equally and the unequal, unequally. Ex-President Kumaratunga who dismally failed to beat the Tigers and win the war, is far from the equal of ex-President Rajapaksa, who did. When CBK left office, the entire area beyond the roundabout near the old Parliament, which her parents dominated, was sealed off and resembled bombed-out Berlin. That was the monument to her monumental failure.When MR left office there was no Prabhakaran, no visible sign of wartime destruction, and it was a new city, a new country. That was the monument to his success. What do we owe Mahinda Rajapaksa and by comparison what do we owe Chandrika? How will history record the achievements of Mahinda, a great national leader, savior, liberator and territorial re-unifier, and Chandrika, a pathetic failure? How then can her security be equated with his, from any rational or ethical point of view?
The assassination of populist leader Gaitan in Colombia in 1948 triggered the civic violence (‘La Violencia’) and civil war that lasted for almost three quarters of a century. If Sri Lanka’s Juan Peron, Mahinda Rajapaksa is killed or dies mysteriously, an endless bloodbath will surely follow.
May Day 2017 has plunged the SLFP into a collective existential crisis. It has to choose between (A) Ranil’s UNP and Mahinda’s JO and (B) Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, whose witchcraft has shrunk the SLFP, and Mahinda Rajapaksa, an electoral electro- magnet. If it doesn’t quit the government soon,or form one, the official SLFP could be electorally extinct.
As an indicted veteran of the bitter anti-UNP struggle of the 1980s, I can attest that today’s UNP is nowhere in the same class,while the Opposition movement is decisively stronger and on the offensive.
The times they are a’ changin’ (Dylan). With May Day 2017 a tectonic shift has occurred in the public consciousness. In its collective gut, society knows which force is growing and on the upswing, and which is on its way out at the next election, if not earlier. What the UNP needs now is to find a new leader –a Theresa May or Emmanuel Macron—who can revive it after the inevitable downfall. Meanwhile, those who bought tickets on the Titanic in 2015 should be heading for the lifeboats.