From despotism to democracy
January 8, 2015 and the journey so far:
That was both the opportunity and the problem. Suddenly, subjects
were told they had become Citizens; an aggregate of subjects held in
place by injustice and intimidation had become a Nation. From this new
thing, this Nation of Citizens, justice, freedom and plenty could not
only be expected but required. (Simon Schama, Citizens, A Chronicles of
the French Revolution, 1989).
In the Presidential
election in 2010, the common candidate Sarath Fonseka was
defeated electorally and jailed. This was the indelible image
that served as a warning to any future challengers. AFP
A year ago, a great electoral victory was set in motion with the
coming together of the joint opposition and the common candidate,
President Maithripala Sirisena. This was not the first time a common
candidacy had been attempted in order to challenge the Rajapaksa regime.
In the previous Presidential election in 2010, the common candidate
Sarath Fonseka was defeated electorally and jailed. This was the
indelible image that served as a warning to any future challengers.The
idea of running a common candidate again was therefore fraught with
great personal and political risks. The resounding electoral defeat
handed to Rajapaksa last January seemed a very remote possibility even a
few months prior to the election.
Despite this danger, there were still brave groups of citizens and
individuals who refused to be intimidated. The remarkable political
judgement of the joint opposition, the personal bravery of President
Sirisena and the millions of voters who were ready to call time on the
Rajapaksa regime set the stage for a historic election victory.
A new historical bloc
It was not established political parties, but human rights defenders,
journalists and NGOs who undertook crucial initiatives in opening up and
maintaining Sri Lanka's democratic political space. They defied the
Rajapaksa regime's attempts to shut down political dissent and dominate
all avenues for action, campaigning for liberty and democracy.
In so doing they took considerable personal risks and laid the
crucial foundation for President Sirisena's victory. They were able to
muster an important array of parties and organisations with diverse
ideologies and political philosophies from the UNP to the radical left.
They broke the ice that was hindering the possibility of constructing
an anti-Rajapaksa coalition. This was called 'Platform For Freedom'. In
ideological and political terms this new mustering of forces represented
a watershed in the political discourse of the regime change: they could
not have pioneered that role without dissociating themselves from 'classism'
(Laclau and Mouffe, 1985, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy p, 177), of
the Left political discourse.
Sri Lankan Left in pursuing their dream of the working class war against
capitalism had underestimated the crucial nature of the new social
movements. The Left parties had abandoned the struggle against the
violations of personal freedoms, including the right to life, the
oppression of minority communities,the subjugation of women and the
community actions against the destruction of their living environments.
The 'Platform for Freedom' took up some of these issues in their
campaign. Actually the January 8 victory has underpinned the correct
reading of this ground reality. They were not alone in this. The
Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) led by the late Ven. Maduluwave
Sobitha Thera's intervention to campaign for the abolition of the
executive presidency as well as to field a common candidate made a
crucial contribution to the formation of this movement.
Ven. Sobitha Thera's untiring and selfless dedication in persuading
and negotiating with the opposition political parties to field a common
candidate for the Presidential election against Mahinda Rajapaksa
transformed the oppositional forces by contributing hope, passion and a
This process then contributed to gaining in Gramscian terms moral,
intellectual and political leadership. It was due to the result of such
work that the opposition started gaining credibility. When Maithripala
Sirisena and others defected from the government ranks and Sirisena
claimed to be the common candidate from the opposition, it was a game
From this point onwards, political space was opened in a spectacular
fashion. Hitherto excluded people started coming out and openly
expressing their feelings and how they had suffered under the Rajapaksa
family plc. The demand for the abolition of the executive presidency
condensed the democratic demands of the opposition and the cracks
started appearing in a Rajapaksa regime that seemed a few months ago
President Sirisena's common candidacy was supported by a huge number
of civil society organisations, trade unions and the Left Centre, which
compromised two break away left parties from the government, the Lanka
Samasamaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP) after President
Sirisena's common candidacy was announced.
Some of their members remained in the Rajapaksa camp. The Nava Lanka
Samasamaja Party (NSSP) who campaigned vigorously for many years for the
democratic aspirations of the Tamil people also supported the common
candidacy of President Sirisena. The UNP that had the largest voter base
of all the parties in the Sirisena camp actually had made an electoral
sacrifice when they agreed to back the common candidacy of President
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also gave the tactical support to
President Sirisena's common candidacy committing the Tamil voter base
for a political settlement. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) also
supported President Sirisena's candidacy resigning from the Rajapaksa
Thus, President Sirisena was able to garner the support from the
right wing to the Left parties and from the Sinhalese to Tamil and
Muslims to forma new historical bloc called the United National Front
For Good Governance (UNFGG). In its organizational form and political
philosophy,this was an extension of the 'Platform for Freedom'. This
kind of alliance is bound to have ideological and political differences
but they were united behind the common slogan of defeating Mahinda
At the Presidential election Maithripala Sirisena did the unexpected.
His victory over Rajapaksa was a great electoral triumph given the fact
that Rajapaksa used State power, government resources and State media at
will and believed that his victory was securely assured. But those who
often silently suffered under his rule finally had their chance to speak
and vote him out of power.
President Maithripala Sirisena was given the Presidency of the Sri
Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and it made a significant moment in
legitimising his authority in the Party. The party that was supporting
Mahinda Rajapaksa during the campaign came under his leadership that
offered him the chance of dismantling Rajapaksa ideological and
political influence in the SLFP.
This was a turning point in consolidating the new historical bloc.
President Sirisena's victory ushered in a new air of freedom and
extended much needed political space as never before. The intimidation
and impunity disappeared and the rule of law was gradually restored.
However, apprehending wrong doers from the previous regime has not
happened as quickly as people had wanted. The previous regime left their
criminal apparatus and bureaucracy intact and it was not so easy to make
the law to take its course. Such a situation has helped the wrong doers
of the previous regime.
Despite certain frustrations, the electoral victory of the January 8
was a truly historic one, which also paved the way for the winning of
the parliamentary elections, held in September making it a double
victory for the popular forces. These popular forces none other than
ordinary men and women who belong to all three communities.
For the first time in Sri Lanka's electoral history people whose
democratic rights had been dangerously trampled and their ethnic
existence had been fatally engendered by a powerful political and
military might was overthrown unexpectedly. Those who created such an
organisational framework to unite diverse communities and people who had
multiple and different democratic grievances and issues should be
credited for their novel, historic accomplishment. That also gave a
rational political model for working and wining the democratic demands
outside the class based politics.It is a democratic political discourse
that had been incompatible the broader political practice of the Sri
The current historical bloc faces four challenges at this current
juncture. Firstly, it faces a stiff resistance from the Sinhala Buddhist
supremacist forces in devolving power to the Tamil community. This
involves a considerable political risk. Even though Rajapaksa lost the
Presidency, the Sinhala Buddhist forces to which he had given hegemonic
expression in the South were reluctant to acknowledge their defeat.
They lost the election but ideological and politically their
electoral base has not shrunk in certain Sinhala Buddhist strongholds.
President Sirisena needs to convince the Sinhala Buddhist constituency
that his approach is safer for the territorial integrity of the country
than Rajapaksa's pseudo patriotism, which suppresses the democratic
aspirations of the Tamil community. Unless President Sirisena is
proactive in pursuing this line it will be harder for him to consolidate
his victory and build on the coalition, which brought him to power.
Secondly, implementation of neo-liberal economic policies would be
politically unpopular. Any move to take measures that would reduce the
existing welfare structures will be deeply unpopular. This is
particularly important in relation to health and education that directly
affect the life chances of the Sri Lankan poor. The protests from the
trade unions and civil society organizations who brought the new regime
to power after the recent presentation of budget proposals demonstrates
the breadth of the protest movements that the government will have to
Thirdly, broad ideological and political differences could destroy
its unity. If ideological and political contradictions are not resolved
in an amicable way within the government, the current bloc will
disintegrate. Diverse and different opinions can be positive if resolved
in a spirit of democracy and tolerance. However, some ministers'
behaviour in public around accusations and counter accusations are
disappointing and show political immaturity.
Fourthly, the government needs to acknowledge that people have a
right to protest. That is how democracy works. It is criminal to attack
or use force against any group of people because they exercise their
democratic right. Unless these challenges are overcome it would be
harder to fully realise the January 8 victory. And this new historical
bloc would not be transformed into a hegemonic project.
The victory of the Presidential election in January 2015 was clearly
a democratic victory of the people in this country and the general
election victory in September by the UNFGG made the democratic
aspirations of the people a realisable prospect.
That is if the Maithripala-Ranil leadership can carry out their
election promises. If they transform the historical block into a
hegemonic project with the inclusion of ethnic minorities with a
devolved power structure, the current coalition would be able to build
'national popular' regime in Gramscian sense.
The Maithri-Ranil leadership needs to persuade the Sinhala Buddhist
constituency to become a political ally in their effort to build a
united democratic country where all communities live with dignity and
respect. If the election promises made by the UNFGG are achieved, that
would make the January 8 victory epochal. Then only can it be called a
democratic revolution. Otherwise it would result in the elite political
classes triumphing and the popular forces would become losers. Then we
will have to start the struggle again.