The road to follow for the left – The island
As it stands, Sajith Premadasa’s opposition has three paths to take, or to be more precise, left to take. Without considering all the cards on the table and deciding which card to deal with, he cannot and will not go ahead. Simply put, there is nothing to say if the SJB does not build consensus on tactics and strategies.
Unfortunately, for reasons that are too obvious, the regime seems to be losing as much legitimacy as the opposition. People have given up, or seem to have given up, because they do not see the government engaging in a constructive way. If Premadasa is serious about raising the bet, he needs to correct the course, engage and face better.
The first option of the SJB is to unite under Mr. Premadasa. This is the simplest option, but also the most efficient. The greatest strength of the SJB is the SJB. From a strategic point of view, it has the arsenal and ammunition. It has several leading figures of the yahapalana regime that is not tainted like most members of the UNP. Although he won a fraction of the votes of the current government last August, he has proven to be a viable opposition. Asking the kind of challenge to Mr. Rajapaksa’s regime that he managed to do last year was not easy, but it says a lot about his credentials. The SJB is the only option currently available to opponents of the regime. Claiming it as the other side of this regime’s coin is therefore utterly absurd.
The second option is to bring back the parent part, the UNP. Those who support this view see Mr. Premadasa as a weak opposition leader. They claim that he did not do his job well enough and that he failed in his task. While they offer no evidence of how he floundered, they claim Ranil Wickremesinghe is more suitable for the job than Mr Premadasa.
Put simply, these critics of the SJB view the current group of parliamentarians with so much disfavour that they see Mr. Wickremesinghe as a superior candidate: cleaner, smarter, sharper. This is of course an oversold claim, especially considering that Mr Premadasa was among the few names not mentioned in connection with the Bond scandal, but as I have already noted, Sri Lankan middle class prefers a neoconservative or a neoliberal in power, and they have not yet come to an agreement, tragically enough, with Mr. Premadasa.
The third option is to withdraw from parliament altogether and associate with an amorphous and ambivalent radical center. Parts of the Sri Lankan middle class, including artists and left-wing liberal activists, have repeatedly stressed their discontent with the establishment, recommending an alternative platform outside the system. In the absence of such outfits, they gathered around the Mangala Samaraweera Radical Center.
The Radical Center does not claim to be or to function as a party; it is a group of activists, and like all these groups, it works with ideals, not plans of action. That those in it accuse those in the opposition of not having plans of action is rather strange, but the truth is that they have drawn the malcontents of Sri Lanka’s anti-political stratum of intellectuals and activists. Thus, to the extent that they constitute or resemble a political association, they oppose not only governments and oppositions, but the idea of politics itself.
The legion of radical centrists stretches far and wide and is hardly an isolated phenomenon. Those who believe that she has no influence are deluded: Mangala Samaraweera was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the yahapalana regime, later Minister of Finance. Most of his statements deal with foreign policy and economics. These statements can be false, as they often are, but the expertise and experience behind them cannot be denied. The opposition cannot wish them away; he has to face them.
So if the SJB is to counter any negative publicity about his outfit, he needs to listen to what Mr. Samaraweera has to say on these issues and think about how to respond to his comments. To begin with, they should note that Mr. Samaraweera got it wrong on three fronts: his claim that all politics are to blame for the crisis in Sri Lanka, his narrow racism amalgamation with “a socialist mindset”, and his suggestion that the SJB is no different from the government.
The Liberals of Sri Lanka have, for the most part, never been able to distinguish between the different types of political parties. This is why they view Sinhala nationalism as a devil to be mastered in the same way that ultranationalists view human rights and multiculturalism as devils to be mastered. They make two mistakes here: to oppose nationalist politics to liberal democracy, and to assume that liberal democracy is the alone form of democracy at the table.
All other incorrect assumptions stem from these two errors. Thus, having equated nationalism with anti-democracy, they equate nationalism with socialism and place the two on a loosely defined continuum. Since all politics in Sri Lanka has given way in one form or another to populism or socialism, and at some stage these cohorts translate their opposition to populist and socialist politics into a total Opposition to Politics: Since most of us are nationalists or socialists in our books, they conclude that there must be something rotten with all politicians, not just the government. Ergo, supporting them is untenable; ergo, we need a radical center.
What’s wrong with this outlook isn’t that it pits the good guys against the baddies and the Cowboys against the Indians. If he had only separated “us” from “them” ideologically, even politically, there would have been no problem. Rather, what is wrong with their vision is that they assume that what is good for them is good for the country.
This explains why their conception of liberalism is superficially progressive, but essentially fundamentalist: they support individual rights, the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers, but are silent and ambivalent on socio-economic issues, i.e. – to say the questions which concern the population in general. Indeed, insofar as they have any opinion whatsoever on the latter, they project a right-wing, libertarian position, opposed to not authoritarian states, but at interventionist States. Having confused “government” and “authoritarianism”, they seek to reduce it politically and eliminate it economically, by giving pride of place to the market.
The inescapable conclusion here is that most of our liberals are, in fact, classic liberals. They take a dim view of the government and imply that its presence is reason enough for its swift elimination. Advocating market reforms as a panacea for the country’s problems, they have become as rigid in their outlook as their nationalist opponents. This explains, among others, their rather strange opposition to the incorporation of DESC in the constitution.
The economy has never been a strong point with the uprooted Sri Lanka activists: they oppose attacks on individual rights, but prefer the market to government and denigrate any party or alliance that recommends an alternative to the current economic system. They fail to understand that even in Western capitals, liberals did not oppose state intervention when such intervention was deemed necessary, whether in the interests of sovereignty or security. They fail to understand that, however liberal the economists in these countries are, many of them, including Krugman and Stiglitz, have emphasized the need to intervene in times of crisis. The irony is that our liberals accuse their nationalist opponents of being out of step and out of date, yet this last accusation can just as validly be applied to them.
Let me explain. If the Sinhala ultranationalists are stranded in 2009, somewhere in Nandikadal, the (classical) liberals of Sri Lanka are stranded in 1973, somewhere in Santiago. This explains their fascination with Ricardo Hausmann and their marginalization of Joseph Stiglitz; they prefer free market fundamentalists to their more pragmatic counterparts. Whatever the reason for this state of affairs, our liberals remain trapped in a rabbit hole: they believe in a liberalism that even the liberal West has seen fit to abandon. Obviously, being out of touch with the times is far from being the exclusive preserve of nationalists, socialists and populists.
Sri Lanka’s pro-market right is occupied and held by a strange mishmash of activists, artists and economists, most of whom hesitate between condemning the idea of the state and advocating free-market fundamentalism. hardly different from the fundamentalism of their nationalist opponents. This tells us a lot about the depth to which academic standards have been lowered to this Sri Lankan nationalist level. and liberal circles remain intellectually stubborn and politically untenable. Whatever path Mr. Premadasa and the SJB take, they must therefore avoid joining hands with intellectuals, activists and former parliamentarians whose demands concerning the political regime are as simplistic as the demands of their opponents. . The SJB must reach a consensus on its political ideology, articulate it and debate it publicly, and set itself up as a strong opposition. Aiming for self-righteous rhetoric now would amount to precious little later.
Note: Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz are both Nobel Prize winners. One would think that our liberals and neoliberals had more common sense in their choice of economic consultants.
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