2020 will define Sri Lanka’s entire 21st Century story. Prosperity with the SLPP, or poverty under Ranil and Sirisena.
As the dust settles on the outcome of the no-confidence motion of April 4th, it is clear that on the face of it, nothing has changed. The illegitimate UNP-SLFP coalition which no one voted for continues to muddle its way from crisis to crisis.
Sirisena has refused to accept the resignations of the SLFP ministers who voted against Ranil. Sirisena’s actions on the eve of the no-confidence vote and afterwards show that his betrayal against the Rajapaksas in 2014 was the only betrayal he will commit. He is now wedded to Ranil and will never do anything to oppose or harm his partner. For his part, Ranil has even gone so far as to order his MPs to withdraw the counter-no-confidence motion his own side submitted against those same errant SLFP ministers. With this, the SLFP has finally arrived in the dustbin of history.
And so it is time to look forward to 2020. For me, “2020” is a catch-all term for the raft of policy decisions, political events, and elections that are due between now and the final stabilization of a new government. This process will probably take until late 2020 or early 2021 to complete. “2020” in the sense I use the term is not just about the year 2020 or the election due in that year, but is also about the shifts in the forces of history which will shape our destiny and reveal to us what the rest of this century will be like for Sri Lanka.
Let us set the scene.
2020 will be a defeat for the present ruling regime. It will be a defeat for the UNP, for the SLFP, for Ranil, and for Sirisena. There is no way that the present rulers will become successful, liked, or electable between now and the future. There is no way they will restore the economy to growth, develop infrastructure, or rule of law, and therefore no way they will win against the Rajapaksa-led patriotic forces that they are up against.
I am certain of this because in order for the opposite to happen – for the country to become successful, for the people to become prosperous, and for the rulers to be loved – Ranil and his allies must become what they can never be. They cannot become patriotic, forthright, or strong. They cannot become proud of our history, or believers in the capacity, ingenuity, intelligence, and value of their fellow Sinhalese. In short, they cannot become leaders.
Listening to the speeches by the various MPs only confirmed this. The SLPP made reasoned, articulate, and principled arguments in favour of the no-confidence vote. In return, the UNP literally barked back at them, spewing innuendo, grievous allegations and cheap personal attacks against the opposition MPs and non-politician family members of the opposition, replete with the sickeningly crude language that is the preserve of thugs and ruffians.
For Ranil and the UNP, and Sirisena and his twisted SLFP, to change from rulers into leaders, they will have to change the beliefs that they have held personally for sixty or seventy years. They have to give up the idea that they must rule in order to take as much as possible from the country, and suppress the majority as much as possible. They have to give up their blind faith in foreign plans and their addiction to foreign acknowledgement, foreign plaudits, and foreign smiles and aid money.
In order to be loved by the masses, they must change their very essence, and their deepest and most firmly held perceptions of reality. An electoral defeat of the scale and magnitude as that of February 2018, a message directly from the ruled to the rulers as direct as there could ever be, is not enough to change the fundamental character of rotten souls like Ranil and Sirisena.
Without any development or economic growth, or even political stability to offer, the people will never willingly give their vote to these two entities. While they will obtain the unquestioning ethnic vote banks from Tamil and other extremist groups, and a few Sinhala party-diehards, that is insufficient. It is obvious that the opposition SLPP will easily win all the upcoming elections.
If we look at things from Ranil and Sirisena’s point of view, there are only two possible actions they can take to remain in power.
Firstly, they can rig the electoral system itself. They tested this during the local government polls, first delaying and then altering the voting mechanism. But as could be seen from the results, the SLPP force was too strong to be rigged. Even where the results were inconclusive – the intended outcome of the manipulated voting system – SLFP and even UNP representatives had to face reality and give their support to allow the formation of SLPP-led administrations. The same will no doubt happen in any future elections.
Secondly, they can remove key opposition candidates from the political scene. This is the nuclear option, and fraught with risk, but the closer we get to the 2020 moment, the more it will be seen by Ranil and Sirisena as their only hope.
In a cynical attempt at denying the people the right to vote for the candidates who best represent them, Ranil and Sirisena will use the newly created anti-corruption courts and the war crimes panel (that is, the Office of Missing Persons) to bring spurious charges against the SLPP. The charges will range from bribery, theft, fraud, corruption, and embezzlement, to hate speech, violent assault, abduction, torture, and murder, and culminate with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
In this way, Ranil and Sirisena will seek to jail the Rajapaksa family members and other key SLPP leaders such as Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila, or at the least remove their civic rights and prevent them from registering as electoral candidates.
Ranil and Sirisena will hope that their brazen actions – carried out by “independent” prosecutors working with “foreign specialist advisors” through a “hybrid” mechanism – will delegitimize the Rajapaksas, demoralize SLPP voters, cause disarray in the patriotic movement, and ultimate lead to the defeat of their political enemies once and for all.
One could counter this by saying that if the anti-national elements go down this path, then others could take up the place of the falsely jailed leaders, and still bring SLPP victories. It is true that the SLPP contains many talented orators, activists and high calibre politicians, unlike the one-man band of Ranil’s fanatical UNP, or the SLFP circus led by Sirisena. Ranil and Sirisena know this, but will hope that the removal of the main, best-known, and most-loved opposition leaders will dent the vote count for the SLPP while massively increasing the enthusiasm and participation of the UNP voters just enough to tip the scales in their favor. Ranil and Sirisena do not seek a broad mandate to lead, they just want enough votes through which to perpetuate their incompetent rule.
However, things will not be so easy, even if the Rajapaksas are jailed, or taken to the Hague as is the ultimate goal. By 2020, the country will be nothing but a failed state – the new constitution and ensuing protests, the collapsed economy, and the war crimes farce will mean that Sri Lanka will be teetering on the verge of collapse as a nation. If we add on the imprisonment of the political opposition, the sympathy vote would give a further boost to the SLPP after the havoc of another 12-18 months of the Ranil-Sirisena regime.
But looking to 2020 from the current political, economic, and electoral reality, Ranil and Sirisena have no good options. What little political hope they had – a split of the patriotic voter base between the SLFP and SLPP leading to a UNP win by default – vanished the moment that the SLFP decided to back Ranil at the no-confidence vote. Now everyone in the country knows that a vote for the SLFP is just another vote for the UNP, and the 13-15% that Sirisena obtained on February 10th will without a doubt be added to the SLPP’s 45% at every subsequent election.
As 2020 looms, Ranil and Sirisena are cornered. They have followed the instructions of the outsiders, NGOs, and minority extremists and inadvertently built an anti-national political fortress from which they cannot escape. The walls of this prison they have built for themselves using lies and corruption are now falling in on them, unable to bear the weight of their regime’s hypocrisy and treachery. Worst of all, Ranil and Sirisena can feel the earth beneath them shaking too, as the patriotic majority led by the Rajapaksas march towards them. With each step forward that the patriots take, the cracks in the fortress walls and the ground they stand on get wider. Ranil and Sirisena, clutching each other in fear, know they will fall down into the abyss that awaits them very, very soon. And with each passing day, the nuclear button sitting on their desk looks all the more appealing. “Let’s press that button, let’s jail the Rajapaksas, then we will be safe!” they will say to each other with increasing desperation.
For Ranil and Sirisena, and the rest of the anti-national, anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist forces, the options on the way to 2020 are limited, clear and obvious. The ball is now in the SLPP’s court. Knowing that the political nukes are headed their way, the SLPP and the Rajapaksas need to take firm actions, and fast. They cannot say they didn’t expect it.