Who is most likely to win? | Sunday Observer

Who is most likely to win?

8 September, 2019

“When there’s no worthwhile banner, you start to march behind worthless ones.” - Victor Serge in ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’

It is a clear and unequivocal statement; a professional journalist and an astute political commentator could make. It is also a charged, charmless assertion inviting attention and comment.

“... based on my knowledge and experience as a professional journalist and political commentator in Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajapaksa is currently the candidate most likely to win the presidency in the December 2019 election.”

The consequential pronouncement appears in an affidavit in support of the motion filed by defendant Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s lawyers who seek to stay the proceedings before United States District Court in California on grounds that the proceedings will disrupt their client’s politicking in distant Sri Lanka.

I must confess that, on reading the news report, I felt devastated. Being ignored is hurtful. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s lawyers should have reached out to me. I said it eighteen months before.

Nobody who says, “I told you so” has ever been, or will ever be, a hero. That should not prevent me from saying I told you so.

In an essay captioned ‘Gotabaya’s Last Refuge’ published in the Sunday Observer on March 18, 2018, I predicted this turn of events.

Please allow me to brandish my foresight preserved for posterity in these columns eighteen months ago.

“Three years into ‘Yahapalanaya’ we have arrived at a political cul-de-sac. There is little or nothing to halt Gotabaya’s ideology of Sinhala Buddhist exceptionalism gnawing into the primitive minds of a majority of our majority tribe.

Trapped in myth and legend, insisted upon as our impeccable heritage by a Sinhala Buddhist clerical mafia, we are deprived of a supportive culture either capable or equipped to embrace human progress in this day and age.

Thanks to the failures of the current leadership, the unthinkable now seems inevitable.

That is unless this Parliament succeeds in abolishing the executive presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will surely end up the supreme lawgiver of this blessed island. And worse, it will be in the guise of redeemer of the Sinhala Buddhist tribe.

We must get our facts straight. While many were repelled by the debauchery of his governance, Mahinda was and still is the one dominant leader in our midst. The absence of any credible competitors makes him much taller than he really is. The circus of the last three years demonstrates the point.

The historic coalition that ousted the Mahinda regime in 2015 was entirely energized by a collective fear of the deep state that functioned under his brother - then Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The purpose of this essay is not to dispute the conclusion of the political commentator or to assess how the statement would impact the legal drama unfolding in the adopted fatherland of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

That said, it would be churlish to dismiss the constitutive plausibility of the conclusion reached by the political commentator with that brilliant escape hatch ‘most likely’.

The statement is an exceptional summary of the ‘crisis politics’ confronting us.

In this age of positively pervasive media, reality is what one perceives it to be from a given vantage. I have no quarrel with the contents of the affidavit. Its purpose leaves an unpleasant taste, but didn’t Lucretius say that one man’s meat is another’s poison?

Let us be honest. The Gotabaya for president campaign has a substantial handle on the public psyche. It controls and creates its own statist narrative of modernism, nationalism and religious conservatism.

The political commentator in his affidavit makes a pointed reference to the ongoing indecisive and often chaotic debate in what he considers the other political alternative – the UNP. He has chosen to ignore the declared candidate of the National People’s Power Movement. Obviously, he has ruled them out. (I intend on voting for their candidate. A matter I am keen to get off my chest.)

The power elite steering Gota’s candidacy seems to think that they are ahead in the game. An assumption which, in my humble opinion, is not at all farfetched.

This is an appropriate time for me to revise some of my own mistaken notions. I firmly believed that we should elect parliamentarians informed and educated. I don’t subscribe to that view anymore. I have heard enough from Lawyer Ajith Perera and Economist Harsha de Silva to prefer reformed chain snatchers and distillers of illicit brews to college educated lawyers and economists!

Lawyer Ajith and Economist Harsha have not only failed to grasp the contents of the 19th Amendment but have now decidedly come out as stubborn proponents of the curse called executive presidentialism.

The presidentialism introduced in 1978 has over the years developed into what Max Weber the German sociology pioneer called ‘Sultanism’.

Weber borrowed the term from a form of governance that was familiar to his age - the Sultanate of Ottoman Turkey.

He developed the concept based on how unrestrained power can create unbound personal discretion - a form of oriental despotism. It is that feature of Presidentialism that captures the imagination of our hidebound monks cloistered in feudal monastic fiefdoms in Kandy and elsewhere. Presidentialism and Democracy are not reconcilable. Presidentialism seeks to tame the mob but ends up driving the herd.

J.R. Jayewardene converted the aberration of a five-sixth majority under the first past the post system into a presidency and a neo-sultanate. He won the presidential election only once. That was by disenfranchising his main opponent. He preserved the aberration of a five-sixth majority through a brazenly corrupt referendum.

Presidentialism is what 18th century thinkers devised to replace tyrannical kings.

They adopted presidentialism to represent national authority in place of the crown. In Britain and France, where parliamentary democracy thrives, the people did not stop at deposing the king. They chopped off the king’s head.

We do not know what awaits us in the form of other presidential candidates. The banter in the lounges of the Royal Colombo Golf Club indicates a general idea that the Rajapaksa family is an indispensable factor in our march to modernity. Neo liberal economics or just plain liberal market economics has had one impact - the rise of oligarchs and decline of democratic norms.

The goofy world view of golf playing dilettantes is not surprising. Their idea of modernity is bizarre to say the least. They spend nearly one and a half hours in traffic to get to the office from their suburban homes. That daily waste of time and fuel is more than compensated by their ability to get to play golf at Hambanthota Shangri La on weekends using the highway to Matara.

To the leisured class and the ‘Tenderprenuers’ Sultan Mahinda is comparable to Suleiman the magnificent who ruled the Ottoman empire.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has recently expanded on the Gotabaya candidacy, saying “Gotabaya Rajapaksa rendered yeoman service during his tenure as Defence Secretary. People can expect the same efficiency and effectiveness if he assumes the presidency.”

Referring to current president Sirisena’s observation that the 19th amendment has curbed the powers of the presidency, he has tellingly declared that wielding power depended on the capacity and capability of the wielder of presidential power. Mahinda knows what he is talking about.

At the beginning of the 20th century, in 1902 to be precise, the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov introduced the idea of classical conditioning to the study of animal behavior. He did not realize then that his experiments would come handy to populist autocrats.

Pavlov found that his dogs were so used to him bringing them treats every time he walked into the room that they would salivate at the sight of him, even when he wasn’t in possession of anything edible.

There is a ‘Pavlov’ running for president. We are looking at this world through eyes of Pavlovian dogs! He is the ‘most likely to win’ says one possible picnicker counting on Pavlov’s biscuits.