The new populism is to resist populism and populists
Posted on December 19th, 2019

Malinda Seneviratne

A general election will be held soon. That much is certain. Indeed, if not for the term-related clause in the 19th Amendment Parliament would be dissolved by now. This Parliament feels old. Older than a little over four years. Those of the UNP (United National Party) and the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) in Parliament have in fact lost their mandate, the former twice over. As for the SLFP, it was trounced at that election and any claims to a legit mandate obtains only on account of having supported Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the last minute.  

Although Parliament has not been dissolved, parties and politicians are clearly getting ready. Maithripala Sirisena, perhaps hopeful for post-presidential relevance and obviously aware of general public sentiment, has made pro-Gotabaya noises. He’s urging the SLFP to help the president get a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Well, the SLFP doesn’t have much of a choice right now. The pre-election pact with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is all that the SLFP has by way of a trump card. A low one at that. 

The UNP has to adopt an optimistic tone and it has. However, even if the newly elected president were to make several massive blunders, it is unlikely that the UNP would retain its parliamentary strength. All the bonus seats won by that party would go to the SLPP (with or without the SLFP) and the margins of defeat in each district are unlikely to get narrowed. What Sajith Premadasa got from the North and East would probably be reclaimed as right by the TNA and other Tamil and Muslim parties in these districts.
The JVP? Well, the prospects are not all that rosy, let’s say. 
One thing that indicates possible result is the clamor for nomination. It’s the party bosses of the SLPP who are being harangued these days. An SLPP ticket is almost like half the battle won.  

It all adds up to one thing. The SLPP and the President have greater-than-usual opportunity to put politics aside. Indeed, in this, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has set the example and pace. Political expediency, for now at least, is not among his priority concerns.  He’s been calling spades, spades, and that’s rare for politicians, especially leaders. More typical would be the opposite: wild promises, populist rhetoric and trying to please one and all (all the while knowing very well that none would benefit in the end). 

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President by close to seven million people. The majority of them are well aware of the diga-palala of election pledges. It might be correct to say that people vote in the hope that one or two of the promises would be delivered. Honest effort and a few signals that indicate intent and rudimentary progress should do the trick if are talking about chances of victory in a General Election following the kind of victory that Gotabaya secured. 
In other words Gotabaya, if he were to lead the SLPP campaign or at least play a key role in it, doesn’t need to break a sweat. He doesn’t have to play politician. What would be surprising, fresh and welcome would be for him to reject all pressure and temptation to be a typical politician at this point, with elections around the corner. 

He could do what others did not. Do. Yes, ‘do’. Just ‘do’. Do it. Just do it. 
What’s ‘it’ here? In a word, the ‘unpopular’.  Things that may not be received with wild applause. Must-do things. Things that might at first make ‘seasoned politicians’ say ‘that won’t win us any votes’ or ‘you can’t win elections that way.’ They say such things partly because that’s all they know. Frills and not substance is what they are all about. 
Forget politics, then, is what is recommended. And then? Well, the President has shown that he prefers not to mince his words. He was honest with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. To those worried about the Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka he essentially said, ‘stop whining, invest instead.’ His government and especially the law enforcement agencies and the Foreign Minister have handled the Swiss Embassy’s foot-in-mouth episode with exemplary professionalism. 
That’s international relations. How about on the domestic front? Well, there are things that need to be done and things he would do well to resist. In terms of the latter, the pressure and temptation to indulge in political patronage should be resisted, be it the use of presidential pardons or favoring loyalty over proven expertise in appointments. As for the former, the President hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs. He came with a doer’s reputation and he hasn’t done anything to make anyone doubt this. 
Protection of resources, especially forest reserves. Safeguarding national integrity and thwarting attempts to scuttle the same via Eelamist devolutionist designs. Ensuring sovereignty is not compromised through bilateral agreements that are against the national interest such as the SOFA, ACSA and the MCC Compact. These are some areas. Then there’s nepotism. There’s the independence of the judiciary. The integrity of systems. Law and order.
Black areas, all. Easy to talk the language of pragmatism. Easy to say ‘I will attend to these later’. Later, however, quickly slips down the priority list and ends up in an unhappy place called ‘Never.’
Since the General Election is to be held soon, the atypical will not come with political costs or, if there are costs they won’t be significant.  
It’s a happy place to be in if a leader is serious about leading and leading a nation and a people to a different, more efficient, principled and sustainable future. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is excellently positioned. It’s all his to wreck. It’s as simple as that.
This article was first published in the Daily Mirror [December 19, 2019]

One Response to “The new populism is to resist populism and populists”

  1. Charles Says:

    Excellent Malinda this exactly what I would have liked to have written.

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