Neoconservatives enter the fray: on the ideology of the SLPP | Sunday Observer

Neoconservatives enter the fray: on the ideology of the SLPP

This presidential election is the first major election of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). It is worth understanding what it stands for and promises on the one hand, and what one may reasonably expect on the other. For this purpose, today’s column tries to place the SLPP in a theoretical framework that may help us discern what it believes in and acts upon. The Wikipedia article that SLPP maintains calls itself a political party with a centrist ideology, meaning that it takes a middle path approach to most policy issues. However, by its very nature and rhetoric, SLPP espouses neoconservatism, that stands for relatively large governments, welfare, militarism, and hierarchy, as argued below.

What is neoconservatism?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “neoconservatism is a variant of the political ideology of conservatism that combines features of traditional conservatism with political individualism and a qualified endorsement of free markets. Neoconservatism arose in the United States in the 1970s among intellectuals who shared a dislike of communism and a disdain for the counterculture of the 1960s, especially its political radicalism and its animus against authority, custom, and tradition”. Neoconservatives consider religion as a very important social institution and mass media, including television, radio and the internet, as important sites where the contemporary culture of a nation is reflected. As adherents to hierarchy as opposed to egalitarianism, they would tend to preserve culture and venerate religion.

Family: the bastion of hierarchy

Chamal Rajapaksa nominating himself as an independent candidate in the coming presidential election was probably the main outcome of the unsuccessful attempt to prevent former ‘more-than-a-Defense-Secretary’ Gotabaya Rajapaksa from running for Presidency based on his questionable procedure of obtaining dual citizenship. Had Gotabaya been barred from contesting by the courts, then they would have gone in the direction of Chamal Rajapaksa easily. This development on Friday highlighted once again that SLPP is a family-first-party. Former President and the most charismatic in the family is Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has served as President twice, and cannot run for Presidency again, under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. When Gotabaya was facing legal challenges, SLPP had the choice of nominating a fall-back candidate from outside the family. For instance, Dinesh Gunawardena has been a respected leader with a clean record, education, strong background, and left-leniency. However, the SLPP could not do it that way. Why? Conservatism is about hierarchy and the ultimate unit expressing hierarchy is the family. Family orientation of political parties is not uncommon to Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksas are the newest addition to ruler-dynasties. In Sri Lanka, all parties that have been able to obtain over 30% of the votes have had their beginnings with families at the centre. The Senanayake family and the Bandaranaike family are the most prominent among them, with over two state leaders to the credit of a nuclear family. The Premadasa family is also in the front-line now, and the coming election will tell. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, being our neighbours, have elevated some families that led respective independence movements to such demi-god status. This is a feature of the conservative ideology preferring stability and hierarchy, which our region has upheld since their feudal days. In the USA, for example, where the two-party system is strongest, it is the Republican Party (considered the conservatives) that tends to choose its leaders from the Bush family.

As all the supporters of the Rajapaksa family cannot be considered mere followers of a personality cult, the Rajapaksa conundrum of not being able to look for options beyond the Rajapaksa family itself is a sign that the SLPP represents a large conservative force in the country.

Militarism: no more soft-handling

Strong military is at the heart of neo-conservative ideology. As early as the 1960s, it was those intellectuals who were against the soft approach of the Democratic Party towards the Vietnam War and American self-interest who founded the neoconservative ideology as an alternative.

As such, militarism is at the core of neoconservatives. And it is so for the SLPP that has Mahinda Rajapaksa as its leader, with his laurels of ending the 26-year long armed conflict in the country.

Now its militarism has reached a new stage, as they nominated Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was Defence Secretary at the time, as the Presidential Candidate. As was seen in his election campaign, the role played by ex-generals of the Army is evident, indicating the possibility of future military involvement, and militarist tendencies under his presidency. The strongest promise they offer is ‘strengthened national security’, and one may remember that Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his candidacy before offering solace to the victims and the loved ones of the Easter Sunday attacks.

More government, less governance?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa pleads to be understood for his role in modernizing the city of Colombo by expanding roads, breaking parapet walls, building parks and renovating old buildings to restore Colombo within a colonial architecture. That was an efficient endeavour, of course, and that efficiency was obtained by top-down decision-making and using and potential use of sheer force, backed by the Army.

As typical of neoconservative forces, SLPP leadership will bring more government, as was seen during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. Welfare will be used to appease those at the economic periphery, while centralizing the economy further and nurturing a new class of business elite, with state patronage. Loss making state owned enterprises are likely to get a new lease of life, with promises to make them profitable. Although the SLPP can be expected to uphold market economy, their version will be less about freedom and transparency than submission and hierarchy.

In conclusion

Jokingly, some refer to the SLPP as ‘Sri Lanka Pawul Peramuna’. However, the love for the family is only a sign of SLPP’s strong tendency to be a hard neoconservative party upholding hierarchy. As we have not seen its rule yet, it is likely to be marked with strong militarism, control of culture, veneration of majoritarian religion.

A large government with budget deficits will be fine for them than a small government with fewer deficits. As opposed to the popular claim both SLPP and SLFP make, they are not progressive political parties. Nor do they represent the ‘Left’ any more than hosting a few old-school Marxists to justify their welfare ideology. The SLPP marks the birth of neoconservatism in Sri Lanka, as did in India with Prime Minister Modi’s BJP.