The Opposition must take the Latin American experience to heart: if its support base doesn’t go beyond an upper middle class and floating lumpen vote, the vote will revert to the government.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year, Donald Trump chose not to meet Juan Guaidó. Exactly a year before, in January 2019, Guaidó had declared himself interim president of Venezuela after securing the support of some 50 countries.
For the next six months, while power vacillated between an impoverished indigenous majority supportive of the de jure president, Nicolás Maduro, and an urban elite supportive of the de facto president, Guaidó, the mainstream Western media drew a simplistic image of a country descending into anarchy and autocracy.
Back home, however, support for the Opposition waned; hamstrung by inflation, the pro-Opposition lower middle class vote reverted to Maduro. There was distrust of politics in general, predominantly among pro-Guaidó types. An engineer waiting by a bus stop in Maracaibo was blunt to Reuters: “Guaidó,” he observed, “missed his moment.” The engineer had supported Hugo Chávez, supported Maduro for a while, and shifted to the Opposition. Now he was turning around, just as Sri Lanka had in 2019.
And then, almost a year after Guaidó declared himself president, a corruption scandal hit his movement: documents leaked online showed that Opposition lawmakers had relegated themselves to powerful, shady business interests. The onus was on his party, Popular Will, to disprove the allegations. Party officials agreed to look into them. Having been neither disproved nor properly investigated, they came to haunt a movement committed to the norms of good governance and democracy.
With an Opposition fractured by its own contradictions, Maduro today looks fit as a horse. Guaidó, by contrast, looks a lost cause. Last June, confirming the turning of the tide, Trump said he would think about meeting Maduro. So much for the Popular Will.
Roughly the same story played out around this time in Bolivia. A year after a coup that threw out Evo Morales following what many see as a successful bid for a fourth presidential term, voters returned his party to power, throwing out a party led by a rightwing evangelist.
Western officials had tweeted against the results of last year’s election, claiming Morales had interfered; they obviously couldn’t say the same of this year’s election, since a pro-Western leader was in power.
The political experience of Third World countries caught up in the crossfire between the West and its opponents has taught us that an Opposition maintaining a pro-West stance will fall. Anti-government movements that do not gain support outside an urban upper middle class and a floating lumpen crowd will be doomed to pay for sidelining the majority.
Sri Lanka could see through this “Latin American transition” – from a Left Bonapartist to a neoliberal and back to a Left Bonapartist – peacefully because it is not situated in Latin America. Sri Lanka is in the middle of a different geopolitical configuration. It can be to our disadvantage, but as the last 20 years have shown us, it can also be to our advantage.
The local Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, must hence realise that no amount of selfies and anti-government armbands and masks will do away with the bitter legacy that they must transcend. If they ignore that, they can only go Guaidó’s way: dependent on support from the West, which can never compensate for lack of support from home.
The public has clearly lost faith in government officials. More significantly though, it has lost faith in the Opposition. “What Opposition?” a friend asked me. I couldn’t reply.