By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by the incumbent Maithripala Sirisena fair and square in the January 2015 presidential election. Yet, Rajapaksa is not convinced that he has lost the election because he still retains overwhelming support within the Sinhala community. Therefore, instead of retiring from active politics and enjoying his retirement benefits, he continue to be in a state of semi-retirement. Now, he seems to be coming out of the semi-retirement and engaging in active politics. A couple of days back he declared that he will continue to fight for his people, even if he is thrown into jail.
Originally, Rajapaksa and his supporters wanted him to be appointed the prime ministerial candidate of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in the forthcoming parliamentary election. This seems like a distant dream. While retaining the demand, Rajapaksa now performs tasks of the opposition leader, unofficially. He criticizes the president (and segment of) the government headed by the United National Party (UNP). In a way, he is performing an important task because, as of today, it is not clear who is the real opposition leader. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is in the government, as well as the opposition. Recently, Rajapaksa criticized the government for removing military camps and downsizing the military presence in the Northern Province, the predominantly Tamil region. He will continue this role until parliament is dissolved and fresh elections are held. His strategies could change with the new election.
What does Rajapaksa’s active politics mean for him and the country? Ideally, Rajapaksa would like to be the president. This became impossible with the introduction of the 19th Amendment to the constitution. The Amendment reintroduced the two-term limit. Within the legal framework of the country, the best Rajapaksa could achieve is the premiership. Rajapaksa supporters are organizing a series of meetings, the so called “bring back Mahinda” rallies, to demonstrate that he has adequate support within the Sinhala community to become the prime minister and to force the president, the leader of the SLFP, to appoint him the prime ministerial candidate. Now, it is clear that Rajapaksa openly encourages these meetings.
Defying orders of the present leadership of the party, an increasing number of SLFP parliamentarians are attending the Rajapaksa meetings. It is reported that more than 70 parliamentarians from the UPFA attended the Matara rally. Most of them should be from the SLFP. This clearly demonstrates the challenges President Sirisena faces in retaining complete control over his party. The Rajapaksa rallies and demonstrations also place Sirisena under tremendous pressure.
Succumbing to this pressure, Sirisena met Rajapaksa for a “peace” talk. Insiders say, Rajapaksa demanded the premiership. A significant aspect of the meeting was that it imparted the impression that two equal parties were meeting. For example, a round table was used for the “talks.” It is not clear whether the use of a round table was accidental or demanded by the former president. This author wouldn’t be surprised if it was indeed demanded by the Rajapaksa group. The shape of the table has a meaning in relation to the status of the parties that are meeting. If it was intentional, Rajapaksa still believes that he is equal to the president of the country. This author is also not sure if Rajapaksa ever treated former president Kumaratunga as an equal after he became the president.
The Rajapaksa-Sirisena meeting produced no results. It however, elevated the status and confidence of the former president. Rajapaksa was supposed to be a mere retired president; not a political heavy-weight. Rajapaksa’s criticism of the president and the government have become vocal in the post-meeting period. Now, the president has appointed a committee to coordinate with Rajapaksa. This confirms the significance of the Rajapaksa factor as he cannot be simply ignored. Instead of taking on the Rajapaksa challenge, President Sirisena seems to be exposing his weaknesses. This will further embolden the former president and will further elevate his status. Sirisena believes that he can retain unity of and control over the party by appeasing Rajapaksa. He is unlikely to succeed because Rajapaksa will bring more pressure on the president.
Can Rajapaksa achieve anything substantial politically with his present strategy of challenging the president? It is doubtful. Rajapaksa has two major problems. First, the constitution will work against Rajapaksa’s aspirations. He cannot become the president again. Also, despite the introduction of the 19th Amendment, the president retains the power to appoint the prime minister. Even if Rajapaksa contests the next election and enter parliament and have enough members of parliament to support him, ultimately, it is the president who appoints the prime minister. Sirisena, is smart enough to comprehend the dangers of appointing Rajapaksa as the prime minister. It would be suicidal. Therefore, Sirisena will not appoint Rajapaksa as the SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate. He was clear about that.
The only option available to Rajapaksa is to lead his own party and contest the next parliamentary election. This is where Rajapaksa has his second problem. He is too loyal to his party, the SLFP. Since he is so committed to the SLFP, he will not easily decide to formally split the SLFP. Recently, Rajapaksa blamed other SLFP leaders for dividing the party. This is an indication that leading a separate political entity in the general election will be the last option. To form his own party, Rajapaksa needs to break the SLFP and take a substantial number of its members away. Either way, he cannot continue his present strategy for too long. Once parliament is dissolved, Rajapaksa will be forced to decide whether he can continue to stay in the background and encourage dissidents of the SLFP or take a direct role in leading his group.
Also, even for Rajapaksa supporters, it is not clear if they can win enough seats to form a government without the SLFP’s electoral machinery. The machinery is controlled by Sirisena or the group loyal to him. Therefore, at this point in time, one may assume that the chances for Rajapaksa to lead a separate group in the general election is very remote. Rajapaksa is simply trying to bring the SLFP under his control, which he believes will allow him to form the next government.
Although, Rajapaksa’s present strategies have complicated the political milieu in the country, the consequences are relatively clear. First, Rajapaksa’s actions have seriously divided the SLFP. Now there are two major factions within the party; the Rajapaksa faction and the Sirisena faction. Despite President Sirisena’s attempts to forge greater unity within the party, it will face the election as a divided entity. This, on the other hand, should benefit the UNP. Therefore, in an immediate parliamentary election the UNP would have an added advantage.
Second, Rajapaksa is undertaking an extremely racist campaign. In the immediate aftermath of the presidential election he blamed the “Tamils” for his electoral defeat. Now, with the intention of winning Sinhala votes, he claims that government policies are paving the way for the reemergence of the LTTE terrorism. The argument is that he should come back to power to protect the motherland from the Tamils. He and his supporters want an iron grip on the Tamil population. Any conciliatory measures by the government towards the minorities will be depicted as a sellout of the motherland. Consequently, the government will be hesitant to make any conciliatory measures aimed at improving ethnic relations. Rajapaksa politics therefore, will slow down real peace and ethnic reconciliation.
It appears, President Sirisena spends more time trying to resolve problems created by Rajapaksa than actually governing the country. It has obviously become a worry for him. What can he do? He should in fact test the limits of Rajapaksa’s resolve rather than trying to appease him. Appeasement should be the last option, not the first. The dissolution of parliament will force Rajapaksa to make decisions. Also, perhaps, Hirunika Premachandra was right when she said that the president should have taken disciplinary action against the SLFP members who participated in the first bring back Mahinda meeting in Nugegoda. This would have discouraged others from participating in the subsequent meetings. He could have also avoided having peace talks with Rajapaksa.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.