By Kalana Senaratne –
In the early weeks of November 2014, it seemed somewhat clear that Mahinda Rajapaksa was set to rule the country for at least another six years. But on 8th January 2015, when he finally went to cast his vote, even Mahinda appeared to have realized what the final verdict was going to be. Never before, during the past decade, had he looked so defeated; especially on the day of an election. For the first time in years, something strange had happened to this man who was perhaps the most accurate political reader of the Sinhala mindset. The Sinhalese had now begun to read him.
Immediately after the defeat, Mahinda did try to suggest that all was not over yet, that he was ready to return, which may have caused some anxiety within the victorious camp. The ease with which he interacted with his ardent supporters at his home-constituency showed that the old ‘people’s politician’ was still in him. Interestingly, in this brief engagement with the people and his return to Colombo (SLFP-headquarters), there were two distinguishing features.
The first was that in hindsight, it now seemed as if Mahinda had absorbed the possibility of his loss even before the election (which explained his body language during the campaign), which in turn made his post-election recovery swifter than expected. The second was that it appeared he had finally acknowledged one of the fundamental reasons for his post-2009 downfall – his family; for in his engagements with the public, Mahinda was by himself, with his sons and brothers absent. It was almost as if the Mahinda of the pre-2005 era was making a slow comeback, which, surely, should have raised serious concerns for the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe camp.
But all this was too sudden; and in the process, Mahinda made the mistake of trying to play the racist card, by telling his supporters that Maithripala Sirisena, the new President, had won due to ‘Eelam’ votes. This simply confirmed the doubt that this Mahinda who sought to re-enter active politics is even worse than the Mahinda who would have returned after winning the Presidential election. Mahinda, then, had made the cardinal mistake of clarifying to the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe camp his intentions and therefore what the counter-strategy should be: hence the intensification of the ‘coup’ allegation; the swift change in the SLFP leadership; the leveling of corruption charges against him and his family; the moves to further denigrate and isolate the Rajapaksas.
In short, the great irony is that Mahinda provoked some politicians (especially of a nationalist bent) to seek ways of preventing his return with the same kind of energy and zeal with which they seek the prevention of the return of another Prabhakaran!
Reducing Mahinda and the Rajapaksa-regime to this helpless state is a remarkable achievement of the political forces that opposed him, the culmination of an extremely bold and dangerous political effort. Two factors to be remembered here are the following.
The first is that while the Tamil and Muslim peoples of the North and East did contribute immensely to the defeat of Rajapaksa, the victory wouldn’t have been possible had it also not been for the Sinhala population, including the Sinhala-dominated police/military forces and the public sector, which resisted Rajapaksa-rule. In other words, Tamil votes don’t become a decisive factor in a vacuum, but rather in the presence of a significant shift in the Sinhala vote base (and vice-versa). And this latter shift, to be sure, was not a result of the Tamil critique of the Rajapaksas; rather, it was a clear consequence of the critique generated in the South by Sinhala politicians.
The second is that Mahinda’s defeat shattered the myth of invincibility that surrounded and guarded him. In constructing this myth, he was greatly assisted over the years by the media, the cronies around him, and a number of political groups and analysts who were duped and drugged by the very myth they were engaged in constructing. Their support for Mahinda (and much that came with him) was at times purely guided by the arrogant view that there was simply no way in which Mahinda could be electorally defeated. That the myth of invincibility does get shattered in gruesome ways, as it happened in May 2009, was perhaps something that they were aware of. But they were foolishly blind to the possibility of this happening through more democratic means.
One of the significant political questions arising now, however, is that of how power could be consolidated during these uncertain times. This does affect the politics of the future and the possibility of political reform so essential in the country.
Firstly, the moves made by Mahinda (with the help of some of his backers within the UPFA) will have to be defeated. If this means taking legal action against Mahinda, such a plan could prove counter-productive (especially in the short term). Under these circumstances, the present administration will seek to delegitimize his identity by keeping him in doubt about possible legal action – which is what’s happening now. The second related move is to take stringent action against some of his closest political associates, through proper legal means, based on credible evidence. This is perhaps one of the essential requirements today, and would serve two purposes: the democratic and legitimate purpose of holding crooks, at least of the previous regime, accountable; and the prevention of a damaging political alliance made up of such crooks and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The next big issue regarding power-consolidation is the ‘SLFP-question’: what happens to the SLFP now, especially at a Parliamentary election? At present while its leadership has been sorted out, it remains divided, with one unit forming part of the government and the other being in the opposition. This makes the SLFP’s role and presence in Parliament extremely dubious (and is similar to a ‘set-up’, as Anura Kumara Dissanayake stated). Moreover, and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t seem that the SLFP is willing to adopt the reconciliatory approach which is being adopted by its leader, Maithripala Sirisena.
It’s also interesting to note here, that the SLFP hasn’t lost its relevance completely. For the current government, however desirable, isn’t still a government elected by the broader and popular will of the people. More crucially, the SLFP stands to gain support if the UNP-dominated administration fails in its task of addressing corruption and other reforms. This is particularly so in the context where one observes that it is parties like the JVP, and not the UNP, that are in the forefront of leveling seemingly credible allegations regarding corruption. So the UNP, from its perspective, would need to emerge as the dominant force fighting corruption and establishing independent institutions if it is to further gain from the victory of the common candidate.
In the midst of the imminent cold-war, President Sirisena’s task will be very challenging. On the one hand, he needs to support the UNP-dominated government – but also has to maintain a united SLFP and portray it as an undefeated outfit; for he cannot be seen to be the first SLFP-leader who, through acts of commission or omission, worked for the defeat of the party. Related to the issue is also his ability to show that he is not a weak leader. This directly affects the issue of abolition/reformation of the Executive Presidency. While its abolition is necessary, President Sirisena might realize that in a period of political uncertainty as the present one, it would be politically problematic to appear as a weak leader. Importantly, President Sirisena would not be able to take any positive decision on this question concerning the Executive Presidency, without the overwhelming support of the SLFP.
How then to approach a general election? To some, it would seem that a SLFP-UNP alliance would appear to be the best option available, which goes to an election under a common symbol. But, while coalition politics is not new in Sri Lanka, a grand SLFP-UNP alliance (without any cracks in either party) at the general election would be simply unprecedented prospect.
The problem here is also that both parties currently feel that they have won or are yet to complete their partial victory. The UNP which had no serious prospect of coming to power anytime soon and suddenly found itself heading a government, would want to capitalize on the present situation and form another UNP-dominated government after the general election. So one cannot expect the UNP to be as reconciliatory as President Sirisena. The SLFP, understandably, would have similar ambitions. In addition to these concerns which make a broad alliance impossible, such a grand alliance will also raise a few practical questions. What would be the political slogans of this alliance? Who are its adversaries? Would it, for example, have to revert to the old system of a jumbo-cabinet after winning the election, given the need to please the various elements of that alliance?
Much of this confusion might result in the JVP’s gain, for its critique of mainstream politics, is gaining greater popularity. The JVP will, by increasing its numbers in Parliament, become the ‘remote-control’, which is necessary to keep the two mainstream parties in check and under a tight leash. Most preferably, a stronger contingent within Parliament of TNA, JVP and other political parties is essential.
The ideal scenario would of course be that which is being proposed for 23 April 2015 (under the 100-days programme): i.e. dissolve Parliament on 23rd and hold an election; appoint a Prime Minister from the party with the largest gains and a deputy Prime Minister from the second best; appoint a cabinet representing all political parties; and as a consequence, formulate national policies to address key challenges confronting the country. But to have faith in that kind of politics is to be overly optimistic about the current political culture in Sri Lanka.
The current political leadership/administration is relatively better than the previous one, and it is best that the present form of government continues to remain after a general election. But it needs to be admitted that the struggle has only begun, with ‘for what?’ or ‘against whom?’ being questions for which clear answers will remain somewhat elusive. It’s necessary to remain critically and ever vigilant. This could be what President Sirisena is thinking too, as he comes to realize that his popularity is increasing to the anger and frustration of all the elements who lost on 8 January and are currently redundant entities seeking to make a comeback by promoting a discourse about separatism and foreign intervention.
*This is the complete version of the shorter article appearing in the Daily Mirror of 4 Feb. 2015