By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
The sixth Executive President has become known for his note-less, teleprompter-less, stream of consciousness style of speechifying. Reports suggest that in the aftermath of the controversial ‘I have nothing to do with Mahinda’ speech, the need for some sort of notes has occurred to his political allies and even to the President himself. According to some Sunday political commentaries he admitted to Ranil Wickremesinghe in a telephone conversation that even things he hadn’t planned to say came out.
In this speech the President forgot to hold up the official version that after assuming office he had met the former President only twice. After starting to say at 25.31 of the speech, “as all of you know, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa and I met three times” Sirisena seems to recollect the official version and proceeds to validate only the first two meetings through description. After hearing the revelation ‘three times’ a viewer’s excitement would mount because media reports of the third meeting had been firmly denied by both parties earlier. He or she would listen breathlessly between 25.31 and 28.58, only to be disappointed when the President moves on to another topic after saying that the second meeting concluded without any result.
The second inadvertent revelation by President Sirisena comes around 39.53 in his speech when he declares “Mahinda Rajapaksa who was defeated on January 8th will be defeated again.” Less than a minute later however there is a seeming contradiction when Sirisena makes the definitive prediction (40.48-41.04) that if Rajapaksa and Co “did not receive nominations from the UPFA they will come to Parliament from another party. And that coming to parliament cannot be stopped.” There seems to be a certain attempt (perhaps unconscious) in the English translation provided by the President’s Media Division to dilute the definitiveness of this statement when they translate “ethakota sandhanayen nama yojana nolebuna nam e golla wenath pakshekin parlimenthu enawa. Ethakota e parlimenthuwata ena eka walakwanna behe” as “if they did not receive nominations from the UPFA still they could have contested from another party and come to Parliament and it could not have been stopped.”
If I had been a news editor, I would have placed the following headlines side by side to illustrate the seeming contradiction. “Even without nominations from UPFA, Rajapaksa coming to Parliament cannot be stopped-President” “Rajapaksa who was defeated on 8 January will lose again-President” Both the headlines would have been accurate and represented faithfully two strands of the Presidential thought process. It is when one tries to reconcile these two apparently contradicting strands that one strikes gold. For there is only one way that a Mahinda Rajapaksa nominated by the UPFA and whose coming to Parliament cannot be stopped according to the President, could lose: by having his Prime Ministerial aspirations crushed by a UPFA loss.
Subsequently, UPFA contestant, deputy minister, and Sirisena loyalist Thilanga Sumathipala came forward to say that President Sirisena did not say that the UPFA will lose merely that Mahinda Rajapaksa will. The meaning of the word loss/defeat applied to a person depends on his aspiration. When a person’s aspiration is to mobilise his party to win a majority of seats (at least more seats than the main opposition party) in Parliament so that he can become Prime Minister, then that person’s win or loss becomes conflated with the party’s win or loss. Did Sirisena conflate? Did he fail to properly distinguish or keep separate the destinies of Rajapaksa and the UPFA at this election? Did he treat them as equivalent? Yes he did. By effectively communicating in a televised address to the Nation that Mahinda Rajapaksa who lost on 8th January will lose again, even though his coming to Parliament cannot be stopped. Sirisena forces us to question the meaning of ‘losing’ as applied to Rajapaksa. He helpfully narrows down the definition. It’s not by failing to come to parliament that Rajapaksa will lose. In the special way of ‘losing’ assigned by the President Sirisena to the former President, Rajapaksa’s losing is dependent on the UPFA’s losing.
So it is that kind of Parliamentary election fight and not the other kind that Mahinda Rajapaksa will face. In the Sri Lankan tradition Parliamentary elections are contests between two leaders, only one of whom actually contests the election as the clear Prime Ministerial candidate. The other leader remains as Executive President and drives a team of his or her party towards victory without naming a PM candidate before the election. Thus even though he was appointed as PM after it, Mahinda Rajapaksa didn’t win the 2004 Parliamentary election. Chandrika Kumaratunga did because it was in her name the UPFA mobilised to win that election. In reality it was a contest between Ranil and Chandrika. Ranil Wickremesinghe lost that election. If during the campaign Chandrika had predicted ‘Mahinda will lose’, it could only have meant ‘Mahinda will not be elected to Parliament’. At the 2004 Parliamentary election a UPFA defeat was equivalent to a CBK defeat. Perhaps that’s why whichever party has the Executive Presidency refrains from naming a PM candidate. It would divide the mobilising spirit of the party and dilute the drive.
What happens when an Executive President cum leader of a party is unwilling or not sufficiently powerful to mobilise the party towards victory in a Parliamentary election? In the 1994 Parliamentary elections we may have an example of a leader who lacked sufficient vim or motivation. This election was a contest between Chandrika Kumaratunga and D. B Wijetunga, an unelected UNP Executive President who had been appointed by Parliament after President Premadasa was assassinated. As the incumbent Executive President and leader of UNP he was expected to mobilise his party’s team to win the election. Despite the UNP team containing both Gamini Dissanayake and Ranil Wickremesinghe, a Prime Ministerial candidate was not named and neither of them was Chandrika’s opponent in this election. If President Wijetunga had announced ‘Gamini Dissanayake will lose, but his coming to Parliament cannot be stopped’, it would have been taken as nonsense. There was no other way for Dissanayaka to lose that election except by failing to get elected to Parliament. Ditto with Ranil. But Chandrika stood to lose if the PA did not get a higher number of seats even if she was elected to Parliament. Because her win or loss had become equivalent with the PA’s win or loss. If Mahinda will lose even though his coming to Parliament cannot be stopped, it’s because Mahinda’s loss or win has become equivalent with the UPFA’s win or loss. In that case it is Mahinda who is mobilising the UPFA towards victory. In the event of a UPFA win, it wouldn’t matter if the UPFA was choc a bloc with seniors.
It’s not the kind of Parliamentary election fight in which the Executive President can say; “even if my party wins, there are enough seniors in my party other than Mr. So and so to appoint as PM”. President Premadasa was entitled to say that in the 1989 Parliamentary election. He did not say ‘In the case of a UNP win there are enough people to appoint as PM other than Lalith or Gamini” but must have thought it. He appointed D.B Wijetunga, a nonentity compared to Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayaka. He was entitled because the UNP win in that election was his. His was the leadership spirit and the mobilising force behind his party’s victory. Chandrika Kumaratunga could have said a similar thing in both 2001 and 2004 when she acted as the mobilising spirit. The only Executive President of Sri Lanka to actually say it isn’t entitled to say it.
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