By R. Hariharan –
Former Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that he would accept his loyal supporters demand to contest the forthcoming parliamentary election to be held on August 17. According to media reports, thousands of supporters who had gathered at his home ground in Medamulana cheered him when he said “I am not ready to reject the appeal you are all making.” He indicated that he would be rallying his supporters across all parties “for the sake of the country, for the sake of mother land, we must contest the upcoming parliamentary election.
Earlier president Maithripala Sirisena dissolved the parliament and set the date for the election. The announcements of both the incumbent and former presidents were not unexpected. Time was running out for Sirisena after he failed to hammer out a consensus within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on rejecting the loyalists’ demand for nominating Rajapaksa as the party candidate for prime minister. According to Sri Lanka columnists, President Sirisena’s secret talks with the former president also failed to persuade Rajapaksa not to contest the election to avoid a split in the party.
There were other compulsions for President Sirisena to dissolve the parliament. Already, Rajapaksa loyalists’s within the United People Freedom Alliance (UPFA) parliamentary party ranks had swelled to 80 plus. Any further delay could have not only eroded President Sirisena’s support within the party while enlarging Rajapaksa’s support base, but it would also help his detractors to push through the no confidence motion against Sirirsena’s political ally ruling alliance partner Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pending before the parliament. Wickremesinghe leads the United National Party (UNP) traditional opponents of SLFP. With Rajapaksa loyalists bent upon splitting the SLFP votes, President Sirisena needs the UNP as an electoral ally to prevent Rajapaksa from coming back to power.
Though Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine was able to fulfil some of the important poll promises it still has an unfinished poll agenda that could neutralize all the good things done so far. However, none can deny the national alliance had succeeded in creating a freer political atmosphere without the intelligence and security guys disrupting the activities of Opposition parties, media and the NGOs pampered by stoking the paranoia of foreign conspiracies against the country.
The combine also succeed the 19th Constitutional Amendment, as promised in parliament, which seeks pruning the sweeping powers the executive president enjoyed and increasing the powers of prime minister and parliament to prevent the meddling with the national institutions like the judiciary, election commission and police. Though the 19th Amendment to the constitution helps to restore media freedom and attending to some of the long standing grievances of the minority Tamils, much remains to be done.
A notable failure of the Sirisena government was to get the 20th Constitutional Amendment (20A) for reforming the electoral system passed in parliament. There were fundamental differences between the SLFP and the UNP on the form and structure of the proposed system. Despite Sirisena’s best efforts the differences could not be reconciled. So Sri Lankans will now be electing a new parliament on August 17, a year before it was due, based on the present system. It is a mix of first past the post and proportional representation systems in which the SLFP has been doing better than its rival UNP.
The chances of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe creating the anti-Mahtinda wave among the voters that helped them defeat Rajapaksa once again for the parliamentary election appear bleak. It seems to have lost vigour on two counts: so far investigations into allegations of corruption against the Rajapaksas have failed to unearth actionable evidence and the National Alliance government has accumulated its own baggage of corruption allegations.
In addition to this the massive minority votes – notably Tamil votes – that helped President Sirisena to win by three percent plus margin may not be forthcoming as the leading Tamil political combine Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had been unhappy with the Sirisena government’s slow progress on Tamil issues.
The state owned Daily News quoted SLFP sources to say the talks between Sirisena and “the SLFP stalwarts” over accommodating Rajapaksa in the SLFP nomination list for the next election ended inconclusively on June 29. Though the UPFA General Secretary Premajayantha and SLFP General Secretary Priyadarshana Yapa had insisted on Rajapaksa’s nomination as Prime Ministerial candidate of the party, the UPFA Opposition Leader in parliament Nimal de Silva indicated that he was willing to “sway with the wind.” This actually reflects the shades of differences within the UPFA and SLFP.
With barely six weeks to the election, political arrays are yet to emerge clearly. Sirisena will have a tough job first to mend the SLFP split to enable the SLFP to form a government on its own steam. With sections of SLFP and the minor partners of UPFA backing Rajapaksa, Sirisena will find finalising a list of candidates acceptable to all factions a challenging job.
Comparatively, the UNP is in a better position as the party has delegated the job of candidate selection to Ranil Wickremesinghe. But UNP’s problem is attracting smaller parties to form a winning coalition. Smaller parties like the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) who are opposed to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return will be watching the coalition contretemps to find a face saving way to handle election uncertainties.
Political horse trading has been developed into a fine art in Sri Lanka and politicians’ loyalties are as tradable as scrips in the stock market. Presumably, the next ten days some clarity will emerge in the political scene when electoral alliances are firmed in.
India would prefer Sirisena-Wickremesinghe to win and form the government as it has established better rapport and understanding with the Sirisena government. It has responded positively to India’s sensitivities about China’s increasing influence in Sri Lanka. It has visibly taken action to be equitable in handling its relations with China and India. Even if Rajapaksa comes back to power, India may not lose all that it has gained so far. Rajapaksa, as a shrewd politician, probably understands the dynamics of Indian government has undergone a makeover under Prime Minister Modi. So he is likely to factor it in his dealings with India, though he would probably prefer to deal with China as he has a better equation with it.
Tail piece added after publication: The UPFA announced on July 3 that it had decided to field former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the general election. Former minister Dinesh Gunawardena announcing the media said the district where Rajapaksa would contest would be announced shortly. Significantly, the trade off of the loyalists for the UPFA decision was that Rajapaksa was not announced as the UPFA’s prime ministerial candidate. Apparently Rajapaksa is one up on Sirisena. As I always maintained Sri Lanka political theatre never fails to thrill. Rajapaksa’s nomination as UPFA candidate is going to trigger a fresh round of political palaver; let us sit back and enjoy the next episode.
*Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: http://col.hariharan.info