By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
I have always considered Mahinda Rajapaksa as one of the most astute politicians Sri Lanka has ever produced. However, at times he could be extremely impulsive and overconfident. Now, with the ongoing political crisis, it has been proved that he is unrehabilitated as well.
Militarily crushing the LTTE in 2009 boosted Rajapaksa’s popularity immensely within the Sinhala community and he in a way became the modern incarnation of Dutugemunu Kumaraya. Rajapaksa who won the 2005 presidential election with a margin of about 180,000 votes, defeated Sarath Fonseka in 2010 by about 1900,000 votes. His party also won a series of provincial and local elections.
He became overconfident and began to believe that his appeal within the Sinhala community will remain forever. The confidence that he can win any and all elections influenced him to amend the constitution to do away with the presidential term limit. The 18th Amendment allowed him to contest for a third term as president. An overconfident Rajapaksa fixed the presidential election for January 2015, about two years ahead of schedule.
Nonetheless, the electoral map that emerged in 2014 indicated that Rajapaksa and his party was losing popularity among Sri Lankan voters, especially among minority groups. The provincial council elections conducted in 2014, for example, in Southern, Western and Uva provinces demonstrated the serious erosion of UPFA’s vote bank. For instance, following the Uva provincial council election, in an essay titled Uva Provincial Election and Its Implications for the Presidential Race, I pointed out that “Uva confirmed that the incumbent president’s chance of winning a third term would not be as easy as it was originally contended.” With all the resources of government, Rajapaksa and his people should have known more.
If the warning signs were properly comprehended and taken seriously, Rajapaksa would have used the remaining two years of his second term to fix those issues that dented his popularity and then conducted the election. An overconfident Rajapaksa went ahead with the plan for the new election and was badly beaten by his erstwhile deputy Maithripala Sirisena. I believe that Rajapaksa’s impatience and brashness played significant roles in his defeat in 2015.
He should have learned a lesson in 2015. It seems that he did not. I spent about four months of my sabbatical in Sri Lanka last year. I could sense the public mood swinging drastically in favor of Rajapaksa. People everywhere complained about the skyrocketing cost of living, and many suggested that Rajapaksa would have handled the issue more effectively (Sri Lankans have a short memory).
Other social issues, for example, the outbreak of dengue and the garbage problems greatly influenced the public opinion shift toward Rajapaksa. The trend was reconfirmed by the local government election results where his new party, the SLPP did exceptionally well.
In some of my writings last year, I suggested that the Rajapaksa headed coalition would most probably win the national elections in 2020. However, Rajapaksa is impatient, and he could not wait for another two years to come back to power through legitimate elections.
I did not consider Rajapaksa as the architect of what his loyalists call the “revolution.” One can also call it coming to power through backdoors. If it was a revolution, the architect of the revolution, President Sirisena and Rajapaksa are lousy revolutionaries. The combo very well knew that they needed 113 votes in Parliament to effectively execute the revolution. However, they did not have 113 votes. Now, they did not know how to get these votes. They seem trapped and lost.
Whatever procedural flaws the UNP sponsored no-confidence motions have, they effectively proved that the Maithri-Mahinda combo does not have the majority to run the administration. By successfully ratifying the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), the UNP led coalition once again proved that they are in command of the numbers in Parliament. The UNP seems reenergized and executing plans pretty effectively dealing blow after blow to the “revolution.”
Now the Rajapaksa government has vowed to boycott Parliament. Do governments boycott parliament? The boycott would also reaffirm the fact that the Rajapaksa group does not have the required numbers in the national legislature. I won’t be surprised if they return to disrupt because a boycott will allow the UNP to have a free hand in Parliament and to reaffirm its majority, constantly.
Regardless of what is happening in the country and Parliament, Rajapaksa and his group move around saying that they are the government. This looks funny and ridiculous at the same time. Nevertheless, my point is that Rajapaksa looks weak and naive. He should have been more careful in accepting Sirisena’s invitation. He cannot say that he did not know that they did not have 113 votes in Parliament. He was expected to be in command.
Staying in power when one does not have enough seats in parliament is unacceptable and undemocratic. The unfolding scenario makes me think that perhaps Rajapaksa was not rehabilitated as well. When in power, he presided over a semi-authoritarian stated placing almost every social and political institution under constraint. His authoritarian or undemocratic style of governance was one reason why he was defeated in 2015. There was always the possibility that the interim period helped him to realize the pitfalls of his government and rehabilitate himself.
Such a scenario would have been ideal because one day there will be a change of government and Rajapaksas could come back to power. The country is not capable of keeping them out of power forever. Then we do not have to worry about going back to the unpleasant politics of the immediate post-war period. Now, the way the Rajapaksa group illegitimately control power and the way they behave in general, impart the impression that the rehabilitation did not occur.
The thought that Rajapaksas were not rehabilitated and the country may go back to the authoritarianism of the immediate post-war period could terrify lots of people, especially voters. Such a scenario would hamper the possibility of Rajapaksa returning to power through legitimate elections. It seems that the ongoing crisis has evoked enough anxieties about Rajapaksa’s return leading to the consolidation of support for the UNP. Today, one cannot say with certainty that Rajapaksa’s party will win the next national election. One does not have to wait too long to see if Rajapaksa will win the upcoming national polls or become one of the casualties of the so-called revolution.