By Malinda Seneviratne –
It is indeed ironical that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s political fortunes have declined to the point that this once all-powerful executive president has to request that he be considered as the Prime Minsiterial candidate of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
Nothing conclusive has resulted from the meeting except a stated agreement to ‘continue the dialog’. Well, that’s not entirely true. It is clear enough that Maithripala is not ready to entertain the idea of his predecessor being the Prime Ministerial candidate of the SLFP.
It is ironical that he has to submit the request to the man he could have but didn’t appoint as Prime Minister when he, Rajapaksa, was President, a move which, if made at the right time, might have retained him the presidency. It is also ironical that the premiership is now invested with more power than enjoyed by the Prime Ministers during his, Rajapaksa’s, presidential tenure. Finally, it is ironical that Rajapaksa, the former leader of the SLFP has to make this request from the man who bested him at the January presidential election and who went on to unseat him as the leader of the party, President Maithripala Sirisena.
The talks were framed by a felt need by all concerned to unite the SLFP with a view to contest the next election from a position of unity and strength. The ‘unity-need’ however was overshadowed by moves by the Rajapaksa camp to recover lost ground within the party and in the larger political arena.
To be fair, thanks to confusion in the Maithripala camp, confusion in the overall political arena about who governs and who opposes, rank incompetence, arrogance and mishandling over key issues by the Government, Mahinda Rajapaksa had acquired the status of de-facto Leader of the Opposition, with Dinesh Gunawardena virtually ‘speaking for him’ in Parliament. This situation obviously suits the UNP and this is why that party is in an almighty hurry to have elections announced.
However, even after the 19th Amendment, there is enough power remaining in the executive presidency to ensure that Maithripala Sirisena can, if he wants to, change things decisively. He calls the shots. Whether Rajapaksa likes it or not, therefore, his is to take what is offered. He cannot demand.
What are Mahinda’s options, given the above?
Right now there are four types of people backing him. First there is the family whose interests are so obvious they need not be elaborated. Then there are those who need to cling to Mahinda in the hope that he would drag them to Parliament with him. There are those who are accused of wrongdoing who see in him a savior. However this third category can seek to cut a deal with the UNP if they feel that party would emerge victorious in a general election. Finally there are the Sinhala nationalists who feel that the January 8 result was a body-blow to majority concerns. Interestingly, they probably form the majority of the numbers supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa at this point (perhaps for a lack of an alternative?).
The President, if party interest is important to him (and there are no signs that they are), will have to ask himself what these four groups and the votes they could be expected to secure would do to the SLFP and its fortunes should these talks end in a stalemate. The numbers could put the SLFP in the Opposition for the 4 years (at least) following an election (if held soon). Is compromise not possible, he would have to ask.
But it takes two to clap. The Mahinda camp cannot afford to paint itself into a corner because with an antagonized President and a UNP-led Government, fortunes could dip further unless of course Ranil Wickremesinghe and his team play to form and disappoint the Sinhalese community to the point that governability is compromised.
We are in for interesting times, clearly.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com