By Hilmy Ahamed –
The threat posed by Maithripala Sirisena and Co. to the popular war-winning President is the biggest pre election political upheaval since the defection from the Chandrika Kumaratunga government by SB, GL and eleven others that gave the crown to Ranil Wicremesinghe in December 2001. Will this be repeated in the January 2015 elections? This time around, the number of defections are rumored to be far greater with 21 to 46 predicted, a far greater number than in 2001. Yet, President Mahinda Rajapaksa remains more popular than the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga presidency of that time. This defection could not have come as a surprise to the president as his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa controls the country’s well trained and well equipped intelligence network. He is sure to have calculated his risks when he ventured to bid for his third term with two years left from his second term.
Most urban Sri Lankans have welcomed this move by the former (?) Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the common opposition as an answer to alleged corruption and nepotism of elephantine proportions by the current administration, yet it is still too early to predict whether this would be translated into majority votes. President Rajapaksa still continues to be hugely popular among the rural population because of the relentless campaign by the state media to portray him as the Sinhala Buddhist leader who saved the nation from the Tamil tigers.
While the die-hard Rajapaksa loyalists stand by the president, there is no doubt that a huge section of the incumbent government is disgruntled and frustrated at the blatant favoritism towards the ruling family and their cronies, but with the huge amount of financial and other resources available to the current presidency, it is going to be a formidable task for the opposition to maintain the momentum gained by the defection of this powerful section of the SLFP. There is no doubt that Maithripala Sirisena’s emotional speech resonates with popular opinion, but if this dissident lot who apologize for their role now had not supported the 18th amendment, President Rajapaksa may have introduced these constitutional amendments himself so that he could have returned as an executive prime minister or a prime minister answerable to the parliament with the necessary constitutional changes.
The dissidents have already been expelled from the SLFP. It is yet to be seen whether the dissident members of the SLFP would lay claim to the party, especially after the emotionally charged speech by Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, with her announcement that she is returning to her ancestral home, the SLFP. This could be a popular campaign slogan amongst the SLFP constituency. There is no doubt that Chandrika is the main architect of this coup, but the wrath of the Rajapaksa administration is yet to be experienced by the dissenters.
This election would probably make the infamous Wayamba elections look like child’s play with unprecedented violence and intimidation, which is bound to be part of this campaign. Will the common opposition stand together in defence?
If there is a Maithripala victory, Ranil Wickremesinghe, with his gentlemanly gesture of adhering to popular demand will go down in history as the man who eradicated the curse of the Executive Presidency that his party introduced, but can the common opposition change the constitution after the January 2015 elections, should they succeed?. Why would the lot that remains with the Rajapaksa regime support any change in the constitution, after not being a party to it before. Will there be another 2/3rd majority ever, in any elections? The better option for both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the common opposition would be an attempt to resolve this prior to the elections. Do they have the time and commitment to do it?
While the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was the only political party that stood by its principles and refused to accept the bid by President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a third term, it may end of as the party that gave him his unprecedented third term if it does not join the common opposition as an active member. It is the JVP that has the network, capacity and capability to undertake a grass-roots campaign as they did in the 2005 presidential bid of President Rajapaksa.
Venarable Athuraliye Ratane Thero’s role this with his Pivithuru Hetak that brought the Jathika Hela Urumaya in to confrontation with President Mahinda Rajapaksa is probably the single most important factor that brought the opposition under a common agenda. The role played by Venerable Sobitha Thero too cannot be under scored. These two saffron robed respected monks have also driven the the Bodu Bala Sena in to cold storage, as the majority of the peace loving Buddhists are sure to follow the nobler monks than the extremists.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress has very little choice but to join the bandwagon, as the Muslims are most likely to vote anti-Rajapaksa because of the hate campaign led by the Bodu Bala Sena and other extremist Sinhala groups that was allowed to continue under the current government with impunity.
What role would Sarath Fonseka, the war winning General play in the common opposition? What would Thondaman do with his plantation constituency? Can he survive the political challenges posed by the new entrants to plantation politics, should he be out of power? When would he jump?
The Tamil National Alliance now has a face saving opportunity to join the common opposition even though the candidate has defected from the current government. The left parties led by DEW, Tissa and Vasu may rethink their position and support the abolition of the executive presidency. The minority parties including the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) are sure to jump the sinking ship if the common oppositions’ momentum is maintained.
Ranil Wicremesinghe has been hailed as the “Hero” of our times that he probably richly deserves, not just for allowing Maithri to bring him the fortunes, but for the “Sanga” stroke he has played in the political field. He is the winner all the way, with this masterstroke; he has ensured that, should there be a common opposition victory, he would take the reins as the all-powerful Prime Minister with Maithripala Sirisena probably as the non-executive president. With this, he has also ensured that his party would not be fragmented again in the immediate future.