By Rasika Jayakody –
It was Sirisena, who, leading an alliance representing a wide spectrum of political parties and civil organizations, defeated the seemingly invincible Rajapaksa in January 2015.
After a brief period in the political wilderness, Rajapaksa bounced back strongly, forming a political party of his own that pulled off an unexpected victory at the last Local Government Council election.
And, as of October 26, 2018, it seemed that Rajapaksa was at the zenith of his popularity, poised to win the next Parliamentary election with a sweeping majority.
In fact, it can be said, that both President Maithripala Sirisena and ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have covertly helped Rajapaksa regain momentum through their shortsighted actions and ineffectual governance.
Then Sirisena made his most monumental blunder. He allowed Rajapaksa in through the backdoor one night, and stealthily appointed him the Prime Minister. At the time, Rajapaksa’s group had no concerns about a parliamentary majority, naively assuming they were in the driving seat.
President Sirisena’s repeated assurances had convinced them to such a degree, they had even expected a section of hardcore UNP MPs to perform a somersault and support Rajapaksa’s appointment. A source familiar with the discussions that took place with the two groups implied that Sirisena and S.B. Dissanayake had presented Rajapaksa with a list of 14 UNP MPs who they assumed would cross over to support the “overnight” regime change they architected.
Things, however, went horrifically wrong, when Sirisena’s grand promises failed to materialise. All their attempts to purchase MPs and engineer mass crossovers bore no fruit, as the majority of UNP MPs stood their ground, supporting Wickremesinghe.
In fact, MP Palitha Rangebandara recorded his conversations with Sirisena’s go-betweens and released them to the public, causing the former President and his camp a great deal of embarrassment In all, Sirisena failed to fulfil his end of the deal, leaving Rajapaksa stranded, with a crown on his head but with his hands and legs tied.
With the Supreme Court staying the Gazette dissolving Parliament, Rajapaksa was forced to return to Parliament where he suffered two humiliating no-confidence motions backed by four of the six political parties represented in the legislature. In the absence of a simple majority, Rajapaksa’s only way out was to architect an early dissolution of Parliament by creating continuous chaos in the House and disrupting proceedings. This was indeed a long shot as all political parties saw through their plan and adopted counter-strategies. As a result, their plan backfired and the unruly behaviour of pro-Rajapaksa MPs drew scathing criticism from the public. With all of this, the pendulum of public sympathy suddenly swung in favour of the UNP.
On the canvas of public perception, Rajapaksa has now been painted as an unlawful Prime Minister, avoiding Parliament merely because he does not have a majority. The widely circulated photographs of UPFA MPs throwing books and chilli powder at police officers have caused irreparable damage to the former President’s political agenda. Their excuses for avoiding Parliament and for their forcible continuation in office without a simple majority in Parliament have causedthe Rajapaksa group to be reviled in the eyes of the international press. Adding insult to injury, no country, with the exception of Burundi, has accepted the legitimacy of the purported administration and diplomats from key missions have warned of targeted punitive actions against those responsible for the protracted political turmoil in Sri Lanka.
The current situation has left former President Rajapaksa in a politically precarious position. Presiding over a fragile government lacking legitimacy, he has also earned criticism from his own ranks for being so naive as to accept premiership. Leading the MPs criticising Rajapaksa from within his ranks is Kumara Welgama, a long-time Rajapaksa ally and a key architect of the “pohottuwa” movement. Meanwhile, there are reports that a section of SLFP MPs, led by national organiser Duminda Dissanayake, have held discussions with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to form an independent group in Parliament. Although Rajapaksa’s appointment as the Prime Minister was strategically positioned as a move to ‘unite’ the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, it has, in fact, widened the divisions in the party.
Many now opine that the MPs around Rajapaksa, who are to face a surfeit of cases in court, pressured him into accepting the premiership, in a desperate bid to slow the wheels of justice. This may have been one reason why Rajapaksa entered a seemingly strange alliance with Sirisena. It is my view, however, that Rajapaksa made a grave strategic miscalculation, based on overly ambitious promises and assurances by Sirisena and his allies.
In his haste to oust Wickremesinghe and the UNP faction of the government, Sirisena also spoiled Rajapaksa’s chances for 2020 and pushed him into a disadvantageous position in the eyes of the public. Even at this point, Rajapaksa believes a parliamentary election will hold a favourable outcome for him and give him a relatively honourable exit route from the current rut he is in. But while Rajapaksa is still a force to reckon with at a parliamentary election, he is now much weaker than he was before October 26. The uncharacteristically defensive statement he issued on Sunday (25) explaining his reasons for remaining in the government indicates his current vulnerability.
If the Supreme Court gives him an unfavourable ruling on the dissolution of Parliament early next month, Rajapaksa will have very little room to manoeuvre and will come under enormous pressure to step down from office. A resignation of that sort, needless to say, will be extremely humiliating and go against Rajapaksa personality. To avoid such a situation, Rajapaksa will either have to engineer a serious division within the UNP or architect an en masse crossover that will alter the composition of Parliament in his favour.
At the heart of Rajapaksa’s second setback, is the man who engineered his first – President Maithripala Sirisena. In January 2015, the demarcations were clear and Sirisena led the rival camp as the common candidate of the opposition. This time around, Sirisena came in the guise of a friend and made Rajapaksa the Prime Minister at an inauspicious time, with false reassurances of a parliamentary majority and mass crossovers. On both occasions, it was Sirisena who led to the downfall of Rajapaksa, .