By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
At first, I thought it was just another meeting. Hence, I did not pay too much attention. Then, I was told the meeting drew a massive crowd. Although estimates differed greatly, it was an impressive show of strength: a crowd that I have never seen in any of the recent meetings. Also, I noticed many of the leading Sri Lankan commentators were writing about it. It must be important. I decided to watch the video of the whole show on the Colombo Telegraph.
People who gathered were asking Rajapaksa to come out of his “semi-retirement.” At this juncture, it is important to understand what former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had to say. What he said could have serious repercussions for the future direction of the country and most importantly the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). For example, a decision to return to active politics would split the SLFP, right in the middle.
Approving of the meeting and appreciating the support, Rajapaksa had sent a brief message, which was read to the crowd. In his message Rajapaksa made two factors clear. One, he does not accept the election results because he believes that it was an outcome of a conspiracy; a conspiracy mounted by enemies of the country. If one goes by Rajapaksa’s recent pronouncements, this could include the Tamils, the Tamil diaspora, India, the West and so on.
Two, his loyalty to the SLFP is still strong. He made that very clear in his message. Therefore, he probably will not leave the party to support what could be called the Nugegoda Alliance. The Nugegoda Alliance includes the political parties and ideological factions that shared the stage.
Although it was declared that Rajapaksa has no capacity to reject the call of the people who voted for him, he constantly referred to the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by the SLFP. It is, therefore, safe to assume that he will return to active politics and contest the forthcoming parliamentary election as the prime ministerial candidate if invited by the UPFA headed by the SLFP. Those who expected a firm “yes” from Rajapaksa would have been disappointed. Now the ball is in the SLFP’s court and it seems that Rajapaksa will wait.
Will he fight for it? This is highly unlikely, because it seems that Rajapaksa is increasingly losing the ability to wage political battles. He contemplated the idea of cancelling the election when it became clear that he was trailing, but did not pursue it. He hurriedly left for his ancestral home, only to return almost immediately to reclaim the SLFP leadership and within a couple of days gently surrendered it to President Sirisena. He no longer is fighting.
What’s next? Rajapaksa and his supporters could try to engineer an invitation from the SLFP or keep up the pressure through, for example, Nugegoda like rallies, protests and marches. Engineering an invitation will not be easy because of the power Sirisena could wield on the SLFP leadership due to his position as president. Sirisena did not win the presidential election to let Rajapaksa come back to power by other means. The personal animosity between the two will also add to Rajapaksa’s re-entry problem.
It is clear that the Nugegoda Alliance will try to keep up the pressure through similar meetings and programs. The Nugegoda meeting was more about the Alliance rather than Rajapaksa. Members of the Nugegoda Alliance can hardly win any seats on their own in a general election. They do not have popular endorsement and party machinery. Therefore, they need an alliance with the SLFP or a personality like Rajapaksa to bolster their campaign. Even if Rajapaksa does not re-enter, these campaigns will enhance their image, which will be of value in a future general election. Therefore, the Nugegoda rally is an image-building exercise by members of the Alliance. Obviously, some were trying to fill the vacuum created by Rajapaksa’s exit. It is also possible that they love Rajapaksa too much.
Executive Prime Minister?
At least a segment of the people who attended the Nugegoda rally believe that Rajapaksa could and should become the prime minister. The question is whether they want Rajapaksa as the executive prime minister or as the prime minister under the present system. Under the present system, the office of the prime minister is an extremely weak institution. Ask Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, and D.M. Jayaratna. One prime minister even complained that he was treated like a peon. This is definitely not what the Nugegoda Alliance wants for their hero, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Therefore, they are talking about a premiership under a reformed constitution. In essence they want President Sirisena to reform the constitution so that Rajapaksa could return as an executive leader. How realistic is this expectation? It is extremely unrealistic. The present president had to take a very serious risk and launch a difficult but vigorous campaign to oust Rajapaksa. Therefore, he is unlikely to facilitate Rajapaksa’s return.
Also, Sirisena was directly and indirectly attacked in Nugegoda. A direct attack came from Weerawansa. His accusations claimed that it is President Sirisena who appoints the prime minister and the opposition leader and asked: What kind of country are we living in? In his message Rajapaksa claimed that he was brought down by a conspiracy, implying that Sirisena was part of that conspiracy. Therefore, the suggestion that Rajapaksa and Sirisena could work together does not sound realistic. This also means that Rajapaksa cannot make a comeback as the prime minister immediately or at least for another six years.
However, one cannot overlook the force projected in Nugegoda. It demonstrated how much popularity Rajapaksa enjoys among his Sinhala compatriots. It demonstrated that if allowed he could come back, win elections and start rebuilding. This has the potential to make Rajapaksa’s opponents and the present government nervous. They would also understand that reforming the fundamental elements of the present constitution, for example, reintroducing the parliamentary form of government, would allow Rajapaksa to make an easy return. A total reformation at this point in time could amount to political suicide. It is the executive presidency that is preventing Rajapaksa from coming back. Consequently, the government might even slow down the plans to reform the constitution. Therefore, the real implication of the Nugegoda rally, perhaps, is the slowing down of the reform agenda, not the rise (or re-rise) of Rajapaksa.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland