By Uditha Devapriya –
Power struggles are rarely if at all about the people. Rhetoric is scripted in, yes, but for the most it remains a necessity as a means to an end. Outcomes which get preferred by parties never privilege the voter. This we know. As such elections have more to do with power and frill than with serving the people. This too we know.
Writing 12 days before Maithripala Sirisena defected from the SLFP and thereby wrecked the political equation, Udaya Gammanpila, then allied with the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), commented on Ranil Wickremesinghe’s moves. Arguing that Wickremesinghe would use a proxy, Gammanpila made a classic inference: that his would use his moves to retain position within his own party.
This is true. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s conduct during the presidential and parliamentary elections was suave to say the least. He aced dissidents within his own party and that in a way which lent credibility to his faction. If at all, he convinced those within the United National Party (UNP) to join him and thereby strengthen party above anything else.
Political equations do not last long, however. Scripted into MOUs (between and within parties) are escape clauses. True, Ranil’s grip on party leadership and his ability to wield power in the face of popular dissent is not unknown. If at all, this will sustain his vision for party and government for quite some time.
Dayan Jayatilleka once observed that the only way to salvage the UNP was to join up with the JVP and other dissident parties and embark on a consciousness-raising exercise against Mahinda Rajapaksa. What unfolded later wasn’t a consciousness-raiser but a revolt against incumbent. Both Jayatilleka and Gammanpila couldn’t have predicted Wickremesinghe using a stalwart from the ruling party to become prime minister, which explains why both opposed Sirisena’s campaign, the former on principal.
What happened next was the formation of four different voter-camps, all of whom supported Sirisena. They were those who: 1. Supported the UNP; 2. Embraced him from the UPFA; 3. Let go of ideology and supported him; and 4. Were courted by the Jathika Hela Urumaya upon its ejection from the Alliance and hence congealed into the floating voter.
The point is that Wickremesinghe’s equation is shaky. Those four classes remain intact, but altered slightly. Now those with the UNP will remain with the UNP. Those who supported Maithripala Sirisena from the UPFA are with the president. But the other two classes, particularly those from the floating vote-base, are what count. Wickremesinghe’s position should be based or rather positioned on this ground. Why?
First of all, what’s “national” in this National Government? What we’ve seen is a coalition, yes, but one in which the UNP dominates. Power-sharing has been for the most vertical, with state largesse going to the Greens and “titbit” ministries going to the Blues. In this context it’s not too hard for the prime minister to court popularity within his party.
Problem is, these things don’t remain constant forever. Wickremesinghe’s strategy was and is to split the SLFP and this in a way which ensures that his faction within the UNP holds sway on government and party. He needs to do two things here: a successor who’ll continue his legacy, and ensure that his party “gets” the presidency some day. Whether he can do this while accommodating those who’ve been known to oppose him within the UNP is for another article.
Right now, here’s what counts. Without delivering on the mandate given to him by the floating voter, Wickremesinghe’s government can hope for very little. This is not just because the UPFAers who affirm(ed) the National Government are led by a party-less drive to weed out corruption and adjust structural flaws. This is also because their representatives wrecked one political equation, turning Rajapaksa into a lost cause overnight. History, as we know, repeats itself.
Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero is not Green. Nor are Patali Champika Ranawaka and the JHU, as well as those who helped the yahapalana campaign, Shiral Lakthilaka included. They are as colourless as they can get. As such the primary need to contain opposition and lend credence to a Green government means that two requirements need to be met: national security and foreign affairs.
Part of the reason why the UNP lacks support from the rural voter is that it’s perceived as anti-poor and pro-West. This doesn’t make the SLFP a socialist paradise either, but the point is that for almost 10 years, ever since Rajapaksa breached the famous Maithri-Malik MOU by allowing defectors to join his government, the UNP was badmouthed as a party which stood against the war. Making matters worse was its tilt towards the West, even when geopolitical realities recommended otherwise.
Here’s the pincer: the floating voter supported Sirisena to drive out Rajapaksa for a reason. That had less to do with a rejection of everything Rajapaksa stood for than a need to get his corrupt group out of the way. The former president, let’s not forget, still courts popularity, and from some of his own critics, for the way he handled the war. Those who claim that other factors helped him are hence at a loss for words when asked, “Would these factors have helped without him?”
Logically therefore, two things should remain constant should a “Rajapaksa Restoration” NOT be legitimised: the country’s security apparatus and its foreign relations, the latter of which should remain as neutral and non-aligned as possible.
In an interview with foreign correspondent Padma Rao Sundarji (for her book Sri Lanka: A New Country), Sirisena emphatically stated that national security would remain a priority, while the armed forces would gradually exit civil administration. His statement affirms the view that what Rajapaksa left behind must be held together and that in a way which ensures the opposition cannot justify his predecessor’s return to power. The same, by the way, can be said of the country’s foreign relations.
As things stand, the UNP has much to gain. Even from the SLFP. Having gained power in a way which would have made Machiavelli proud, Wickremesinghe must now ensure that what he got cannot be squandered. At all. For that, he must satisfy those two requirements without letting go of the broader canvas which he and his party seeks to enforce in this country, economically, socially, and politically. If he’s successful in this, there’s no doubt that the political equation will “stay”, indeed for quite some time.