Colombo Telegraph

On The Eve: The President Closes All Avenues For MR’s Return

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Maithripala Sirisena brought life to a lifeless campaign on its last official day. After putting it in writing that he will not appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa even if the UPFA manages to win more than half the number of seats in tomorrow’s election, Sirisena went further and fired the twin-secretaries of the SLFP-UPFA alliance so that they are not around to play monkey tricks after the election and in the selection of national list MPs for the UPFA. After berating Rajapaksa for letting the UPFA tails wag the SLFP dog, Sirisena is determined to cut off the nefarious small-party tails to restore his old grand Party. Mr. Sirisena is proving himself to be more ruthless as the Chairman of his Party than he has been as the President of his country. Political parties in times past have been shaken by splits, cross-overs and defections, but there have never been such dramatic expulsions in any political party similar to what we saw on Friday, and that too two days before a parliamentary election. And unlike others the President is not expelling by elimination but by due process and litigation. As the entire political class of the country is divided on the question of the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa – one is either for it, or against it, so too will the pundits be divided – either for or against President Sirisena’s actions last week.

But the important question is how will the voters respond to it tomorrow? To ask another way, is President Sirisena, intentionally or otherwise, inviting the voters to support him in cleaning up the SLFP as part of his January 8 mandate. The battle for the SLFP, pitting the MR and non-MR factions, was expected to roll out immediately after the January presidential election. Instead, the battle is unfolding quite unexpectedly in the midst of a parliamentary election seven months later. The odds seem firmly stacked against Mahinda Rajapaksa, and to be in favour of Maithripala Sirisena. MR and the UPFA need to win 113 or more seats in the new parliament to make any credible claim to form the next government and to have Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed as Prime Minister. President Sirisena would welcome a UPFA government, but he has made it clear that he will not appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister under any circumstances.

As I alluded to last week, and as others have argued, the President is on arguably strong legal and constitutional grounds, and unequivocally on strong moral grounds in insisting that he will not appoint MR as PM. But the President’s hand will be infinitely strengthened if the voters were to deny Rajapaksa and the UPFA a majority of the seats in tomorrow’s election. The President seems confident that the electoral wind is behind him and a majority of surveys and predictions seem to support his confidence. The seat predictions (including the National List appointees), based on opinion surveys, range from 100-110 for the UNF, 85-95 for UPFA, and about 15 each for the TNA and the JVP. Even in favourable scenarios for the UPFA, it is not being seen as getting the largest number of seats.

Anticipating such an outcome, the President has started clearing the SLFP decks even before the election. After firing the two spineless Rajapaksa loyalists, he has appointed his supporter from Anuradhapura, Duminda Dissanayake, as the new SLFP Secretary, and academic and Bandaranaike favourite Wiswa Warnapala as the UPFA Secretary. They will now determine who will fill the UPFA’s national list slots. Whatever opinion one might have on the propriety, or impropriety, of the President’s actions, few will question the good riddance of bad national-list rubbish that has been a burden on parliament and politics for 21 years.

Will the President’s actions have any direct effect on tomorrow’s vote? It is unlikely to cause major changes among voters who have already made up their minds. But it will create opposing effects on the main supporters of the UNF and UPFA alliances. The UNF and non-Rajapaksa forces are obviously elated by the President’s lightning strikes and will work with much enthusiasm in ‘getting out the vote’ tomorrow. The UPFA and the Rajapaksa loyalists, on the other hand, are thoroughly demoralized by the President’s double blows in three days, and are more likely to be deflated and sulking rather than mobilizing voters.

The secret of the Rajapaksa power base has always been in two parts – the people’s support being one part, albeit the minor part, and the use of the state muscle being the bigger part. Mahinda Rajapaksa has never won power from the ranks of the opposition. In 2005, he succeeded Chandrika Kumaratunga in government, even though he made it out to be that he was coming from the opposition. Ten years later, even the muscle of state power was not enough to sustain the January presidential campaign over the fatigue that had clearly set in within the regime as well as in the country in relation to the regime. The current campaign to bring back Mahinda just for the sake of bringing him back has not been enough to overcome that fatigue and the lack of state power has not helped the cause either.

Historical Perspective

To step back from the kerfuffle inside the SLFP-UPFA, and to look at tomorrow’s election in its historical perspective, the people will be heading to vote in a second national election in a span of seven months. It will also be the 16th parliamentary election in 68 years. The island polity elected its first parliament in a month long (August 23 – September 20) election in 1947, five months before the country became independent from British colonial rule. Although the two elections this year are totally different – the presidential election in January and parliamentary election in August, the same voters who voted in January will be voting again tomorrow – perhaps in fewer numbers. On the other hand, while the first election in 1947 and the election tomorrow are nominally the same parliamentary elections, the two are totally different in terms of every empirical category that one can think of. They are not just two different elections, but they represent two different countries 68 years apart. And the 14 elections in between are milestones along the long road of changes between then and now. No two elections have been the same, notwithstanding superficial comparisons to the elections of 1960 (March and July) and 1965. The election tomorrow is unique in many respects. The President has made it even more unique.

Every election has had its questions and answers. Quite a few questions have continued unanswered from the time of independence to where we are today. Some of the old questions have been aggravated along the way by wrongheaded answers that were attempted more for reasons of expediency than for genuine resolutions. Several new questions have arisen in recent years, corresponding to wholesale changes in the country’s internal affairs and external relationships. When people cast their votes tomorrow, they will be voting on lists of candidates in different districts, but they will not be carrying for guidance lists of political questions that concern academics and commentators. Even those who are familiar with and are exercised over the ‘grand questions’ of economy, national security/sovereignty, the unitary/federalist dichotomy, war crimes and UNHRC reports, and the relative importance of Sri Lanka’s relationships with India, China and the West – will not have much of an answer to any or all of these questions when they cast their votes simply for a party and to indicate their preferences among the candidates in a district.

It will be up to the new parliament that the people will elect tomorrow to deal with those questions and find answers. To ask a question about ‘questions’, will the new parliament deal with them in a ‘transformatively’ different way, or will it be bogged down by the shenanigans of the old parliament that was dissolved in July. From that standpoint, the President’s actions over the last few days can be seen as a challenge across the political spectrum, to every political party, to get rid of the corrupt deadwood and bring in new blood into the country’s political veins. The UNP, more than others, now seemingly smug in anticipation of a favourable outcome tomorrow, must not try to avoid or delay dealing with that challenge inside its own organization, just as President Sirisena is provoking it within the SLFP.

The moral premises of that challenge must spill over into the organization of cabinet government in the new parliament. The people deserve that the new government is qualitatively different from not only the rots of the Rajapaksa regime, but also from the disappointments of the yahapalanya government. And it would be up to President Sirisena to show that he could be just as assertive in ensuring good governance as he is being assertive in cleaning up the SLFP.

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