By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The footage on the TV News of the 6th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), commonly known as Pohottuwa, was truly pathetic. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has never been in this bad a shape. Even in its stark decline in 1975-1977, the SLFP managed to win the occasional by-election and muster a large crowd on May Day.
The sheer verticality of the drop in the popularity of the SLPP is unprecedented in Sri Lankan politics and perhaps even in democratic politics anywhere. From the waves of 2019-2020 to the puddle of 2022 is a political morality tale (or Jataka tale) for democratic politicians everywhere.
The evaporation couldn’t have happened in two years if there wasn’t something radically wrong in the entire SLPP phenomenon.
An obvious answer is that President Gotabaya wiped out the rural/peasant base of the SLPP including in the deep South with his insane fertilizer policy. This is true but how could he do this and get away with it when the SLPP had a peasant base?
SLPP’s Birth Defects
The answer to that is the 20th amendment empowered him to do so. But that again doesn’t explain why the SLPP in Cabinet and Parliament approved it. I am not speaking here about Gotabaya’s supposed assurances. I am speaking of the fact that the 20th amendment went completely against the agreed upon model and logic of the Gotabaya candidacy and presidency.
Gotabaya became the candidate because the 19th amendment had not merely prevented Mahinda from running for a third consecutive term—which was a very desirable return to a two-term presidency—but even barred him from running for a non-consecutive third term, as did Lula.
Gota was supposed to play the same role as President as he did as Secretary/Defence under Mahinda’s wartime presidency. He was to be a proxy president like Dimitry Medvedev to Putin or Raul Castro to Fidel.
The 20th amendment tore up that model, because it vacuumed up the powers of the Prime Minister and deposited them in the hands of the President. To put it more simply it took the powers away from Mahinda as PM and gave them to Gotabaya as president. This destroyed the balance that was supposed to exist between the novice and the experienced, respected, well-like elder brother.
The Pohottuwa’s collapse was inevitable from the day it turned its back on the original model and conferred autocratic powers on Gotabaya. More to the point, it was inevitable from the moment Mahinda chose not to resist on the issue of the 20th amendment. The catastrophic fertilizer policy was possible because of that.
The SLPP’s crisis was preceded by the crisis of the parent party the SLFP. That dated back to the killing of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, the Labour advisor to Mahinda Rajapaksa, by Duminda Silva, the monitoring MP of the Ministry of Defence. It is that killing and at the funeral house, that the Maithripala Sirisena split was born.
The ghastly crime was perpetrated during Mahinda second term, in the postwar period. Already, the most crucial factor that has wrecked the Pohottuwa had begun to destroy Mahinda’s second term and pave the way for his defeat. This was the shift of the center of gravity from Mahinda Rajapaksa (where it was during wartime) to the Rajapaksa family (postwar). The wartime Mahinda presidency gave way to the postwar Rajapaksa Family presidency. The voters rejected that degeneration.
It took the wildly neoliberal-cosmopolitan 2015-2020 administration to swing the voters back to the Rajapaksas not just Mahinda, because they were reassured that whoever the President, Mahinda would be calling the shots.
That was not going to be the case, because already in 2010-2015, Basil and Gotabaya Rajapaksa had clawed away most of Mahinda’s power and shared it between them, while Mahinda, perhaps fatigued from his wartime leadership, had conceded that power to them.
With the defeat of 2015, Mahinda was back, authentically himself for a moment, because Basil’s and Gotabaya’s citadels within the state apparatus had already fallen. The old Mahinda of 2005-2009 or rather, the ghost of that Mahinda Rajapaksa was present during the Joint Opposition and the Mahinda Sulanga campaign—the two most impressive moments of the latter being the Nugegoda rally of February 2015 and the Matara Esplanade rally organized by Dullas Alahapperuma.
In 2015-2019, Basil and Gotabaya made their comeback in different ways, sandwiching Mahinda. At the heart of the formation of the SLPP there were two models. Would the SLPP be a formation such as the Ceylon National Congress or DS Senanayake’s UNP which would unite all the parties and personalities that comprised the Joint Opposition (JO)—as I had urged—or would it be a party solely for the SLFP members who were loyal to Mahinda?
It turned out to be the latter, and not for a noble purpose either. The SLPP which could have been a durable progressive bloc was from birth, was intended instead as the vehicle for Rajapaksa succession from which the JO parties were excluded because it facilitated exclusive Rajapaksa dominance and succession.
Basil, Basil, Basil
Basil Rajapaksa ran the SLPP. He built it up organizationally to the point of the massive Galle Face rally of 2017 and impressive Pohottuwa sweep of the Local Government elections of February 2018. However, the seeds of the Pohottuwa’s degeneration and current collapse had already been sown. Basil was a deeply unpopular personality who was held responsible by the Mahinda camp—including Dullas Alahapperuma and Wimal Weerawansa—for the electoral defeat of 2015.
There was some truth to that because I personally witnessed the delays in that campaign that were sourced in his need for personal control and micromanagement. There was also a rather more bitter – and speculative–allegation that the brothers didn’t mind Mahinda being defeated because that would hasten the succession by either one of them. Basil’s unpleasant arrogance alienated many in the MR camp.
Gotabaya was building up or to be perfectly accurate, being built up, quite separately from Basil. This was by a miscellaneous crew of a media magnate, political monks, some MPs (Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Dilum Amunugama), Sinhala expatriates and hawkish Sinhala nationalist men and women. The inception of that Alt-Right project went back at least to 2012 as evidenced by CA Chandraprema’s significantly entitled book – containing a claim which has zero credibility after the shambles of the Gota Presidency— “Gota’s War”.
Between the parallel build-ups of the succession projects of Basil and Gotabaya, the political and ideological identity, profile and space that Mahinda had established for at least 20 years, on a continuum with the center-left populism of Lakshman and George Rajapaksa, began to disappear.
Mahinda’s Role, Rise & Fall
In an irony of history, the last anyone, including me, saw and heard of the authentic old Mahinda Rajapaksa was during the 52 days afforded him by his erstwhile rival president Maithripala Sirisena, whose defection as SLFP General Secretary had caused the crack which defeated Mahinda in 2015. The Maithripala Sirisena-Mahinda Rajapaksa bloc which lasted through 2018 was the last of the MR center-left populist identity.
That Mahinda Rajapaksa has been replaced by the mummified Prime Minister of the Gotabaya Presidency and now the hawkish political zombie who has installed Ranil Wickremesinghe as President in preference to his own ideologue of his best years (2005-2010), Dullas Alahapperuma. By opting for Ranil, the aged Mahinda Rajapaksa and the aged Dinesh Gunawardena have betrayed everything they ever stood for and campaigned against for decades.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rating as a historical figure must be separated from his rating as a party-political and governmental leader. As a historical figure, due to his victory in a Thirty Years War and the ending of that war, Mahinda was, as Mao said of Stalin and Deng Xiaoping of Mao, 70% right and 30% wrong. That is Mahinda as head of state and commander-in-chief. But the same cannot be said of him as a party-political and governmental leader, primarily because he chose to carry the burden of a family whose members cared for themselves and their fortunes—political and otherwise– more than they cared for the country or for him.
In the end Mahinda himself has degenerated politically to the point that he cares for his family members more than he cares for what used to be his priority and prime loyalty as President: his country. Why else would he allow the fertilizer ban to go through without rebelling? Why else would he install Ranil Wickremesinghe who stands for the exact opposite of what the SLPP and SLFP stood for, as President, when he had other, non-familial choices within his party and government?
Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot save the SLPP. He has hit a low that Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike never did. However deep her political fortunes sank, she never sank to the level of installing and supporting a UNP leader as the leader of the country or even entertaining such a thought. Madam Bandaranaike remained consistent in her political stand and true to her principles to the end. I daresay DA Rajapaksa and DM Rajapaksa, and Lakshman and George Rajapaksa would have been horrified by Mahinda’s enthronement of Ranil, the UNP leader and the son of hardcore ideological opponent of theirs in 1956.
Gotabaya revealed his true self with the fertilizer ban and the holocaust of the harvest. Basil revealed himself as a macroeconomic imbecile. Namal as a young man without a rebellious, progressive bone of generational solidarity in his body. Shasheendra as a blunderer if not worse in the matter of fertilizer procurement.
The parliamentarians of the Pohottuwa began to leave Mahinda and line up with Basil and Gotabaya, and some with both, in 2018. Now with Gotabaya and Basil ousted by the Aragalaya and its aftermath, the 22nd amendment, some MPs are back with Mahinda, other with Namal. Others are repeating their old pattern of defection to BR or GR by switching to President Ranil Wickremesinghe. This is made easier by the fact that unlike in 2015, they no longer have a peasant base to revolt against alignment with Ranil.
Whichever their option, if they vote for the Budget and remain where they are, none of them—including intelligent younger ones like Tharaka Balasuriya, Ramesh Pathirana and Kanchana Wijeysekara—will survive the electoral guillotine.
The future inevitably holds a more devastating defeat for the SLPP than the UNP’s in 1970 and the SLFP’s in 1977. If the SLPP wishes to look into its future, it has only to look at the electoral fate of the UNP in 2020. The idea of the SLPP and UNP contesting as a single party or alliance at any future election means nothing, because zero plus zero equals zero, just as zero into zero equals zero.
The Pohottuwa has just two exit ramps and parachutes for a soft landing. One is the Sirisena-led SLFP. The other is Dullas Alahapperuma and GL Peiris’ caucus, the Freedom People’s Congress (FPC), which is far more vibrant than the SLFP. Hopefully they will unite with each other. The last best chance for exit is voting against the upcoming Ranil-IMF Budget.