By Rajan Philips –
Sri Lanka’s electoral map the morning after its 16th general election was a fascinating picture of political colours. The middle of the island was all (UNP) green, spreading from west to east and covering the hill country and most of the country’s wet zone. The southern base and much of the dry zone was shot in (SLFP) blue. The north stood out in (TNA) yellow. This broad brush display of colours obviously concealed the many shades of local loyalties and conflicts. At the all island aggregate level, the regional variations in electoral support translated into – 5 million votes and 106 seats for the UNP alliance (UNFGG), 4.7 million votes and 95 seats for the UPFA, and just over half a million votes and 16 seats for the TNA. The only missing colour and the surprising result came at the expense of the JVP which polled 543,944 votes and obtained six seats, much lower than many observers were expecting. Otherwise, the results were as expected. The UNP alliance has won a substantial victory and the UPFA’s hijacking mission to ‘bring back Mahinda’ has suffered a serious defeat. In the north, the Tamil voters have mightily (65% to 75% voter support in every riding) endorsed the TNA’s pragmatism and swept aside the messianic idiocy of a maverick Chief Minister and the provocative agency of third generation Tamil Congress.
One week after the people’s vote, there is already maneuvering across political boundaries as the newly elected MPs and their organizations try to come to terms with the verdict that the people have delivered. The UNP and its allies, the TNA, and even the JVP despite its disappointments, have their MPs in a remarkably stable state of mind without having to worry too much about internal rivalries or external alliances. Not so with the SLFP and the UPFA, which are certainly in a state of confusion, more so after the elections than they were before.
We saw Mahinda Rajapaksa attending the ceremonial swearing in of Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister, while avoiding the meeting of the SLFP MPs convened by President Maithripala Sirisena. Mr. Rajapaksa, however, attended a convening of what is left of the ‘UPFA’ at Prasanna Ranatunga’s house. Almost all elected SLFP MPs attended the meeting convened by the President including those who have been expelled from their positions in the Party. While Mahinda Rajapaksa shied away from the first post-election meeting of his lifelong Party, the SLFP’s other former President and truer pedigree, Chandrika Kumaratunga (nee Bandaranaike), attended the SLFP meeting, apparently after a long absence, and was given a standing ovation. Among those who stood to applaud were MPs who just a week earlier had sat in front of microphones at pro-Rajapaksa press-briefings and dismissed Chandrika Kumaratunga as a political spent force.
As the August campaign dust settles down (there wasn’t too much of the customary dust anyway and most of it was kicked up by President Sirisena at the expense of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his UPFA cronies) – the emerging post-election scenarios involve the following: President Sirisena taking control of the SLFP and further pushing Mahinda Rajapaksa and the UPFA to the wall; the revamping of the not so old Wickremasinghe-Sirisena government as the new UNP-SLFP national government to deliver on the yet unfulfilled January mandate; and a new focus on the political situation involving the Tamil speaking people.
President Sirisena will be busy on double duty – as the country’s Executive President and as the Leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Ranil Wickremasinghe has become Prime Minister for the fourth time under the 1978 Constitution. But unlike in his previous stints, Mr. Wickremasinghe has taken office with a strong mandate from the people, as the parliamentary head of a ‘national government’, and in a new constitutional arrangement for sharing the executive powers with the elected President. The President and the Prime Minister will also have to strike a new arrangement with the TNA to address the postwar problems that are specific to the North and East and use that as a basis for working towards a level of political unity that corresponds to the social and cultural similarities among the island’s different ethnic groups. But the future is still in the clouds and the ground realities pose different challenges.
Sri Lanka’s ground realities have been fundamentally reoriented following the political changes that began with the January presidential election. One Sunday last November I sarcastically wrote that the Rajapaksas, then riding high and certain of a third term victory, might as well take a 99 year lease on the whole country just as they were giving the Chinese a lease on an engineered piece of off-shore real estate fancifully called the Port City. Within a week of my writing, and having nothing at all to do with my sarcasm, the Rajapaksa universe began to unravel with the defection of Maithripala Sirisena from the UPFA government and his becoming the common opposition candidate to challenge the incumbent President. Maithripala Sirisena went on to win the election in January and put an end to what would otherwise have become a constitutional dictatorship. Significantly, Mr. Sirisena left the UPFA government but did not technically leave or was removed from the SLFP. In terms of the SLFP’s constitution President Sirisena became the leader of the SLFP with Mahinda Rajapaksa literally ushering the new President to his old Chair. The transition looked too smooth to be real, but in fact it was real without any sinister scheming mistakenly attributed to the former President.
The sinister scheming came later when the UPFA appendages of the SLFP started the ‘Bring Back Mahinda’ (BBM) campaign. The campaign was given momentum by the political forces and vested interests who wanted the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa, for without him they would respectively have no future either in their perks-filled politics or in their rent-rotten businesses. The campaign succeeded and even hijacked President Sirisena’s hand in securing nomination for Mahinda Rajapaksa to run for parliament as a UPFA/SLFP candidate in the Kurunegala District and to potentially become the new Prime Minister. Facing a storm of criticism for granting nomination to Mahinda Rajapaksa and betraying his own January mandate, President Sirisena started calling the Rajapaksa bluff by insisting that he will not appoint Rajapaksa as Prime Minister even if the UPFA were to win a majority of seats in the new parliament. In well calculated moves right up to the last day of the campaign, President Sirisena began to take control of the SLFP and assert its primacy within the UPFA. In a way, he made the fight for the SLFP an issue at Monday’s election.
From the President’s standpoint, Monday’s verdict was a serious defeat for the (BBM) campaign. Objectively, at the same time, it was by no means a rout. Mahinda was certainly not ‘mauled’ as one newspaper put it up in banner headlines, sacrificing accuracy for alliteration. In the 20 districts outside the North and East, the UPFA won more seats than the UNP – 74 to 69 – based on the electoral divisions of the old First-past-the-post system, and which are still the basic units for counting purposes. So there was no rout of the UPFA in 2015 that is comparable to earlier historic routs – the UNP in 1956 and 1970 and the SLFP in 1977. But that does not take away from the significance of the setback to the forces behind the BBM campaign. In fact, the setback is permanent. The people have now twice rejected the former President who amended the constitution to avail himself of unlimited terms in office. He cannot run again for President, and continuing as an opposition MP, or even Leader of the Opposition, may disable him from enjoying the perks of presidential retirement. There are also other surprises.
Even post-election, President Sirisena seems to be having more trumps to play than anyone could have foreseen. While there was high handed forensic lampooning of the President over his firing of the twin-secretaries of the SLFP-UPFA and appointing non-Rajapaksa loyalists in place, and high noon court fights were being talked about, President Sirisena has effectively scuppered the UPFA by drawing the SLFP out of the UPFA and entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with the UNP to form a national government, initially for two years with possibility extending the agreement. More dramatically all the UPFA national list appendages who have been having a free ride to parliament for nearly twenty years, have now been taken off the new UPFA national list. Parliament will be a better place without them.
The new parliament will still have to suffer a few UPFA remnants, who piggy backed on the SLFP voting truck to amass huge numbers of preferential votes. Without the SLFP backing they would not have been able to collect even the minimum votes that used to be required to save their deposits. Although they are in parliament, the UPFA remnants will be cut loose from the SLFP and will not be able to be as much obstructionist in parliament as they clownishly were before the election.
Where will all this leave Mahinda Rajapaksa? Is the office of the Leader of the Opposition there for his taking, or will he be denied that too? In the rapidly changing political landscape, it really doesn’t matter politically where Mahinda Rajapaksa is, or he is going to be. But from his personal standpoint, it might matter a great deal where he is, or will be, politically, considering the suite of investigations involving his presidency and those who were close to it, that will be given a new impetus after the election. Even now the former President could retire into the southern sunset, politically speaking, after his impressive showing in the Kurunegala District. The real losers are the UPFA appendages of the SLFP, whose ‘bring back Mahinda’ campaign has now boomeranged on them. They would be even more lost without the umbrella of the SLFP and without Mahinda Rajapaksa to hang onto. In the end the people have won, again.
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