By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
The public was made to understand that goody-goody Maithripala Sirisena does not care for power but would discard all trappings of power and glory and work jointly to democratize and liberalize the system. The plan revealed to the public was that the presidency will be abolished and power handed over to a prime minister in parliament. But that is not going to happen according to what he says now.
In any case Sirisena has promised so many things so many parties – some contradicting the other — that in the end he will not be able to fulfill any. This will create divisive and fissiparous tendencies within the Coalition throwing the parties away from the center. What will be most crucial is not the manifesto due this week. That is all eye-wash. It is the power struggle in which the constituent members of the Coalition will be fighting to grab the bigger share of power that will make or break the Coalition in the long run.
Signs are there already in motion to make the Coalition unmanageable. Initially, when Sirisena joined the MOU with the UNP he was leaning more towards the UNP because he was dependent on Wickremesinghe to deliver UNP votes for him to win the election. But this lovey-dovey affair is bound to be a temporary kiss-and-tell event later. Both need each other right now to gang up against President Mahinda Rajapaksa and both are using each other for their political convenience. After that they go their own way. That is also written in the agreement. The MOU says that it is only for two years. But there is no guarantee that it will last that long either.
If, however, the Sirisena-wing wins the UNPers will have a glorified place designated as prime minister. The notion of Wickremesinghe becoming “the executive prime minister” – meaning the all-powerful prime minister with presidential powers in parliament — has slowly but surely evaporated. After promising to transfer the executive powers of the president within 24 hours Sirisena has reneged on it saying that only some powers will be handed over to Wickremesinghe leaving the latter to take it or lump it.
For the voters, however, it’s a choice between electing one or the other SLFPer. This hardly gives a choice to the voter. If Sirisena wins we are going back to Chandrika–Mangala days. But Wickremesinghe is under the illusion that he has made the smart move of winning power by using Sirisena. His tendency to overrate his smartness is written all over the failures of the UNP to win power in 29 straight elections. Whichever way the election goes it is now clear that Wickremesinghe is going to end up losing (1) the promised “executive powers” as prime minister, (2) the party’s identity, (3) the power to grow as an alternative party and (4) his traditional vote bank — all because of his own conviction that he is not a winner. He cries himself hoarse saying that he is the alternative leader but eventually he ends up following other leaders.
In the meantime, the SLFP has planted its two feet firmly in the two main bases of the political spectrum : one foot is solidly placed in the Government and the other is now in the Opposition hoping to win government. In both places it is on top. Other parties are merely playing second fiddle to the SLFP. It was never in this commanding position ever before.
Observers will also note that the SLFP rump in the coalition – CBK, Mangala, Rajitha — has surrounded Sirisena and are keeping him in their firm grip, with Chandrika Kumaratunga dictating terms. This means that the SLFPers will have the ear of Sirisena at all times and that the other lesser parties in the coalition will have to tag along until it becomes intolerable and quit the Coalition. Only Wickremesinghe, in his usual deluded way, believes that he has found a way to power by putting a dummy to contest the election. He was hoping to piggy-back his way to power on Sirisena’s posterior.
But it has backfired. His calculation was that Sirisena would be his man installed by the power of his votes. To his utter dismay he has discovered now that Sirisena has become Kumaratunga’s man, just by manipulating both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. After all Sirisena has been a life-long SLFPer and he swears, even now, to restore the Bandaranaike legacy. In pursuit of this Bandaranaike goal Sirisena has vowed to appoint Chandrika Kumaratunga as his official/unofficial No. 2. He calls it, giving her a “deserving place”. Well, the “deserving place” is not to sit on a stool at Sirisena’s feet. She will want a chair next to him as his equal, preferably as the power behind the throne.
The emerging outlines of this inevitable political power play is becoming clearer by the day. The way it is shaping up undoubtedly will be a serious threat to Wickremesinghe’s power-sharing arrangement with the Sirisena. There are also other possible scenarios that will emerge in case Sirisena wins.
First, there is no guarantee that Sirisena will implement his commitment to hand over “executive powers” to Wickremesinghe the way it was initially envisaged in the MOU. Obviously, the decision to backtrack from handing over the Ministry of Defence to Wickremesinghe must have come from CBK who was obsessed with retaining the power of the forces in her hands when she was president. She fell out with Wickremesinghe, her then prime minster, mainly on this issue. So under Sirisena too Wickremesinghe will have to be a lame-duck prime minister, loaded only with the messy and the intractable issues of cost of living, debt servicing, adverse effects of the world market forces etc. He will have to face the brunt of keeping the hard part of fulfilling the economic promises and, in the end, he will be blamed for all the failures of the Sirisena regime.
Second, Wickremesinghe will not get the chance of strutting the international theatre as the mega-star from Sri Lanka – a role which loves to play passionately — because Mangala Samaraweera will hog the limelight in that department. Samaraweera will also lean more towards Chandrika and Sirisena leaving Wickremesinghe to stew in his own juices. The current “My-3-pala-naya” of CBK-Ranil-Sirisena will change dramatically into the “My-3-pala-naya” of CBK-Mangala-Sirisena, leaving Wickremesinghe in the outer. He will always be an outsider in the inner circles of the Sirisena regime.
At the end of the day, the chances of the SLFPers getting together is greater than all of them running to elevate their traditional opponents in the UNP into positions of power greater than the combined powers of Sirisena-CBK-Mangala. In any case, Samaraweera already nurtures a grudge against Wickremesinghe. He feels slighted that Sajith Premadasa has been given the No. 2 spot in the UNP which means that his chances are with the Sirisena-Chandrika wing of the SLFP than with the UNP..
Third, according to Tissa Attanayake the UNP is now run by Chandrika Kumaratunga who issues orders from her residence near the Parliament. At this late stage, in the middle of an election, Wickremesinghe has no way of asserting his power to gain a commanding position in the coalition. He has to take orders from the SLFP for him to survive now. He can’t get out of it now because he has conceded from the start that he is not a winning candidate. So he has resigned to play the role assigned to him by CBK-Sirisena combo. And in due course he will be pushed into a corner from which he cannot get out, except to jump out of it. CBK, in particular, is playing the role of the organ grinder, with great relish, for the performing monkeys to dance according to her tune.
The chances of the SLFPers ganging up against Wickremesinghe in post-election phase is also greater because the coterie round Sirisena will see to it that Wickremesinghe will not rise as a force mightier than any one of them. If Sirisena hands over critical powers to Wickremesinghe where will that leave the SLFPers? Will they have to go cap in hand to get favours from Wickremesinghe? And how far will Wickremesinghe go to accommodate the SLFPers when his gang is waiting to grab what they had missed for last couple of decades. The pull-push tensions of rivals claiming their share will strain the Coalition and before long the internal power-struggle within the two major parties –not to mention claims of the other minor parties — will surface, breaking up their current lovey-dovey affair.
Seasoned power-brokers like CBK, Mangala and Sirisena will make sure, in direct and indirect ways, to impress on Wickremesinghe that he is prime minister through the courtesy of the SLFP. The SLFP trio in command can pull the rug under him any time they wish. The UNPers will be reduced to the pathetic plight of singing the praises of Sirisena and CBK and not Wickremesinghe. UNPers singing halleluiah to the Bandaranaikes – not Senanayakes — will be a common occurrence. Remember how Sirisena walked into Siri Kotha singing the praises of D. S. Senanayake? Well, it will be the reverse when Wickremesinghe installs Sirisena as President. Some of them might even cross over to the SLFP leaving Wickremesinghe crying in the wilderness again.
Once again Wickremesinghe has led the UNP into nowhere. This will be Wickremesinghe’s last gamble. After this he will have no leg to stand on. UNPers who are sick of his failed gambles will ask: Why should they support a leader who says he can’t win elections? Is there any point in hanging on to a leader who is bending into two for others to climb on the back of UNPers to become presidents?
*To be continued
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