By Malinda Seneviratne –
Early days. Remember that. Keep in mind also that in a 40-day run each day counts and that ‘early’ can quickly bleed into ‘late’ and ‘too late’. That said, let’s consider Maithripala Sirisena’s press conference on Friday November 20, 2014 where he announced he would be the ‘common candidate’ of the Opposition.
‘මෛත්රී පාලනයක්’ [‘Maithree Paalanayak,’ meaning ‘Compassionate Governance’]. What a wonderful signature for a campaign! Pithy. Easy on the tongue. Captures the entire thrust of the project. Contrasts itself from what the principal opponent is identified with. Brilliant.
The candidate is not without credentials. A long-time party loyalist who enjoys considerable support from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Maithripala Sirisena has more appeal from a wider cross section of the voting population than the other contenders, Karu Jayasuriya, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa (in that order). The opening remarks, prefaced by a Dhammapada quote, struck the right note. There was sobriety. There was humility. There was purpose. He sounded presidential. Then it all went downhill.
It didn’t help that he was flanked by two discredited politicians. Chandrika Kumaratunga, Victor Ivan will remember, earned the sobriquet චෞර රැජින (The Queen of Deceit). In eleven years, she not only deceived, but presided over violations not second to any she charges the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime with, not to mention a sorry track record with regard to handling the scourge of terrorism. Rajitha Senaratne is hardly a heavyweight any more. Still, it was the ‘Maithree Moment’ and naturally the cameras didn’t pan to those two has-beens.
All he needed to do was thank those who made his candidacy possible, outline his objectives and leave. He tried to do more and ended up doing less. The biggest blunder was to pledge the Prime Minister’s post to Ranil Wickremesinghe. Unnecessary. Distracting.
In essence, Maithripala was saying something like this: ‘Ranil can’t beat Mahinda. I have a better shot. I will win, step down and hand over executive power to Ranil’. Now if this was a project to promote Ranil, then the question is, ‘Why on earth is Ranil not contesting?’ Maithripala seeks to win a mandate to rule from the people. It is not a transferable asset. If democracy underlines this project (as he claims), then it would go against the basic tenets of the idea. The UNP, let us not forget, is a party that couldn’t come up with a credible candidate. Not in 2010 and not in 2014/15. Rewarding the leader of such a party is කඩේ යෑම (shopping, or acting like a domestic aide who does someone’s bidding) to use a Sinhala term that has a lot of political currency. It is as though the වලව්වේ හාමුදුරුවෝ (Lord of the Manor) is getting a village boy to pluck some coconuts which he, the Lord, will then sell and deposit the money in a bank.
He could have elaborated on the notion of an interim arrangement or a ‘national government’ that presides over constitutional reform and thereafter seek fresh mandate through a General Election.Instead, he reduced what is essentially a regime-changing exercise into an individual’s political project. He dwarfed himself. And his dwarfing got worse when Chandrika had her say. Hers was an unqualified lament of the worst kind. There was no මෛත්රී there. There was වෛරය (hatred) and clear revenge-intent. Hardly the stuff that could bowl the electorate over.
Now contrast this with an alternative head table composition where the candidate is flanked by Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP), either Champika Ranawaka or Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero (JHU), Ranil and/or Karu Jayasuriya. That’s formidable. In contrast, what was ‘on show’ on Friday was pathetic. Such a panel would indicate the forces arrayed against Mahinda Rajapaksa. What was on show was a bunch of disgruntled incompetents.
Maithripala has to look and sound presidential and he doesn’t have too much time to do so. He has to re-articulate the project in clear democratic terms where individuals and their petty political objectives are completely left out of the story. He has to drop his liabilities. It is clear that Chandrika Kumaratunga, motivated by whatever, played a crucial role in this maneuver which some people already call ‘a coup’ (a bit early for that). That’s it. Her role is over. At least in the public eye. Someone commented on Facebook, ‘each time she speaks Maithri loses 10,000 votes’. That’s exaggeration and not a substantiated claim, but that sentiment does have currency. Yes, she can address a particular voter segment. The problem is that when she addresses them, there are others listening.
Early days. He can still re-constitute his head-table, so to speak. Maithripala likened Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero to Kudapola Hamuduruwo, acknowledging the key role the thero played in the political upheavals that culminated in him being nominated as the ‘common candidate’. Now if you have Kudapola Hamuduruwo backing you, it would be plain stupid not to get the Hamuduruwo on stage. Similarly, if he thinks an appeal to the SLFP and UNP voter in the form of clinging on to Chandrika’s sari pota and promising Ranil the premiership would do the trick, he’s sadly mistaken. Voice-cut politics won’t deliver anything. There’s a campaign to be carried out on the ground and the likes of Harsha De Silva, Eran Wickramaratne and Rosie Senanayake will not do it. Maithripala needs active JVP support (meaning, not the lukewarm hurrahs that party gave Sarath Fonseka). You can have 50 MPs crossing over, but unless they become campaign foot soldiers, that’s just 50 votes you are assured of. A general sway on the ground will not necessarily follow these political defections. Hard, tough, persistent campaigning at the grassroots is non-negotiable. And here the JVP will be a significant factor. Remember, also, that it would be wrong to ‘use’ the JVP. They must have a central role in the campaign and they must have prominence in the post-election phase in the event that Maithripala wins. You can’t promise Ranil the premiership, Chandrika her pound of flesh and toss some crumbs the JVP way.
Maithripala Sirisena has a case. There is widespread disappointment and even objection to the regime. It’s not about Mahinda Rajapaksa alone. He is liked. Widely. Despite his faults. It is not about the Rajapaksas alone. Gotabaya and Basil may be resented by senior members of the SLFP, less for wrongdoing than for what they effectively deny. Few would deny that they work really hard. It is the Rajapaksavarun (let’s say ‘the Rajapaksa hangers-on’) that are mostly resented. ‘Intensely’ would be the correct word. There are not necessarily blood relatives. It’s the Mervins, Sajins, Dumindas, Rohitha and the countless thugs and thieves in Parliament, Provincial Councils and Local Government Authorities that are insufferable.
‘What is the President’s greatest strength and what is his biggest weakness?’ is a question to which a retired soldier who now works as a driver and who even today says he will give his life to Mahinda Rajapaksa responded as follows: ‘ලෙන්ගතු කම. හොරු ටිකක් වටකර ගෙන ඉන්න එක’ (his affability or warmth and the fact that he has surrounded himself with rogues). On Friday night, one of these worthies shot at a political opponent. That’s not a ‘first’. It is just one of countless examples of thuggery to which the President has for whatever reason turned a blind eye and thereby creating, reinforcing and perpetuating a culture of impunity.
That said, incumbency, gratitude for defeating terrorism (which Maithripala himself acknowledged) and sheer personal charm, not to mention all the usual tweak-n-abuse we see at election time, makes Mahinda a tough candidate to defeat. Maithripala cannot afford to dwarf himself (vis-à-vis Ranil and Chandrika). He has to understand that the President has almost full control of the state and private media. In fact, Maithripala has to see himself as the Mahinda Rajapaksa of 2005 and of course see his opponent as the Ranil Wickremesinghe of that same election. Mahinda won. Barely. He did so because all the money that Ranil could pour into his campaign was effectively countered by the one asset that Maithri can secure: the people. Mahinda could do this because of the JVP. Numbers. Active. Spirit. He could do that because he had in the JHU someone who could write his manifesto (Champika Ranawaka). Mahinda had Wimal, but that was a different Wimal.
‘Early days’, true. They can fast turn into ‘too late’. If that happens, Maithripala would be another Sarath Fonseka. Ranil would remain Leader of the UNP. A winner all the way.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com