By Malinda Seneviratne –
Two months ago Ranil Wickremesinghe had to decide whether or not to contest the Presidential Election. In 2010 he had a similar problem. Back then few would have bet on Mahinda Rajapaksa losing. Ranil let the former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka take the fall. Wisely. This time, factoring in regime fatigue and many other negatives people may have given Ranil an outside chance. In all likelihood, however, he would have lost. So he had to take a risk and he took it. He opted to support someone with a better chance. Maithripala Sirisena.
All that is preamble to what we have today. Maithripala Sirisena is the President. His first job was to appoint a Cabinet of Ministers. Maithripala at the time was virtually a prisoner of the UNP since he was a man without a party and had only a few non-UNP supporters in Parliament, none of whom were exactly political heavyweights. Champika Ranawaka and Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero of the JHU were exceptions perhaps but in purely numerical terms in Parliament they did not amount to much. And so Ranil was appointed Prime Minister and headed a mostly UNP Cabinet of Ministers.
The inevitable happened, as predicted by Ranawaka: the entire SLFP declared support for the new President who was also made Chairman of the party he had left a few months before. Suddenly the Parliamentary equation changed. Maithripala has the numbers, Ranil does not. All he has is sway over the Cabinet. We still have the JR Jayewardene Constitution. Maithripala, theoretically at least, can do a Chandrika (remember 2004?) and take absolute control. He probably will not. The theoretical possibility cannot be lost on the more politically savvy sections of the UNP. Others may have thought that Ranil executed a brilliant coup to bring back the UNP to power, but Ranil himself knows how tenuous his hold is.
What are his options? On the one hand he has to think of his party. A general election in a post-reform situation will favor the SLFP. Just as Mahinda Rajapaksa can claim ‘I did what none of my predecessors were able to do, I defeated the LTTE,’ Maithripala can say ‘I did what none of my predecessors were able to do, I changed the bahubootha (multiple-monster)…sorry, ekabootha (single-monster) Constitution.’ He will be rewarded.
That being a distinct possibility, he could devote the next few months to consolidate the gains of the Presidential Election, i.e. use the ministries run by UNPers to position themselves favorably come election time. This might require the zealous pursuit of wrongdoers, many of whom are of course SLFPers who have pledged support to the President given their reduced circumstances post-election. Even then Ranil could very well end up as the Leader of the Opposition for the SLFP can support such pursuit and claim share of clean-up bragging rights. They can field a fresh set of candidates, for example an only-graduates team. It’s easy to erase blemishes if you really put your mind to it, in other words.
Things are not looking good for Ranil and the UNP then. Facing a possible return to the Opposition, Ranil has to postpone any plans he has to capturing power. The issue is how he spends the ‘interim’. In picking Sirisena (Ranil had the first refusal, let us not forget) he gambled, but gambled on a consolation prize. He got it. The maximum gain for the party he can hope for is a good second-place finish in a General Election that cannot be too far away. The ‘thereafter’ is too blurred to warrant speculation. It is far better to contend with the tangibles. And this is where Ranil can make his mark, less as politician and leader of a party than as a statesman who in defeat did as much as or more than all the big winners in the past four decades.
Ranil, regardless of cost to self and party, can put his full intellectual weight behind the efforts to reform the constitution and obtain a better, more efficient institutional structure that makes for transparency and accountability. His detractors will point to his disastrous pact with the LTTE (the CFA signed on February 22, 2002) and his complicity in all the atrocities committed during the tenures of two UNP Presidents and other crimes of omission and commission, but it is up to Ranil Wickremesinghe to prove that he is not the Ranil Wickremsinghe of the eighties nor the Ranil Wickremsinghe of 2001-2004, but a more mature, wiser senior politician who for once puts country before self and party.
Ranil is eminently positioned to be such a statesman. Indeed, if promised reforms are to become a reality much will depend on him simply because he, much more than anyone in either Parliament except perhaps Champika Ranawaka, has the clarity of mind sorely needed to make sure that a 2015 Constitution for all good intentions does not end up being another corruption of the notion representative democracy.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com