17 April, 2024


Sirisena Candidacy And The Political Coup

By S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

Sri Lanka’s opposition parties pulled off a political coup when the announcement was made to field Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate to face incumbent  President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the snap presidential election in January 2015. A dictionary defines a coup as a “brilliantly executed stratagem.” It was also a surprise.

First, to the surprise element. Ever since the idea of holding the forthcoming presidential election in 2015 was mooted, the opposition parties, desiring to form a common platform to face the formidable Mahinda Rajapaksa, were debating the idea of a common candidate. There was hardly any agreement and several well-known names were proposed, but Sirisena’s name was not one of them. Nobody expected him to come forward because he was the General Secretary of the president’s party, the SLFP, and hitherto, at least publicly, did not demonstrate any resentment against the government. He was seen as one of the close allies of the president and his policies and in fact he defended the government until very recently. Therefore, his candidacy indeed was a surprise even to some of the movers and shakers of Sri Lanka politics. It seemed the president himself, with all the intelligence resources around him, was shocked by this move. The president’s men were targeting Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera. One newspaper aptly declared that “he (Sirisena) came out of the blue.” The surprise has the potential to jolt the overconfident campaign of the ruling party.

MaithriNow, to the question of strategy. The Sirisena candidacy is certainly a smart strategy adopted by the opposition parties because it has resolved several problems. Although numerous names were proposed and debated as a common candidate, nobody really had the approval of all major opposition parties and factions. This disagreement had the potential to spoil the idea of a common candidate and to force major parties to field their own candidates, which would have automatically ensured the victory of President Rajapaksa. Now it is certain that Rajapaksa will face a common opposition candidate.

On the other hand, the Sirisena candidacy has enabled several key political actors to support the common candidate. For example, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) would have found it difficult to endorse and support Ranil Wickeamesinghe. Now, it is not impossible to forge an understanding at least with the JVP, who carry a lot of clout among the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency. Nevertheless, this is already a substantially broad alliance. If the architects of the new alliance can convince the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) to join hands, it really has the potential to become a national coalition.

The TNA and SLMC have different issues in endorsing the Sirisena candidacy. The TNA and the Tamil people have never viewed Sirisena as a leader who could appeal to the minority communities. He was seen more as a Sinhala-Buddhist politician. Therefore, the Tamil support for Sirisena will not be automatic. It might need some convincing. It is here, Ranil Wickremesinge and Chandrika Kumaratunga, two of the main architects of the new alliance, could be of value. These two relatively have more sympathy among the Tamil community than Sirisena himself. Therefore, they could convince the TNA to support Sirisena, which would ensure a majority of the Tamil votes. On the other hand, in the last presidential election in 2010, the Tamils supported Sarath Fonseka, who led the war against the LTTE. Therefore, theoretically, convincing the TNA to endorse Sirisena will not be too cumbersome.

From an electoral arithmetic point of view, fielding Sirisena as the common candidate should be depicted as a brilliant move. It is clear from the recent political developments that President Mahinda Rajapaksa does not have adequate support among the minority communities, especially the Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims. This in turn makes him over-dependent on the Sinhala-Buddhist voters. He needs about 65 percent of the Sinhala votes to win outright. What the Sirisena candidacy does is, it makes a dent in this block of votes, because of his Sinhala-Buddhist outlook and SLFP affiliation. Any serious dent in the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency could cost for the president.

First, most Sinhala people, even if they are not happy with the government policies and directions, do not want to vote for a candidate who does not appear to be standing up for the country and the interest of the Sinhala people. This was one of the reasons why the government was winning consequent elections. There were no alternatives for them in the opposition. Now, these people can vote for Sirisena because he is no less Sinhala-Buddhist than Mahinda Rajapaksa. Second, in the recent past, there has been a growing perception that the Rajapaksa faction has taken control of the SLFP by sidelining senior and longtime members and at the expense of original ideals of SWRD Bandaranaike, the founded leader of the party. Although this perception was troubling the regime for a while, no attention was paid due to the immense popularity and confidence of the president. Maithripala Sirisena seems to be giving voice and a platform for these concerns. He has already promised to rescue the party and return to the Bandaranaike principles. Therefore, he can also attract a segment of the SLFP vote, which again is basically Sinhala-Buddhist. The government should consider the Sirisena candidacy a serious problem primarily because it targets the very heart of President Rajapaksa’s vote bank. With the announcement of the Sirisena candidacy, the government lost the luxury of taking the election for granted.

The Sirisena candidacy also takes an important weapon out of the arsenal of the government. The government constantly and most effectively used a slogan of collaboration with the LTTE or the West to discredit political opponents. This worked well especially against Wickremesinge. The early indications are that the same line of attack will be mounted against Sirisena. His former colleagues in the government have already called him a part of “foreign conspiracy.” However, the problem is that this slogan is not going to be that effective against Sirisena. The government therefore, will be forced to search for more credible allegations against the common candidate. On the other hand, allegations of corruption, mismanagement and authoritarianism, which Sirisena most probably will level against the government, would have more trustworthiness in the eyes of government critics because until last week he was part and parcel of the government.  So, he knows.

The main slogan of the Sirisena candidacy so far is abolition of the executive presidential system, which obviously is crucial to address some of the democracy and good governance related issues in the country. It however, is not the primary concern of the ordinary voter. Corruption, cost of living and over accommodation of China could be some of the potent slogans against the government. The Sirisena candidacy could transform into a real challenge for the government if and when the new coalition takes up these issues as the primary slogan along with the agenda to reform the constitution.

Also, without a winning statistical formula, Maithripala Sirisena would not have accepted the call to contest as the common candidate. Unlike other possible candidates, Sirisena is risking too much by contesting the forthcoming election. History indicates that he could lose everything he has. Therefore, he should have been convinced according to a formula that he could win. His major challenge is to secure the whole of the UNP votes. He would need the unwavering support of the top as well as second tier leadership of the party.

In sum, despite the challenges, the Sirisena candidacy has the potential to narrow the margin of victory in a free and fair election. He has made the already tight election tighter. It is however, too early to predict a victory for Sirisena. The election result depends on how it is conducted and how the major candidates play their cards.

*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland

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Latest comments

  • 9

    A brilliant move for now, but the bigger question is, how will this translate when it come to winning the elections, and will the cunning regime, pull a last minute trick, to discredit this candidacy?

    They are so dishonest, they will go to any length to sabotage the opposition.

    • 3

      Mahinda Rajapaksa will make his move before election date. He is in a Kill or be killed race. If he loses the election UN will banish him for good. Rajapaksa will be tarnished and it will be his end game. Stay in power or loose everything game.

      Mahinda Rajapaksa has no choice but to make a move on his opponent. No matter who it is.

      Even if he loses he will say he won.

      • 1

        Dr. Keetha, Why did the opposition leave it so late to make their move? There is only one month left of the election and it seems today that ONLY the illegal candidate Mahinda Jarapassa is the ONLY candidate – as far as we ordinary voters are concerned.

        Your article may be an overstatement re. the COUP! Also, the Sinhala and minority voters need to get to know the joint opposition candidate, but he is busy running circles around Buddhist monks and the divided UNP. This is a HUGE WASTE of Time.
        Voters STILL don’t have a clue about the joint opposition candidate’s POLICIES on the REAL ECONOMY. This is what we care about.

        This so called coup seems like – too little, too late. There has only been a PARTIAL COUP with the selection of Sirisena who is WASTING TIME about Ranil’s role in the joint opposition rather than addressing the VOTERS while Mahinda Jarapassa’s posters are all over!

        Ranil Wickramasinghe was and still is a HUGE STUMBLING BLOCK in the joint opposition campaign. He has no right to be PM because he is so unpopular and cannot win an election. There is a HUGE LOGICAL FLAW in saying that Ranil will be made PM and the opposition should have ironed all out a long time ago..
        The JVP is the only sensible party – which is carrying out a voter education campaign, rather than hobnobbing with corrupt politicians in the UNP and trying to buy votes…

    • 0

      “From an electoral arithmetic point of view, fielding Sirisena as the common candidate should be depicted as a brilliant move.”

      You need to go back to school pal!

  • 3

    Dr Keetha seems different to GTF Boss Suren Surendran,

    The latter is the main architect of the UNP.TNA, Diaspora Alliance.

    Rankin , Sisson and Royal Norwegian Consulates provided the logistics , guidance and funds.

    That is what one can gather from the Taminet.

    CBK is the main architect of the mother of all defections in SL history although 44 became jus 4.

    Inhabhtants are a bit confused about this holy allianace.

    CBK never gave a chance to cousin Ranil, under her watch.

    She even collabarated with the JVP to sack him for trying to give Prabakaran Self Rule.

    And Ranil never recovered .

    Even Dr Keetha is smart enough to admit it…

    Will she now allow her one time Servant Boy cum new CC to hand over the Presidency aka Exec PM post to Ranil?.

    Even mug punters wouldn’t put their dough on it…Right…

  • 5

    Prof Jose Pillai Guy de Fontgalland

    Brilliant and very useful analysis. Hoping to see more over the next few weeks and months.
    Many thanks.

  • 3

    Good. Lets hope he can make a difference.

  • 8

    Rajapaksa is not going to resign himself to defeat because that would leave him exposed to war a crimes trial. Rajapaksa called this election early because he knows the UNHRC will find him culpable for the war crimes and he is trying to hide behind the people by claiming that the people are behind him. The man is devious, corrupt and dangerous and defeating him is the responsibility of all Sri Lankans.

    • 0

      “the UNHRC will find him culpable”!

      So it is common news among the NGO and the fifth column (eg, Piranha) that MR will be found culpable?

      We always thought it was a foregone conclusion.
      Thanks for revealing.

    • 1


      Despite all the analysis by professors, political analysts, ex-diplomats, ex-parliamentarians and other arm chair politicians, this election is going to bring more chaos, bloodshed and external intervention in Sri Lanka.

      If Mahinda wins by any means, authoritarianism and all the wrong doings will continue – may be leading to a peoples’ uprising.

      If Sirisena wins, there will be more violence immediately after the election leading to the declaration of emergency and the whole works including white vans will be deployed by Mahinda/Gota goons.

      So, either way Sri Lankan people are destined to violence, bloodshed and chaos.

      We don’t need a crafty astrologer to predict this.

  • 0

    you said that ‘There was hardly any agreement and several well-known names were proposed, but Sirisena’s name was not one of them.’I think if you read very recent literature about current Sri Lankan politics you don’t say this. At least read the last article of Prof. Laksiri wrote in the Colombo Telegraph.

    Again you mentioned, ‘Nobody expected him to come forward because he was the General Secretary of the president’s party, the SLFP, and hitherto, at least publicly, did not demonstrate any resentment against the government. He was seen as one of the close allies of the president and his policies and in fact he defended the government until very recently.

    What a political scientist you are? The above idea is what ordinary people think. However the (SL) scholars predicted that challenging MR is not an easy task. So the common candidate has to be nominated someone from SLFP. Again I suggest you to read Laksiri.

    Again you indicate that ‘ The president’s men were targeting Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera. Keetha, even the UNP fan threewheel Drivers too did not expect Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera will be the presidential candidate.

    I think reading your essay further is stupid. It is better you go for a recent literature review before you write something.

  • 0

    The people will vote for Maithripala Sirisena because they want MR out. No third term for MR. End corruption, family rule and abuse of power.BUT here there is a gigantic BUT, do the people want ranil ( the unfriendly royalist claiming a huge family heritage , manipulating the UNP, running the show with some rich poofters, and travelling overseas every week etc etc) to come back into power in any form ?
    That will be the main question on 08 January 2015. We dont have long to wait. The consequences will be very serious to the nation. This man ranil has so much to answer for

  • 1

    ” He has already promised to rescue the party and return to the Bandaranaike principles.”

    Isn’t the ‘Bandaranaike principles’ the primary cause of the marginalisation of Tamils in Sri Lanka? So, why should the TNA and Tamils support the Sirisena candidacy? Isn’t Sirisena offering Sinhala supremacy ‘lite’ to Rajapaksa’s unashamed Sinhala supremacy?
    Tamils of Sri Lanka have been repeatedly cheated by Presidential candidates and political parties in the past to trust another Sri Lankan politician.

    The TNA should not offer their support to Sirisena for anything less than merging of the North and the Eastern provinces and promise of a Federal state, a promise that India and the IC should ensure is met. The UNP has already promised no support for war crimes charges, in other words no justice for the thousands of innocent Tamils killed. Why should Tamils vote for a candidate who has already promised injustice? I am not advocating Tamils vote for MR, however the UNP and Sirisena should not take the Tamil vote for granted. Their votes should be earned.

  • 2

    I am not sure how brilliant this move is. Most non Sinhala-Buddhists seem to have some strange idea as how a sinhala-buddhist would vote- most seem to think they vote for ethnicity and not the person.
    being a Sinhala-Buddhist this is not how I would chose – I can of course only speak for myself- if somebody asked me few months ago whether I would vote for MS I would have laughed rolling on the floor. and even now would only vote most reluctantly to avoid a greater evil. I think Karu and to a lesser extent RW has more appeal as clean politicians with a better vision and leadership qualities. under any normal circumstances apposition would and should lead the victory.
    for the majority, person matter more than the ethnicity, no doubt ‘cos candidates are generally Sinhala (tho’ hardly Buddhist except in talk – from DS to present MR(who seem to hve converted to barbarism cum superstition))– this election due to shear lack of choice most sinhala Buddhist would chose MS but will now have less faith on a better future!

  • 1

    It is a tough task in defeating tge incumbent president who has in someway started his campaign and looks formidable. Ths oppsition has to field a candidate using all strategic options. UNP by itself woukd not have had much of a chance (sometimes very keenly proposedy Sajith P with ulterior motive of seeing UNP defeated so that he can take control of the party which is a day dream).
    Under these curcnstances Ranil had to make this most strategic move in fielding MS as opposition candidate and this gives the UNP a great opportunity to take over power through the parliamentary system with changes in the presidency.
    A great move by Ranil, Chandrika etc and should be hailed.

  • 2

    Yes he could lose everything in case this gamble fails but he has the potential to unsettle the Rajapakse conglomerate with a credible challenge. The long establsihed tradition of family domination of politics in South Asia has taken even more deeper roots in Sri Lanka. Sirisena is a refreshing alternative. But how attractive he will be to the minorities will be a question to ponder about. The UNP on the other hand must do some soul searching about its future. How is it that a political party that is I beleive the second oldest after the LSSP and also a party that governed the country for 17 long years from 1977 come to this sorry pass? So much so that it couldn’t find a vibrant candiate from its own ranks. The party is digging its own grave. Whether Mithripala Sirisena could help this party now in terminal decline is questionable.

  • 1

    Tamils may not be interested in this election as it is not going to change the way of their life. no hope what so ever. No signs of light in the Horizon. Let the majority have their president and there is no rule or law for the *laves

  • 0

    I predict Namal will be the next President soon.

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