By Hilmy Ahamed –
Sri Lankans in January 2015 delivered what was believed to be an impossible task, A REGIME CHANGE! This was possible because a common opposition formed a broad coalition to ensure that Sri Lanka returned to the rule of law and democracy. It consisted of parties and people, who believed that Sri Lanka needed to rid it of unprecedented corruption, nepotism; abuse of the judiciary for political expediency, politicization of the police force and those who believed that rule of law and justice had been compromised.
They nominated Maithripala Sirisena as their common candidate for the Presidency. Sirisena, though a seasoned politician had only a regional base in Polonnaruwa and was never considered a national leader. The common opposition led by the United National Party (UNP) propelled him to the pinnacle of political office and now president Maithripala Sirisena is accused of betraying the common opposition by allowing former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest, enter parliament and stake his claim to be the next Prime Minister.
Media reports quoted Maithripala Sirisena as having said, “If Mahinda Rajapaksa comes back to parliament as Prime Minister, my life is only a bullet away.” So, what has made him change his mind?
While accusations of corruption and other charges of abuse of power against ministers and members of parliament of the Rajapaksa regime was the main theme of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe campaign, none of the major culprits were brought to justice after their election in 2015. There were also delays in implementing the promises of the 100-day manifesto that included constitutional and electoral reforms, the right to information act, etc. leading to a flux in parliament. The opposition also threatened to block the appointment of the civil society members to the constitutional council that would have started the process of immediately enforcing the 19th amendment.
This started a wave of dissention amongst the parliamentarians and the people. The Rajapaksa loyalists in parliament took advantage and built up hype around the former president to bring him back to parliament and vie for the position of Prime Minister, as they commanded the majority. Their original plan was to get President Sirisena to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa on the national list after a current SLFP national list MP resigns but the President rejected this. This led to the opposition, threatening to destabilize the government and block the passage of important legislation promised by the common opposition campaign.
The minority parties too started to threaten the government and the opposition claiming that the introduction of the 20th amendment would have eliminated most of the minor and minority parties from representation in parliament. The United National Party started calling for the dissolution of parliament so that they could have a stronger mandate to implement their proposals. The opposition again pressurized President Sirisena not to dissolve until the passage of the 20thAmmendment.
The opposition also brought out a number of no confidence motions against the Minister of Public Order and Christian Affairs, Minister of Finance and the Prime minister along with charges of a major scandal in the bond issue by the central bank. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the COPE committee that inquired in to the central bank bond issue has found the Governor, Guilty. The opposition claims this as the main reason for the dissolution of parliament.
A number of former UPFA government ministers who had charges against them of corruption, drug running, money laundering, illegal import of ethanol etc. along with the aging leftists, who could not survive without the luxuries of office spearheaded a campaign to bring back Mahinda Rajapaksa to active politics and save their skin. They invested heavily in drawing huge crowds for their rallies calling on Mahinda Rajapaksa to lead them again. Most of these discards from the former regime would not have stood a chance of getting nominations to contest under the UPFA banner at the forth coming general elections. A large number would not have had any chance of getting elected again. They needed to piggyback on the charismatic leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa to support their continuation in politics. Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to have swallowed their bait, and has pledged to lead them.
According to the latest news reports, Mahinda, has been promised nominations to contest under the UPFA Banner. It is yet to be seen as to what President Sirisena has up his sleeves (if he has any) or else he would become the most selfish politician who betrayed over 6.2 million voters. Whatever the outcome of this election, Maithripala is guaranteed to be a lame duck president if he deceives the common opposition.
On the other hand, the patient Ranil Wickremesinghe probably has scored his goal well. During the short six months of his Government, there is a sense of relief and peace of mind amongst all Sri Lankans. There is also a semblance of the rule of law, and with the passage of the 19th amendment, there is hope for the revival of democratic values. His government was able to offer a sunshine budget too that certainly gave the urgent relief that was expected; yet, Sri Lankans know very well that these concessions will last only up to the next elections.
Maithripala Sirisena’s victory at the presidential was not from the votes of the UPFA or the SLFP but from the anti-Rajapaksa vote that was cast through the common opposition. Almost the entire lot of the SLFP and UPFA politicians did not support Sirisena during his presidential bid, barring a few that included Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka, Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero, Rishard Bathiudeen, Duminda Dissanayake, Arjuna Ranatunge, Faizer Mustapha etc. The entire minority communities including the evangelical Christians overwhelmingly voted for Sirisena, while a large number of Sinhala Buddhists in the south voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa camp took advantage of this and brought back their racist agenda, implying that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government was working towards a western agenda to compromise on the unitary state of Sri Lanka. Their major platform agenda is going to be the threat of minority domination and revival of terrorism.
Sirisena’s first betrayal came when he enlisted a number of SLFP/UPFA members of parliament, in the guise of ensuring support for his 100-day programme as ministers. Since then, he has been betraying the common opposition frequently to the extent that many of the constituent parties in the common opposition that brought him to power broke ranks and challenged his motives. The leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Rauf Hakeem went to the extent of saying in parliament that his community was in a better situation during the tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa, than what they had to face under the Maithripala/Wickremesinghe government. Minister Rauf Hakeem probably has a very short memory, as he seems to have forgotten the hate and intimidation campaign that was unleashed on the Muslims and the evangelical Christians during the dark days of the Mahinda Rajapaksa rule. The pogrom of Aluthgama is just one year old.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s charismatic leadership, and the power he wielded, as executive president was the reason for majority of the SLFP/UPFA lot to remain with him during the last presidential election. A weak Maithripala was seen as no match to Mahinda, but the forces of the common opposition led by the UNP that included the JHU, the JVP, the minority parties and with strong inputs from civil society groups through the National Movement for a Just Society, headed by Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha made the difference.
The bold stand taken by Venerable Athuraliye Rathana Thero too contributed in no small measure as the two respected monks shattered Mahinda Rajapaksa’s myth of protecting Buddhism and saving the nation from foreign domination, yet most of Mahinda’s votes came from the Sinhala Buddhist strongholds in the south. He now claims that he won in the South and Maithripala won only in the North and East.
It is believed that Mahinda Rajapaksa retained the vast majority of the SLFP members of parliament due to the uncertainty of a Maithripala win. The majority of them did not want to “jump” fearing the ruthless justice that would have been served on his deserters, should he have won. The few who crossed over with Maithripala Sirisena should be considered brave. President Maithripala Sirisena is on record, saying that his entire family would have been targeted, if he had failed to win. We saw a precursor of this possibility with the defeat of the war winning General Sarath Fonseka at the presidential elections of 2010. If a presidential candidate would be thus target, what would happen to the millions who openly opposed him. A Mahinda Rajapaksa win in 2015 would probably have been the bloodiest blood bath that Sri Lanka would have been experienced during any elections in history. Thank god for small mercies.
Now, that Mahinda Rajapaksa has publicly announced his Prime Ministerial ambitions, Sri Lanka will go back to the debate of governance and rule of law. It is alleged that his foray in to electoral politics again is to safeguard the family of the various charges leveled against them. What would happen if Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to win the majority in parliament and end up as an ordinary MP? Will a government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe go after the wrong does and bring back the loot to Sri Lanka? Will Mahinda loose the perks and privileges that the Prime Minister listed out in parliament as privileges of the ex-president that cause huge costs on the peoples taxes?
Will the coalition that came together to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa continue to be one against to defeat the reentry of the Rajapaksa dominence? Will they be able to keep the confidence of the majority of Sri Lankans and receive their votes again?
For Maithripala, it’s a Hobson’s choice. Will he accommodate Mahinda to be the Prime Ministerial candidate with the support of the SLFP or divide the SLFP and go down in history as the leader who split the party? Either way, the end result would not be a comforting one for the President.