Colombo Telegraph

The Thunderbolt Before Election

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Time will say nothing but I told you so,

Time only knows the price we have to pay…” – Auden (But I Can’t)

Last week Candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa was interviewed on Derana. At one point the interviewer asks what guarantee he has he will be offered the premiership by President Sirisena. Mr. Rajapaksa gives a dismissive half-smile and replies, ‘I know Maithri.’

It turned out he didn’t.

The interviewer then questions Mr. Rajapaksa about the UNP’s argument that he and Mr. Sirisena will not be able to work together. Mr. Rajapaksa’s smile assumes Cheshire-Cat proportions.

“Maithri and Ranil were enemies. If they can get together and work it is not difficult (for Maithri) to get together with me after just a month’s fallout.”

President Rajapaksa underestimated his general secretary and paid a heavy price for it on January 8th. His blasé assertions at the Derana interview indicate that he never bothered to rethink and correct that mistake. He continuea to regard Mr. Sirisena as a lightweight who could be coerced and deceived at will, like most leading SLFPers.

This fatal underestimation of Mr. Sirisena is a key premise of the Rajapaksa-comeback project.

Within days of his January 8th defeat, Mr. Rajapaksa began to stoke the fires of factionalism within the SLFP. Soon the party was in turmoil and teetering towards a deadly breakup. When parliamentary election was called, Mr. Rajapaksa threatened to contest separately, if Mr. Sirisena did not concede all his demands. Having bludgeoned Mr. Sirisena into agreeing to the nomination of himself and almost all of his key acolytes, Mr. Rajapaksa used the election campaign to derogate and humiliate his rival. He turned the parliamentary election into an election about himself. The campaign’s theme song was about him (‘You will come and lighten the darkness; you will give life to the county. Like a father, you are our shelter’ are some of its familiarly sycophantic lyrics). Its propaganda showcased him. It was as if he was re-waging the presidential election.

Rajapaksa acolytes went several steps further. They launched attack after scathing attack on President Sirisena. Some said that Mr. Rajapaksa will become president again; others spoke at length about how they’d either get rid of Mr. Sirisena or render him powerless, after winning the election.

A week before election, Mr. Rajapaksa suddenly shifted gear and adopted a condescendingly friendly attitude towards Mr. Sirisena. He said he was willing to work with the president. Some of his less extreme acolytes even claimed he was ready to accept Mr. Sirisena’s leadership. The UPFA carried several newspaper ads with Mr. Sirisena’s picture in a belated attempt to convince the voters that he is also a part of the campaign.

According to some media reports, the president was neither flattered nor amused by this sudden flurry of attention.

This was the background against which Mr. Sirisena sent out his five-page letter to Mr. Rajapaksa. The letter’s real target audience was not Mr. Rajapaksa but ordinary SLFPers. Mr. Sirisena clearly wanted to get his side of the story across to them, before he made his next devastating move.

Battle of the Blues

The battle for the body, mind and soul of the SLFP is on.

Mr. Rajapaksa and his faction had no intention of accepting Mr. Sirisena’s presidency or working with him. Those belated assurances were nothing more than ruses aimed at lulling Mr. Sirisena into complaisance. They obviously rated Mr. Sirisena’s intelligence very low and took his patience for weakness.

Mr. Sirisena seems to be a master at the waiting game. During the election campaign, he carried on his presidential duties, ignoring the public attacks on him by members of the party and the coalition of which he was the leader. As the campaign entered its final week, he launched his pre-emptive offensive. The public-missive to Mahinda Rajapaksa was followed by the replacement of the pro-Rajapaksa general secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA with two of his own loyalists. He also took steps to obtain the necessary legal cover for his actions.

Obviously the plan had been in the making for a while and not a whiff of it leaked out.

A defining feature of this election campaign had been the battle within the battle, the cold war waged by Rajapaksa supporters against their less-extreme fellow SLFPers. According to the worldview of the Rajapaksa-faction, any SLFPer who is not a Rajapaksa-loyalist is an enemy. The standard candidate-on-candidate personal competition for preferential votes was thus turned into an inner-party war, waged by Rajapaksa-loyalists against everyone else. Maximalists like their Master, they did not accept a middle ground between supporting and opposing Mahinda Rajapaksa. The request not to give a preference vote to any candidate who is not wholeheartedly behind Mahinda Rajapaksa was openly made at political meetings, large and small.

This extreme campaign by the Rajapaksa faction deepened politico-personal disagreements within the SLFP to the point of a clear politico-ideological division. If the UPFA wins the election, Rajapaksa loyalists will launch an all-out purge against enemy-SLFPers. The resultant split can manifest itself in outbursts of violence, especially at the grassroots level, plunging the country into a morass of instability.

The Rajapaksa faction bears a striking resemblance to American Tea partiers, those hardliners who occupy the extreme rightwing fringe of the Republican Party. Andrew J Perrin, Associate Professor of Sociology and lead author of the study ‘Cultures of the Tea Party’ defines the Tea Party as the “new cultural expression of late 20th Century conservatism”[i]. The 2010 study identified four fundamental characteristics of the Tea Party movement: Authoritarianism; Ontological insecurity (Fear of change); Nativism (opposition to immigrants and non-white Americans) and Libertarianism.

The Rajapaksa cohorts obviously share three of those four characteristics. They are authoritarian; their ideal leader is a paternalist monarch. They definitely suffer from fear of change; they dream not of moving to a better future, but of returning to a utopian past. And they are Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists who regard all minorities as aliens. If Libertarianism is defined as opposition to political-correctness, then that too is a quality Rajapaksa-loyalists share with Tea Partiers.

Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to take back the state and reinstall familial rule. He is surrounded by a group of hardliners who insist on extreme solutions and decry any attempt at accommodation as treachery. They will not stop, until the 19th Amendment is made null and void through a 20th Amendment, President Sirisena is impeached, forced to resign or worse and Mahinda Rajapaksa regains control over the party, the government and the state.

Factions and factionalism is nothing new in Lankan politics. But the Rajapaksa faction, like the Tea Partiers, is qualitatively more hardline, partisan and extremist than has been the democratic norm in Sri Lanka. Compromise is alien to them. They will not rest until they have regained power. Only an undeniably clear defeat on August 18th can stop them.

Electoral Outcomes and Political Prospects

Statistics and politics tally. The confluence indicates that the UNP is likely to emerge the single largest party on August 18th.

Under certain favourable conditions, the UNP might even be able to win an outright majority.

The UNP winning big (with or without a clear majority) will save Sri Lanka from being plunged into a politico-constitutional cold-war, post-election. Though no politician or party should be trusted implicitly, a UNP victory is the better outcome for democracy, rule of law, accountability and reconciliation, in the current context.

The voter turnout on August 17th is likely to be lower than on January 8th. This decrease will affect the total vote of all parties, but the main loser is likely to be the UPFA. Some of those who voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa in January are likely to abstain; another section will vote for the JVP. The extent of the UPFA’s defeat and the UNP’s victory will depend on the magnitude of these twin-shifts.

What Mahinda Rajapaksa would do, post-defeat, may depend on the scale of the defeat. If the UPFA’s defeat is clear and considerable, the blame will have to be borne by Mr. Rajapaksa and his cohorts. In such a scenario, a continuation of the Rajapaksa-project will become impossible.

The unexpectedly smooth transfer of power on January 9th happened as the result of a deal between the winning and losing sides, with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe playing a pivotal role. He is said to have kept lines of communications open to the Rajapaksa camp even during the bitter election campaign and it was to him Mahinda Rajapaksa turned when a purported attempt to continue in power extra-constitutionally was opposed by the heads of the armed forces and the police. Mr. Wickremesinghe visited Mr. Rajapaksa in the early hours of January 9th and reportedly brokered the agreement which ensured a smooth transition.[ii]

The contents of that agreement were never publicised. But it was widely rumoured that Mr. Rajapaksa wanted protection for himself and his brother Gotabaya[iii], non-prosecution of his family on corruption and other charges and nominations for himself and his eldest son Namal at the next parliamentary election. Obviously departing peacefully was a tactical move rather than a prelude political retirement. Even as he was bidding goodbye to UPFA parliamentarians on that fateful morning, Mr. Rajapaksa was reportedly mooting the possibility of a comeback via parliamentary polls.

After being defeated at the presidential election, Mr. Rajapaksa could plan to regain power via parliament. But Mr. Rajapaksa will not have a similar fallback option if the UPFA suffers a clear and undeniable defeat at the parliamentary election. ‘First we’ll take the parliament, then we’ll take the presidency’ can sound plausible. But ‘First we’ll take local government bodies, then we will take provincial councils, then we will take the presidency’ would sound too ludicrous even to most Rajapaksa supporters.

But if the UPFA’s margin of defeat is narrow, Mr. Rajapaksa’s comeback dreams may survive. He and his acolytes might try to make the parliament as chaotic and the country as ungovernable as possible; they will definitely try to engineer massive defections, form a government and launch a full-scale power-grab.

Going by his campaign speeches, Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to believe that if he had a fault in his presidential-past, it was his niceness towards his enemies. He accuses the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration of being vengeful and maintains that he never harboured any ill will towards his opponents. Clearly he has forgotten the dire fates which befell those who refused to obey his every order, from General Fonseka and CJ Bandaranaike to the people of Rathupaswala. This self-assessment indicates what the country can expect, if Mr. Rajapaksa returns to power.

Addressing his diehard supporters upon his return to Medamulana on January 9th, Mr. Rajapaksa said, We must remember they got their majority vote from Eelam…” Several supporters shouted, “Why didn’t you kill and take?” [iv] What such a leader, backed by such followers, can do is all too easy to imagine.

Is Sri Lanka going to continue her forward journey towards greater democracy (albeit with warts)? Or will she retrograde, into the Rajapaksa era of familial rule and dynastic succession?

Sri Lankans opted for the future on January 8th. They are likely to reconfirm that choice on August 17th.


[i] (http://perrin.socsci.unc.edu/perrin-tepper-caren-morris-cultures-of-the-tea-party-asa-2011.pdf)

[ii]http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150111/columns/ranil-works-out-peaceful-pre-dawn-transition-of-power-with-mahinda-130430.html

[iii] Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was the Secretary to the Ministry of Defense and played a key role in defeating the LTTE.

[iv] http://www.gossiplankanews.com/2015/01/mahinda-rajapaksas-medamulana-speech.html#more

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