By Upul Kumarapperuma –
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has already declared that he will contest at the next Presidential Election as the candidate from the United National Party.
Wickremesinghe has made this declaration in the midst of holding a dialogue with other socio-political forces to put forward a common candidate for the Presidential Election with a minimum mandate on a common agenda, where they would agree to the abolition of the Executive Presidency and introduction of a new Constitution. It is believed that these slogans would be best to challenge the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime at the next key election.
The same declaration has also been made by Mahinda Rajapaksa who has also declared he would contest as the candidate of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) at the next Presidential Election. Given the political parties, groups and personalities allied with the UPFA, one could argue that Rajapaksa would also be a common candidate of sorts for his crowd. It could also be argued that Rajapaksa would be the best candidate because of his flexibility in working with different political ideologies represented amongst his own party.
The Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, which is the driving force of the UPFA government, is protected and maintained by parties like the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), National Freedom Front (NFF), and organizations like the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) and Ravana Balaya. The political mechanism of the Rajapaksa government is based on this ideology and the above mentioned movements provide a significant contribution in carrying this message to the four corners of the country.
Although the leftist groups who cooperate with the government do not align with this ideology, with their anti-western sentiments and anti-capitalist slogans they are able to stand in line with Rajapaksa wherever they share the same views. Irrespective of the criticism against the JHU over anti-Muslim campaigns, and allegations leveled by the JHU and other Buddhist organizations against Muslim political parties, all these parties are capable of working together and Rajapaksa is capable of working with the ideologies of both parties.
The up country Tamils never bear a serious political ideology. However, they have been working together with the Rajapaksa government with their historical experience of working with the party in power regardless of its political vision.
The mindset of the South has been made more antagonistic towards the North, mainly towards the Tamil politicians and their main political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The campaign launched against the TNA is able to cement an opinion in the South that the party and Northern Tamils bear an inherent enmity towards the Sri Lankan identity. Therefore any move taken up for the interests of the North can be turned in favour of the Rajapaksa government in the name of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.
The individuals who have crossed over to the UPFA from various political parties have cemented their positions with Mahinda Rajapaksa on a common agreement that fulfils their aspirations. Given this scenario, it is evident that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the most favoured common factor, who is able to work together with all these contradictory ideologies simultaneously for the betterment of his own political cause.
The declaration by Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Presidential candidate from the UNP has taken place when there is a serious criticism and resistance building against him within the party and serious doubts being cast in society of his success at the next Presidential election.
Wickremesinghe has pledged to abolish the executive presidency, but is tight lipped on the alternative to be adopted. He says the best option would be a system similar to the Westminster system, and in the same breath he says the Prime Minister of that Parliament should be elected from a different election to make him responsible for both the Parliament and the general public. In the other words, the political reform which Wickremesinghe is speaking of is a replacement of the word “President” in the Constitution with the word “Prime Minister” and to maintain the same arbitrariness of that office.
It is important to get an idea of the modus operandi of Mahinda Rajapaksa to drive his political ideology into the heart of society. The main factors that Rajapaksa is relying on are the demography of the island, geographical concentration of ethnicities, the international opinion against Sri Lanka, and the internal opinion against international opinion. Seventy four percent of the population of the country is Sinhalese and 70% of the population are Buddhists, therefore the most electrifying slogan of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism targets, covers and caters to 75% of the population of the country. This population is considered as Rajapaksa’s prime vote bank.
It is pertinent to note that in view of the aforesaid circumstances, two factors need to be addressed to engage with Mahinda Rajapaksa – forming a broader socio-political movement with wider participation of influential social elements in the South (with the intention of changing the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist mindset) and the introduction of new political reforms, a new political culture and to groom a leadership that is able to take this slogan from the top to bottom of the society.
A majority of the opposition political parties share the same view on abolishing the Executive Presidency and establishing a parliamentary democracy with a new Constitution, which could facilitate modalities for the establishment of a more dignified social structure.
The JVP has launched a continuing struggle for the abolition of the Executive Presidency from 1982. The opinion of the TNA is similar and their view is to establish a mechanism which is able to secure and maintain a common Sri Lankan identity. In addition to these political movements, the Peoples’ Movement for a Fair Society, a pressure group comprising intellectuals led by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero also advocates the abolition of the Executive Presidency.
By declaring himself as the Presidential candidate, Wickremesinghe has indirectly invited the other political movements to rally around him and the policies of his political party, the UNP. There are hundreds of reasons to reject or ignore this request. Firstly, Wickramesinghe’s proposal does not meet the expectations of the others. Secondly, the endorsement of the UNP manifesto and its candidate does not amount to work with a common candidate and common agenda. The best example of this situation is the JVP’s stance on Wickramesinghe’s declaration, where the party has announced that they would also contest independently if Wickremesinghe emerges as the candidate of the UNP at the next Presidential election.
The JVP’s criticism is that Wickremesinghe has ruined the broader aspirations and perspectives of the people in a common agreement with a common candidate by his declaration. Though they refrain from speaking about it in public, there is a danger of losing their party identity and its basic foundation if the JVP endorses the UNP and its candidate. The JVP therefore cannot be blamed for their decision.
Meanwhile, neither the TNA nor the Democratic Party has expressed their views on Wickramesinghe’s declaration and the Movement for Fair Society is also silent on the issue.
Hence, it is understood that Wickremesinghe has placed more confidence on his candidature from the UNP and his party mechanism and his party stalwarts, rather than a broader political movement with a far-reaching political agreement, which the country is eagerly looking forward to.
There is no doubt that with his ability to mingle with contradictory political ideologies, political parties and individuals in order to achieve his political target, Rajapaksa has now becomes the “Common Candidate” in the alliance which he gives leadership to and the people who recognize him as their leader.
Wickremesinghe by failing to understand the need to work on a common agreement to change this arbitrary and authoritarian State and its rule and working on his own motion, with his own agenda despite the aspirations of the masses, has now made himself the “Uncommon Candidate” at the next Presidential election.