By Dharisha Bastians –
An impending alliance between the feuding Ranil and Sajith factions may offer hope of unity within the main opposition United National Party, but will it torpedo burgeoning hopes of a common opposition platform to contest the 2015 presidential poll?
On 24 July within the musty confines of New Town Hall on Green Path, extraordinary political scenes unfolded. Ironically, the politically charged event featured only academic, professional and civil society speakers, all of whom discussed constitution and nation building, rampant abuse of power and the broken quality of the present system. There were two remarkable things about the low key event organised by the moderate scholar monk Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, who is leading a movement agitating for constitutional reform that will abolish the executive presidential system. Firstly, the National Movement for Social Justice, with its band of top legal luminaries and constitutional experts, announced that it had developed a tangible roadmap for abolition. The discussion around abolition has existed for decades and fingers have been burnt many times over. Yet Sobitha Thero’s experts succeeded in bringing the discussion out of the abstract for the very first time, setting deadlines, closing loopholes and drafting a credible modus operandi to ensure that the presidential system is abolished six months after the next presidential race.
But the real show-stopper that afternoon was the opposition cast that showed up at New Town Hall to witness the event. The felicitous picture published in many newspapers the very next day, featured a star cast including not only Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Sarath Fonseka, R. Sampanthan, Karu Jayasuriya and the JVP’s Sunil Handunetti, but also ousted Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake who was making a rare public appearance, and Bar Association President Upul Jayasuriya, whose fiery anti-impeachment positions propelled him to lead the country’s legal fraternity.
Bandaranayake and Jayasuriya are important symbols of the opposition movement; the former badly used and abused by the ruling administration, while Jayasuriya has become a formidable warrior in the battle to restore judicial independence and uphold the rule of law. Needless to say, the picture created ripples in several quarters. Unity is a rare feature of Sri Lankan politics, even among factions seemingly battling the same enemy, so the image of the smiling team of opposition rivals had a strange effect, on both the Rajapaksa administration and the main opposition United National Party.
The different beast
Successive provincial and local government elections seem to indicate that the ruling UPFA coalition is well entrenched. In the past nine years of Mahinda Rajapaksa rule, the regime has done well to consolidate its electoral gains and triumph over the LTTE by introducing draconian legislation, winning over opposition politicians and sowing discord in virtually every opposition political party. But even President Rajapaksa and his key advisors know that presidential elections are an entirely different type of beast, and that provincial electoral success may not necessarily translate into outright victories in a major national polls battle. In the 2005 presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa – incredulously contesting as the underdog in that poll – seized the presidency with a wafer thin margin, polling 50.29 percent nationally. Tiger Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran altered the course of Sri Lanka’s political destiny for the third successive time, when he enforced a boycott of the election in the LTTE controlled areas of the North and East, depriving Ranil Wickremesinghe of crucial minority votes that would have helped him to clinch power. The shadowy electoral pact that stole Wickremesinghe’s presidential hopes in 2005, backfired badly on Prabhakaran when the Rajapaksa administration ploughed through with the military option, decimating the LTTE and killing its top leadership in May 2009. In January 2010, when President Rajapaksa contested against his former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka, who was fielded by an opposition alliance, he was at the zenith of his popularity. Even at his most invincible then, the incumbent President garnered only 57.8 percent of the national vote.
2015 will mark six years since the end of the war. The intervening years have been difficult ones for the regime, although it has managed largely, to retain its political and popular support. But as economic peace dividends continue to evade the majority of Sri Lankans, as corruption soars and the markers of dynastic family rule grow stronger, incumbency fatigue is setting in. Minority oppression, brutality against political opponents and the repression of civil society, including the mainstream media, has contributed to the quiet and still insignificant galvanisation of forces that are agitating for a restoration of democratic freedoms.
The results of the Western and Southern provincial council polls in March this year indicated the regime’s slight downward trend, even after the Government strove to whip the electorate up into a frenzy about ‘international conspiracies’ unfolding at the UN sessions in Geneva.
The regime’s determination to shift the goalposts in the Uva provincial battle by allocating more seats to the Moneragala District which favours the UPFA was an early indicator of the Government’s vulnerability in the province. The contest in Uva will be the last small election ahead of the presidential poll. The stakes are high for the opposition which will need to show some momentum in Uva to sustain hope for the presidential election. But the Government will also desperately needs to win by large margins in the region to maintain its image of electoral invincibility. The heavy-handed and disproportionate state response to run-of-the-mill voter awareness drives funded by the US Government, a staple feature ahead of major elections over the past five years and the near-psychotic hysteria about foreign funded NGOs operating in the country all point to a growing paranoia in the ranks of the regime, ahead of a crucial polls battle. None of these actions are reflective of a supremely confident incumbency.
The Government’s own popularity surveys have begun to indicate trouble spots for the regime in several regions. The regime’s post war minority policies have ensured it can count out Tamil and Muslim votes en bloc across the island. No number of carpeted roads, paved walkways, fountains and highways can stem the tide of public discontent once it begins to take shape. The prospect of a fast coalescing opposition movement therefore, one that directly threatens the heart of the regime’s power by taking arms against the executive presidency, remains deeply discomfiting to the Rajapaksa administration. A broad opposition coalition bringing discontented socio-political factions together against the presidency, has the potential to mobilise support by extension against President Rajapaksa himself, who has learned to wield the tools of executive office better than any predecessor. In the regime’s assessment, the President’s re-election chances are much better against a main contender drawn ideally from within the UNP. Its ultimate preference would be UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, the consummate peacenik and traitor in the fight against the Tigers, whose popularity amongst the majority Sinhalese community has never been weaker.
In the Wickremesinghe camp too, momentum gained by Sobitha Thero’s abolition movement that seeks to pit a single opposition candidate against President Rajapaksa in a 2015 election, has resulted in some discomfort. The UNP Leader will never be the first or second choice for common candidate, not only because of his Achilles’ heel with the Sinhalese voters, but also because he is yet to categorically express his resolve to abolish the presidency. Twice already, Wickremesinghe has been tragically unlucky at presidential elections, when he was a clear forerunner. The suicide bomb attack against President Kumaratunga on the campaign trail, virtually ensured her re-election on a wave of sympathy, and in 2005, the LTTE enforced boycott in Tamil dominated areas stole the election from Wickremesinghe.
So close and yet so far
For the UNP Leader, the presidency has always been so close and yet so far, and he came onboard with the abolition movement, only after it became clear that the issue would become the defining platform of the next presidential election. With President Rajapaksa’s popularity in decline, and minority votes in the bag, perhaps the UNP Leader believes his third time will be the charm and a common opposition platform that chooses to field a different candidate, threatens to dash these hopes once more.
The Government strategy is to actively support Wickremesinghe to emerge as the main challenger in the 2015 poll. Over the past two months, its Ministers and MPs regularly attack Wickremesinghe at press conferences and political debates, recalling Batalanda and other scandals in his past, and painting him out to be a credible threat to the regime. Meanwhile, the Administration has also ordered blackouts in certain sections of the media over which it it wields influence, of specific potential common candidates hailing from the opposition.
The developments shed some light on the sudden moves to forge an alliance between the warring Ranil and Sajith factions of the UNP. Premadasa, who a mere nine months ago was calling for Wickremesinghe’s head, insisting he quit both as UNP Leader and Opposition Leader, is once again exploring the option of serving as deputy leader of the UNP, under his arch rival. It is unclear what has resulted in this sudden change of heart, but after his very public remarks about the Party Leader and its General Secretary Tissa Attanayake over the past nine months, Premadasa will have some explaining to do.
In a strange twist, even the much maligned Attanayake has suddenly thrown in his lot with Premadasa, strongly advocating his reinstatement as deputy leader with Wickremesinghe loyalists and senior party members.
Backing Ranil’s bid
But crucially, over the past year, Premadasa has insisted on the UNP fielding its own candidate under the elephant symbol at the next presidential poll. The 47 year old politician has offered to be his party’s candidate, if Wickremesinghe also concedes the party leadership to him. If Premadasa is returned to the fold as deputy to Wickremesinghe he will be the main backer of the UNP Leader’s presidential bid, insisting that the party contest independent of the opposition alliance. The return will signal a reunification that will greatly boost UNP morale at the grassroot levels and possibly give the party a major impetus at the Uva provincial election. What it will not do, is ensure the UNP’s victory at the presidential election.
This is a calculation Premadasa and his backers are making: Wickremesinghe’s certain defeat against President Rajapaksa will propel the Hambantota District MP to the helm of the UNP, the one prize he has had his eye on since he first began the agitation for leadership changes in the party. Six years down the road, Premadasa will hope to do battle against a much weaker, much more unpopular Rajapaksa presidency, and win that election. Premadasa’s 2021 game begins here, a long game in which many vested interests and puppeteers have major stakes. Given the Government’s own preference for a Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe battle, UNP MPs are raising questions once more, about whether the Premadasa faction is playing out the sinister agendas of powerful sections of the regime.
Torpedo politics has become Sajith Premadasa’s forte. UNP MPs and moderates blame Premadasa for spoiling any success that may have been reaped from the establishment of the Leadership Council led by Karu Jayasuriya in November last year, refusing to participate in the process and citing a frivolous excuse. Premadasa has never agreed to openly challenge Wickremesinghe in a leadership contest, preferring to push Jayasuriya into a battle that cost the senior politician the deputy leadership and his place on the UNP Working Committee. He has been on the sidelines of every electoral contest, when a divided and struggling UNP has gone to battle time and again against the Rajapaksa juggernaut, losing badly in the final outcome. Premadasa’s lack of participation ensures he has to take no part in the blame or responsibility of defeat. Premadasa’s attitude towards the Uva poll, where young Harin Fernando put senior parliamentarians in the UNP to shame by resigning from parliament to contest as the party’s chief ministerial candidate, is not very different. Since he refused to sit on the Leadership Council, Premadasa has been fading slightly in the public consciousness, losing column space and air time to Anura Kumara Dissanayake and other key opposition figures even among his stanchest media backers.
Premadasa knows a common opposition platform will only increase his irrelevance. In fact as a virtual non-entity within the UNP, his place in the alliance will prove even more tenuous than Wickremesinghe’s own. Quite like Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa has also shown only desire to occupy presidential office, rather than resolve to abolish the system. Wickremesinghe, mentored by J.R. Jayewarden, who brought about the executive presidency, has never publicly repudiated the system with much conviction.
For a single-issue common platform, seeking to elect the country’s last executive president – and one who will have to clip his own wings by abolishing the system, both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa will prove dangerous candidates to field. The Ranil-Sajith alliance however fruitful for the UNP, will almost certainly distance the party from the common opposition cause to abolish the presidency. The UNP will win no friends in the opposition for derailing the momentum of the common platform for without political leadership from the main opposition, the movement to abolish the presidency will stand no chance in the election. It may also relegate itself to opposition and even fewer numbers in Parliament, by the choice to contest independently.
In the end game, Ranil Wickremesinghe has a great deal more to lose. He may not be anyone’s choice for presidential candidate at an election in which the opposition is focused on ending the presidential system. Yet he is widely acknowledged as a worthy choice for prime minister, in a Westminster system. Parliament is Wickremesinghe’s comfort zone, and the system ensures swift removal, preventing the entrenchment of any individual in the position. As policy maker and head of Government, Wickremesinghe has already proved his mettle, even if his failure to pander to nationalist elements during his 2001-2004 reign, shortened his tenure in office. It is therefore in Wickremesinghe’s interest to have the presidency abolished following the next election and emerge as the leader of the General election campaign, once the playing field is levelled under a nominal presidency.
Yet for some reason, the UNP Leader is loathe to take his chances with an opposition alliance, preferring to collaborate with a party member who has been agitating for his ouster for several years. Wickremesinghe appears to be making a mathematical calculation , one in which multiple opposition candidates will seek to prevent President Rajapaksa from crossing the magic 50 percent + 1 mark. But with the strength of the state machinery at his command, pushing the election into a second count, may not result in an advantage for an opposition candidate. Theories in abstract are all very well, if the opposition was guaranteed a fair fight.
Elections in which an incumbent is also contesting, have rarely proved to be fair contests.
For the first time in nine years, the incumbent’s veneer of invincibility has been slightly shaken, but unless it battles together, the opposition still faces tremendous odds.
Having constructed a mini-kingdom, with a powerful ruling family at its helm, the Rajapaksa administration has everything to lose at this next election. Make no mistake, it is preparing for the fight of its life.
Courtesy Daily FT