By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
What political analysts have failed to grasp so far is that the current presidential election is essentially a home-and-home match. This is not a contest between the Government and the Opposition, or the SLFP and the UNP, plus the other minor parties. Though other parties have joined in the fray, this election is a straight fight between the Mahinda Rajapakse-wing of the SLFP and the Sirisena–Chandrika–Mangala wing of the SLFP. Others in the Opposition like Ranil Wickremesinghe are bit players carrying the torch for the Sirisena- wing of the SLFP.
This will become clearer if Maithripala Sirisena wins on January 8, 2015. As Rajiva Wijesinha stated in his interview with C. A. Chandraprema, the SLFPers will rush to Sirisena on January 8, 2015 if he wins the election. And Sirisena will not reject them either. He will embrace them partly because of loyalty to them (after all blue blood is thicker than green blood, no?) and partly because he needs their political backing to survive. He already has the UNP and other minor parties, including the TNA though covertly, in his bag. What he needs now is the backing of those in the Mahinda Rajapaksa-wing.
At this stage the two wings of the SLFP will be contesting for more than power at the centre. Their battle will be for the control of the SLFP as well with Chandrika Kumaratunga claiming ownership as the daughter of the founder of the Party, S. W.R. D. Bandaranaike. If and when her protégé comes into power there is a possibility of Chandrika Kumaratunga regaining the mantle of the SLFP leadership.
Chandrika Kumaratunga’s importance will grow because she has played the key role behind the scenes for the cross-overs. She has been the linchpin in the covert operations to undermine the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. Her claim to leadership will come by reclaiming the party back to the Bandaranaike family, as opposed to the Rajapaksa family. “The Queen of Deceit” – “the most corrupt and inefficient of all the corrupt and inefficient politicians who have come to power since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948” (Victor Ivan) — will once again hope to climb and occupy the throne of power. First she climbed to power on the coffin of her father. This time she can climb on the political marginalization/demise of Sirisena.
Sirisena is merely the mask behind which both Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe are dancing. How long he can survive at the top, particularly if he hands over the presidential powers to Wickremesinghe, is anybody’s guess. Besides, the Coalition he is supposed to lead is in itself a temporary lean-to that can be blown away in next gust of winds.
Chandrika Kumarantunga and Wickremesinghe have put together the most unworkable coalition of extremists – UNP-TNA-JHU in the main – for a change of personalities (not regimes) that will not last long. This is one of the reasons why wishy-washy Sirisena, who is neither green nor blue in his new capacity as the head of the Coalition, lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the SLFPers in the Mahinda Rajapaksa wing. Whether he will have the political skill to hold the cows, the cattle, the pigs, the chicken in his version of the Animal Farm is another question. His lack-lustre past, with hardly any achievements to his credit – it is not a patch on that of Mahinda Rajapaksa! – kept him in the background as a general factotum until he shot into the limelight as the Common Candidate in the presidential campaign.
Even as General Secretary of the SLFP he was more or less a back room boy playing an obedient role to the leader, whoever it may have been. His alliance with UNP-TNA-JHU has not enhanced his image either. On the contrary, in this new alliance he conveys, wittingly or unwittingly, the image of being the toy-boy of Chandrika Kumaratunga without any inspiring/significant political passion or vision that would have lifted him above the run-of-the-mill MP. His general demeanour is that of a malleable lump of putty in the hands of crafty manipulators.
Of course, more details of his promises are due to be released in his manifesto which is not available at the time of writing. But so far he has been making noises not to present a cohesive, progressive and structured alternative to that of Mahinda Chintanaya, or for the future of the nation. So far he has been announcing ad hoc measures that are, by and large, pie-in-the-sky promises that all candidates make just before elections and forget them the day after. Offering morsels like not occupying the official residence, or ruling from Polonnaruwa are gimmicks which will not have an impact on the main course of events.
The most dramatic event in his 37 year-old-career in politics is his departure from the SLFP to join hands with the UNP primarily. This is what is unnerving the SLFPers. They fear that Sirisena’s blind move means that the SLFPers will lose the upper hand they have had under Mahinda Rajapaksa who still is in firm control of both the Presidency and Parliament.
There is, however, a growing unease though, even among some of his close associates, that Sirisena blundered in signing the “Siri Sangabo MOU” with Wickremesinghe. In his eagerness to quickly pave the way for his crossover he signed an MOU elevating Wickremesinghe to the status of a president located in parliament. Sirisena promised to hand over all executive powers to him.
The first victim of the joint opposition, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, fought as a common candidate with a formidable Opposition backing him without signing a similar MOU. But this time Wickremesinghe got Sirisena to commit in writing that he would hand over all his powers to him. Naturally, this would have sent shivers down the spine of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mangala Samaraweera who are more seasoned and wily power-brokers than naïve Sirisena. Their reaction was predictable. It has dawned on the SLFPers that Sirisena has signed a deal to take the powers vested in Mahinda Rajapaksa-wing of the SLFP and hand it over to Wickremesinghe of the UNP without, of course, the consent of the people who are the legitimate owners of power in a democracy. The, one fine morning, without any explanation or warning, Sirisena announced that he will retain the powers of the Ministry of Defence. Where does this leave Wickremesinghe?
Sirisena has committed two deadly sins against his own party : 1. he stabbed his leader in the back after conspiring with the enemy secretly and, 2.more importantly, agreed in writing to hand over power which is in the hands of the SLFP to the UNP. This was a no-no, in any language, in any political system which is all about cut-throat struggles for power. Which power group would willingly hand over all its power to its traditional rivals? If this went through unchecked Sirisena would have been crying in the wilderness like King Lear who handed his kingdom to his scheming daughters.
In the meantime, CBK and Mangala woke up to the fact that there is nothing in the MOU for them if Sirisena hands over all executive powers to Wickremesinghe. Who in their proper senses will trust Wickremesinghe to be democratic and liberal defender of individual rights if and when he is entrusted with all the presidential powers? He is bound to get drunk with power faster than Chandrika Kumaratunga left alone in a French wine cellar – and the consequences to the nation would be incalculable. .
Obviously, what was needed was a mid-course correction. Under pressure from SLFP insiders, Sirisena back-pedaled quick fast but in low key which went unnoticed in the media and political circles. Sirisena came out saying that not all powers will be handed over to Wickremesinghe. It is reported that the JHU too had pointed out the blunder to Sirisena. So the noble Siri Sangabo who was going to hand over his head — not that there is much in it! — has now settled down to hand over a few of his fingers to Wickremesinghe.
As of now the promise to abolish the Presidency has been put on ice. So now it is clear that, after backtracking, Sirisena will be more than the ceremonial president that he promised to be initially. He will retain the all-important powers vested in the Ministry of Defence. He will still be the Commander-in-Chief of the Security Forces. Other details of whittling down the powers of the Prime Minister are yet to be announced. But all the pomp and power that Wickremesinghe was expecting will be out of his reach once again. He will be reduced to almost a nominal prime minister tasked to do all the dirty work. Once again Wickremesinghe has signed an agreement – like the one he signed with Prabhakaran –that eventually has boomeranged on him.
*To be continued