Colombo Telegraph

Who’s Afraid Of Mahinda Rajapaksa?

By Malinda Seneviratne – 

Malinda Seneviratne

There’s going to be an election in a few weeks time. On the face of it yet another provincial council election in the now to-be-expected staggered format that gives the ruling party an inside edge should not excite anyone. On the other hand, the Uva PC election is being held amid widespread speculation that it will be followed by a snap presidential election. A strong showing in Uva would give the opposition a much needed fillip even if it ends on the losing side whereas yet another one-sided affair would spell doom for whoever that is chosen as the principal candidate of the opposition in a presidential election.

Perhaps this is why there seems to be more election-heat in Uva (unlike say, Wayamba).  Intra-party scuffles have for a change given way to inter-party clashes. Perhaps also, this is why ‘hot’ as Uva is, there is as much talk of that campaign as there is speculation and machinations with respect to ‘a common opposition candidate’.

All this was expected, though. It was anyway hard to believe that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would stay his full term.   First, he is not getting any younger. Secondly, with each passing day regime-fatigue becomes more of a factor that plays again re-election aspirations. Thirdly, there is a thing called ‘opportune moment’. There is a lot to gain by calling for an early election, say, at a time when the opposition is in disarray or is demoralized by a defeat.

The scrambling in the opposition camp to come up with a name that everyone can support itself indicates strong conviction that there will be an early presidential election, i.e. long before the due date of 2016.  It is in this context that the remarks of former Chief Justice Saran N Silva regarding Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eligibility needs to be understood.

According to Saratn N Silva’s reading of the constitution, President Rajapaksa cannot re-contest due to what he contends is flawed wording in the 18th Amendment. The thing about interpretation is that there can be more than one. Laws themselves can be changed and regimes are notorious for using parliamentary majorities to pass partisan legislation.  We saw this at the tail end of the eighties when the UNP was about to lose its two-thirds majority. Courtesy Sarath N Silva, ironically, ruling parties can always obtain the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendment. That’s considerable political edge.

Even if the ruling party does not avail itself of these benefits, final determination comes from the Supreme Court and according to opposition voices including that of the former Chief Justice it’s a naduth-haamuduruwange-baduth-haamuduruwange state of affairs.

In all these machinations, claims and legal arguments one thing stands out: picking a ‘common candidate’ is less important for the opposition than making sure that the ‘chosen one’ will not have to confront Mahinda Rajapaksa. Even his most vociferous critic will admit that he is Mr Impossible To Beat, and not just because of the massive advantage that the constitution as well as political realities confer on the incumbent. The troubling truth for the opposition is that in the business of choosing lesser evils, the President has far greater appeal than any of the names being floated as possible challenger. All the more reason, naturally, to do whatever is necessary to get his name off the ballot.

There are two perceptions that are commonly expressed, even by the President’s detractors. First, that although regime-approval is low and people are not happy with the Government, they will still vote for the betel leaf. One often hears frustrated voices in the opposition cursing the people for being stupid, especially in the aftermath of electoral defeat.  Secondly, there is grudging acknowledgement of the President’s popularity: oya yaka kohomahari dinanava (this devil will win somehow). This acceptance is not about hook-or-crook scenarios but the fact that unpopular as the government is and despised as most ministers are, the President is still seen as an ‘ape manussaya’ (our man).

What this means is that the opposition’s failure is of a magnitude greater that whatever general popularity slippage detracts from the President’s overall persona. In this context even if the opposition were to get its act together (a tall order in itself) the outcome will not subvert the script. This is why interventions such as Sarath N Silva’s, sadly, are crucial for the opposition.  What it means is that the opposition has been in arm-chair mode for far too long.  The opposition has to understand that voice-cut politics won’t deliver anything.

In this context, what the former Chief Justice’s intervention really amounts to is a confession from the overall opposition: ‘We are scared to run against Mahinda Rajapaksa’. It indicates that there’s a lot more work to be done among the people and that they’ve started rather late in the day.  Better late than never, though, is something to cling on to.

*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at

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