Victory never falls from the sky. In politics victories are produced when the conditions for meaningful and effective struggle mature and more importantly those who struggle are empowered by single minded determination, unity of purpose, coherence, coordination and synergy in action, and visionary leadership. It is said and not without cause that victory begets a thousand fathers and that defeat is always a foundling. Indeed victory is not only fathered severally it is interpreted severally as well. The result of the presidential election held on 8 January 2015 is no exception.
It can be argued that corruption, wastage, abuse of State power, political patronage, absence of law and order and all the other factors that had seen discontent rise after the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 were not attributes specific to the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. However, a lot that was forgiven, ignored or even considered inevitable due to the war were expected to be rectified in the post-war scenario. This did not happen. Instead it was perceived that not only was there an absolute disinterest in reining in corruption and wastage, these things were encouraged and worse, indulged in, by the then incumbent. Arrogance and cronyism pervaded all spheres.
The fact that the executive presidency was useful in executing the military offensive against the LTTE dulled the objections, but the treatment of Sarath Fonseka after his failed bid to oust Rajapaksa, the removal of Chief Justice Shiranee Bandaranayake, the 18th Amendment and a myriad of other moves clearly showed that it had outlived its usefulness.
It was clear that the entire system needed to be overhauled. In political terms this had to begin with constitutional reform. For that, Mahinda Rajapaksa had to be defeated since it was apparent by this time that no reform was possible unless this was done. He was standing in the way of the re-democratisation that the country sorely needed. He had to be removed.
The discontent was a necessary but not sufficient condition to orchestrate regime change. Where was the single-minded determination to come from? How could a diverse group of actors be united for a purpose? How could coherence be brought about? How about synergy in action? Where was the visionary leadership to come from? These were questions that had to be answered.
There are various theories about how Maithripala Sirisena came to be made the common presidential candidate. Let’s leave those aside. The truth is that a lot had to happen before coming up with a credible candidate.
The early days
In the early days, long before it became a Rajapaksa-Sirisena battle, there were a number of people who worked tirelessly to prepare the ground. The late Ven. Madoluwawe Sobitha Thero led a group of concerned citizens, some prominent and some not, in developing an idea around which key sections of the opposition could unite. What came out of that exercise was a concept, not a personality. The presidency and not the president was the main issue. In his last days Sobitha Thero in fact reiterated this fact and this might have been why President Sirisena pledged at the late Thero’s funeral to complete the undone task of abolishing the executive presidency.
People started supporting Ven. Sobitha Thero. The idea of abolishing the executive presidency was clear, logical and by that time seen as something that had to be done. Important organisations such as the Bar Association took up the cry. Professionals and academics became vocal. One of the key change-factors was that these groups gave confidence to ordinary people and in particular activists from all sections of society to add their voices to the struggle. Senior politicians of the calibre of Karu Jayasuriya also helped bring key political actors and organisations from all communities on to the same political platform, principally around the concept that Sobitha Thero championed, the abolishing of the executive presidency. He tirelessly worked towards keeping them together. That’s how momentum was generated.
Credible campaign and candidate
For all this, the go-ahead had to come from the main Opposition party. No candidate however popular or credible in terms of possessing necessary attributes that were in concert with the political objective of democratising could hope to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa without a strong, widespread network and a well-oiled political machine.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was not only a credible candidate but an alternative could have no chance without his endorsement. In other words, he held the key to the door that had to be opened for there to be a credible campaign.
It was not easy. There were many in the UNP who wanted him to contest. A close finish in 2005, a disaster in 2010 added to two decades without an UNPer in the driving seat had generated a lot of frustration. Many felt that this was the UNP’s moment. Many felt that Ranil Wickremesinghe could do it. Perhaps he might have been able to, but this was a political moment whose gravity could not be underestimated. It was going to be an uphill battle, a David vs Goliath encounter. The concept that had been turned into a winning brand, needed a brand ambassador who could undermine the competitor by wresting away his loyalists. It was thus that Maithripala Sirisena’s name came to be proposed.
In this exercise, a lot of credit is due to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. As a patron of the SLFP, a former president, a staunch critic of Mahinda Rajapaksa and a person with a strong personality, she alone, perhaps, had what it took to persuade Maithripala Sirisena to break ranks with the man he would have to contest against heavy odds.
Clearly, it would have to be a brave man that could accept the challenge, especially since the repercussions of possible defeat were obvious and clearly foreboding. Maithripala Sirisena may have been the name that could go along with the concept that civil society had developed, but he had the courage to make the run worthwhile.
There were others who played key roles. In addition to Sobitha Thero, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Karu Jayasuriya, special mention should be made of Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). It was the rejection of his ‘Pivithuru Hetak’ proposal by Mahinda Rajapaksa that paved the way for that party to leave the Government. Rathana Thero and party leader Champika Ranawaka had the voices that could articulate best the concept that the opposition had developed. They left the ruling coalition impoverished ideologically and in terms of oratorical edge. They addressed the Rajapaksa constituency best and helped swing the floating vote towards the Sirisena campaign.
Similarly, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), although it did not back the Opposition candidate, played a key role in mobilising support against the regime first by not fielding a candidate and secondly by supporting the idea of abolishing the executive presidency and as importantly the re-establishment of good governance. Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the JVP operated separately but towards the same objective of defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The Tamil National Alliance and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress as well as other political groups bolstered the Opposition campaign by getting the anti-Rajapaksa voters to the polling booths on the 8th of January. Their contribution cannot be underestimated. They were an integral part of what had snowballed into a national movement for democracy.
For all this, the role of the UNP and in particular Ranil Wickremesinghe, as we mentioned, was the most important factor in 8 January result. Ranil Wickremesinghe had to convince his party that the country should come first not only in rhetoric but by concrete action. He had to convince his party that the long term interest of the country can only be served by creating a level-playing field. He had to convince his party that things were so bad that they could not take any chances and that Maithripala Sirisena, since he could draw a sizeable chunk of the SLFP vote, had a better chance. He had to convince his party that Maithripala Sirisena needed the fullest support of the UNP and that the national interest called for the UNP to extend him that support.
This is where Ranil Wickremesinghe demonstrated best the qualities of determination, political maturity and leadership. He united the party to back a winning idea. He gave coherence to a campaign that may very well have floundered without the backing of a national party with a nation-wide network and campaign machine. He helped coordinate what might otherwise have been a bits and pieces campaign. He brought about synergy. He could do all this because he had visionary leadership qualities which today even his one-time detractors would not hesitate to acknowledge.
In these efforts, he was ably supported by his General Secretary Kabir Hashim. Indeed, Hashim came to the forefront because his predecessor Tissa Attanayake had crossed over to the enemy camp in the eleventh hour. That move actually boomeranged on the Rajapaksa campaign, for Hashim proved he was far more effective and efficient at mobilising the party’s grassroots and putting the party machinery in top gear. Party seniors such as Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella, Mangala Samaraweera, Thalatha Athukorale, Vajira Abeywardena, Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha, and new faces with strong professional credentials like Eran Wickramaratne and Harsha De Silva were voices of reason that helped convince the party’s rank and file that the decision to support Maithripala Sirisena made sense. They gave coherence to the Opposition campaign.
Commitment, skill and courage
A couple of examples might help demonstrate the considerable commitment, skill and courage of a number of key players in the election drama that culminated in Maithripala Sirisena being elected President.
Just before election day a document was discovered detailing military deployment on the day of the election. Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Karu Jayasuriya, Champika Ranawaka, Sarath Fonseka, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, M. Sumanthiran, Wijedasa Rajapaksa and J.C. Weliamuna met with the Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya. Deshapriya immediately wrote to the General Secretaries of the SLFP and the SLFP-led coalition, the UPFA as well as the service commanders and the IGP regarding this. That was principled civil service at its highest. His resolve was complemented by that of Sobitha Thero who said that if the will of the people is hijacked he would walk to the Elections Commission and was prepared to die because ‘guns can take a life but cannot destroy an idea’. The JVP also issued a statement saying that they will mobilise the entire rank and file of the party to protect the vote. These moves no doubt dissuaded those who sought to overturn a people’s verdict through extra-constitutional measures.
Deshapriya, in fact, was a hero in his own right. Heading a commission that had been shackled by the repealing of the 17th Amendment, he compensated with courage and skill, mobilising his department and employees to ensure that wrongdoing was kept to a minimum.
On election day the State-owned Rupavahini telecasted a false and clearly mischievous ‘news’ item claiming that the UNP’s Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa had crossed over to the Rajapaksa camp. Deshapriya personally went to the Rupavahini Corporation and demanded a correction. That was going the extra mile, something that few civil servants have had the courage to do when it comes to elections or anything else.
The ruling party also circulated a rumour in the Jaffna Peninsula that the election was going to be postponed. Another duty conscious officer, Deputy Elections Commissioner Achchudan took all necessary steps to inform the people that this was an absolute lie and that the election will indeed be held. A senior ‘legal brain’ in the Rajapaksa camp took up the legality or otherwise of Achchudan’s intervention with the Elections Commissioner but Deshapriya stood his ground. All credit to him.
The media, by and large, continued to support Rajapaksa, for reasons of loyalty perhaps but probably out of concern regarding possible and unsavoury repercussions. When Maithripala Sirisena invited the editors of newspapers and other media heads for a ‘suhada hamuwa’ or ‘friendly meeting’, only two editors turned up. That should indicate in what kind of hostile media environment the Sirisena campaign had to operate.
A people’s victory
Finally, when it was becoming clear that Maithripala Sirisena was going to win the election, Mahinda Rajapaksa summoned the Attorney General, the Chief Justice, the Army Commander and the IGP, inquiring if Emergency could be imposed to stop the counting. Perhaps he wanted to find a way to complete the last two years of his terms. The Attorney General, after consulting seniors in the Department said ‘no’. The IGP echoed his sentiments. By and large saner counsel prevailed among these key individuals. In any event, by this time and as indicated by the results of the postal vote, the lower ranks of all State institutions had overwhelmingly determined that they would no longer bend to any pressure ‘from the top’ regardless of who would give the orders.
This is why the 8 January result, all things considered, was a people’s victory. Many played important roles, as detailed above. Ranil Wickremesinghe, more than anyone else, held the political trumps and he played them in Maithripala Sirisena’s favour. He was from beginning to end the leader of the struggle.
For all that, however, the true owner of this unprecedented victory for democracy and good governance, is the ordinary voter whose dissatisfaction with the previous regime was the impetus in the first instance for Ven. Sobitha Thero to launch this campaign.
They were the manifestations of the maturing of conditions for meaningful and effective political struggle. It was the bedrock that is the people’s will that everything else was built upon. It was their sentiments that made everything else possible, including Ranil Wickremesinghe’s effective and critical interventions.
The ordinary voter made a statement. The ordinary voter gave a mandate. Rest assured, the ordinary voter will continue to be the main protagonist in seeing that the mandate is implemented to the letter, regardless of personalities that may have to be side-lined or might fall along the way.