AS psychologist Carl Jung once said, “The meeting of two powerful personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” The meeting between President Maithripala Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday was rightly seen as a critical event that could shape the future of Sri Lanka.
In the last four months both these powerful personalities have been transformed. The once-powerful Rajapaksa has been side-lined, while his former lieutenant has become not just a president but something of a historic cult figure after giving up some of his powers through the 19th Amendment. The long-awaited discussions were critical not simply because it was an attempt to reconcile warring factions within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) but also because it was a testing of waters for the coveted prime ministerial post at the looming Parliamentary elections.
The discussion between the two factions of the SLFP focused on five major issues, including the party’s stance on the PM candidate. In addition to that, the dissolution of Local Government bodies, the future of the United People’s Freedom Alliance, ongoing investigations into bribery and corruption allegations and giving nominations to MPs supporting former President Rajapaksa were raised by the pro-Rajapaksa group during the meeting.
Most pundits saw the outcome as inconclusive but neither party emerged from it in a shinier light. Sirisena was roundly criticised for giving into the meeting in the first place. Many observers recalled that had the election result on 9 January been the opposite, Sirisena could well be facing difficult repercussions. Others were disgruntled by Sirisena seemingly ignoring the mandate given to him by 6.3 million voters who wanted him as president to restore good governance, rule of law and reconciliation. Many have pointed out Sirisena’s first priority is to be the Head of State and not make political compromises as Chairman of the SLFP. Of the two his responsibilities to the former is certainly greater.
Breaking bread, as it were, with the root of all that the Sirisena camp pledged to wipe out during their election campaign surprised many and troubled others who fear a rollback of the progressive steps taken since the new Government came into power. Undoubtedly aware of this, Sirisena specifically assured the public in a speech ahead of the meeting that he would not allow a mixing of priorities.
Intentions of the pro-Rajapaksa camp are simple. They want to return to power, preferably by the shortest route possible. With Rajapaksa inching close to 70 years of age come November, the window for a comeback is less than what his ardent supporters would like. But politics is a brutal sport and all that is needed is one chance.
Delegates at the meeting have insisted no promises were made on offering Rajapaksa the prime ministerial candidacy or his loyalists’ nominations. A rejuvenated United National Party (UNP) is pushing for early Parliamentary elections and a fractured SLFP is trying to consolidate or risk losing face. All this puts Sirisena in a difficult position, but he must remember that he is first President and some measures might just be going too far.