Divided and confused, the SLFP is morphing into President Sirisena’s greatest vexation, with its shifting allegiances towards his predecessor, determination to scuttle his reform agenda and frustration that he has chosen to govern with their archrival UNP
Mahinda Rajapaksa, defeated in an unprecedented third bid for the presidency on 8 January this year, is living in a bubble - again.
This bubble is a skillful construct of his most faithful acolytes. It is inflated by weeping masses at his door, fawning supporters dogging his every move and large, raucous crowds at rallies begging for his return to power. Acrimony between incumbent presidents and their predecessors has become something of a tradition in Sri Lankan political life. Thus, like Chandrika Kumaratunga before him, Mahinda Rajapaksa is also trailed by TV cameras and journalists, waiting for the controversial sound bite against the incumbent Government that he inevitably provides at every opportunity.
Five months after he lost power at the presidential elections in January, President Rajapaksa is still making it to the front page of every newspaper on a daily basis.
The bubble is reinforced by the hype. The former President is surrounded again by advisors whose only desire is to keep him basking in the glow of his imminent return. His most ardent political support has emerged from politicians who are the biggest noisemakers in the current Parliament, even if the noise levels may not directly correspond to their electoral prowess.
Unsurprisingly this political coterie comprises UPFA Parliamentarians whose electoral fortunes appear bleakest within the former ruling alliance, if Mahinda Rajapaksa is wiped out of the picture in the short term.
A deep sense of déjà vu accompanies the developing story that is the ‘Bring Mahinda Back’ campaign. The same propagandists, political ‘strategists’ and unwise counsel had convinced the former President of his electoral invincibility in January, almost right up to polling day.
Pro-Rajapaksa propaganda, spun by Government news channels and a largely suppressed private media drowned out the alternate storyline of the 2015 presidential election - that the election math did not favour the incumbent. Not even the Ops Room at Temple Trees, with its research units and tech-teams had caught the whispers in the wind. And if they did, no one was going to risk letting President Rajapaksa know.
Presidential aides watching the drama unfold within the Palace walls spoke openly of a deep sense of frustration and anger about how the campaign was playing out. But through all this, advisors sought to keep the candidate in the dark, with false assurances that his challenger was headed for defeat and large crowds bussed to the Rajapaksa rallies to keep the President smiling and confident.
After nine years of iron rule, nobody expected Mahinda Rajapaksa to ‘go gently into that good night’. A shrewd politician with a proven track-record for biding his time, it was clear to his opponents that the campaign to defeat the Rajapaksa regime would not end with his defeat at the 2015 election.
Yet what was perhaps unanticipated is the indecent hurry with which he is attempting to engineer his comeback.
So skillful were his bubble-makers that they convinced the former President to walk into a meeting with the man who had killed his dynastic dreams a mere five months ago, and beg to be nominated as the SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate. By all accounts, President Maithripala Sirisena stood his ground at the meeting, refusing to budge on his predecessor’s five - ludicrous - demands, including the promise of premiership. President Rajapaksa, who had lorded it over SLFP politicians of Maithripala Sirisena’s ilk for nine long years, was forced to walk out of the meeting at his former offices in Parliament with a flea in his ear.
In an alternate universe, the bubble-makers would hold less sway over a gullible ex-President. If Mahinda Rajapaksa’s fortunes were friendlier, he would be surrounded by advisers and strategists who would better explain the basics of engineering a political comeback to him. Wiser counsel would convince him that attempting to inflict wounds on a young Government, still flushed with victory in a democratic revolution was futile. They would explain to the former President that it is the season to observe quietly. To stop making waves. To take a step back and allow the new Government to start making the big mistakes, exploitable by political opponents. Instead, the former President is choosing another road, one that could render negligible short-term gains but leave him politically stranded in the long run.
Already, his refusal to stay in the shadows even briefly has reunified the motley political coalition that backed President Sirisena’s bid for the presidency. The alliance appeared to be coming apart at the seams in early March, with the Sinhala nationalist JHU - always an uneasy ally in a coalition led by the UNP - disagreeing publicly with proposed constitutional reforms to dilute the powers of the presidency. But President Sirisena’s Cabinet of rivals, which is led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and includes JHU strongman Champika Ranawaka and SLFP dissident Rajitha Senaratne, regrouped very quickly after the threat of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-emergence grew stronger after the new Government reached its two-month mark.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is likely to see the same pattern emerge in the electorate, if he makes the still unlikely choice to contest the upcoming parliamentary polls and stake a claim for the premiership. The threat of a Rajapaksa return will galvanise a broad movement of citizens, political parties and civil society groups into action to campaign against him at the election, resolute in their unwillingness to allow the 8 January victory to be reversed in July.
Tainted by corruption
With fresh democratic space opening up for the country’s media, news of Rajapaksa misdeeds and their protection of the notoriously corrupt has spread across the island through the Sinhala language media for the first time in nine years.
Every day now, members of the ex-regime’s inner circle are falling like dominoes, handcuffed and carted away in prison buses to serve time in remand until their trials are heard. Not even President Rajapaksa’s youngest brother, Basil Rajapaksa once powerful Economic Development Minister, was spared this ignominious fate. And every day, anti-corruption bodies investigating the previous regime’s misdeeds inch closer and closer to the heart of President Rajapaksa’s regime. After the arrest of one of Rajapaksa’s siblings in April, there is no longer any guarantee of safety for members of the former ruling family.
The Former Defence Secretary, arguably the ex-Government’s most powerful official, faces serious risk of arrest over corruption charges that range from the controversial MiG-27 purchases during the war, to his involvement in leasing state-owned weapons to the private maritime security firm Avant-Garde run by an associate, ignoring Government oversight procedures and mechanisms.
Convinced that his arrest was imminent, the ex-official filed a fundamental rights application at the Supreme Court, challenging the establishment of the Police Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID), which his lawyers claim in the petition, is pursuing a political agenda.
The arrest of Basil Rajapaksa may move the ex-President less, with speculation rife that the two brothers have failed to see eye-to-eye for many months now. But any attempt to arrest Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the sibling that is said to be President Rajapaksa’s favourite, the brother his close friends say he has always indulged, could hit the former leader very hard.
It is perhaps for fear of this eventuality that President Rajapaksa bizarrely demanded the dissolution of the FCID during his meeting with President Sirisena last week. The Sirisena campaign had made Rajapaksa corruption one of its chief battle slogans on election platforms, promising arrests and prosecutions against the highest levels if they were found to have engaged in corruption.
For three months, while the FCID dithered over its caseload, the public grew increasingly impatient with the lack of action in spite of election promises. Unsurprisingly therefore, the strange Rajapaksa request was turned down by President Sirisena, who urged his predecessor to seek legal redress if the FCID was violating the rights of individuals in the course of their work. This week, Gotabaya Rajapaksa did just that, seeking the intervention of the Supreme Court against imminent arrest by the FCID.
Rajapaksa brand vulnerability
Like Basil Rajapaksa’s arrest, the fall of Sajin Vaas Gunewardane this week has had a deep impact on the public’s psyche. These are men who strode the political stage with aplomb and impunity, abusing their authority, drunk on power and persecuting opponents. The men protected and nurtured by President Rajapaksa during the height of his power.
Perception of Rajapaksa regime corruption therefore becomes more deeply entrenched in the public psyche with each arrest. Where once the ex-regime was cloaked in invincibility, today, as police escort them out of courtrooms handcuffed like common criminals, the illusion is shattered. The myth of the Rajapaksa supra-patriots, war-heroes and national saviours is breaking down. President Rajapaksa is no longer only the war-winning leader. He is also the politician who offered protection to those who would steal from the people. This makes the Rajapaksa brand vulnerable and the vulnerability is likely to show at an election.
It is a vulnerability shared by the SLFP, now led by President Maithripala Sirisena but still filled with dubious political characters, carefully cultivated and trained during the Rajapaksa years. On 8 January, 6.2 million voters did not merely vote President Sirisena into office. They also voted against the Rajapaksa presidency, against its authoritarianism and its corruption.
This is precisely why news of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa meeting last week caused such perturbation, not merely for the UNP but also for all those involved in the movement for change last January. After five months in power, President Sirisena still retains an air of mystery, especially with regard to his motivation and ambition. Concerns still prevail as to whether his preference would be to govern with an all-SLFP Government.
Minister Dilan Perera, now a member of the Sirisena Cabinet, was to exploit these fears shortly before the much publicised meeting, claiming that the discussion was aimed at unifying the SLFP and sending what he called the “beggar” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe home. And it was those same fears President Sirisena sought to allay, when he made public remarks shortly before the meeting that he would not betray the aspirations of his 6.2 million voters.
When the talks broke down, and Mahinda Rajapaksa found President Sirisena unwilling to yield on any of his demands, there was a palpable sigh of relief in UNP quarters. The party sees a quick dissolution and fresh polls as the best hope to prevent any kind of reunification between the two SLFP camps that could unceremoniously end its brief grasp on power.
The 2010 Parliament
The Rajapaksa presidency, last won in January 2010, was buttressed by the Parliament elected to office in April 2010. That Parliament, still holding office today, was euphorically elected with an explicit mandate to support President Rajapaksa’s post-war agenda.
Following its election, the 2010 Parliament, in which the UPFA held a huge majority, was intrinsically linked to the second term of the Rajapaksa presidency. Propped up with an artificially created two-thirds majority, the 2010 Parliament served at the pleasure of President Rajapaksa, enacting the disastrous 18th Amendment and conducting a farcical trial to remove the country’s Chief Justice, all at the behest of the Executive and without the tiniest whimper of protest.
SLFP critics argue therefore that on 8 January 2015, the mandate of the 2010 Parliament lapsed when the people voted for President Sirisena’s anti-corruption and reform agenda. And despite the Goebbelsian chanting of political scientists associated with the Mahinda camp, the legitimate mandate of the people on 8 January was for President Sirisena to govern with the UNP, specifically its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.
There were no disclaimers with the votes cast for President Sirisena in January; 6.2 million people voted him into office in full acknowledgement of his pledge since day one of his presidential campaign, that Ranil Wickremesinghe would be his Premier. There is therefore nothing “illegitimate” about the current Prime Minister, any more than there is anything illegitimate about the UNP-led minority Government running affairs.
The current status-quo reflects the 8 January mandate and had President Sirisena chosen Nimal Siripala De Silva to be his Prime Minister for instance, that would be a clear violation of the people’s will in spite of the UPFA’s majority in Parliament.
Yet that appears to be the calculation the SLFP erroneously made back in January, when its Central Committee decided to reinstate Maithripala Sirisena’s party membership and declared him Party Leader. Mahinda Rajapaksa was unceremoniously shunted aside as ‘patron’ of the SLFP, a title Rajapaksa had himself reserved for former President Kumaratunga when he wanted to run the party without her interference.
Perhaps SLFP stalwarts suddenly backing President Sirisena actually believed with the party now within his control, he would discard the UNP and restore the UPFA to power. It is after all, the kind of politics the party’s last master would not hesitate to play. Yet Sirisena did not yield. He told the party’s Central Committee that it was the UNP voter that won him the presidency and this was not a vote he could betray.
The president urged the SLFP to reform, to realign and develop fresh policies that resonated better with the current mood of the electorate. National reconciliation, corruption-free politics and good governance were the slogans people were identifying with, President Sirisena told his party, begging them to shed hackneyed communal slogans and pick up a new battle-cry.
The appeals fell on deaf ears. Scores of the party’s membership continue to flout discipline and attend rallies calling for a Rajapaksa comeback. The President handed out ministerial portfolios to members of the SLFP, including some of his staunchest critics, in a bid to allow an early, easy passage of the 19th Amendment. But the ministers held their votes hostage, allowing the SLFP to bargain hard and ultimately dilute a key section of the reforms. These same ministers, now serving on the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, mock him publicly and promise to engineer his political demise.
The SLFP has sanctioned 26 of its membership to hold positions within the Sirisena Government, yet it persists in opposing the President’s reform agenda, dangling its parliamentary majority over the Government’s head and making vague threats about impeachment and no-confidence motions.
For years, in the corridors and elevators of Parliament, at cocktail parties and private gatherings, the SLFP’s so called ‘old guard’ had complained about Rajapaksa management of the party. They were convinced President Rajapaksa was systematically destroying the SLFP, filling it with UNP defectors and cronies with no respect for the party’s history or seniority.
Privately, Nimal Siripala De Silva was one of the loudest critics of President Rajapaksa’s handling of the SLFP. Together with Maithripala Sirisena, he was one of the party’s senior-most members engaged in secret talks with the Opposition to join the campaign to defeat President Rajapaksa earlier this year.
Yet as the de facto SLFP leader-in-waiting, De Silva has proven an abject disappointment. As leader of the Opposition, he finally has an opportunity to reform the party and guide its destiny away from the disastrous road the Rajapaksa leadership had paved for the SLFP. He has failed, time and again, to harness the opportunity, to bring his party cadre in line and lead from the front in Parliament.
His failure has been so acute that Dinesh Gunewardane, who leads the MEP - a party with almost no electoral base - is staking an effective claim for Opposition leadership. Far from leading the SLFP out of the Rajapaksa mire, De Silva and other party seniors appear adamant to compete with the Rajapaksa faction in Parliament to oppose Government policies that have the overwhelming support of the people. Deliberately, determinedly, the SLFP is choosing to ignore the people’s mandate of 8 January, and continues to play the kind of politics for which public appetite is waning.
The Rajapaksa shadow
In short, President Sirisena has inherited an SLFP that continues to live the Mahinda Rajapaksa doctrine. His party is uninterested in reform or evolution. With a brief interlude between December 2001 and April 2004, SLFP-led coalitions have held power in Sri Lanka for the better part of 20 years. It has neither the patience nor the stamina to weather long periods in position. If President Sirisena cast aside the UNP and invited the SLFP to form a Government, the party would be putty in his hands. Their greatest grouse with the President is that he is forcing them into an election that they will almost surely lose, when they have a majority with which to Govern - and enjoy Cabinet perks - for at least one more year.
Under the circumstances, even for SLFP seniors who suffered badly under the Rajapaksa leadership of their party, the prospect of a united party, led by Mahinda Rajapaksa as presumptive premier, offers the best possible chance to retain power.
If not an outright majority, a Rajapaksa-led campaign could at least ensure many SLFPers retain their seats. President Sirisena, having cast his lot with the UNP at the last presidential election, will be viewed with suspicion by the vast majority of the SLFP electorate. Mahinda Rajapaksa is less ambiguous. In an impending election, he offers the party its best hope against the UNP, even if this means the SLFP will have to suffer his arrogance and iron-rule again. In this, they hope President Sirisena would be a moderating influence as Party Chairman. This is why party seniors are strongly backing reconciliation between President Sirisena and his predecessor.
President Sirisena is not blind to the calculations of his senior party men. His last-minute decision to take Ministers Rajitha Senaratne, M.K.D.S. Gunewardane and Duminda Dissanayake into the meeting with President Rajapaksa speaks volumes about where he places his faith within the SLFP, despite the presence of his own office-bearers, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and De Silva.
With the Rajapaksa-Sirisena meet done and dusted, with no favourable outcomes expected, the former ruling party is hurtling towards a major split in the coming weeks, with President Sirisena now very unlikely to offer a compromise to his predecessor in the form of a nomination on the SLFP ticket. And intra-party fighting, the UNP can attest, has a devastating effect on the electoral fortunes of a political party.
In accepting the leadership of the SLFP, President Sirisena has placed himself in an unenviable bind. His party neither trusts nor accepts him as their true leader. Acceptance from the SLFP will come at the heavy price of betraying the UNP and the voters that thrust him into the presidential office on 8 January. It will mean embracing all the elements that were rejected by voters in January as being too entrenched in Rajapaksa corruption and abuse of power.
Already pressure from his party has forced him to enact a less than desirable version of constitutional reforms pledged in his election manifesto. SLFP griping and demands have also made him delay on a promise to dissolve Parliament once his 100 days were completed and the 19th Amendment was passed into law.
SLFP fears notwithstanding, President Sirisena must realise that a parliamentary election is the only way out of the current climate of political instability, questions about legitimacy and prevailing Government atrophy.
In the murkiness that is the post-January 8 political landscape, an election offers a chance to clear the air. Fresh polls that will usher in a Government with a clear mandate and a legitimate democratic opposition are the best hope for democracy and the two-party system.
And whether the SLFP can accept this truth or not, this is an election the party must lose in order to rise again as a credible alternative. Today’s SLFP is the residual baggage from an autocratic presidency that has left behind deep scars.
It is the party that watched passively while Aluthgama burned, while civilian demonstrators were gunned down on the streets of Weliweriya. It is the ruling party that presided over the brutal, controversial final days of the civil war. The Rajapaksa regime may have been the protagonists of all this damage, but there is complicity in silence in the face of grave injustice. It is the kind of politics rejected on 8 January 2015.
Five years down the road, a Government led by the UNP is bound to be riddled with problems and corruption scandals of its own. Sri Lanka will need a credible Opposition, not only to keep the ruling party in check but to offer the people an alternative to the capitalist economics of the UNP, and its West-leaning foreign policy, for which there could still be sizeable public appetite.
To be this credible Opposition, the SLFP will need to shed its racism, perceptions of corruption and complicity with the Rajapaksa doctrine. It must re-learn the art of opposition politics and focus on evolving as a credible challenge to the UNP and the Sirisena administration on the real issues of the day. The evolution will take time and it is not the kind of reform that can be managed two months ahead of a major national election.
Play for legacy
If his first five months in office are any indication, President Sirisena is a politician intent on playing for legacy. How much of this legacy will he permit his own party - a group that betrayed him, vilified him and now continues to sabotage his agenda - to hold hostage?
With an election around the corner that will decide the country’s next Government, President Sirisena confronts a crucial question of his own: which party would he rather govern with? He may be the leader of the SLFP but it is the UNP-JHU-JVP-TNA combine that is trying to implement his policy agenda amidst stubborn opposition from his own party.
In retrospect, the decision to take over the reins of the SLFP soon after his victory on 8 January may have been a poor one.
Still, the President is not without alternatives. He has promised to be a one-term President. Already, he has earned a place in Sri Lanka’s political history as the only president to have given up power after assuming office. He seems intent to own post-war reconciliation and build a legacy based on uniting divided communities and regions.
At election time, he could choose to remain above the fray. He could play referee, ensuring the independence of key commissions running affairs during the polls. He could eschew party politics and allow the chips to fall where they may for the SLFP. He could play statesman and vow to uphold only the will of the people as expressed at the poll. A one-term President has the luxury of all those options. But will his blue-blood prove too strong a force to reckon with?
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