THE United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) announced yesterday that it would give nominations to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the upcoming general elections to be held on 17 August.
The announcement came in the wake of the ex-President addressing a large gathering of supporters at his village home in Medamulana together with his faithful posse of supporting actors. Reports indicated that most of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) stalwarts were missing at the meeting which was in some way indicative of President Maithripala Sirisena’s initial decision against giving Rajapaksa a nomination on the UPFA ticket.
Despite the relative hype surrounding the former President’s return to politics, President Sirisena landed a sucker punch on the hopes of the Mahinda-faithful when he announced that the SLFP did not intend to name Rajapaksa as a prime ministerial candidate.
With things seeming unlikely to go according to plan, the Mahinda-faction contemplated whether to run as a separate party but with the UPFA deciding to field his nomination, Rajapaksa’s path back into the political fray has become somewhat more straightforward.
President Sirisena’s seemingly puzzling decision to cave under the pressure of the Mahinda-faction is also indicative of his fears of breaking the party’s constituency. Backing Mahinda into a corner and forcing his faction to form a separate political entity would mean that Rajapaksa would also be given the chance to garner the support of the SLFPers still sympathetic to his cause. The question of how many SLFP MPs would have left the comfort of the President’s party to join Mahinda’s band of MPs is one that is still unanswerable.
However, dividing the SLFP/UPFA in this manner would only serve to benefit the UNP which could use the opportunity to consolidate its grip on Parliament. Sirisena is deeply loyal to the SLFP and is likely to think of the long-term wellbeing of his party under his presidency. The reinvention of the SLFP under Sirisena’s presidency has also played a central role in this decision. There is no denying the fact that the call for Rajapaksa’s re-entry into politics is real; denying him that opportunity would go against the ideals of the SLFP’s renewed image and could be construed as political victimisation.
Allowing the former President back into Parliament means far less now that President Sirisena has insisted that Rajapaksa would not be considered for the party’s prime ministerial candidate. The fact that Sirisena, being the iconic figure against the corruption of the Rajapaksa regime, was the one to allow Rajapaksa to contest from his party may work to damage his political identity and may sully the new regime’s redemptive cause. However, it may prove to be the least damaging path to take in order to carry forward the agenda of good governance.
President Sirisena may also feel as if he has the upper hand in the situation – knowing that Rajapaksa’s revival could be stunted once he gets a seat in Parliament.
Certain media reports indicated that factions of the SLFP have threatened to form an anti-Rajapaksa coalition before the elections, while Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama stated earlier this week that the SLFP may even nominate former Speaker of the House, Chamal Rajapaksa, as the SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate.
The murky waters will surely be cleared up once the nominations are handed over but it is hard to predict just yet if the President will be able to hold the party together until such a time.
Irked though some may be, the decision to grant Rajapaksa a nomination through the UPFA ticket could ultimately serve the SLFP’s short-term cause, regardless of what may come afterwards.