Sri Lanka: Sirisenas and Wickremesinghes now need Rajapaksas even more


Sathiya Moorthy      11 September 2018

Courts may have barred the Police from banning the SLPP (JO) anti-Government rally on Wednesday, 5 September, but there is still no denying the politics of the protest. The GNU leaders are not wide off the mark when they indicated that the rally might not have happened, had it not been for the fast-tracking of trial against the Rajapaksas’ and their acolytes through the establishment of Special High Courts under the law.

But then, the Government should also ask itself if they are doing the right thing by the people’s mandate, now or earlier. They did not envision the Special Courts until after the Local Government (LG) Poll defeat in February. Possibly, they had hoped they could carry on in power, and keep their ‘unholy alliance’ still intact for full five years until the Presidential/Parliamentary Polls, due in 2020.

In doing so, the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe seemed to have hoped that by keeping the Rajapaksas’ in their political radar all the time, they could get away with bonds scam and the rest, without them having to deliver on daily matters of political administration. It did not go according to their unfinished script and they had improvised upon it, to include the Special Courts.

In doing their calculations incorrectly from the start, the GNU leaders and leadership, jointly and severally, seemed to have confused the ‘minority votes’ that their victory possible in the 2015 Presidential Poll, into a positive vote for them. They forgot that the hardcore ‘Sinhala Buddhist voters’, self-styled ‘hard-liner nationalists’ and the rest, still had a lot of love lost for the Rajapaksas’, as elections, then and now, have proved since.

Minority woes

The problem for the present Leadership is not necessarily the Rajapaksas’, but their own inability to stay together and also to keep the minorities on their side. The Muslims’ woes were as periodic as it has been all along, and the day the Rajapaksas’ bit the dust, they had gone back to take up their daily chores as if they had another five years to take stock of the nation’s political leadership. That was/is also the reality of the common voter, cutting across ethnicities, caste, and urban-rural divides.

If the present Government in its time has ‘failed’ the Muslims in a way over the Batti and Kandy violence, even while handling them well on the administrative side, once the gene was out of the bottle. Otherwise, ensuring prison term for BBS Chief Gnanasara Thera for the wrongdoings that his group had committed when the Rajapaksas’ were in power, may not be the kind of balm that could work, wholly and completely with the larger Muslim population.

Less said about the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ and their current woes with the present Government. It is also for the TNA leadership to ‘confess’ if at all the present Government leaders promised anything of a political solution in specific terms, and if so, what it was.

If none else, their ‘loyal’ Tamil constituents at least need to know. Yet, the fact remains, from ‘war crimes probe’ to ‘power-devolution’ to ‘land surrender’, the average Tamil feels cheated yet again by a ‘Sinhala Government’ of the day, and maybe angry at their own leadership, for not doing enough homework before committing them to vote against incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa – in turn, leading to a vote for victor, Maithripala Sirisena.

Preferential votes

How does all this impinge on the GNU’s electoral chances, whether or not its major partners, or even all partners, contest and confront upcoming rounds of polls that are due anytime, if the Provincial Council (PC) Elections too were to be conducted, as promised at the last count – in January 2019? Going by their own back-of-envelope calculations, they may lose the PC Polls, squarely, if held now (or, possibly months later).

If they cannot arrest the downfall, the Government leaders seem wanting to at least pull down their political adversary with them, to manageable levels. All is fair in love and war, and Special Courts to tie down the Rajapaksas’, and deny them an electoral opportunity personally, if it could be helped, are all a part of the process, not any part of any solution to ending political corruption, as they had vowed ahead of the 2015 Election.

Government leaders’ greater worry is the Presidential Poll that they cannot push away or wish away, as with the LG Polls and PC Polls. There, numbers are stacked against them for a first-round victory. Under the Presidential Poll scheme prevailing in the country, based on a ‘second’ and ‘third’ round of ‘preferential votes’, a Rajapaksa may still stand a better chance than even the present Leadership combined.

The Government Parties have a fighting chance, only if they are at it as much together as in 2015. Unlike earlier, the minority polity, or sections thereof may play truant, and their voters disobedient of their respective leaderships, even if it came to that. This could mean sure-defeat for the Government candidate or candidates, and a comfortable win for the SLPP (JO), at times even without a Rajapaksa as their candidate.

Personal predicament

If permitted under the law, the SLPP has more than one Rajapaksa to contest the Presidential Poll, which is still based on a nation-wide election. In times of ‘Rajapaksa distress’ they can also put a ‘dummy candidate’, who may hopefully vacate the seat, possibly for Mahinda R, after altering the legal situation, if they are to win the  Presidential Poll. Present-day political leaders are faced with a piquant situation, jointly and severally.

Incumbent Sirisena, for instance, can hope to win again, or even give a decent contest, only if the UNP and the rest combine as it existed in the 2015 Election, backs him with the same fervour, down to the grassroots-level.

The ‘Rajapaksa votes’ are not ‘SLFP votes’, anymore. The UNP may be divided in backing Sirisena, even if they are not willing to take a dip for a third time in a row, since the 2010 Election. The exit of the JVP as soon as Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the Presidency was bad enough, but the disillusionment of the anti-Rajapaksa vote-base, among the minority and majority community alike, is bad omen.

The same is true of a UNP Presidential candidate, even if he or she has the backing of Sirisena, who cannot otherwise be seen as giving up the throne without an electoral fight. In this context, Sirisena recalling his promise of not contesting the Presidential Poll for a second term would not sell, as his Presidential behaviour of the past years has not shown up a Statesman but only a below-average-politician, cunning though not crude.

At a more personal level, PM Wickremesinghe cannot shy away from contesting the Presidential Poll himself, unless he can convince Sirisena to contest another term, and also convince his Party that Sirisena is better placed to win again – than lose. There are others in the tube for his current position, based on a possible promise from the 2015 Election, where such a promise, or the hint of a promise, might have been made to more than one second-line UNP leader.

Today, the GNU leaders suddenly find that defeating the Rajapaksas’ when the latter were in power was easier than winning an election themselves. They need the Rajapaksas’ more than the Rajapaksas’ need them, for either of them to come back to power.

If in this process, protests and rallies become a part of the political process, it is all a part of a pre-scripted game. After all, J.R. Jayewardene became a national figure only with his famous/infamous ‘Kandy march’.

Others too have tried rallies, protests, and political marches from time to time, to show up their strength, and/or shore up their strength. The Rajapaksas’ are no different, even if they have the ‘war victory’ on their side – a war victory that could not win Mahinda a third term in the Presidency in 2015!

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