N Sathiya Moorthy, 16 May 2018
It does not require great wisdom to guess why President Maithripala Sirisena said that he would not retire from active politics in 2020, when the next polls to the nation’s highest office is due, by early January. His predecessor-boss, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has hit the nail on the head when he said that this was Maithri’s way of trying to keep the weakened flock together, at least until the polls.
Down not out, Maithripala began his Presidential career with the loss of a majority in the SLFP Parliamentary group, after the latter had identified with Rajapaksa. His position definitely improved after the August 2015 Parliamentary polls, what with Mahinda campaigning for the Party – but without the latter being able to stake the Prime Ministerial office. That did not prevent the Rajapaksa camp from carving out a ‘Joint Opposition’ (JO) out of the SLFP-UPFA of the time, leaving Maithri with fewer MPs to bargain with ‘big brother’ UNP, under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
But Maithri’s real problems were/are near-immediate. If ‘rivals’ thought, that the Rajapaksas’ no-confidence motion (NCM) against Team Wickremesinghe would work, it was a long-shot at best. If the Government had lost the NCM in Parliament, in all probability they would have pressured President Sirisena to accept Mahinda as the new Prime Minister. The ‘joint’ argument then would have been from the SLFP itself, that they have got back both the Presidency and the Prime Ministership, after a four-year gap.
It would still have been a record in the post-Independence history of the nation, where one from the ‘Big Two’ elected to power stays on for long, and then loses to the rival, to have near-equal long innings. The UNP too would have, then, blamed it on the ‘unnatural coalition experiment’, triggering a possible ‘rebellion’ that some within the Party would love but do not have the nerve to stoke just now.
The ‘fall-back option’ was possibly the Rajapaksas’ real game-plan. If they won the NCM vote, great! If not, splitting the SLFP-UPFA Parliamentary party further, for more MPs to join their ‘interim’ SLPP-JO amalgam would be fine. Still, they would need to keep the SLPP-JO until they could ‘recapture’ the SLFP parent, with which they are otherwise identified, despite Mahinda R’s greater electoral clout, across-the-board.
As much divided…
Maithri is no Mahinda, to be able to attract more voters than already – especially when out of office. Both of them know it, too, so does the UNP’s Ranil. The UNP leadership would be happy to be without the ‘troublesome’ SLFP continuing in the Coalition Government, and on the latter’s purported terms, as dictated by the President himself. But they would be happier just now if they are able to keep the original SLFP as much divided and as much weakened as they could help.
Hence the inevitable patch-up, post-NCM, behind which many in the UNP suspect(ed) Maithri’s seen or unseen hand, too. Today, the UNP needs the SLFP more from that angle than the other way around. But from a strict political angle, the UNP could hope to form a new government with the participation or ‘outside support’ of the non-SLFP allies in the truncated ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU).
There is again a catch, which the UNP strategists are not unaware of. Despite the Party’s genuine ‘liberal outlook’ and public image as such nearer home and overseas, they still would not want to be seen as being dependent on ‘minority parties’ for those ‘substantial vote-share’, which anyway would be theirs, if it came to that. Worse still, they know only too well that any re-grouping of the pre-2015 SLFP could mean reverse-poaching from their camp, leading to an earlier collapse of the incumbent government without Sirisena being affected until the Presidential polls.
Missed the bus?
In a way, Sirisena may have missed the SLFP bus as early as 2015, when he refused to endorse Rajapaksa’s candidacy for Prime Minister if the SLFP-UPFA combine were to win the Parliamentary polls that year. Thankfully for him, the voters saved the day and he could continue with the Government of National Unity with UNP and Ranil at the helm.
Today, the shoe is on the wrong foot, and the Rajapaksas may be in no mood to trust him, accept him, and field Maithri as their Presidential candidate whenever elections are held. So what if the UNP and the nation, and his ‘international backers’ felt cheated and fooled even more, if Maithri had then struck a deal with the Rajapaksas for the Parliamentary polls of 2015. He would have saved the day for himself in Elections-2020, and possibly/hopefully so!
It would have been one thing for the Maithri-Mahinda combine to work together towards the next elections from 2015; it would be another just now, after Maithri’s own flip-flops on the coalition front as it exists at present, and the Rajapaksa front, otherwise. Given the Constitutional bar on him contesting the Presidential polls again, Mahinda would need anyone but Maithri for ‘transferring’ his 45-per cent poll-share, as proved thrice in four years – the 10 February Local Government polls being the most recent of them!
Arguably, it’s only a possibility, yes, what with the nation feeling ‘cheated’ and frustrated more than any time, if Maithri were to divorce from the existing ‘marriage of convenience’ with the UNP and re-engage with the Rajapaksa camp, even before the letter of their own earlier ‘divorce’ had dried. But today, for Mahinda, a Rajapaksa generally, and Gota R, possibly, may be the best bet for a Presidential candidate in every which way, and Maithri, the worst.
Unless they are promised a ‘winnable seat’ and also commitment to sincerity from the UNP leaders and cadres at all levels, no SLFP Parliamentarian would want to quit the Party. It is so with UNP MPs that the Rajapaksa camp may want to woo, but that is not the case with the SLFP Parliamentarians that the latter may be targeting. Those MPs need the SLFP or SLPP-JO brand image and the ‘Rajapaksa vote-share’, which alone they could get in the absence of the forgotten JVP field-workers from the 1994-2005 era.
Even without Maithri’s present predicament, every President in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, where there is a term-cap on the incumbent, he or she is seen as having the freedom to act freely and fairly and leaving behind a ‘legacy’ that he/she could be proud of in their advancing years. This possibly prompted J R Jayewardene to take the plunge and sign the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, so as to herald ‘ethnic peace’ in the nation. But the truth was/is otherwise.
Whether it is Sri Lanka, or elsewhere, as in the US, where the President has a Constitutional bar on contesting a third term, he or she becomes a lame-duck the day of the second Inauguration. The party takes its time reminding the incumbent that more than his/her legacy, they are concerned about the next election, they better remain a ‘team-player’ and not a ‘party-pooper’.
JRJ experienced it in the form of the ‘Premadasa rebellion’ and the former had given him the ‘right cause’ in the form of the Accord.
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga felt it even in choosing her Prime Minister, who happened to be none other than Mahinda. It can be argued for both camps, but the fact remained, that so frustrated did CBK become that she would openly campaign against the SLFP’s Presidential candidate of her ‘choice’ in Elections-2005.
Mahinda returned the compliment on assuming office, by going back on the pre-poll commitment to CBK’s brother, the late Anura Bandaranaike, in return for the ‘Bandaranaike family votes’ in an election in which every vote counted, and he needed to make every vote count, too. He had the cake and ate it, too, yes, but not before Sarath Fonseka in 2010 and Maithri five years later, played the very same trick, but in a more telling fashion.
‘As your sow, so you reap’ was the lesson for all politicos from those three successive Presidential polls. But then, Mahinda did try to make amends – but in his own coarse fashion – to stay relevant through his second term, by having the 18th Amendment in place.
He may not have wanted to contest a third term, yes, but then needed the safeguard if only to ensure that he was not rendered lame-duck, from day one of his second term.
The same vanity of the JRJ kind, in his own, that the ‘mighty’ Mahinda of global war-victory fame felt so insecure without the 18A kind of self-assurance, reassurance – or, a combination of both- ‘self-reassurance’. Maithri is no Mahinda in that sense of the term, be it as ‘war victor’ or an achiever of any other kind, other than being propped up to the Presidency by all anti-Mahinda forces. So, he should be feeling more insecure than Mahinda, be it in 2005, 2010, or 2015. What more, Maithri is also quivering at the prospect of facing, or quitting a second-term election, here and now, itself!
Over the past decades of two-term Presidency, JRJ did not think the other man too could ‘think’ – and lay wasted at retirement? Premadasa Senior did not have to live to see that day he sadly having concluded that not just JRJ but even the LTTE could not ‘think enough’. CBK did not, and does not want to retire, but unfortunately in the bargain, seems to feel ‘used’ by everyone else.
Against all this, Mahinda has bounced back, maybe, but again not on his terms. In comparison, Ranil never climbed enough or quit enough for him to bounce back. Maithri is neither a Mahinda, nor a Ranil, to hope not to ‘retire’, however much he may desire, and however much he may ‘plan and plot’!
Who then wants to ‘retire’ – and retire ‘gracefully’ at that?