How Rajapaksa is back to change Sri Lankan politics again

India, however, would prefer Sirisena-Wickremesinghe to win as it has struck a good rapport with the island nation's incumbent government.

 |  5-minute read |   03-07-2015
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Former Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that he would accept his loyal supporters' demand to contest the forthcoming parliamentary election to be held on August 17. According to media reports, thousands of supporters who had gathered at his home ground in Medamulana cheered him when he said, “I am not ready to reject the appeal you are all making.” He indicated that he would be rallying his supporters across all parties and “for the sake of the country, for the sake of motherland, we must contest the upcoming parliamentary election".

Earlier president Maithripala Sirisena dissolved the parliament and set the date for the election. The announcements of both the incumbent and former presidents were not unexpected. Time was running out for Sirisena after he failed to hammer out a consensus within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on rejecting the loyalists' demand for nominating Rajapaksa as the party candidate for prime minister. According to Sri Lankan columnists, Sirisena’s secret talks with the former president also failed to persuade Rajapaksa not to contest the election to avoid a split in the party.

There were other compulsions for Sirisena to dissolve the parliament. Already, Rajapaksa loyalists within the ranks of the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had swelled to 80-plus. Any further delay could have not only eroded Sirisena’s support within the party while enlarging Rajapaksa’s support base, it would also help his detractors push through a no-confidence motion against Sirirsena’s political ally and ruling alliance partner prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pending before the parliament. Wickremesinghe leads the United National Party (UNP), the traditional opponents of the SLFP. With Rajapaksa loyalists bent upon splitting the SLFP votes, Sirisena needs the UNP as an electoral ally to prevent Rajapaksa from coming back to power.

Though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine was able to fulfil some of the important poll promises, it still has an unfinished poll agenda that could neutralise all the good things done so far. However, none can deny that the national alliance had succeeded in creating a freer political atmosphere without intelligence and security agents disrupting the activities of Opposition parties, media and NGOs pampered by stoking the paranoia of foreign conspiracy against the country.

The combine also succeeded in getting the 19th Constitutional Amendment adopted in parliament as promised which seeks to prune the sweeping powers of the executive president and increase the powers of the prime minister and parliament and prevent meddling with the national institutions like judiciary, election commission and police. Though the 19th amendment to the Constitution helps to restore media freedom and attend to some of the long-standing grievances of the minority Tamils, much remains to be done.

A notable failure of the Sirisena government was to get the 20th Constitutional Amendment (20A) for reforming the electoral system passed in parliament. There were fundamental differences between the SLFP and the UNP on the form and structure of the proposed system. In spite of Sirisena’s best efforts, the differences could not be reconciled. So the Sri Lankans will now be electing a new parliament on August 17, a year before it was due based on the present system. It is a mix of first past the post and proportional representation systems in which the SLFP has been doing better than its rival UNP.

The chances of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe once again creating an anti-Rajapaksa wave among the voters that helped them defeat the former president appear bleak. It seems to have lost vigour on two counts: so far investigations into allegations of corruption against the Rajapaksas have failed to unearth actionable evidence and the National Alliance government has accumulated its own baggage of corruption allegations.

In addition to this, the massive minority votes – notably Tamil votes – that helped Sirisena win by three per cent-plus margin may not be forthcoming as the leading Tamil political combine Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had been unhappy with the Sirisena government’s slow progress on Tamil issues.

The state-owned Daily News quoted SLFP sources to say the talks between Sirisena and “the SLFP stalwarts” over accommodating Rajapaksa in the SLFP nomination list for the next election ended inconclusively on June 29. Though the UPFA general secretary Susil Premajayantha and SLFP general secretary Priyadarshana Yapa had insisted on Rajapaksa’s nomination as the prime ministerial candidate of the party, the UPFA Opposition leader in parliament Nimal de Silva indicated that he was willing to “sway with the wind”. This actually reflects the shades of differences within the UPFA and SLFP.

With barely six weeks to the election, political arrays are yet to emerge clearly. Sirisena will have a tough job first to mend the SLFP split to enable the SLFP to form a government on its own steam. With sections of the SLFP and the minor partners of UPFA backing Rajapaksa, Sirisena will find the job of finalising a list of candidates acceptable to all factions a challenging job.

Comparatively, the UNP is in a better position as the party has delegated the job of candidate selection to Wickremesinghe. But the UNP’s problem is attracting smaller parties to form a winning coalition. Smaller parties like the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) who are opposed to Rajapaksa’s return will be watching the coalition contretemps to find a face-saving way to handle election uncertainties.

Political horse-trading has been developed into a fine art in Sri Lanka and politicians’ loyalties are as tradeable as scripts in the stock market. Presumably, in the next ten days some clarity will emerge in the political scene when electoral alliances are firmed up.

India would prefer Sirisena-Wickremesinghe to win and form the government as it has established better rapport and understanding with the Sirisena government. It has responded positively to India’s sensitivities about China’s increasing influence in Sri Lanka. It has visibly taken action to be equitable in handling its relations with China and India. Even if Rajapaksa comes back to power, India may not lose all that it has gained so far. Rajapaksa, as a shrewd politician, probably understands the dynamics of the Indian government which have undergone a makeover under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So he is likely to factor it in his dealings with India, though he would probably prefer to deal with China as he has a better equation with it.

Writer

Colonel R Hariharan Colonel R Hariharan @colhari2

The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia with rich experience in terrorism and insurgency operations.

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