Sri Lanka: Battle lines drawn

| by Manik De Silva

( November 23, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The battle lines are drawn and the country now knows that after months of agonizing debate, discussion and, if truth be told, manipulation, the SLFP’s long-serving general secretary, former Health Minister Maitripala Sirisena, will be the so-called common opposition candidate against President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is seeking a third term. Insiders say that the government did not know until Thursday that Sirisena planned to cross the Rubicon. He is now passed the point of no return and how he will fare on January 8 when the election will be held remains to be seen. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe drew a lot of flak for his decision to back General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 election; but it must be said in fairness that soon after the war victory, with Rajapaksa riding the crest of a wave of popularity, there could have been no better candidate to pit against the incumbent. Fonseka came a cropper, it is true. But nobody can accuse his backers including Wickremesinghe and the JVP, of plotting his downfall. There were, of course, some doubts on whether Fonseka would have stepped down as promised should he have won. But all that remains matters of conjecture. The president did himself no credit in the subsequent treatment of the war-winning general who proved to the country that he was a toughie who would not crawl on his belly and seek a pardon from anybody. He served his time seeking no comforts until he was let out due to pressure of public opinion.

Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga was a key player in strategizing Sirisena’s defection. It was well known that the then health minister was keen to become prime minister. Clearly Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne is in no condition health-wise to do that job but Rajapaksa, confronted by too many aspirants for the position, chose the easy way out by not replacing the incumbent. He may or may not rue that decision given the way events have unfolded. He could well believe that he fended off a possibility of having his throat cut by his prime minister had that appointment had been made! Anointing Rajapaksa as the SLFP’s presidential candidate in 2005 was not CBK’s preference. She would have preferred to continue the Bandaranaike dynasty with brother Anura if Mahinda Rajapaksa was not as strong as he was in the SLFP. Mahinda, like Fonseka, is also a toughie who won first the prime ministry and then the party ticket for the presidency despite Chandrika. Everything she said at the press conference where Sirisena’s candidacy was announced clearly indicated that nothing has been forgotten. Though Rajapaksa is widely perceived in the country as non-vindictive, it would be useful for him to reflect on whether he treated CBK and Fonseka right.

Although extravagant claims are being made on the numbers that will cross from the government to the opposition, and there are optimists who even boast that the budget will be defeated, realism tells us that the gap between the two sides is far too wide to bridge. In addition to the handful of MPs who have already showed their hand, a few more are likely to cross for sure. But nobody should under-estimate the president. Defections will not be just one way traffic, we believe. Mahinda Rajapaksa, given the resources he commands, will surely ensure at least some movement from the opposition to the government. Changes of allegiance will have nothing to do with the national interest. Those who defect in whatever direction will calculate what is best for them. Some, to put it brutally, may be bought over and others may have a gun held at their heads. The promise of a National List seat in the next Parliament may be sufficient incentive to somebody unsure of nomination. Whoever wins or loses the next parliamentary election, both the SLFP (or UPFA) and the UNP will have a clutch of National List seats to distribute. But doing the dirty there is also not unknown. Remember Dr. W. Dahanayaka was on the UNP National List under Premadasa but eventually found himself out of Parliament when the final choices were made. Mr. Maitripala Senanayake suffered the same fate under CBK!

Many questions abound in the emerging scene. Although the Maitripala Sirisena defection caught the government on the wrong foot, as did Sarath Fonseka’s decision to run for president in 2010 with UNP and JVP backing, will the UNP be able to deliver the lion’s share of its vote bank to Sirisena? Will Sirisena be able to bring a goodly number of SLFP votes to the ticket? What will the JVP and JHU do? While the JHU has made clear that they cannot back Rajapaksa, they have not quit the ruling UPFA coalition. A possible split in the party on this issue is a real possibility. While the LSSP has not split, a sizable minority of its Central Committee is not going along with Prof. Tissa Vitarana’s line backing the president. Abolishing the executive presidency has attracted a broad based constituency and even the president who twice promised in 2005 and 2010 to dispense with it (and ended up abolishing the two-term limit!) is now talking about doing the job via the parliamentary select committee. All those concerned about ridding the country of that monster must not forget that a two thirds majority, which is now available, may not be possible in the future. Whatever its deficiencies, the 17th Amendment which would have ensured at least a modicum of good governance was unanimously adopted by Parliament. President Rajapaksa found it convenient to ditch it but a degree of consensus is now emerging that it must be restored and the 18th amendment repealed.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has the opportunity of taking at least some wind out of the sails of the common opposition platform with a clear commitment to get cracking on making the widely desired constitutional changes. He is best aware that the prevailing bad governance, rampant corruption and family bandysm that is part of the current scene must be ended. Not doing so will only damage the legacy of being the man who won the war which has ensured his place in history. Government’s refusal to table the Supreme Court opinion on the third term issue is an obvious indicator that there is something, perhaps a dissent or two, to hide. If not, why be coy about making public a matter that belongs to the public? The country would also like a clear statement that the president, if he wins the January election, will take his oaths immediately thereafter and not two years hence when his current term is over. There has been far too much gerrymandering on matters like this for people to keep faith that the right thing will be done at the end of an election. Let us not have another `private’ opinion sought from the Supreme Court on this issue. While on this subject, let us conclude by saying that we hope Maitripala Sirisena keep Sarath Silva off his platform. Apologies notwithstanding, he has done too much damage to this country to deserve a place on any platform.

(the writer is the editor in Chief of the Sunday Island, weekly newspaper based in Colombo, where this piece was originally appeared.)