Originally Published 2017-01-30 10:58:52 Published on Jan 30, 2017
Breaking the ice for the big party, or breaking the party, too?

By meeting with ‘Government-threatening’ former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, six provincial Chief Ministers identifying with successor-rival Maithripala Sirisena faction of the SLFP have let the secret out. It’s now clear that they are all afraid of facing the much-postponed local government elections across the country without Rajapaksa as their mascot as in the 2015 parliamentary polls – and certainly against him.

To expect Rajapaksa to sign off on the dotted line without seeking his share of the political-cut is an exposition of utter naiveté. If it was the only point on which the six CMs went to negotiate with the Rajapaksa camp (with its own share of conflicting demands on the LG elections even otherwise), then they should have known that they could make no headway.

The CMs had Sirisena’s nod. Not that the President could be expected to accept all that emanated from such a negotiation, but Sirisena would not want to be blamed for scuttling and not doing enough in the cause of party unity. He is also a realist to understand that the party needed Mahinda R more than himself, and did so now, more than ever since he became President.

If the CMs were trying to break the ice, for Rajapaksa to let off some pent-up steam of the past two years, then it would be fine – even as far as the mission goals went. If they expected Rajapaksa to come up with his share of the political demands, then, he would not be talking to them on those things. Instead, he would be talking only to Sirisena one-on-one, after third-parties above the levels of the CMs had taken the negotiations forward.

Rajapaksa’s expectation is an open secret. He cannot become President again, post-19-A. But he can still become Prime Minister, which job he could not get in the August 2015 parliamentary polls. Other things apart and the rival-partner UNP’s better seat-share apart, President Sirisena had clearly declared that he would not invite Rajapaksa to form a government, even if their collective SLFP-UPFA won.


That the UNP combine won a clear majority ensured that Sirisena did not have to carry out that decision, or review it. Either way, both Sirisena and Rajapaksa would have been embarrassed beyond redemption. Ranil would have been left to lick his own electoral wounds one more time in 25 long years or so.

Unnatural union

The first month of the New Year is already nearing completion, and there is no indication, if, how and when Rajapaksa is at all going to carry-out his previous year-end threat to topple the incumbent Government in circa 2017. Nor are there any clear indications about the possible counter-threat that the ruling duo in President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are likely to pose the Rajapaksa camp, per se.

In a way, the incumbent Government is an unnatural union in ideological terms. Worse still, through the past two years of existence, they have done precious little to find common ground on policies and issues. Even on non-ideological concerns like corruption and nepotism, political loyalty alone has counted. In Rajapaksa’s time in office, personal loyalty also mattered – but all of it proved to be hollow when the time was right, or his own time was just not right.

The major UNP partner in the Government takes all major decisions. It also sends out the message that it takes those decisions, and also unilaterally so. President Sirisena’s SLFP is a junior partner, and the UNP keeps reminding them all the time as to how junior they are in terms of ministerial decisions.

But the matter then goes to the President, mostly through unofficial channels. Sirisena then shoots down one after another of those decisions (or, proposals made to sound as decisions?) from one public forum or another. Then, the UNP runs for cover, and PM Ranil goes running to the President for a patch-up.

Then, it’s time for another issue, another decision, and another of the non-existent presidential veto. The question then arises if under the proposed new Constitution, the Government plans or hopes to institutionalise the present scheme. Or, does the Government have another, or any other scheme for consideration and adoption – with or without changes made in and by Parliament?

Comfort zone

There is no constitutional precedent of the kind anywhere in the existing statute, or elsewhere, anywhere. But it’s slowly and surely gaining acceptance in the country just now. It has become a ‘comfort zone’ for both key-players, without either of them having to own up anything, or disown anything.

The nation is not anymore in the same comfort zone, not certainly so is the Constitution. For a new Constitution to address old issues, new precedents for consideration and/or adoption or adaptation have to be healthy. In today’s situation, neither the President, nor the PM seems to have any responsibility in decision-making, nor could they be held accountable, before or beyond a point. The intervening time and space is their ‘comfort zone’, thus.

It’s in this settling-down political situation, as different from a settled-down constitutional environment, Rajapaksa seems to have let the cat among the pigeons, if that’s the phrase. None wants to acknowledge it just now, but his threat to topple the Government already has had an unsettling effect on the Government. Priyankara Jayaratne, Minister of State (MoS) until he quit it voluntarily, has begun sitting along with the Rajapaksa-centric ‘Joint Opposition’ MPs in Parliament.

It’s only the first short, but it’s unclear as yet if it’s a stray shot or the first in a series. It’s even more unclear what the retort would be, if it would target the Rajapaksa camp for MP-poaching onto the other side. If so, when and how would it all begin is another question, or another part of the same question.

There are not many SLFP parliamentarians in the Rajapaksa camp who could be wooed away, especially now so late when the Government itself is seen as being shaky. On ideological front, the JO parliamentarians, even if they desired to cross over, would want to identify with ‘socialist’ Sirisena and the SLFP than the ‘capitalist’ UNP and PM Ranil.

Not strong leader

Even while being able to scuttle every major initiative/decision of the Ranil leadership, Sirisena has not come out as a ‘strong’ leader for anyone to follow him, to be able to win their own place in Parliament in the next round of elections. Anyway, the SLFP faction under the President has fewer MPs than the Rajapaksa-centric JO with its own share of party parliamentarians.

Less said about the provincial CMs the better. They too need the Rajapaksa charisma in their Sinhala battle-boroughs, if any, to win the next round of PC polls. Sirisena was the right man at the right time for the non-SLFP, non-UPFA camp(s) to defeat Rajapaksa in the presidential polls. In a way, Rajapaksa won Sirisena’s election for him. Rather, Rajapaksa lost, Sirisena had to win.

It’s not the case anymore. Rajapaksa cannot win Sirisena’s position anymore. But Sirisena can retain his present job or even eye the job that the other is eyeing just now – though only for the sake of argument. Having kept quiet for the ruling duo to give some shape to the shape of the Executive Presidency in the new Constitution, Rajapaksa can be a more effective Prime Minister than Ranil now is. But then, it could be a different Ranil that Sirisena may be encountering under a new Constitution.

The choice(s) before Sirisena as President are difficult. If he now re-aligns with Rajapaksa, he would have cheated the non-partisan voters (and all others who had betted on him to win) – even if two years after the latter’s defeat. If he continued to align with the UNP and PM Ranil, he would be blamed for compromising his SLFP’s interests for good.

Worse still, if SLFP members from bottom up start deserting the party, then he would have to bear the cross even for that. Indications are that the Rajapaksa camp would field candidates for the LG polls under G. L. Peiris-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). It’s not unlikely that Rajapaksa would wait out his time for returning to the SLFP then and hopefully on his terms.

In this, Mahinda R has the SLFP precedent set by none other than Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, CBK, the daughter of party founder, the slain S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. She had left the party when it did not want her and her slain husband, actor-politician, Vijaya Kumaranatunga. He returned to take over the party and become the nation’s shortest-serving Prime Minister and the highest-scoring President.

Battle in rival’s camp

For now, Rajapaksa is clearly taking the battle to the rival’s/rivals’ camp(s). He has even volunteered to be interrogated by the police to interrogate him on the ‘Lasantha murder case’. He could not stop it if the police decided to interrogate him in this case as on others before it.

Just now, the police have quizzed not only former Defence Minister and Mahinda’s brother Gothabaya Rajapaksa. They also interrogated the nation’s only Field Marshal, Sarath Fonseka, in the case, for long hours. The irony that he is a recent member of PM Ranil’s UNP and more so is still a serving Cabinet Minister, representing the nation and his Government in international fora and conferences.

If required to seek information/clarification, and not interrogate him like a suspect is done often, the police could still have met him with an appointment in his office, rather than asking Fonseka to appear in a police office. If it’s not so, then Fonseka cannot continue as Minister, and the UNP will have to apologise for making him one.

It’s the incongruity of this kind that has been upsetting the men in uniform and annoying the common man even more. It’s the kind of ‘insult’ that made the Rajapaksas unpopular and unacceptable, especially after the dishonouring of individuals and institutions while in power – starting with Fonseka.

This commentary was first published in The Sunday Leader.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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