Regime-change in Sri Lanka

Constitutional coup

Print edition : November 23, 2018

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is sworn in as Prime Minister by President Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo on October 26. Photo: NYT/SRI LANKAN PRESIDENT'S OFFICE

“Ousted” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (centre) speaks to his supporters at the Prime Minister’s official residence in Colombo on October 27. Photo: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP

The island nation passes through a political crisis as President Maithripala Sirisena sacks Ranil Wickremesinghe and appoints his rival and two-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and suspends Parliament to give Rajapaksa time to muster a majority.

THE destruction of propriety and order that accompanied the constitutional coup in Sri Lanka on October 26, when former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as Prime Minister, will continue to rock the country’s polity long after a vote of confidence in Parliament and long after all the players in the drama—President Maithripala Sirisena, Rajapaksa and “ousted” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe—disappear from the horizon of the island’s politics.

Each passing day brings a new story of trampling on democratic norms and the constitutional order that ignores the people’s voice. Sirisena’s act of proroguing Parliament (the only place where the majority can be proved) until November 16, Rajapakasa supporters’ takeover of a few state-owned media outlets by force, the Attorney General’s refusal to offer advice on the sacking of Wickremesinghe; the open horse-trading (one Member of Parliament claimed on November 2 that he was offered $2.8 million to cross over), and the induction of defectors as new Ministers have made the Sri Lankan people wonder what happened to the yahapalana (good governance) government they had elected in 2015.

Even as a battle raged between the supporters of Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa, an emissary of Rajapaksa met Wickremesinghe. No explanation about the meeting was forthcoming until this Instagram post from a Rajapaksa camp supporter explained it:

“The meeting took place yesterday between 4.10 to 4.17 pm. It was a closed door discussion and no other parties were present.

“At this brief meeting, they have discussed measures to be taken to avoid any chaos and negativity perceptions from the international community that could unexpectedly erupt in the face of the prevailing volatile situation.

“Mr Rajapaksa has mentioned that The President and The Prime Minister have garnered the confidence and support of the majority in Parliament. Mr Wickremesinghe has in turn expressed that he too was confident of the support of the people to protect the democracy and supremacy of the Parliament and he is ready to prove it.”

The post was attributed to “Milinda Rajapaksha, spokesperson to Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa”, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother and a major power centre during Rajapaksa’s presidency.

The meeting lasted much longer than that, close to an hour, said a knowledgeable source. “At that meeting, Gotabaya assured Ranil that no harm will come to him, and wanted him to step down as Prime Minister. Ranil in turn asked Gotabaya to tell Mahinda to step down,” the source said.

Political risks

More questions are being asked of Mahinda Rajapaksa than of anyone else in this bizarre drama. Ever since he was first elected to Parliament in 1970, Rajapaksa had taken calculated political risks that steadily propelled him to the next level in the game. “This is another example of calculated risk, and he believes that he will prevail,” said a former Indian diplomat, who shared a close working relationship with the former President.

Rajapaksa’s political career began in 1970 when he inherited his father D.A. Rajapakse’s parliamentary seat, Beliatta in southern Sri Lanka. Rajapakse was one of the founding members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) along with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, but Mahinda Rajapaksa always believed that his father never got his due from the party and the country.

Almost always sure-footed, he rose to the presidency, which he held for two terms, with the help of his formidable grasp of realpolitik. When Chandrika Kumaratunga won the presidential election with a massive mandate in 1994, securing 62.28 per cent of the popular vote, Rajapaksa got his first ministerial berth as Minister for Labour and Vocational Training. He subsequently held the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and Highway, Ports and Shipping portfolios. He was a shadow man at that time, managing a few brief spots under the sun.

In 2001, when he was re-elected to Parliament, he rose to the position of Leader of the Opposition, which became his first step towards a well-planned course to the presidency. In 2002, when the peace processes commenced between the United National Party (UNP) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Rajapaksa had nothing much to say either way, leaving the political battle to the Executive President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa decided to draw popular attention to what he would term as people’s issues and chose price rise as the focal point of popular mobilisation. The next step towards his journey to becoming the powerful Executive President was the parliamentary elections held in 2004. The United People's Freedom Alliance, comprising the SLFP and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), won the elections. The contender to the post of Prime Minister other than Rajapaksa was the former Foreign Affairs Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Although Kadirgamar had Chandrika Kumaratunga’s backing for the post, Rajapaksa had two factors in his favour. One, he was the Leader of the Opposition in the outgoing Parliament, and two, unlike Kadirgamar, who was a nominated MP, he was an elected representative. Added to this, the Buddhist clergy, which flexes its political muscle every once in a while, backed Rajapaksa. As Prime Minister, Rajapaksa had to bide his time for a year before the presidential election was called.

The 2005 presidential election will go down in history as one that threw up a winner with the most slender margin, and this victory was managed by a Rajapaksa gamble. In a nationwide election, Rajapaksa, as incumbent Prime Minister, competed against Wickremesinghe, who had led peace negotiations with the LTTE. The narrow margin, with Rajapaksa winning 50.29 per cent of the popular vote (the winner had to secure 50 per cent plus on vote), was attributed largely to the LTTE’s diktat to the Tamils of the north and the east not to participate in the election. This was a calculated political gamble: Rajapaksa had managed to convince the LTTE leadership that a Wickremesinghe win would be detrimental to the Tamils.

Rajapaksa’s political graph—the rise from the position of Prime Minister in 2004 to Executive President in 2005, a subsequent victory in 2010 with 57.88 per cent of the popular mandate—was plotted with careful steps in tandem with his allies, who were rewarded during his journey to power. The consolidation of power saw him try the India-China balancing trick, and a sense of perceived invincibility resulted in his fall in the 2015 elections.

His political calling card, initially, was as a champion of human rights who exposed the wrongdoings of those in power during the presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa, when the Sri Lankan state cracked down on the southern insurrection led by the then armed JVP. Subsequently, during his rise to prime ministership, he made the plight of the common man his plank. In his first bid at presidential power, his vision for the future, “Mahinda Chinthanaya”, kept people centre stage. After his slender victory in the 2005 election, his government’s military victory over the LTTE ensured him a second term.

He was a champion of human rights—he even flew to Geneva to expose the wrongdoings of those in power—when it suited his career. But in 2009, he presided over the genocide of Tamils in a narrow strip of land called Mullaitheevu. The Sinhala majority forgave him instantly for this and hailed him as a hero for putting an end to the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran. For Rajapaksa, emphasis on human rights was a ploy, and he used it when it suited him. When he was re-elected President after the conclusion of Eelam War IV, he enacted the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to consolidate his hold over power, conducted elections in the Tamil-majority Northern Province after the war in a bid to establish himself as a leader of all people of Sri Lanka, and called for an early presidential election in 2015 to perpetuate his hold on the island nation. Not all of these worked in his favour, but there is sound logic and reasoning behind all the moves that he has made in a political career spanning close to five decades.

The 18th Amendment removed the two-term limit set for the presidency, which meant that he could be back in the reckoning as President. But the northern provincial elections and an early presidential election were both gambles that did not work in his favour. In both cases, he was misled by advice. In the first instance, he was advised by Tamil leaders he trusted and the second case had more to do with astrology than political calculations.

So, when he brazenly teamed up with Sirisena, who had in 2015 deserted Rajapaksa and forged an alliance with the UNP to become President, it surprised many. After all, Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna had done reasonably well in the local body elections in February, and the general election was just a year away.

When this correspondent met him on “Thai Pongal” day in January this year, Rajapaksa was restless. He was not sure of the path forward and appeared to be searching for a comeback route. When this correspondent went back to meet him in August in his village near the southern beach resort of Tangalle, following the death of his brother Chandran Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s body language had changed considerably. He appeared more confident about the direction in which he and his party were headed.

His son Namal Rajapaksa was making all the right noises in Sri Lanka, and was rising in his own right. The fact that the government was hurtling along a path of destruction helped him no end. It seemed only a matter of time before someone of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s choice would be running Sri Lanka.

So why would Rajapaksa, who is watching over a failing government, try to stage a constitutional coup, and that too just a year before parliamentary and presidential elections? There are many theories afloat, each one as compelling as the other.

India believes that Rajapaksa fell for a “ploy” of Sirisena, who has burnt his bridges with Wickremesinghe. “Politically, this is a big blunder,” an Indian official said. Another official who was in Sri Lanka during the war years called it “overconfidence and miscalculations.

“Unless there is a corruption case closing in on him or someone in his family, this does not make sense,” said an Indian diplomat. “He will only be Prime Minister. That makes him vulnerable to the manoeuvres of the President,” he said. “But having known Rajapaksa,” he added, “I would not be surprised if his game is to become Prime Minister and then have Sirisena defeated in the presidential election by striking a deal with Wickremesinghe.”

One source who was close to Rajapaksa during his years as President and even later said that age could be a factor. The fact that he had been out of power for close to four years might have been a trigger. “Going for election from the opposition is not easy as the magic number is 50 per cent +1 vote in a presidential election or 113 seats in Parliament. These are among the multitude of factors,” he added.

The calculation

There is also the son angle. Namal was called in for questioning at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) headquarters in October. This might have led to the Rajapaksas’ calculation that the CID was close to filing a case against Namal and hence, they had to move fast. “The Namal case, and Mahinda’s own brothers, who could steal his thunder, are all factors. He is confident that he will be able to pull it off and call for early elections,” a journalist said.

“One-upmanship and miscalculation,” said a senior Sri Lankan journalist. “Mahinda probably thought that his popularity will naturally flow into his premiership and he will outshine Sirisena, thus taking him out of the equation. What he did not factor in was public anger against this move,” he added.

“This could be a precursor of a general election. Sirisena and Mahinda might want a general election. Although the UNP retains a lot of goodwill, Ranil is difficult to work with, and this will count in an election,” said another senior journalist, who has worked with the Sri Lankan government.

An explanation that fits in with what India believes was offered by a Sri Lankan with his ears close to the ground: On October 26, SLFP MPs who owed allegiance to Sirisena were asked to meet him. Sirisena began ranting about someone who was trying to assassinate him, a narrative that was reportedly fed to him by Shiral Lakthilaka, coordinating secretary to the President. Sirisena was told that the former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka was behind the attempt. The Indian external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, which does not use assassination as a tool to effect changes in friendly neighbouring countries, was also brought into the picture.

Rajapaksa, who was in Colombo that day, was requested to come, with no particular reason offered other than the fact that Sirisena had invited him. Sirisena wanted Rajapaksa to take over as Prime Minister, and said that he could not find a better person for the job. Rajapaksa was aware of the problems in the coalition but did not have enough negotiation space at that time. It was a take-it-or-leave-it offer, and he was caught off guard. Sirisena convinced him that there were many MPs with him and, with a few MPs crossing over, proving a majority would not be difficult. Rajapaksa took the offer. His brother, Basil Rajapaksa, who had been liaising with important people in the government, was kept in the dark. When Basil heard of the deal, he was reportedly livid.

Sirisena assured Rajapaksa that if the Speaker, Karu Jayasurya, tried to force his way, he would consider it a violation of the Constitution. But what Sirisena did not anticipate was the high level of international pressure. India, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and other countries have refused to recognise the new Prime Minister. China endorsed Rajapaksa’s appointment initially and later seemed to change tack, saying that the internal issues of Sri Lanka should be sorted out internally.

Even as a lot of back-room activity was going on, it was understood that Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa had been communicating with each other multiple times every day since the coup. Both of them have been part of the Sri Lankan story for about half a century and have maintained a level of civility with each other.

But that does not answer the questions posed by thousands of people who turn up every day to protest against the coup and the manner in which the changeover was effected. No one in the crowd believes that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine has done enough for them. The answer to the problem, as some of them feel, is going back to the ballot. A poster held by a middle-aged woman captured the mood well: “I am not here for Ranil. I am here for democracy and good governance.”



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