Sri Lanka

Return of Rajapaksa

Print edition : August 07, 2015

President Maithripala Sirisena addressing a press conference in Colombo on July 14. Photo: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP

Mahinda Rajapaksa, wearing red scarf, surrounded by his supporters at his residence at Medamulana village in the Southern province on July 1. Photo: AP

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to contest the August 17 parliamentary elections exposes President Sirisena’s lack of control over the SLFP and triggers fears of a divisive campaign.

Twists and turns, not very uncommon in politics, played out in full measure in Sri Lanka in the first half of July.

Former President and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leader Mahinda Rajapaksa announced from his home town of Medamulana in Hambantota in the Southern Province in early July that he would contest the August 17 parliamentary elections. Within two days of the announcement, Susil Premjayantha, general secretary of the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), issued a statement saying that the Alliance had formally decided to nominate Rajapaksa as its prime ministerial candidate. President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the chief of the SLFP and the UPFA, did not react to the announcement for 10 days.

During this period, Sirisena came under fire for the first time since he came to power in January after defeating Rajapaksa. The President was even accused of having “betrayed the spirit of the January 8 [presidential election] mandate”.

In the meantime, two political entities that stood by Sirisena in the tense period in the run-up to the presidential poll, an SLFP faction led by Rajitha Senaratne and Patali Champika Ranawaka’s Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), joined hands with the United National Party (UNP). Originally, the JHU had decided to float a separate front after formally leaving the UPFA.

Then came the blow from Sirisena on the evening of July 14. Known to be gentle and guarded in his approach and observations, the President in an uncharacteristic display of emotions, came down harshly on Rajapaksa. Although the broader objective of his statement was to distance himself from the decision to give nomination to his predecessor, Sirisena stopped short of calling Rajapaksa “power hungry”.

He said he had “no intention” of making Rajapaksa Prime Minister even if the SLFP got a majority. He said he would prefer any one of the many qualified senior persons for the top post.

With this new development, one is not sure whether the Rajapaksa camp in the SLFP will remain on friendly terms with the President. Rajapaksa supporters refrained from criticising Sirisena all these months, although they strongly criticised several decisions taken by the government and held Prime Minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his party colleagues responsible for them.

The UPFA’s decision to nominate Rajapaksa has evoked concern not only among Tamils and Muslims but also among certain sections of the majority Sinhala community. Exactly a week after Rajapaksa stated his decision to contest , an urbane, well-placed Sinhala woman in Colombo, during a chat with some friends, wondered if “we would be able to post our views on social media as freely as we are doing now”, if Rajapaksa returned to power. The message was obvious.

Apprehensions

Rauf Hakeem, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader, said he felt “disgusted” as the forces represented by Rajapaksa sought to derail the process of reforms. Political economist Ahilan Kadirgamar is apprehensive of Rajapaksa’s entry into the fray which he says will make the election campaign “very divisive and polarised”.

S.I. Keethaponcalan, chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland, United States, said Rajapaksa’s entry could have a serious impact on the country’s politics and the progress made in terms of good governance could be reversed in the event of his victory.

Even as the public discourse continued over Sirisena’s “passive role” in the Rajapaksa episode, the President met representatives of civil society organisations that supported him in the presidential election and conveyed his helplessness to them on the issue of the nominations to Rajapaksa and other “undesirable” candidates.

His helplessness stems from the fact that he has not been able to acquire a solid base of his own in the party. Wickremesinghe was quite candid about Sirisena’s position when, in a recent chat with The Hindu, he said: “Though he [Sirisena] is the President [of the SLFP], he does not control the party fully.” Some observers, including V. Thanabalasingham, editor of Thinakkural, a Tamil daily, said Sirisena should not have accepted the position of chairmanship of the SLFP after winning the presidential election with the support of all parties and groups opposed to Rajapaksa.

C.A. Chandraprema, political journalist with The Sunday Island, wonders why no one raised any objection six months ago when Sirisena became the SLFP chair. As the President found himself isolated within the party and the Alliance, he simply gave in. “Otherwise, there would have been a huge revolt in the party,” Chandraprema said.

Allegiance to Rajapaksa

A considerable section of the SLFP owes allegiance to Rajapaksa, who remains a political force to reckon with. Again, it is not known if the UPFA will get as many votes as Rajapaksa got (around 5.8 million) in the presidential election. Even Rajapaksa’s critics could not rule out the possibility of his return to power until the UNP clinched electoral pacts with the SLFP’s breakaway group and the JHU and Sirisena broke his silence on July 14.

Denying the charge that Rajapaksa is “power hungry”, Udaya Gammanpila, leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU), a constituent of the UPFA, said the former President, after his defeat in January, actually started enjoying his “holiday”. It took “six months” for other leaders of the alliance to convince him to return to electoral politics. Gammanpila is firm in his view that Rajapaksa should return to electoral politics because he was “the only leader who can unify the nation”.

Admitting that the middle class voters were not happy with Rajapaksa six months ago, he said they now started realising that the successor regime was “worse”. So, the UPFA was bound to get the support of the middle class, he said. On the question of minorities, SLFP leader Dilan Perera, who has been accommodated in the national list of the UPFA, said that his party believed in “inclusive politics” and that was why the first person named in the alliance’s national list belonged to a minority community. “We are not scared of doing it,” he said.

Rajapaksa’s nomination has triggered a debate on its likely impact on the country’s relations with India in the light of his accusation that India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had “conspired with Western agencies” to rally the opposition led by Sirisena against his presidency.

Perera said: “We regard India not as a big brother but a big sister, who always takes care of the interests of her younger sibling.” Affirming that Sirisena will remain the head of the next government, he said there was no need for any concern as the “big sister” was happy with her younger brother (Sirisena).

Many more issues are expected to come up as the electoral campaign gains momentum and rival players intensify their attack on one another.

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