President Sirisena matches Rajapaksa in political chess game

Lucien Rajakarunanayake, in The Daily News, 9 May 2015, where the title is President holds trumps against Rajapaksa strategies”

So soon after the successful adoption of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution last week, which was a major political victory for President Maithripala Sirisena, despite many Opposition efforts to derail the process; it was interesting to see the SLFP leadership hold the cards at this week’s meeting between President Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The big media and PR push by the pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa group within the SLFP to show this as a major confrontation between the two rival factions within the SLFP, with emphasis on what is sought to be shown as the continuing popularity of the defeated president, clearly did not work out in favour of the Rajapaksa line in current politics at this meeting.

The major issue at the talks, which was of the SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate at the forthcoming general election, certainly did not go the way of the Hambantota strategists. Their aim was to have the endorsement of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the SLFP’s next prime ministerial candidate. President Sirisena was very clear in stating that the SLFP would not announce a prime ministerial candidate before the polls. Both political history and current reality supported President Sirisena on this issue. The success of the SLFP, or associated SLFP-led coalitions at previous general elections, was when the campaign was led by the leader of the SLFP, not announced as the prime ministerial candidate. The only exception was when Chandrika Kumaratunga had the declared support of all SLFP candidates as the prime ministerial candidate in the general election of 1988, which she won; when the party was led by her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The current situation is that the SLFP leader is President Sirisena. Therefore, with his not running for election, but obviously leading the campaign, the selection of a prime minister could be left till after the polls, if the SLFP does win a majority of seats.

Counterproductive:  President Sirisena told the Rajapaksa team at the talks that announcing a prime ministerial nominee ahead of the poll could be disadvantageous to the party, and could even be counterproductive. In keeping with the spirit of the mandate given to him in the January 8 presidential poll, it was necessary to explain to the Rajapaksa group the importance of keeping the minority vote with the party, instead of it being driven away by a candidate who could be considered as racist or opposed to reconciliation. Although not stated in so many words, there was also an underlying suggestion of the need to avoid any person who has the slightest taint of corruption being considered for the office of prime minister.

It is interesting that among the topics discussed at the President’s Office in Parliament on Wednesday was that of current investigations being carried out by the Bribery Commission and the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID). The matter was raised by Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, which is not surprising as these investigations have been described as an attempt by the government to take revenge from its opponents, especially members of the Rajapaksa family. Rajapaksa supporters participating in recent media talk shows have condemned the FCID as a political instrument being used to target special opponents of the government, acting on directives from government politicians and not on complaints by the public.

The response to this from President Sirisena himself was most timely, and in keeping with the current approach to good governance, that is marked by the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. The simple solution offered to those who had complaints about the Bribery Commission or FCID was to take the matters before the judiciary and seek necessary relief in keeping with the law, instead of seeking a political solution to issues that affect implementing the law.

Dual retreats: Among the five topics listed in this discussion was the postponement of elections to local government bodies. The dissolution of the bodies had already been postponed in March this year till May 15. The Rajapaksa group was clearly not keen to have these bodies dissolved at this stage, which can be understood by the role that members of these bodies play in the crowd building for pro-Rajapaksa public events, be they in temples or elsewhere. President Sirisena was very clear in stating that the current extension of the term till May 15 was done at the request of the UPFA, it could not be delayed any further. It was a democratic necessity to have the elections to these local bodies as early as possible, to enable them to begin serving the people on their local needs, with the opportunity given to the voters to make their choice of candidates seeking election.

Another retreat for the Rajapaksa team came in discussions about the future of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which is led by the SLFP. With President Sirisena being the leader of the UPFA too, it was not surprising that there were strongly critical observations made about some political parties that claim to be partners of the UPFA.

Members of President Sirisena’s team pointed out how organizations such as the National Freedom Front (NFF) led by Wimal Weerawansa and the more recently established “Pivituru Hela Urumaya” led by the double crossover Udaya Gammanpila, give the impression of being in the UPFA, when they are not members of the larger body led by the SLFP and including parties such as the MEP. It was shown that although the leaders of these political groups contest from the UPFA they do not belong to the organization.

What was more important was about the strong attacks against the current government led by the SLFP’s and UPFA’s leader, President Sirisena, made by the leaders of these parties at public meetings, and their complete disregard for any principles of party discipline or discipline within a political alliance. The Rajapaksa group had to be told that such actions did not go in favour of these groups being considered part of the UPFA, and the benefit of such consideration in the political developments of the future. It will now be left to them to re-think their tactics and strategies on how they work as a political alliance led by the SLFP, especially in the coming months, which will be crucial in the politics of Sri Lanka.

On the question of nominations for the next general election from the SLFP, especially whether pro-Rajapaksa candidates would be nominated, it was decided that this matter should be best left to the SLFP’s Central Committee to decide, in keeping with the policies of the party. However, it was clearly stated that those who have been associated with bribery and corruption, and a close association with anti-people politics and policies is in their political careers, should not be considered favourites in the run up to the nominations.

Ready for challenges: As much as the adoption of the 19th Amendment was an important moment of political history in Sri Lanka, and demonstrated both the strength and flexibility of President Sirisena on a vital issue of politics, this Sirisena-Rajapaksa meeting was also a major success for Maithripala Sirisena, with his ability to show that he is very much in the driving seat of the SLFP and UPFA, and is ready to face up to the challenges that come from the forces that have still not been able to come to terms with the defeat of on January 8, 2015.

The next issue of importance that will be faced both by the government and the country is the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which deals with the reform of the electoral system.

There are many views being discussed in political circles, and the Cabinet will decide next week the proposal that is to be placed before Parliament. It would be a mix of the first-past-the post and proportional representation, with room for National List or Nominated MPs too.

There is talk of an enlarged Parliament of more than 250 members.

The public is certainly watching the progress with regard to this important aspect of representative democracy. Seeing how the “Opposition” behaved in Parliament in the approach to the crucial vote on 19A, there is concern whether there will be similar attempts to obstruct or change the core principles of a good and reformed electoral system to favour the tactics and expectations of the forces defeated on January 8. It is another count that will be important in the modern political history of Sri Lanka.


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