Political Convolutions in Sri Lanka Today: Perspectives from Hariharan and Jehan Perera


ONE:Mahinda’s return as PM: Not yet a done deal”  —  by Col. Hariharan, courtesy of Times of India, 13 July 2015

Unfazed by his surprise defeat in the last presidential polls, Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to be back with a bang on the nation’s political centre stage with the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition nominating him to contest the August 17parliamentary election. as a candidate. Six months ago, when Rajapaksa went into a sulk after his  defeat, nobody would have imagined that he would bounce back so soon and so strongly with the support of UPFA.

His nomination ended weeks of suspense, as his bête noire President Maithripala Sirisena, chief of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), tried to persuade the party, the UPFA coalition and even Mahinda to prevent the latter’s comeback. But Rajapaksa seems to have made up his mind, well before political manoevures began, to contest the election with or without SLFP support as the anti-corruption bodies were making life miserable for him and his siblings. But no one, probably not even Mahinda, was certain of the UPFA nominating him.

Sirisena is reported to have confessed to his loyalists that he could not carry the UPFA coalition with him to prevent Rajapaksa’s nomination. Civil society  leaders and political leaders who put their faith in him to clean up the administration and ensure Mahinda does not reincarnate called Maithripala’s decision a betrayal of the 8 January mandate.

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Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP has announced the formation of the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) to contest on the same plank of corruption free governance it had used successfully in the presidential election.. The UNFGG brings together disparate political parties and elements like the rightwing Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which never saw eye to eye with the UNP all along, dissidents from the UPFA front, some important leaders and close confidants of Sirisena like Ranjitha Senaratne from the SLFP and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and his Democratic Party and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are likely to extend support to the UNFGG even if they do not join it.

It is not going to be a cakewalk for Mahinda. Though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine’s investigation of all mega projects finalized during the Rajapaksa regime has not found evidence to prosecute Rajapaksas, the allegations remain fresh in public memory. Ditto is the fate of allegations that Rajaaksa family had stashed their illegal wealth abroad in secret accounts.

President Rajapaksa ruthlessly used his executive powers to put down opposition from  all quarters using political goons and even the military while rule of law remained only in statute books. Such callous exercise of power, more than anything else rallied the masses to vote against him in the presidential poll.

A massive turnout of minorities against Rajapaksa helped Sirisena gain the vital lead in January. Though Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine has not fully met with the long standing demands of the minorities, particularly Tamils, it had taken halting steps to improve the situation. A few thousand acres of land in the north occupied by the Army have been returned to the rightful owners. Colombo has removed minor pinpricks under which the TNA-led Northern Province government functioned. Even on the vexing issues of missing persons and war crimes there had been positive movements. The government had met Tamil Diaspora representatives including the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) to muster their support for evolving a solution to the Tamil minority issue. So the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has little option but to support the UNP-led front.

The Muslim vote is likely to go more for UNFGG as memories of anti-Muslim campaign during Rajapaksa regime is fresh in their memory.

Of course, it is difficult to predict who will gain a majority in the parliament as the political line ups are not yet final. However, one thing is certain; Rajapaksa’s image as modern day Duttegemunu, the legendary Sinhala King who defeated the Tamil King Elara, for eliminating the Tamil Tigers may not be enough for a comeback. He will have to be seen as an inclusive and more democratic leader. And that may not be easy.

……..Col R Hariharan, a retired Intelligence Corps officer, served as the head of intelligence with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (1987-90). E-mail: haridirect@gmail.com]

TWO: “Changed Circumstances favour Good Governance Coalition,”   by Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council

President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to nominate his arch rival former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the general elections from his party came as a major shock especially to the president’s closest supporters.  To make matters worse for them, the president also gave in to the demand that the former president’s allies also be given nomination despite the poor reputations most of them suffer from on account of their conduct during the previous ten years of their period of government.  There was a vain hope that the president would reverse his decision at the last moment.  One of the civil society groups that campaigned for the president at the presidential election in January met him and reported that he had asked them to wait until the day after nominations closed.
The belief that President Sirisena would act at the last minute to upset the former president’s comeback bid had a rational basis to it.  Soon after his election victory, President Sirisena was widely reported to have said that he would have been six feet underground had he lost the presidential election.  He followed up on this statement by rejecting the former president’s comeback bid as prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP.  He had said that this would give an opportunity to those who had failed to win the presidential election by the ballot to accomplish their objective through a bullet.  President Sirisena even prohibited members of the SLFP from attending the” bring back Mahinda” rallies organised by the former president’s supporters.
There are many theories about why President Sirisena suddenly changed his mind and gave nomination to the former president.  These include inducements from China and even blackmail.   But the more likely explanation is the president’s growing sense of isolation from the two major political formations in the country.  By crossing over from the SLFP to contest the presidential election as the joint opposition candidate, President Sirisena lost his legitimacy with the SLFP voter base which, by and large, remained with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.  But thereafter President SIrisena found to his discomfiture that the UNP-led government that he had appointed in fulfilment of his election campaign promise was making decisions without taking him into confidence.
POSITIVE FALLOUT: It is unfortunate that as the country heads towards a decisive general election, President Sirisena’s stock among the general population is no longer as high as it was.  Earlier he lost most of the SLFP by breaking ranks and contesting the presidential election as the joint opposition candidate.  The 5.8 million voters who cast their votes in favour of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa would have viewed President Sirisena with disfavour.  Now after his nomination of the former president to the SLFP parliamentary list, it is likely that the 6.2 million who voted for him would feel betrayed, as their vote was a negative vote to defeat the former president.  By bringing this very person back to the centre of the SLFP’s campaign at the general election, he is seen to have acted against the mandate he asked for and received.
However, there has been positive fallout of the president’s turnaround.  This action of the president has compelled the fractious coalition that defeated former president Rajapaksa at the presidential election to unify again.  This is because they see the re-entry of the former president into national politics as the biggest threat to themselves and the changes they seek to make to the polity.  By unleashing the former president and his allies upon the electorate, President Sirisena has mobilised the coalition of political parties that united behind him eight months ago to oust the former president from the most powerful position in the polity.  The decision of the JHU and dissident sections of the SLFP, along with several ethnic minority parties, to join the UNP in a coalition can re-forge the winning combination that defeated former president Mahinda Rajapaksa under even more unfavourable conditions than presently exist.
This time around there will be at least two factors that will assuredly be in favour of the anti-Rajapaksa coalition.  The first is that the state machinery will not be controlled by the former president and his allies.  During the presidential election in January, they were able to utilise the state machinery to the maximum degree.  During the election campaign, the area of weakness that could not be addressed with any degree of effectiveness by any countervailing authority was the abuse of state resources, including the state media, by the government.  PAFFREL for instance reported that the abuse of state resources was three times greater this time than at the previous presidential election.  On this occasion, however, and after the passage of the 19th Amendment there is a greater degree of independence for state authorities vested with the power to conduct elections and to monitor them.
CHANGED PARADIGM: The second factor that will make a difference is the paradigm shift that has taken place over the past six months.  During the past six months the paradigm has shifted and national security and the issue of the revival of the LTTE and ethnic and religious conflict is no longer at the centre of people’s attention.  By way of contrast, until his defeat at the presidential election and the loss of governmental power to him and his allies, the former president and his government stoked the fears and passions of ethnic conflict, the LTTE and national security in the hearts and minds of the people.  Every effort was made to keep the people in fear and to utilise the possible revival of the LTTE and the division of the country to instil apprehension in the people.
However, since the presidential election campaign began in November 2014, the issues that have begun to take the centre stage are those of corruption, abuse of power and inter-ethnic and the need to promote inter-religious reconciliation.  With the change of government after the presidential election, the national security state is no longer given so much emphasis.  There has been a sense of relief and ease amongst the general population, and especially the ethnic and religious minorities, who feel a greater sense of confidence in the law and order machinery of the state, which has more independence  to act with integrity.
Finally, there is also a third factor that could decisively swing the election in favour of the anti-Rajapaksa alliance of political parties.  This is the role that President Sirisena himself might play during the election campaign.  He was elected on a platform that promised clean government and good government.  The president’s commitment to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution that reduced the powers of the presidency earned him a reputation of being a statesman.  After agreeing to the nomination of former president Rajapaksa and his allies, President Sirisena made a public speech in which he pledged not to abandon the “silent revolution” that took place at the presidential elections.   This will also be in keeping with his promise to the civil society members with whom he met, and to whom he promised favourable action after nominations close on July 13.

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