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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 34 August 15, 2015

Sri Lanka: The Resurrection of Mahinda Rajapaksa

Saturday 15 August 2015, by Apratim Mukarji

The audacious ambitions of Sri Lanka’s former strongman and President Mahinda Rajapaksa continue unabated despite a humiliating defeat barely seven months ago. A defeat-induced humility, on display immediately upon his defeat in the January 8 presidential election when he moved out of the official residence of his own volition, lasted not even a few days thereafter; and before the newly elected President, Sirisena Maithripala, had had time to even warm his seat, Rajapaksa was back with full vigour to challenge the successor government.

Prior to the parliamentary elections, scheduled on August 17, several significant political developments have taken place in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa has demonstrated that it is he—and not the chairperson of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the current President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena—who controls the SLFP. Despite Sirisena’s open opposition, Rajapaksa manoeuvred to get the SLFP approve his candidature to contest in the elections.

Secondly, the United National Party (UNP), which partners the SLFP in the Sirisena Government and is led by the present Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, has been able to set up a broad coalition of as many as 110 political parties, civil society organisations and trade unions including a breakaway faction of the SLFP loyal to Sirisena, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Jathika Hela Urumaya. The front is called the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) and is set up to “defeat the reactionary forces striving to reverse the victories gained by the people in the aftermath of January 8 presidential election”. In short, it is a broad-based front to stop Rajapaksa in his tracks to regain power and take the country back to the days of his dictatorial rule.

Thirdly, bouncing back into the electoral arena with a surprising vigour and success, Rajapaksa is heading the real-time United People’s freedom Alliance (UPFA) and seeks support from the Tamil and Muslim minority communities. His main plank is that in these seven months the country and the two ethnic Tamil and Muslim communities have fully realised the mistake they made while voting him out on January 8 as they were under an “environment of fear” created by “a conspiracy”. Now, as Rajapaksa sees it, the two communities have realised that there was no need to be apprehensive about the UPFA.

Handsomely acknowledging that it was the minority votes which defeated him in the presidential election, he now promises that the rights of all the communities will be protected if the UPFA is voted to power. The alliance also promises that the provincial councils and local bodies will be further strengthened under the provisions of the 13th Constitution Amendment, something his government never did despite plenty of opportunities and official declarations during its two terms in office (2005-2015).

 While he deliberately glossed over his promise of delivering the “13 plus” solution to the festering Tamil autonomy issue during his rule, the Rajapaksa-led UPFA now promises that within one month of his forming the government, it will hold talks with the local bodies and the members of Parliament, all national political parties, and all the communities, and in six months will come out “with a plan to solve the national problem”.

 He also promised to safeguard the interests of the minorities and set up a National Reconciliation Commission which would implement all the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in a year’s time, again something he promised and did not honour when he was the President.

Now with the August 17 elections in the offing, Rajapaksa smells more than a chance to weaken the Sirisena regime whose “betrayal” (the secretive manner in which his low-profile Minister and long-time party loyalist Sirisena “conspired” with his arch-rival, Ranil Wiskremasinghe, and former President, Chandrika Kumaratunge, to form a broad-based coalition which eventually won the January 8 presidential election) must be avenged.

For one thing, despite the convincing manner in which he was defeated, Rajapaksa clearly retained substantive support within his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which he could bank upon and has now convincingly demonstrated. Since his popularity with the majority Sinhala constituency is also substantially intact (as we have seen, he was defeated mainly by the overwhelming minority vote against him), he now aims to strengthen his appeal to rival parties as well drawing upon the inherent chauvinism of the majority community. He and his confidants are said to be working overnight to gather sympathetic elements in the United National Party (UNP, led by Wickremasinghe, the present Prime Minister) and other Sinhala parties to support him in the elections. The ruling coalition—the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA)—stands split between the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions with more than 80 parliamen-tarians said to be in the latter’s favour. The non-SLFP constituents of the UPFA also continue to be supporting the former President.

During the last seven months, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe team has been battling numerous obstacles put on its path by the Rajapaksa loyalists in Parliament. As a result, the promises of correcting the malpractices which had vitiated the democratic system, remain largely unfulfilled. The new government knew that Parliament continued to be largely beholden to the Rajapaksa clan and that the only way to change the situation would be to dissolve the House and call for fresh elections.

The two other major items on its agenda were to take away the overriding powers of the President and to reform the electoral system. In the last seven months, the SLFP and the UNP have continued to harbour contrary perceptions on several issues, a major one being the projected electoral reforms. In fact, the 20th Constitutional Amendment Bill for electoral reforms could not be passed in Parliament because of opposition by the UNP and various other parties. The UNP is opposed to a planned expansion of the strength of Parliament from the present 225 seats to 237 seats (already approved by the Cabinet despite the UNP’s opposition) and considers the coming elections as an opportunity to increase its present miserly 50 seats to a useful higher figure. However, in this task it must factor in its traditional weakness in expanding its electoral support base and hope for the best.

Interestingly, while the main agenda of the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe Government is to restore the Westminster system of government as was the form in earlier years and to which end the 19th Constitution Amendment has been adopted by Parliament, Rajapaksa also says that if elected to power, he would ensure that a new Constitution is promulgated within six months. Yet, in November 2014 he virtually forced Parliament and the judiciary to approve an unprecedented third term with the clear goal of perpetuating his family rule in the country. When one listens to him today, it is difficult to distinguish him from his opponents; his opportunism and desperation to regain power are so blatant.

The developments till date also indicate at least two significant developments in Sri Lankan society. One is the return of the rule of law in the country and the vigilance of the people; Sri Lankans are apparently jealous of preserving their new-found democratic rights. For example, the large number of civil society organisations backing the UNP-led UNFGG have declared that they would form a shadow Cabinet to keep a strict vigil on the working of every Ministry in the new government. Their spokesperson, the highly respected Buddhist monk Venerable Sobitha Thero, has put this resolve succinctly, “We will be compelled to criticise you if you are engaged in any wrongdoing. Then we will become enemies.” The civil society organisations have also declared their resolve to prevent “drug dealers and anti-social elements” from entering Parliament by defeating them in the elections.

The other welcome development is the relatively violence-free election campaign so far. The Daily Mirror wrote recently: “The most important and inspiring feature of the ongoing campaign is that to a large extent the rule of law is reigning while the incidents of election violence and violations of election laws have been reduced significantly. ” For the first time after a long period of time, the incumbent President is not seen to be interfering with the electoral process; the police are also deemed to be acting fairly; and the Election Commission is clearly acting independently and implementing the electoral rules impartially and strictly.

There is little doubt that Rajapaksa will be elected effortlessly unless unforeseen circumstances prevail at the time. It is to be seen if he succeeds in becoming the next Prime Minister which is his aim. One can only hope that he will not be in a position to negate all the democratic gains Sri Lanka has accumulated in the last seven months.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.