Popular call for MR’s return

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Nugegoda rally drew a massive crowd that surpassed even the high expectations of its organizers Nugegoda rally drew a massive crowd that surpassed even the high expectations of its organizers

President Maithripala Sirisena was in India this week mending diplomatic fences there but all eyes were focused on Nugegoda on Wednesday where a campaign to compel the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to nominate Mahinda Rajapaksa as its prime ministerial candidate was launched.

The rally was organized by four leaders of the UPFA, Wimal Weerawansa, Dinesh Gunewardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Udaya Gammanpila who represented some of the smaller parties of the alliance but had a high profile due to the influence of their respective leaders.

The event was noteworthy for several reasons. It drew a massive crowd that surpassed even the high expectations of its organizers who were visibly pleased at the turnout. However, whether this was due to loyalty to Rajapaksa - or out of sheer curiosity - is a moot point.

Equally significant was the message read out from President Rajapaksa. Previously, while visiting former United National Party (UNP) General Secretary Tissa Attanayake in prison, Rajapaksa feigned ignorance about the rally saying he was unaware of it and had received no invitation.

He also sent a letter to the executive committee meeting of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) last Sunday, explaining his absence from the meeting and promising not to leave the SLFP. He offered his support to the party’s new leadership. Some Rajapaksa loyalists were removed from office on Sunday.

Following the executive committee meeting of the SLFP, its General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, a Rajapaksa appointee who survived the revision of party officials stated that the party or its membership would play no party in Wednesday’s rally.
When he was pointedly asked about the party’s prime ministerial nominee at a media briefing, Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva dodged the query, lapsing into technicalities and saying it was a matter for the parliamentarians who would be elected at the general election to decide. Wednesday, however, Rajapaksa’s message to the Nugegoda rally was different. He pledged ‘not to abandon the struggle’ and hinted he was ‘available’ to give leadership to the UPFA, albeit with the SLFP. It seemed as if he was keen to lead the SLFP’s general election campaign, if asked to do so.

Even more curious was the presence of many stalwarts of the Rajapaksa government at the Nugegoda meeting. Among them were Kumar Welgama, C.B. Ratnayake, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, T.B. Ekanayake and Prasanna Ranatunga. They had thought it fit to defy party instructions.

Sections of the SLFP are becoming restive about President Sirisena being led by the UNP government. They fear that if the cabinet headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe was left to take decisions in the lead up to the general election, the party would face defeat at the poll.

This faction is likely to team up with the Weerawansa-Gunewardena-Nanayakkara-Gammanpila combine. The latter know that if Rajapaksa, who accommodated them readily, is taken out of the equation by the new SLFP leadership, their own political futures would be bleak.

Their strategy is to continue holding rallies across the country and pressurize the SLFP to invite Rajapaksa back into active politics. However, there is a group of party seniors who felt marginalized during the Rajapaksa era who are now being recognized. They will not agree to this.

Both President Sirisena and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga will not want to see Rajapaksa return. And, President Sirisena, who oversees nomination lists of the SLFP, will want to rid the party of Rajapaksa allies tainted with charges of corruption.
That leaves Rajapaksa with a difficult choice: leave the SLFP which he matured in for decades and led for another decade and throw in his lot with the Weerawansa-Gunewardena-Nanayakkara-Gammanpila combine. It is a gamble that more likely to fail than succeed.

All this amounts to a power struggle within the SLFP. It has been on uncertain ground since President Sirisena, whom assumed office with mostly UNP votes, returned to head the party. Now, with general elections looming, the party is at a critical juncture, unable to resolve its leadership woes.

The beneficiary of all this is the UNP. Even if Rajapaksa does not mount either platform, a significant number of SLFPers rooting for Rajapaksa from within the Weerawansa-Gunewardena-Nanayakkara-Gammanpila combine will see the party’s vote being split right down the middle.

That would be to the UNP’s advantage, especially if elections are held under the first-past-the-post system. Even if Rajapaksa does return - an unlikely scenario - the UNP would then be able to cite the many charges against him in their campaign and that would be a handicap for the Opposition.

This realignment of political forces will continue in the coming weeks. What the political parties are fighting for is to be first among equals in the next government because, whatever the outcome of the polls, the government that will be formed will be a ‘unity’ government of all parties.

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