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Friend vs foe battles in Sri Lanka politics

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 It is quite evident that the country’s electorate is strongly divided - probably in an unprecedented manner - over the Mahinda Rajapaksa factor and its future role in the political sphere of Sri Lanka AFP It is quite evident that the country’s electorate is strongly divided - probably in an unprecedented manner - over the Mahinda Rajapaksa factor and its future role in the political sphere of Sri Lanka AFP

“Is this President Sirisena’s government? If this government belongs to President Sirisena, how on earth do the SLFP supporters get hammered in villages? How do SLFP supporters lose their jobs? What we ask President Sirisena is to have his own government by having Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister.  The SLFP cannot form a government at the next election without making Mahinda Rajapaksa the Prime ministerial candidate. President Sirisena will soon realize that forming a government with Mahinda Rajapaksa is way better than forming a government with Ranil Wickremesinghe.”

This is the most interesting remark made by National Freedom Front Leader Wimal Weerawansa at the rally which was held in Nugegoda, a few days ago, to support former President MahindA Rajapaksa. Weerawansa, who was a harsh critique of Maithripala Sirisena in the latter’s run up to the executive presidency towards the end of the last year, last week sounded as if he was trying to help Sirisena by making his political foe the Prime Minister of the country.

The rally was organized by four non-SLFP political parties that come under the umbrella of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Weerawansa, Dinesh Gunawardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Udaya Gammanpila were the chief organizers of the rally.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only Executive President in the country’s political history who was removed from office by the people through a vote. He lost the recently held presidential election by a margin of over 400,000 votes, despite the resounding majority he secured from rural Sinhala-Buddhist areas in the country. He was rejected not only by ethnic and religious minorities of the country, but also by the urban middle class who occupy main cities and suburbs, forming a sizable proportion of the country’s electorate. They were utterly dissatisfied with Rajapaksa’s way of governance that was characterized with family-bandyism, nepotism, culture of impunity and hooliganism. However, the rural Sinhala-Buddhist majority still consider Rajapaksa as the charismatic leader who freed the country from the clutches of terrorism, which ruined the country for almost three decades. It is quite evident that the country’s electorate is strongly divided - probably in an unprecedented manner - over the Mahinda Rajapaksa factor and its future role in the political sphere of Sri Lanka.

Is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return to the country’s national politics as the Prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP-led UPFA a viable option at this juncture? This is an interesting question.

In this writer’s view, the non-SLFP parties of the UPFA cannot make MahindaRakapaksa the Prime ministerial candidate without the consent of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Under the umbrella of the UPFA, only the SLFP has an island wide party machinery to conduct a general election campaign whose success relies heavily on the strength of the party machinery and its affiliated ground level organizations. If Rajapaksa contests the election without the support of the SLFP, he will only succeed in his traditional strongholds such as the districts of Hambanthota and Rathnapura.  Such a move will only ensure a Parliamentary seat for Rajapaksa whilst reducing his role to that of a party leader in the House alongside the JVP, TNA and probably the SLMC.

Almost all the non-SLFP coalition parties of the UPFA are now making a feverish attempt to get former President Rajapaksa back on board as the Prime ministerial candidate of the UPFA. It is quite evident that they have embarked on this battle not because they have any special love for Mahinda, but as they know they can’t make inroads into the legislature at the forthcoming Parliamentary election without the support of the former President. In their view, they are trying to create a win-win situation for themselves as well as for the SLFP by making Rajapaksa the Prime ministerial candidate of the coalition. The SLFP however has other plans! Although the rank and file of the party wants Mahinda Rajapaksa back, senior leaders of the party, including the top office-bearers loathe the idea. They are of the view that Rajapaksa’s reentry will block their upward mobility in the party hierarchy as the Rajapaksas will start dominating the decision making bodies of the party, once again.

One common characteristic that can be seen in all Pro-Rajapaksa political parties is their intrinsic one man Army nature. For instance, one cannot imagine a National Freedom Front without Wimal Weerawansa and there will be no ‘Mahajana Eksath Peramuna’ without its leader Dinesh Gunawardena. In the same way, there is no other prominent politician in the Pivithuru  Hela Urumaya apart from Udaya Gammanpila, who is now a Provincial Councilor in the Western Provincial Council. So, it is more like a collective of four individuals than a collective of four political parties. In the context of a general election, this ‘collective’ will not give Rajapaksa a huge benefit, apart from some boost on the publicity front. That is why the former President needs the support of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to enter the electoral fray. In any General Election – unlike in presidential polls – one’s success or failure will be determined by the strength of the party machinery.

In addition to non-SLFP coalition partners of the UPFA, several other SLFP Parliamentarians too are expected to align themselves with former President Rajapaksa. Some of them, namely T.B. Ekanayake, C.B. Rathnayake. Kumara Welgama, Dilum Amunugama, Manusha Nanayakkara, Vidura Wickramanayaka and Western Province Chief Minister Prasanna Ranatunga took part in the rally in their personal capacities and not as representatives of the SLFP. One can assume that the MPs who would find it difficult to survive in a non-Rajapaksa SLFP might join the Pro-Rajapaksa camp as a survival-plan.

However, seniors of the SLFP are becoming restless over this pro-Rajapaksa voice as they see it as an attempt made by UPFA allies to override the affairs of the SLFP. That was why senior SLFP leaders like Nimal Siripala de Silva, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premjayantha distanced themselves from the whole exercise. As much as the government does not too see a re-entry by Rajapaksa into active politics, they too are worried concerning the matter. Under the Rajapaksas, seniors of the SLFP were given step-motherly treatment while those who joined from the UNP were given priority and better privileges. According to internal sources of the party, most of the seniors of the SLFP have made up their minds to remain in the opposition for the next five years rather than assisting Rajapaksa to form a government at the next General election. Therefore, Rajapaksa still has only a slim chance of becoming the Prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP, the party which he once led with an iron fist.

One cannot also underestimate the Prime Ministerial dreams of Nimal Siripala de Silva who is now the Opposition Leader. Without declaring war on the government, de Silva has resorted to collaborative politics with President Maithripala Sirisena, assuming it would take him a step close to the post of Prime Minister vis-à-vis formidable foes such as Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Opposition Leader may not antagonize former President Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumaratunga as she has now become an important factor where the future of the SLFP is concerned.

At this point, it can be assumed that the SLFP will contest the next General Election with the idea of forming a national government for a period of two years. They will move away from the betel leaf symbol of the UPFA and contest under the traditional symbol of the SLFP i.e., hand. If and when the SLFP makes this decision “officially”, it will shatter the Prime Ministerial dreams of Rajapaksa at least for the next five years.

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