When the worm turns

When the worm turns

On 8 January, the dynastic ambition of the Rajapaksas faces an unprecedented challenge.

Tisaranee Gunasekara is a political commentator based in Colombo.

'The Files' had been public knowledge for years. No one had seen them, but many believed in their existence. Brimming with incriminating evidence about politicians high and low, The Files were regarded as the reason the simmering discontent within the ruling coalition, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), and its main component party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), remained bottled-up.

Then, Maithripala Sirisena, minister of health and general secretary of the SLFP, left the government to become the opposition's 'common candidate'. And President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself confirmed the existence of The Files.

"I have their files and documents which will be very detrimental to their wellbeing," a visibly irritated Rajapaksa told a public gathering on 24 November. "I will not use them against those who had left, betraying the party, but I warn them not to throw stones from inside glass houses." The warning came at a time of extreme flux, when Colombo was awash with rumours about impending crossovers. When the expected deluge materialised as a slow (and two-way) trickle, The Files – and the consequent fear of exposure – were held responsible.

Now those posters, booklets and movies, with Wickremesinghe as Mr Bean, Tamil Tiger-lover or Western-stooge, are obsolete.

The full story behind Sirisena's crossover is yet to be revealed, but that which is known is pure theatre. For months there had been conflicting reports about the identity of the opposition's common candidate. While public attention was focused on leading opposition figures, the plan to engineer an inner-party rebellion in the SLFP was being hatched in total secrecy. Rumours about a Sirisena candidacy surfaced, but many, including President Rajapaksa, seemed not to have given them credence.

A pivotal role in the entire saga was played by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. As the daughter of the founding father of the SLFP, and as the leader who returned the party to power after 17 years, Kumaratunga has enormous cache among the party-faithful. However unhappy Sirisena et al might have been, only she could have persuaded them to take the monumental and extremely risky step of actually rebelling against Rajapaksa leadership.

Even so, the planned rebellion may have stagnated but for the regime's unexpectedly poor showing at the Uva Provincial Council election in September 2014. Despite a campaign marred by violence and massive abuse of state power and resources, the UPFA only just managed to scrape to victory. The fact that its chief ministerial candidate was a presidential nephew turned this poor performance into a Rajapaksa failure. More pertinently, it hinted at an unexpected erosion in Rajapaksa's Sinhala-Buddhist base. Before Uva, rebelling against the Rajapaksas seemed, at best, a quixotic enterprise. The near-debacle at Uva severely dented the Rajapaksas' aura of invincibility and made the hitherto impossible seem less so.

The final straw was Rajapaksa's determination to hold an early presidential election, a decision generally attributed to astrology. So long as a non-Rajapaksa held the prime ministerial post, there could be hope of evading a dynastic succession (constitutionally, if the president dies in office, the premier becomes the interim-president for a month). But winning a third term would strengthen Rajapaksa's hand enormously and enable him to appoint a sibling as prime minister. Sirisena and co may have considered a political future consisting of nothing more than serving this or that Rajapaksa, and found it unbearable – especially with their former leader offering them a way out.

Blood feuds
For more than half a century, the SLFP was headed by the Bandaranaike family. When Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency in 2005 and took over the party leadership in 2006, he had a unique opportunity to transform the SLFP from a semi-feudal entity into a modern democratic party, as J R Jayewardene did with the United National Party (UNP) in the 1970s. But instead of breaking the mould of hereditary leadership, Rajapaksa replaced the rule of one family with that of another – his own. Out were the Bandaranaikes, in were the Rajapaksas. Party history was revised to make his father, D A Rajapaksa (a founding member of the SLFP) coeval with S W R D Bandaranaike. The commemoration of Rajapaksa père replaced the commemoration of the Bandaranaike père as the SLFP's chief memorial ceremony.

Organisational changes accompanied the party's revised narrative. Rajapaksa's younger brother Basil was made the national organiser of the SLFP; it was pubic knowledge that he, and not General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, was in control of the party machinery, and, even more importantly, the nomination process. Eldest son Namal was placed in charge of organising the youth wing. Rajapaksa loyalists were favoured when choosing candidates for regional and national elections. Important positions were accorded to recent defectors from the UNP, who lacked a base within the SLFP and were thus considered more reliable than entrenched party members.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's daughter and son – the only grandchildren of S W R D and Sirima Bandaranaike – are not in politics. So when Kumaratunga retired at the end of her second presidential term in 2005, leading members of the SLFP may have looked forward to a more liberal future in which they too would have a chance at getting to the top. Instead, they found themselves saddled with a new ruling family. To make matters worse, most of the current crop of power wielders, apart from Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, are newcomers to the SLFP, and are resented as arrivistes by old party hands. The abrasive conduct of some of the Rajapaksas didn't help. Several months ago, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, currently secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, announced his readiness to enter politics if invited by his brother, saying, "I can do much better than many of these politicians currently holding office".

The Rajapaksas seemed to have been confident that the worm would never turn. After Sirisena's crossover, Minister of Lands and Land Development Janaka Bandara Tennakoon told a public gathering that he warned the president and his eldest son about inner-party disaffection: "Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa came to our house. I told him, 'Son, SLFPers have a problem. Attend to it'. But he said nothing will happen."

It was this discontent, long ignored by the Rajapaksas, that Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga tapped into.

Plan B
The Rajapaksas had been certain that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe would be their main presidential opponent, and had a veritable propaganda blitz ready. According to the Sunday Times, "Archival material in television stations were scoured to pick on material for humorous skits on Wickremesinghe. Formats for posters depicting the UNP leader in bad light were on the drawing boards. So much so, UPFA General Secretary and Minister Susil Premjayantha declared publicly that fifty percent of their campaign now was over."

Now those posters, booklets and movies, with Wickremesinghe as Mr Bean, Tamil Tiger-lover or Western-stooge, are obsolete. Sirisena's origins are as Sinhala-Buddhist as Rajapaksa's, and even more rural. Charges of being a Tiger sympathiser or Western pawn have little validity against such a man. The resultant politico-propaganda vacuum saw the sprouting of bizarre arguments and accusations by government politicians. One parliamentarian claimed that making Sirisena the common candidate was actually a Rajapaksa plan, while Minister of Disaster Management Mahinda Amaraweera argued that the public should vote for the status quo because the incumbents have stolen enough and do not need to steal anymore.

But if the Opposition expected an easy victory they were in for a disappointment. Nominations were filed on 8 December, and on that day Mahinda Rajapaksa struck back, announcing that the UNP’s long-standing General Secretary Tissa Attanayake had crossedover to the government. It was an unmistakable sign that he had recovered from the shock of the rebellion and was fighting back in his customary, pugilistic manner.

In an election campaign framed as ‘patriotism vs economics’, rice-and-curry concerns might have the edge, even among the Sinhalese.

The Opposition has agreed on a Common Minimum Programme to be implemented in the first 100 days should they win office. An all-party ‘national government’ with Wickremesinghe as the prime minister would work with Sirisena (who would become president) to implement this immediate agenda. According to some reports, this national government is to function for a period of between one and two years, at the end of which elections will be held for a new, and empowered, Parliament.

The Common Programme has four key points: abolishing the executive presidency; repealing the 18th Amendment (thereby re-empowering independent commissions); establishing a new hybrid voting system (a combination of proportional representation and the first-past-the-post systems); and reducing living costs.

There is one glaring omission – any specific measures aimed at the minorities, especially Tamils.

The Common Programme mentions four key challenges facing the country and directly addresses the first three – the breakdown in law and order, the undermining of democracy, and social disparities. But there are no ameliorative measures to deal with the fourth challenge: ‘Severe strains on coexistence between different ethnic and religious communities and increasing disharmony and mistrust’. There is no mention of the ethnic problem or the need for a political solution. Though the Opposition cannot win without the minority vote, its Programme contains no specific measures aimed at winning over the minorities.

Despite this, the main Muslim party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, after many delays and vacillations, crossed over to the Opposition in the final week of December. In any case, most Muslims are expected to vote for Sirisena, especially since the rabidly Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist BBS (which ignited the anti-Muslim riot in Aluthgama) has planted itself firmly in the Rajapaksa corner. The Plantation Tamil polity is divided between Sirisena and Rajapaksa.

That leaves the Tamils.

Though hardline elements are clamouring for an election boycott, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has said that it wants Tamils to exercise their franchise. Amid intense speculation, on 30 December the TNA publicly announced its support for Sirisena, claiming that “The values of democracy, good governance and rule of law have suffered unprecedented assault under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime”, even as it acknowledged that the “genuine restoration of democracy” could only be achieved via the accommodation of the aspirations of the country’s diverse peoples. The Rajapaksa camp had already accused former President Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and TNA leader R Sampanthan of concluding a secret deal, while the Tamil Guardian reported that the TNA leadership would wait until the very end to endorse Sirisena, to prevent Rajapaksa from using it to win Sinhala voters. The announcement is of immense significance to the Opposition.

As the leader responsible for defeating the LTTE, Rajapaksa still has a great deal of credibility and acceptance among Sinhala voters. He is also much liked as a person. Predictably, the regime is showcasing the civil war victory in its campaign, exhorting the Sinhalese to vote for Rajapaksa as a mark of gratitude. This was a winning formula in 2010, but whether it has the same potency five years later is debatable. This is particularly so given a sharp increase in economic discontent, nationally and among the Sinhalese.

According to the latest in a series of island-wide opinion surveys by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, pessimism among the Sinhalese about the direction of the national economy has increased in the past year, as has dissatisfaction with one’s personal economic conditions. The conclusions to be drawn from the survey are significant: the core support base of the Rajapaksas – the Sinhalese – is concerned over its economic future. If the Opposition can tap into this discontent, it has an excellent chance of defeating the incumbent. The reported inclusion of several populist promises, including a substantial salary hike for public sector employees and an equally substantial decrease in the price of fuel, are clearly aimed at achieving this goal. The regime, in a tacit acknowledgement of the potency of economic factors, has already reduced the prices of several essential commodities.

In an election campaign framed as ‘patriotism vs economics’, rice-and-curry concerns might have the edge, even among the Sinhalese.

Fair play
Sri Lanka has a host of excellent election laws, but most of them are observed in the breach. As in previous elections, the regime is using state power and resources to promote Rajapaksa. Election monitors have complained about the use of more than 1000 state-owned buses to transport people from faraway districts to Rajapaksa’s inaugural meeting in Anuradhapura. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), “With the northern and eastern provinces still under tight military control, security forces could, as in last year’s provincial election, be used to restrict campaigning by opposition parties and intimidate Tamil and Muslims voters to reduce turnout.” Reports such as these create serious doubts about whether the election will involve outcome-changing malpractices. Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya has decreed that of the 1200 counting centres, election monitors will have access only to 300.

Interestingly, there also seems to be unprecedented resistance from the upper echelons of the public service against the illegal use of state resources by Rajapaksa’s campaign. At a recent high-level meeting, several top finance ministry officials complained about state institutions sponsoring political advertisements and the use of state vehicles and employees to perform election-related work. They had reportedly warned the treasury secretary that they may be “compelled to refuse to carry out such orders or slow down the process in a work-to-rule scenario.” Is this a lone swallow or an indication that the rebellion in the ruling party may be spreading to other branches of the state apparatus?

Soon after Sirisena’s crossover, the Opposition made a move to capture power in the Uva Provincial Council. The governing party promptly postponed council sittings until after the presidential election, blaming ‘cold weather conditions’. A stranger to Lanka’s climate might be pardoned for assuming that the province had become impassably snow-bound. The incident is indicative of the Rajapaksa determination to preserve power by any means necessary.

In its latest report, ICG warned that “Should Sirisena win the vote, the president and his brothers could find other means to retain power, including resorting to the politically compliant Supreme Court to invalidate the result, or using the military as the last resort.” These are distinct possibilities; there are other potential scenarios, too, including the declaration of a manufactured security crisis.

Can Sirisena best Rajapaksa electorally? If so will Rajapaksa cede power? Will the military remain neutral or take sides? How will the upper judiciary act? Will Sri Lanka go the Chile-way (post-referendum) or the Zimbabwe-way (post-2008 election)? The answers are unknown and unknowable, until after 8 January.

What if?
Maithripala Sirisena has mounted an unprecedented challenge to Mahinda Rajapaksa. But Rajapaksa is no pushover; he is a consummate politician, an indefatigable campaigner and a wily tactician. He controls the military and the upper judiciary. And in his immediate family he has a group of powerful people who are totally committed to his victory.

The Opposition’s main strength – its diversity – can, under certain circumstances, become a debilitating weakness. There are also rumours of more high-level defections from the UNP. The UNP’s capacity to mobilise its mass base, and Sirisena’s capacity to appeal to SLFP voters and the minorities will play a major role in deciding which way the dice falls.

There is no reason to think that Sirisena is more – or less – trustworthy than other Lankan politicians. What might work in favour of Lankan democracy is the current, rather unusual, disposition of forces. Sirisena is not a head of a political party; there is no axiomatic base he can depend on. Even if he wins the omnipotent presidency, his ability to deploy that power will depend on the cooperation of his current supporters, especially the UNP. And it is in the interests of the UNP and its leader Wickremesinghe, to ensure that Sirisena implements some of his promises, especially the promise to replace the executive presidency with a more liberal power structure. A Sirisena victory is likely to lead to a reopening of democratic space, not because Sirisena is more democratic, but because the balance of forces may leave him with no other choice.

~ Tisaranee Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan commentator based in Colombo.

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