Drugs, Politics and Polls:

Now, Mahinda Wants Executive Presidency Abolished

Former Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is a Presidential hopeful. Will he win over enough voters to fulfil his dream?

The bane of this country has been its preoccupation with partisan politics. The state of the economy and the Sena pest, which has eaten into the vitals of the rural economy, are now forgotten, to all intents and purposes. Everybody is talking about the next presidential election, which is about nine months away. The long overdue provincial council elections have also got eclipsed.

Move to abolish the executive presidency

Opposition Leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa finds himself in a tight spot. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has to either endorse the candidature of President Maithripala Sirisena or nominate someone else. His younger brother and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is also among those who eye the presidency. Unable to make a decision, the Opposition Leader has sought to cut the Gordian knot. He wants the executive presidency abolished.

Rajapaksa tested the water, at a meeting with the SLPP seniors, the other day, and some of them were on the same page as he. They said that doing away with the executive presidency was the best way out.

President Sirisena told Parliament, on Thursday, that he was for the abolition of executive presidency, and Parliament had to make a decision. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is also not confident of winning a presidential election. He is not likely to oppose Rajapaksa’s move because one of the main campaign promises of the yahapalana administration was to do away with the executive presidency. That was also the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera’s dream.

Current scenario

The abolition of the executive presidency is no easy task. Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe and Sirisena, no doubt, have the required numbers in Parliament to introduce a new Constitution, but it will be a long-drawn-out process, given the contentious issues such as the devolution of power. Therefore, the three main parties, the UNP, the SLPP and the SLFP/UPFA will have to make preparations for the next presidential election.

It is widely thought that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will be the UNP’s choice for the next presidential election. The SLPP/SLFP combine has found it well-nigh impossible to reach a consensus on whom to field, and the two parties are likely break ranks over that issue.

Speculation is rife in political circles that the next presidential election will be a contest between PM Wickremesinghe and Gotabaya, who has declared that he is ready to run for President. But nothing is so certain as the unexpected in politics.

President Sirisena has already got his intention to seek a second term announced by his party loyalists. The SLPP is dilly-dallying, unable to decide whether to field a candidate on its own because it does not want to antagonise the President at this juncture. If it nominates its own candidate, Sirisena will be compelled to sever his links with the SLPP.

The problem of being Sirisena

President Sirisena failed to manage his electoral fortunes properly and, therefore, suffered a humiliating defeat at last year’s local government polls, as a result. He is without enough support among members of both majority and minority communities if the results of the mini polls in February last year are any indication. Having realised the importance of votes, in the North and the East, which helped him secure the presidency, in 2015, in what was considered an upset win, he has launched some development initiatives in those provinces with a view to garnering votes, but only the TNA is capable of delivering a block vote to a presidential candidate from those parts of the country. Sirisena has to enlist the support of the TNA. This is not possible because that party has already thrown its weight behind Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

 

President Sirisena desperately wants a second term. He is seen at the funeral of one the Rajapaksa brothers.
President Sirisena desperately wants a second term. He is seen at the funeral of one the Rajapaksa brothers.

The distribution of voters in this country is such that most of them live in rural areas, but public opinion on vital issues continues to be shaped by cities, as is the case, the world over. Hence the frantic efforts being made by the major political parties to woo the politically conscious and active urban middle class, which also dominates the social media scene. However, this does not mean that the rural people are mere followers and not a force to be reckoned with. If effectively mobilised, they can make or break governments; this task requires charisma—a lot of it—plus populist tactics. Mahinda Rajapaksa was capable of doing so from 2005 to 2015, but it is doubtful whether the Opposition can choose as its presidential candidate anyone who is equal to that task. Wickremesinghe lost presidential elections twice (in 1999 and 2005) and ran away from another two (in 2010 and 2015) because he lacks a following among the rural folk though he is popular in urban areas.

President Sirisena is apparently trying to win over the public with the help of his war on netherworld of drugs and crime. His efforts seem to have gone down well with the people in urban and semi-urban areas, where drugs and crimes are prevalent. His ‘war’ has yielded impressive results with key underworld figures being arrested and hauls of narcotics busted. He seems to think that his campaign to rid the country of drugs will be appreciated by the public in terms of votes at the next election. Hope is said to spring eternal in human breast.

Challenges before Ranil

The UNP has apparently chosen to fight the battle for the coveted presidency on the banks of the Beira Lake, where the Treasury is located. Still reeling from the devastating local government polls debacle last year, it is throwing public funds away; it is giving soft loans sans collateral to those who call themselves entrepreneurs and launching development projects haphazardly in rural areas in a bid to regain the much-needed political mileage. It is reported to have decided to raise USD 2 billion through bonds for development activities.

Development initiatives alone do not help a party win elections. The downfall of the Rajapaksa government, in 2015, is a case in point.

The government in power has to develop the national economy so that tangible benefits will accrue to the people if it is to secure a second term or its presidential candidate is to win. The economy is in a mess and taxes are increasing rapidly, at present. The people are complaining of economic difficulties.

The government is under pressure from the IMF to fulfil constricting aid conditions. It has had to increase taxes and re-introduce the much-detested fuel pricing formula; it will be compelled to introduce a similar method in respect of water and electricity tariffs. These measures will come with a huge political cost.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe being greeted at Parliament by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. It’s an uphill task for Wickremasinghe and the UNP to win the votes of the rural population. Would Jayasuriya be a safer bet?
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe being greeted at Parliament by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. It’s an uphill task for Wickremasinghe and the UNP to win the votes of the rural population. Would Jayasuriya be a safer bet?

The next government is bound to be burdened with loan repayment; the state banks which grant the aforesaid soft loans will also face difficulties with the number of bad loans increasing. The UNF government never misses an opportunity to claim that the country’s economic recovery is slow due to debt servicing thanks to massive loans the Rajapaksa government drew. The unprecedented pay hike for the public sector workers, amounting to Rs. 10,000 each, helped topple President Rajapaksa, but has sent the government reeling. The economic cost of the UNP’s on-going Gamperaliya project remains to be estimated.

The UNP has to win over the rural sector if it is to win the next presidential contest or the Provincial Council election, whichever comes first. The postponement of the PC polls has demonstrated that the government is not confident of facing an electoral contest in the near future lest its weaknesses should be exposed before the next presidential election.

The UNP seems to be working according to a three-pronged strategy. PM Wickremesinghe has already started stumping around the North and the East in a bid to build up support, having undertaken the task of carrying out development activities in those two provinces, himself. He was recently in the North, accompanied by all his ministers to solve the problems the people were faced with. He also keeps humouring the TNA.

Ranil, however, is in a dilemma. The UNP is full of ambitious men whose chances of leading the party will be ruined if he becomes the President, for he will groom a member of his kitchen Cabinet as his successor, at their expense. On the other hand, in case of his victory at the next presidential election, he will also seek a second term, and it will be a long wait for the ambitious others who are not getting any younger. The question is whether they will fully back his presidential candidature. It may be recalled that not all SLFP heavyweights threw their weight behind President Mahinda when the latter sought a third term, and a similar situation might arise in the UNP if Ranil comes forward as the party’s presidential candidate.

Ranil knows that the UNP seniors have to sink their differences and rally behind him when the party’s interests are threatened; it is a case of Hobson’s choice for them. When the Sirisena-Mahinda combine grabbed power last October, the UNP was left with no alternative but to back its beleaguered leader to the hilt. Even the party dissidents had to follow suit. He emerged victorious. He must be expecting the party to act likewise at the next presidential election as well. If it does, he will be lucky.

It is being claimed in some quarters that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya also has presidential ambitions, given the way he takes on the executive and defends the UNP. But he has not made known his intention to run for President, and even if he does and upstages his leader, the fact remains that Ranil is the party for all practical purposes. The UNP’s decision-making body, the Working Committee is packed with his supporters. The fact Karu once defected to the Rajapaksa government will be used against him.

Gotabaya or Chamal?

Whether Gotabaya will be able to contest the next presidential election depends on several factors besides the relinquishment of his US citizenship. He will have to receive the blessing of Mahinda and the backing of the SLPP. Whether he has a political future or not will also depend on the outcome of the ongoing court cases against him. The SLPP is divided on his attempt to run for President and if he comes forward the Sirisena faction will not back him. A three cornered contest with Ranil, Gotabaya and Sirisena in the fray will stand the UNP in good stead.

The gargantuan challenge before Gotabaya is winning over the minorities, whose votes matter a lot at a presidential election. The war victory is now forgotten and the support from the majority community alone will not be sufficient for him to secure the presidency. His sibling, Mahinda, lost last time mainly because he had antagonised the minorities, who voted for Sirisena en bloc.

Gotabaya is popular among the members of the urban middleclass, who appreciate his city gentrification projects, businesslike approach to problem solving, etc., but the same may be said of the UNP, which is the choice of those who benefit from the informal sector in the urban centres, especially Colombo, where more than one half of the people are living in slums and shanties. These low income earners have traditionally voted with the UNP and, therefore, the SLFP has never been able to make inroads into the UNP’s solid vote bank in Colombo.

 

Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa’s populist policies have helped garner votes. Will his popularity help any of his brothers win a presidential election?
Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa’s populist policies have helped garner votes. Will his popularity help any of his brothers win a presidential election?

Thus, if Gotabaya throws his hat into the ring, he will be flying with one wing, from word go, without the minority backing. Even a few thousand votes matter in a closely contested election. Lack of PR, military background and serious human rights violations on his watch as the Defence Secretary are issues he will have to contend with.

Mahinda won the presidency, in 2005, because the LTTE forced a polls boycott on the Tamil people in the North and the East. He secured a second term, in 2010, with a mammoth majority because of a massive swing generated by the war victory. He, therefore, did not have to depend on the minority votes, as such, to win, but the situation is different today. He cannot contest the next presidential election and the achievements of the Rajapaksa government are no longer fresh in the minds of the people. But a member of the Rajapaksa clan will be easy to market. If Gotabaya fails to get nominated by the SLPP, who will be the choice of that party?

Basil is not a popular figure and various allegations have tarnished his image beyond repair. One fails to keep count of the court cases against him. He is not a man of the people, to begin with, and his lack of charisma will be a huge liability. Efficiency alone does not help win elections.

Will the SLPP opt for Chamal Rajapaksa as its presidential candidate? He maintains a very low profile and plays the role of Loku Aiya or elder brother, in politics. He is not a temperamental politician and has been careful not to make enemies unnecessarily. As the Speaker, he handled the transition between the Rajapaksa government and the yahapalana administration remarkably well, from January to August 2015. His problem is his lacklustre political career. But he can be repackaged and marketed like Sirisena prior to the 2015 presidential election.

Whoever would have thought Sirisena would be the choice of the yahapalana camp for the presidential race against the most popular leader, at that time—Mahinda?

 

Efficiency alone does not ensure votes for Basil Rajapaksa. As well, he has to live down many allegations and court cases.
Efficiency alone does not ensure votes for Basil Rajapaksa. As well, he has to live down many allegations and court cases.

Cocaine abusers among ministers

State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake is no stranger to controversy. He has got into hot water by making a sweeping statement which was deemed to have caused an affront to the dignity of the judiciary. A contempt of court case is pending against him. Last week, he dropped another bombshell, which has sent shockwaves through the government. He said some ministers were addicted to cocaine.

Ramanayake has got the goat of many a government MP so much so that one of them, at this week’s UNF parliamentary group of meeting, said Ramanayake should be beaten for having made such an allegation. Their consternation is understandable. The allegation at issue will be made used of by the Opposition at the next election.

Ramanayake says he has informed Speaker Karu Jayasuriya of 24 MPs who abuse cocaine. The Speaker says he has asked the latter to submit a list of names. The UNP has appointed a committee to conduct an internal investigation into Ramanayake’s allegation by way of a damage control measure. Its report is expected to be submitted to the UNP Working Committee shortly. Not many people have faith in internal investigations conducted by political parties. No party, conducting such an inquiry wants to get at the truth for fear of jeopardising its interests. Nobody in his or her proper senses will expect the UNP to admit that there are drug addicts among ministers even if there emerges irrefutable evidence to prove Ramanayake’s charge.

Ramanayake’s allegation has made each and every MP a suspect in the eyes of the people. The need for a thorough probe cannot be overemphasised.

 

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