‘Golden horses’ and Trojan horses
Propaganda and infiltration play a vital role in determining the outcomes of not only military conflicts but also electoral contests. The seemingly invincible fail in war or politics alike due to their own blunders or their enemies’ brilliant ideas. Having fought a ten-year war against Troy, the Greeks were about to return home when someone came up with the idea of a wooden horse, which became a game changer. The rest is history.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to secure a third term in 2015 because of a horse, a golden one at that, so to speak. His main rival, Maithripala Sirisena, claimed that the Rajapaksa family were so fabulously rich that they even owned a ‘golden horse’ (rattaran aswayek), which became a metaphor for the riches of the ruling clan. This equestrian issue was vigorously flogged by the then UNP-led Opposition until public opinion turned against the Rajapaksa’s in the run-up to the presidential election. Nobody cared to ask whether the horse Sirisena was talking about was a palomino or actually made of gold.
Seven months later, Mahinda’s attempt to secure premiership, after losing the presidency, came a cropper because of a Trojan horse. President Sirisena put paid to Mahinda’s efforts to make a comeback by getting a group of his loyalists to worm their way into the defeated president’s confidence prior to the last general election. After the polls, they ditched Mahinda and joined the UNP-SLFP joint government; Mahinda had to resign himself to remaining an ordinary MP.
Among the notables in Sirisena’s special team which was responsible for taking Mahinda for a ride were Susil Premjayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. Appointed to the yahapalana Cabinet, they had been happy in those positions until the Feb. 10 local government polls, where the SLFP got a drubbing.
Another Trojan horse?
The SLFP ministers who had to leave the yahapalana government, following an abortive attempt to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are of two kinds—those who won the last general election by pretending to be loyal to Mahinda and others who lost owing to their hostility towards him but were appointed to Parliament via the National List. These MPs, numbering 16, are Susil Premajayantha, Dayasiri Jayasekara, Dilan Perera, John Seneviratne, Lakshman Wasantha Perera, Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle, Tharanath Basnayake, Susantha Punchinilame, Anura Yapa, S. B. Dissanayake, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, Chandima Weerakkody, Anuradha Jayaratne, Sumedha Jayasena, T. B. Ekanayake and Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala.
These MPs tried to join forces with the Joint Opposition (JO) and its electoral wing, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). But, once bitten, Mahinda seems twice shy. He has not allowed them to be part of the JO/SLPP. He seems to fear that President Sirisena is trying to use a Trojan horse again to destroy his camp from within. His fear is not unfounded.
In severing their ties with the UNP-led government, the 16 former SLFP ministers have acted out of expediency rather than principle. The JO/ SLPP has emerged strong. The SLFP candidates who were critical of Mahinda or were loyal to President Sirisena lost the last general election; they included the likes of S. B. Dissanayake and Vijithamuni de Zoysa. They are making overtures to Mahinda because they know they cannot win a future election under their own steam; they need Mahinda’s backing. It is only natural that Mahinda is wary of forging an alliance with them. If they fail to get into the JO/SLPP, they are sure to fall between two stools and lose their bargaining power. So, they have sought to make themselves politically attractive.
‘Freedom of Conscience’
The16 SLFP MPs have formed an alliance called ‘Freedom of Conscience’ in a bid to project themselves as a rebel outfit just like the JO. This is an interesting development in that they are trying to be an alternative to the JO, whose sole purpose of being is to put an end to the marriage of convenience between the UNP and the SLFP. Interestingly, the new alliance has come into being, close on heels of President Sirisena’s declaration that he will not retire after completing his first term. It is being argued in some quarters that he has made public his intention to seek a second term though he left it unsaid.
Retirement is a fate worse than death for Sri Lanka’s executive presidents as evident from the manner in which Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chandrika Kumaratunga are behaving. They apparently cannot bring themselves to accept the reality that they are now retired. Their struggle to remain relevant in national politics is similar to that of the main character in Oscar winning Birdman, Riggan Thomson, who does his damnedest to prevent himself being seen as a washed-up Hollywood super star. If President Sirisena is to remain active in politics, let alone be a common presidential candidate ever again, he has to neutralise the JO/SLPP and become the undisputed leader of the SLFP so that he can hitch his wagon to the UNP. Sirisena’s Birdman project, as it were, seems to have already got underway.
The UNP fielded Sirisena as the Opposition’s common presidential candidate in 2015 because it was convinced that it could not win against Mahinda in the fray. But Sirisena would not have been able to win if not for the UNP’s unstinted backing coupled with minority block votes delivered by the TNA and the SLMC. Sirisena made possible Mahinda’s defeat by eating into the SLFP’s vote bank. It is only wishful thinking that Sirisena can win a presidential election again if the UNP fields its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. There is no guarantee that the UNP candidate will win, but he will be able to enlist the support of the TNA and the SLMC. President Sirisena is all out to endear himself to the minorities, but it is highly unlikely that he will succeed in getting their votes.
The Freedom of Conscience group has said it will field a separate presidential candidate. Former Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, speaking at the inaugural propaganda rally of the grouping in Matara last Saturday said: “We will forge a new progressive leftist front and field someone capable of winning the trust and confidence of everyone as the next presidential candidate.”
It is obviously trying to increase it bargaining power, but one need not be surprised if it endorses Sirisena’s candidature in case the incumbent President throws his hat into the ring.
A spoiler candidate?
It is being speculated in political circles that former Defence Secretary, Gotabhya Rajapaksa will contest the next presidential election as the SLPP’s candidate. PM Wickremesinghe cannot run away from a presidential contest again. In a contest with the SLPP and UNP candidates vying for presidency Sirisena will end up being an also-ran. But, an SLFP candidate can spoil the chances of his SLPP counterpart’s chances of winning by causing a split in the SLFP vote much to the advantage of the UNP. Is the Freedom of Conscience working according to a plan to field a spoiler candidate? Politicians also work in mysterious ways. Whoever would have thought Sirisena would challenge Mahinda in the last presidential race? Anything is possible in politics.
The UNP has failed to secure the executive presidency for twenty five years. If it loses the next presidential election, it will have to reconcile itself to the prospect of being without a president for another decade or so. It may be banking on the JVP’s 20th Amendment aimed at scrapping the executive presidency to manoeuvre out of this difficult situation, but the proponents of this constitutional amendment will find it extremely difficult to get a two-thirds majority for it. The TNA will not back it unless the government gives a cast-iron guarantee that more powers will be devolved to the provinces. The political cost of fulfilling this condition will be huge.
The economy is in the doldrums. People find the ever increasing tax burden unbearable. Prices of essentials are soaring. Fuel price increases are bound to aggravate the woes of the public. Atop these is the anti-incumbency factor, which causes popular support for the government in power to dwindle. At this rate, the UNP will have its work cut out to regain lost ground vis-à-vis the challenge posed by the JO/SLPP. The uphill task it is faced with is to repackage and remarket its leader Wickremesinghe as the next presidential candidate.
But, the UNP should not be underestimated. It brought down the SLFP-led People’s Alliance government within six years of President Kumaratunga’s stunning victory at the 1994 presidential victory. It almost defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2005 presidential race; it would have won but for the polls boycott declared by the LTTE. In 2010, it gave Rajapaksa a scare in spite of a huge increasing in his popularity rating due to the defeat of terrorism. It succeeded in toppling the mighty Rajapaksa government in 2015. The UNP is, no doubt, faction ridden and is troubled by a lacklustre leadership, but it remains a force to be reckoned with. Anyone who underestimates it makes a terrible mistake.
Meanwhile, the JO has a history of corruption, abuse of power and political violence and it will find it next to impossible to live down its past. Above all, it has failed to win over the forces that brought about the downfall of the Rajapaksa government in 2015. The present administration may be getting unpopular, but it is still backed by the external forces hell bent on holding the Rajapaksas’ at bay. The anti-Rajapaksa forces have succeeded in creating a split in the JO with the help of the proposed 20th Amendment, which the JVP claims to be its brainchild. They dislodged the UPFA government, in 2015, by pitting the public against the Rajapaksas’, but this time around, they are apparently trying to achieve that goal by turning the Rajapaksas’ against each other. They are also believed to be behind the moves to have former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia Uayanga Weeratunga extradited to stand trial in Colombo over a questionable fighter jet deal. Their target is Gotabhaya, as is obvious. They will leave no stone unturned in their efforts to turn in Weeratunga so as to ruin Gotabhaya’s chances of running for President. Preventing him from contesting will be half the battle in preventing the SLPP from winning.
Trojan horses look to be the least of the JO’s problems. The Rajapaksas’ have to watch out for the elephants on the rampage.