The Return of Mahinda Rajapaksa
Power is like hell dust. It is highly addictive. As chasing the dragon is to a druggie, so is savouring power to an ambitious politician. Quitting it cold turkey, so to speak, is an extremely painful experience. Life became something like an aircraft in a tailspin for Mahinda Rajapaksa after his crushing defeat on Jan. 08, 2015. Everything suddenly became topsy-turvy and he lost bearings. It was days before he figured out what had hit him.
An ignominious loss was not certainly something Mahinda had ever bargained for. He had no plan for a stint in the Opposition. Minister Rajitha Senaratne told the media immediately after the 2015 regime change that Mahinda had sought to stay in power with the help of the military in spite of his defeat and his plan had gone awry. Minister Mangala Samaraweera went so far as to complain to the CID that there had been a coup attempt. Mahinda has denied the allegation and, curiously, the government has not pursued the matter; the benefit of doubt has accrued to the former President.
If Mahinda had attempted a military coup, the new government could have had him hauled up before courts and got him thrown behind bars the way Mahinda did way back in 2010. He had his main contender in the 2010 presidential contest, Sarath Fonseka, arrested for allegedly attempting a coup among other things. The latter was also jailed. Perhaps, the yahapalana camp tried to pay Mahinda back in his own coin five years later, but got cold feet for fear of providing him with a rallying point.
Mahinda as a tea bag
A leader is said to be like a tea bag. How strong he is can be seen only when he gets into hot water. Mahinda was down but tried to put on a bold face on the crushing defeat. He was obviously confused as to what to do next. He was at sixes and sevens when he reached his Tangalle residence, Carlton on Jan. 09, 2015. His trusted lieutenants were leaving him one by one and the newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena, ably assisted by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, was all out to grab the SLFP leadership. As Mahinda told a group of journalists a few months after his defeat, he had been in two minds as to whether to remain in active politics or retire though he had clambered on to a windowsill of his house and vowed to fight on amidst cheers from thousands of his supporters who had gathered there to give him a tumultuous welcome.
Mahinda knew his government had wronged many and the boot was now on the other foot. Fearing retaliation, he did not confront the new government from the word go, though he was confident his party’s rank and file were with him. When the SLFP was plunged into a leadership crisis with Sirisena and Chandrika going all out to wrest control of the party, Mahinda gave in, hoping for a rapprochement. But having promised to haul the Rajapaksas’ before courts for alleged theft of public funds, corruption, abuse of power and various other offences, the yahapalana leaders had to target the former first family. On the other hand, they knew they would have to face a general election after a few months and the Rajapaksas’ and their loyalists had to be prevented from regrouping.
After a few weeks, emboldened by the growing resentment within the ranks of the party towards the new leadership which had formed an alliance with the UNP after dislodging an SLFP-led government, Mahinda decided to fight back.
The Rajapaksas’ arrested
Basil Rajapaksa was the first to be arrested and remanded after the change of government in 2015. He was charged with the misappropriation of Divi Neguma funds. He was arrested again over some real estate issues. Then came Namal Rajapaksa’s arrest the following year over misappropriation of funds and money laundering. Mahinda’s aide Sajin Vaas Gunawardena was arrested and remanded over a questionable agreement he had entered into as the CEO of Mihin Air. Former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was arraigned on charges of irregularities in a fighter jet deal and the alleged misuse of state resources for the construction of the D. A. Rajapaksa memorial in Weeraketiya.
Interestingly, the yahapalana government has chosen to steer clear of Mahinda. It has stopped short of taking tough action against Mahinda though they accused him of corruption, the abuse of power etc. and ousted him. He is only facing a probe into the alleged non-payment of millions of rupees to a state-owned television channel which ran his campaign adverts. Minister Mangala Samaraweera has told the media that the former ruling family amassed as much as USD 18.5 billion fraudulently. The government has failed to furnish evidence in support of its claim. It has attributed its inability to substantiate its allegations to banking secrecy laws in the countries where the money has allegedly been stashed away. But those who voted for it want its pledge to punish the corrupt fulfilled.
The yahapalana government is banking heavily on its foreign allies to help trace the allegedly stolen funds in offshore accounts to destroy the big guns of the previous regime politically. Whether it will realise its goal remains to be seen.
The predicament of the Rajapaksas’ also prompted Mahinda to launch a counterattack against the yahapalana government.
The Nugegoda Rally
Another reason for Mahinda’s return to active politics, after defeat, was pressure from the UPFA dissidents loyal to him; they were apprehensive of their political future. They were without a leader and Mahinda naturally became their choice. They knew he was still popular in spite of his defeat and, therefore, highly marketable in southern politics. The new government was readying itself for a general election and the UPFA rebels decided to field Mahinda as the SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate.
Having realised that attack was the best form of defence, Mahinda started marshalling forces to stage a comeback and consolidating his power in the SLFP much to the consternation of Sirisena and Kumaratunga. A breakthrough came earlier than expected for the UPFA dissidents who had banded together to form the Joint Opposition as a counterweight to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. They organised a rally at Nugegoda in February mainly to keep the morale of its supporters from sagging and to prove they were a force to be reckoned with.
Nugegoda is a favourite venue for miniscule political parties and pressure groups at whose rallies supporters are thin on the ground. They do not have to worry about empty spaces at their meetings in Nugegoda, which is always crowded. Although the JO activists were apprehensive of what came to be known as ‘Bring Back Mahinda’ rally turned out to be a huge success. Nugegoda became a sea of heads and the success of the rally sent an ominous signal to the new government.
Mahinda, however, did not get carried away. He did not attend the JO’s public rallies though he openly wished the organisers thereof well. He waited till the time was opportune to make a dramatic appearance on the JO stage. He knew his position was vulnerable as he was still in the political bardo. He wanted to secure a bridgehead on the political front to launch his attack. His strategy was to push the SLFP into a position, where it would have to depend on him to challenge the UNP at the general election in 2015. He succeeded in his endeavour. He was entrusted with the task of leading the SLFP-led UPFA’s parliamentary election campaign.
Sirisena outfoxes Mahinda again
Mahinda wanted to be the PM as he knew the person who controlled Parliament would be more powerful than the President as had been the case between August and November in 1994 under President D. B. Wijetunga and under President Chandrika Kumaratunga from 2001 to 2004. Sirisena saw through Mahinda’s strategy.
Mahinda had denied Maithripala Sirisena premiership and now it was Sirisena’s turn to return the favour, so to speak. The latter was determined to prevent Mahinda from securing the premiership and face the same fate as the proverbial Arab who shared his tent with a camel and finally had to sleep under the stars.
President Sirisena allowed Mahinda to lead the UPFA’s campaign as he did not want to incur the wrath of the party’s rank and file, who wanted the UNP defeated. He also did not want to take on the UNP. Instead, he resorted to some other means to queer the pitch for Mahinda. He addressed the nation twice before the 2015 general election and criticised the Rajapaksas’ and let the electorate know that he would not appoint Mahinda PM even if the UPFA won. Such statements demoralised the SLFP voters beyond measure and facilitated the UNP’s victory.
Sirisena outfoxed Mahinda in style once again. He removed the General Secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha respectively on the eve of the general election and replaced them with his loyalists, Duminda Dissanayake and Prof. Wiswa Warnapala respectively. The stage was thus set for forming a national government with the UNP and neutralizing the Mahinda factor.
Mahinda’s double whammy
The formation of the national government deprived Mahinda of not only the premiership but also the Opposition Leader’s post, which went to the TNA as the UPFA had become part of the government. Sirisena succeeded in reducing his former boss, who had given him short shrift, to an ordinary MP! It was a double whammy for Mahinda.
Sirisena may have thought Mahinda would not suffer the humiliation of sitting in the Opposition benches for long and quit. It was a political miscalculation. Mahinda would wait and make a Revenant-type comeback.
The realignment of forces both in and outside Parliament led to a situation where there was no legitimate Opposition. The UNP and the SLFP governed the country and their yahapalana allies, the TNA and the JVP formed the official Opposition which proved to be ineffectual and subservient. The room was thus left for the emergence of an oppositional force as a counterweight to the government. An opportunity presented itself to Mahinda to move in to fill the vacuum and act as the de facto Opposition leader. Mahinda was left with no alternative but to restart his life from Opposition politics, which he was no stranger to, all over again.
Nothing drives a politician more fiercely than his will to revenge himself on his enemies. Mahinda got actively involved in the JO to the point of appearing on its stage at public rallies in defiance of the SLFP’s threats to expel its dissidents who attended rallies it did not officially organise.
Ironically, the JO, in spite of having many tainted politicians within its ranks, embarked on an anti-corruption drive. The yahapalana government ruined its image owing to the involvement of some of its key figures in the Treasury bond scams. The UNP’s defence of the then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran caused the government to incur much public opprobrium.
Initially, Mahinda did not evince so keen an interest in flogging the issue of bond scams. Perhaps, he feared that he would be asked whether he had any moral right to campaign against corruption which his government had become synonymous with. But he was not short of issues. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government had raised people’s hopes so much that it could not live up to them. The youth expected jobs and the general public economic relief and development, but in vain.
Yahapalanaya in crisis
Capturing power is one thing and retaining it quite another. The yahapalana leaders began their rule without a proper plan. The only programme they had was the 100-day agenda. They were all at sea when they formed an interim administration.
A chain is said to be as strong as its weakest link. The same may be said of the yahapalana government whose survival hinges on the cohabitation of the UNP and the SLFP. The two parties did not gel as an alliance though their leaders joined forces for mutual benefit.
The coming together of the SLFP and the UNP to share power was like that between a blind man and a cripple with the former carrying the latter. The new administration began its journey with the SLFP carrying the UNP.
The SLFP and the UNP were aware that their unity would not last the next election because their leaders would have to lead their election campaigns and clash in such an eventuality. They kept on postponing the local government elections. The JO exploited the situation fully and campaigned for elections.
The power struggle in the government with the UNP and the SLFP trying to undermine each other and the attendant crisis has stood their political enemies in good stead. The findings of the presidential probe Sirisena ordered into the bond scams has ruined the UNP’s chances of winning elections and the UNP has struck back. The SLFP’s abortive move to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe by backing a motion of no confidence against him cost 16 of its ministers their posts. President Sirisena’s chief of staff I. H. K. Mahanama and State Timber Corporation Chairman Piyasena Dissanayake were caught allegedly in the act of accepting a huge bribe. What befell Mahanama is widely seen as being consequent to the UNP getting even with the SLFP.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo, for want of a better strategy to address the issues it was confronted with and make good on its election promises, continued with attacks on the previous government. The electorate had seen the back of Mahinda and what they were badly in need of was relief as well as an all-out war on corruption which has eaten into the vitals of society and stood in the way of national progress. The UNP-SLFP administration has failed to be seen to be different from its predecessor where corruption is concerned. What matters is politics is perception rather than reality as evident from Mahinda’s fall which was mainly due to a host of allegations against him and his family.
The yahapalana leaders carried forward its pre-regime change campaign against the Rajapaksas’ to ward off the JO’s increasing threats. Bashing an incumbent government may help gain public sympathy due to the anti-incumbency factor, but propaganda onslaughts have little effect when carried out on those who are already in the political wilderness.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has failed to match the JO’s ability to mobilize the people. Mahinda’s mammoth May Day rally in Kirulapone in 2016 was a shocker for the government. It became manifestly clear that Mahinda had thrown down the gauntlet and was ready for a devastating counter attack.
Galle Face rally
The yahapalana government made a costly blunder in 2017. It allowed the JO to use the Galle Face Green as the venue for the May Day rally and, in its wisdom, dared the latter to fill the five-hectare open ground with people. The JO had to accept the challenge. After all, it had asked for the venue.
It was the moment of truth for Basil, who is considered an organiser par excellence. Not all JO big guns were well disposed towards him and he had to prove his worth to the dissident group and silence his critics who considered him a political liability after Mahinda’s defeat. He worked himself into the ground. So did other JO leaders.
The JO’s May Day rally became a jaw-dropping success. It was attended by an unprecedented crowd so much so that two supporters died due to exhaustion. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government must have regretted having allowed the JO to use the Galle Face Green. That event marked the successful culmination of the JO’s campaign against the yahapalana administration.
The yahapalana leaders and their well-wishers were scared of elections, which, they knew, would ruin the unity of the UNP-SLFP alliance, for their leaders would have to lead their parties’ election campaigns and cash in the process. They kept on postponing the local government polls to avoid a confrontation, but finally buckled under pressure, having exhausted all the lame excuses. The local government polls were declared. It was a nightmare come true for both the UNP and the SLFP.
The SLFP had become a mere appendage of the UNP, whose performance did not measure up to public expectations. Mahinda launched the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in time for the Feb. 10 polls. Combat ready and primed for action, it was champing at the bit to take on the government.
On Feb. 10, 2018, the Rajapaksa juggernaut rolled on, crushing the UNP and the SLFP. The SLPP swept the polls. Having suffered a painful pratfall, stomached indignities at the hands of his political enemies, Mahinda was back with a vengeance.
The government has not yet recovered from the electoral body blow it suffered in Feb. and the SLFP and the UNP are blaming each other for the drubbing. But the yahapalana camp has not given up the fight. It has had the wolf by the ear. It cannot afford to loosen its grip and, therefore, is trying every trick in the book to put paid to the Rajapaksas’ all-out bid to recapture power at the national level. Among the measures it has adopted is a move to conduct non-stop trials against the bigwigs of the previous dispensation.
The proposed 20th Amendment, put forth by the JVP, to scrap the executive presidency has apparently caused a rift in the JO/SLPP. It has found favour with those who are riding on Mahinda’s coattails (or saataka). Those who have thrown in their lot with former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and want to make him the President have rejected the 20-A, out of hand as a move, aimed at facilitating the division of the country. However, the Rajapaksas’ recently put up a show of unity with Gotabaya visiting Mahinda’s political office in Battaramulla with Basil waiting there to welcome him.
President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are no political tenderfeet. Battle scared veterans, they count decades of experience. Ranil gave President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga a run for her money in the 1999 presidential race. He dislodged her government the following year by engineering mass crossovers and captured power in Parliament in 2001. He would have beaten Mahinda in the 2005 presidential election but for a polls boycott ordered by the LTTE in the areas under its control in the North and the East. Ten years later he ousted the war-winning President. Nobody knows what is up Sirisena’s sleeve either.
Mahinda has manifestly regained lost ground and consolidated a lead on the political front with an impressive electoral win.
The yahapalana constituents are ruining their chances of winning elections full time, both jointly and severally. But every minute counts in politics as in football as we saw in the FIFA World Cup match between Belgium and Japan, which had a two-goal lead but was beaten with two seconds to spare. Odds are stacked in his favour for the moment with the government bungling on all fronts and antagonizing the electorate. Politics is however full of uncertainties as in a roll and move game with squares containing traps and tricks. There are as many snakes as ladders in power politics. Whoever would have thought Mahinda, who trounced the UNP-led Opposition combine in the 2010 presidential race, would fall flat on his face five years later?
The SLPP’s performance at the next Provincial Council polls will reveal whether Mahinda has been able to sustain the momentum of the Feb. 10 victory and what the future holds for the new party and the ageing former President. As for the no holds barred political war between Mahinda and the rest, one may say, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”