The significance of Basil Rajapaksa’s recent entry into the parliament may not have been lost on keen political observers. His swearing-in marked the culmination of a series of political events and processes triggered by the January 2015 regime change. His appointment as a National List MP came close on the heels of that of Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was instrumental in toppling the Rajapaksa government in 2015. Today, Ranil is in the Opposition as an appointed MP, having failed to get elected, and Basil a powerful minister.

As for the National List appointments, Basil is different from Ranil in that the former opted not to contest the last general election as he did not want to give up his US citizenship; the Constitution prior to the enactment of the 20th Amendment, debarred dual citizens from contesting parliamentary and presidential elections.

The 75-year-old UNP has been left with a single National List seat, and the five-year-old SLPP has obtained 145 seats in the 225-member parliament!

At the time of being ousted, the previous Rajapaksa government had a two-thirds majority (144 UPFA MPs plus crossovers) in the parliament. Today, the Rajapaksa family has gained more both politically and electorally; previously, its members held the presidency, the post of Speaker and several key Cabinet portfolios. Currently, one of them has secured the presidency and another the premiership; several other Rajapaksas are holding key Cabinet posts. They have allowed an outsider to becomethe Speaker because former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa opted for a Cabinet post.

The Rajapaksas have thus cemented their power once again. The chief architects of the yahapalana revolution find themselves in worse positions than they did beforethe 2015 regime change.

Sirisena’s dilemma

Maithripala Sirisena’s exit from the Mahinda Rajapaksa government had more to do with political expediency than principle. That he was eyeing the premiership was no secret. It is believed that he could not achieve his goal because of Basil, who did not want anyone else to secure that post, and thereby become the presidential candidateinwaiting. The then Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne did not have much politics left in him, and therefore, was not considered a threat to the interests of the ruling family.

Sirisena knew he could not rise above the Cabinet level in a Rajapaksa government, and also felt he was being short-changed as the SLFP General Secretary; some vital decisions on the party affairs were taken without his knowledge. When push came to shove, he decamped together with several other UPFA MPs and went on to become the President. Thereafter, he brought down the Rajapaksa government, appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe the Prime Minister, in keeping with his pact with the UNP, grabbed the SLFP leadership, and prevented the SLFP-led UPFA from winning the 2015 general election so as to prevent Mahinda from making a comeback as the Prime Minister. Basil was arrested and remanded. So were some other members of the Rajapaksa family.

Today, Sirisena, who left a Rajapaksa administration because he had been denied the premiership, is again in agovernment run by the Rajapaksa family. He has chosen to remain an ordinary MP. He has some bargaining power as the leader of the SLFP, which has 14 MPs in the SLPP parliamentary group, but cannot leverage his party’sstrength to win any demands because he is dependent on the President to prevent legal action being taken against him over the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The Easter Sunday Presidential Commission of Inquiry report, which recommends that he be prosecuted, has become the sword of Damocles for him. If he tries to break ranks with the government, he may have to face prosecution. The Catholic Church, on Tuesday (13/07) called upon the government once again to have Sirisena prosecuted. The Rajapaksas hold the whip hand, and Sirisena is at their mercy. The SLFP has chosen to comply and complain while declaring, for the consumption of its constituency, that it is planning to form the next government under its own steam.  

However, Sirisena played his cards well towards the latter part of his presidential term. He discovered which way the political wind was blowing after the 2018 local government polls, which the SLPP swept, and sided with the Rajapaksa family, and even went so far as to dislodge the yahapalana government. It was a clever move where his political future was concerned. He appointed Mahinda the Prime Minister arbitrarily. It was an irony that theperson who reportedly refused to appoint Sirisena the PM while he was the President happened to be sworn in as the PM before President Sirisena! The hurriedly formed government fell, unable to muster a simple majority in the House and due to a Supreme Court order in favour of the UNF, but Sirisena gained politically in that he managed to make peace with the Rajapaksa family. Thus, he insured himself against possible hostile action by the Rajapaksas.

Ranil and the UNP

The UNP-led UNF won 60 seats in the 2010 general election as opposed to the UPFA’s 144. Some of its MPs crossed over to the Rajapaksa administrationsubsequently, but it succeeded in turning the tables on the UPFA, with the help of President Sirisena, and obtaining 106 seats and forming a government by enlisting the support of some minority parties.

Ranil polled more than 500,000 preferential votes from the Colombo District in the 2015 parliamentary election and became the de facto President after having some of the executive powers of President Sirisenacurtailed. Usually, the Prime Minister becomes more powerful than the President when they happen to represent two different parties.

The total number of votes the entire UNP polled in the 2020 general election was less than 50% of thepreferential votes Ranil secured from the Colombo District in 2015! It could get only 249,435 votescountrywide and was left with only one National List slot. In other words, five years after the yahapalana revolution, which catapulted the UNP to power, the party suffered its worst ever defeat.

The reasons for the UNP’s crushing defeat were many. They included the Treasury bond scandal, the Easter Sunday bombings, threats to national security, theinternecine clashes between the Prime Minister and the President, and the disastrous breakaway of the Sajith faction, which contested the 2020 general election as the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and secured 54 seats. Overall, the UNP’s defeat was due to the blatant mismanagement of its electoral fortunes. Its recovery in the foreseeable future will not be within the realm of possibility unless it finds a new leader. The benefit of the incumbent government losing its popularity will accrue to the SJB and not the UNP under Ranil’s leadership. Speculation is rife in political circles that Ranil is trying to grab the post of the Opposition Leader by winning over the SJB MPs who are not happy with Sajith Premadasa’s leadership, but it is an uphill task.

Lesson unlearnt?

The SLPP with Basil aboard now resembles the UPFAgovernment between 2010 and 2015. The Rajapakasa family holds most of the vital ministerial posts, and others have little or no say in the affairs of the government andthe party. A considerable number of SLPP MPs are disgruntled and expressing their dissent openly.

The SLPP has taken on the SLFP, and is even daring the latter to leave the government. Prime MinisterRajapaksa recently issued a severe warning to the SLPP dissidents who dislike Basil. He said anyone who was not happy with the way the government was conducting its affairs could leave, and anyone who was desirous of joining the government was free to do so. He said the current administration had a swing door, which opened both ways. Some SLPP MPs including the party General Secretary, Sagara Kariyawasam, are belittling the SLFPmembers in the government parliamentary group at every turn. The SLPP is courting trouble the way the UPFA did between 2010 to 2015.

Neither the SLPP dissident group nor the SLFP is however in a position to leave the governmentimmediately. Both of them will have to stomach all indignities at the hands of the SLPP leadership becausedecamping at this juncture is tantamount to plain political suicide. But the frustration of the SLPP dissidents could find expression in various other ways, and they are likely to make their moves when the next general election is around the corner.

The common denominator in the previous Rajapaksa government (2010-15) and the yahapalana administration (2015-2019) was that they failed to manage their electoral gains properly. The incumbent SLPP administration does not look different from the previous Rajapaksa government if the manner in which it is conducting its affairs and its stalwarts are treating the party dissidents is any indication.

The SLPP has had an ascent like a hot-air balloon during the past few years, and whether it will remain afloat or face a rapid descent depends on how it performs on several fronts and handles its internal affairs. Besides, it has to prevail in the country’s war against coronavirus, revive the battered economy and fulfil its election pledges.

As of now, the government seems to have a bumpy ride ahead, and what kind of impact Basil’s entry into Parliament will have on the SLPP’s group dynamics remains to be seen.


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