President Maithripala Sirisena and his immediate predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa are busy ruining things for themselves, in politics, albeit unknowingly. Their parties, the SLFP and the SLPP, are set to pit themselves against each other, at the next presidential election. They are already on a collision course. The Rajapaksa family wants one of its members to run for President, and Gotabaya has already thrown his hat into the ring. It is a case of Hobson’s choice for other family members. President Sirisena has been conducting his presidential election campaign all these weeks, if not months. Neither he nor Gotabaya is likely to opt out of the contest to pave way for the coming together of the SLFP and the SLPP.
The SLPP and the SLFP/UPFA have had several rounds of talks in a bid to forge a broader alliance to take on the UNP, secure the presidency and wrest control of Parliament, but they have not been able to reach an agreement as regards the next presidential election. They have chosen to pussyfoot around the most contentious issue, which is the presidential candidate to be fielded in case of the proposed broad front coming into being. They will have to grasp the nettle sooner or later. Their alliance looks doomed from the start.
The SLFP’s position is that it is the incumbent President who should run for President while the SLPP is of the view that Gotabaya stands a better chance of winning as the war-time Defence Secretary and former top bureaucrat known for his ruthless efficiency. These arguments and counter-arguments boil down to the fact that there have emerged two power centres in the anti-UNP camp, one represented by the President and the other by the Rajapaksas. What we are witnessing is a clash of these two power centres. Within the SLPP, too, one can see the signs of an alternative power centre emerging; prominent members of the new party are rallying behind Gotabaya because Mahinda cannot contest a presidential election again.
The SLFP/UPFA and the SLPP are still honeymooning, having made an abortive bid to grab power last October. They have joined forces against their mutual enemy, the UNP, but are unable to iron out their differences. President Sirisena has burnt the bridges as regards the UNP and has no way they can kiss and make up again. The UNP has decided to field its own presidential candidate, who is likely to be its leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
But the possibility of the UNP having to field another candidate cannot be ruled out. It may be recalled that SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem has gone on record as saying that the UNP should field a young presidential candidate. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who turned 70 recently, cannot be considered young by any stretch of the imagination. The same goes for Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who is 78 years old. So, the person Hakeem has in mind should be someone else. Who is he? Is it Deputy UNP leader Sajith Premadasa?
President Sirisena in Overdrive
President Sirisena is making the most of his campaign against narcotics. On Wednesday, he took it to the next level by taking an oath, together with other government leaders, public officials and students, to rid the country of dangerous drugs. Campaigning on an anti-narcotic platform, he will ask the public to re-elect him if they want the drug menace eliminated root and branch. He has managed to shore up his crumbling image and get over the so-called wimp factor. He is projecting himself as a strong leader capable of facing threats the country faces. He has taken a tough stand on the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka and sought to get the credit for Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana’s impressive presentation in Geneva, recently.
The ongoing successful drug busting operations have warmed the cockles of many a heart. It has apparently gone down well with mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. Women account for more than one half of the Sri Lankan population. However, whether President Sirisena will be able to secure a second term with the help of a single-issue campaign is in doubt. His war on drugs may help him gain some political mileage but not to the extent of enabling him win a presidential election. However, he can remain a force to be reckoned with till the end of his first term without being written off as a lame-duck President.
The news of Gotabaya having received the blessings of the former ruling family to come forward as the SLPP’s presidential candidate has upset the TNA, some of whose prominent members have vowed to ensure his defeat. TNA MP S. Sritharan lost no time in telling the media, on March 27, in the Vanni that his party would go all out to put paid to the efforts being made by the Rajapaksas to make a comeback.
The TNA has other political parties and groups eating into its traditional support base, but it can deliver a massive block vote to a presidential candidate of its choice. Sirisena’s upet win in the 2015 presidential race would not have been possible but for the TNA’s unstinted backing. The TNA ensured that he polled more than 75% of votes in its strongholds. The SLMC and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) led by Minister Rishad Bathiudeen also have block votes at their disposal and the UNP candidate will benefit from them. The votes of the majority community are now divided among the UNP, the SLPP, the SLFP and the JVP and the candidate who can enlist the support of the TNA, SLMC and the ACMC will have an edge on others in the presidential race.
The uphill task before Gotabaya is to poll enough votes without the backing of the TNA, the SLMC, the ACMC and, perhaps even the CWC, to clear the 50% mark. Mahinda achieved this task in 2010, when the war victory generated a massive swing vote in his favour. Is Gotabaya equal to the task? In the case of Mahinda, he had his party, the SLFP and its UPFA allies solidly behind him and there was no split in the anti-UNP vote. But Gotabaya will have to face, in the race, President Sirisena, who will bag a sizable chunk of the anti-UNP vote much to the advantage of the UNP candidate. This is a worrisome proposition for the SLPP and Gotabaya, who cannot be unaware of this situation.
Geneva and TNA
The TNA is in a tight spot. One of its main campaign promises was to have a hybrid tribunal set up with foreign judges and prosecutors to probe the alleged war crimes. It was banking on the UNF government to grant its wish, but the latter has only asked for and got two more years to fulfil its Geneva commitments. Foreign Minister Tilak Marapna told the UNHRC in no uncertain terms recently that there was no room for a hybrid court in Sri Lanka. This position runs counter to what the government agreed to in Geneva in 2015, when it co-sponsored the UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 01 Oct. 2015, which calls for a war crimes probe mechanism with the participation of foreign judges, lawyers and prosecutors.
There is no guarantee that the TNA will be able to have a hybrid tribunal set up in two years. The UNF seems to have acted craftily. Maranapana’s speech, in Geneva, has gone down well with those who are opposed to the Geneva resolution at issue and the TNA has been given a choice between waiting for two more years and breaking ranks with the government. If it leaves the government, the SLPP will stand to gain and this is the last thing it wants. After all, the TNA has said that it will go all out to prevent the Rajapaksas from capturing power again. So, it is likely to back the UNF at the next presidential election for want of a better alternative. Some Tamil politicians have said they are planning to field a Tamil presidential candidate this time around, but the TNA will not agree to do so.
A flash in the pan
The Joint Opposition was cock-a-hoop last week, after defeating the expenditure heads of the ministries of Vajira Abeywardene and Champika Ranawaka. The government never expected a division to be called at the committee stage of the budget debate. Chief Government Whip and Minister Lakshman Kiriella has accused the JO of having acted in breach of an agreement reached at the party leaders’ meeting that the expenditure heads would not be put to the vote. He may be telling the truth, but in politics there are no gentlemen’s agreements, for no gentlemen take to politics these days; we have politicians, who act out of expediency and not principle. This is the name of the game in parliamentary politics, where anything goes. An opportunity presented itself and the JO seized it to embarrass the government.
There was a serious lapse on the part of the government. It should have known better than to repose its faith in the JO, which is all out to engineer its downfall. Its failure to ensure that there would be enough of its members present in the House in anticipation of trouble is unpardonable. The government also has no one but itself to blame for failing to prevent its backbenchers from settling scores with some ministers at the expense of the interests of the party. Several members of the UNP ginger group had warned that they would not support the expenditure heads of some ministries. The government should have taken their warning seriously and adopted precautionary measures.
It is being argued in some quarters that Minister Champika Ranawaka had praised Speaker Karu Jayasuriya a few days back and the UNP MPs loyal to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did not take kindly to his remarks and allowed his expenditures heads to be defeated to teach him a lesson. But the fact remains that some of the expenditure heads of Ranil loyalist Vajira Abeywardena were also shot down. The JO has sought to drive in the wedge by claiming that they had the backing of some UNP backbenchers to do what it did in Parliament, but this claim is to be taken with a pinch of salt.
What happened, in our opinion, is that the government allowed itself to be lulled into complacency. The JO grabbed the opportunity and succeeded in embarrassing its rivals. The UPFA/JO cannot muster a simple majority in Parliament as the TNA has sided with the UNF. The Opposition can only bellow rhetoric to gain publicity, but the government is strong in Parliament though it is wary of facing election and its popularity is on the wane.
Today, the final vote is scheduled to be taken on the budget 2019, in Parliament, and the JO-UPFA combine, which has threatened to shoot it down, will have to do so if it is not to be left with egg on its face. Nothing short of a miracle will help it achieve its objective, without a simple majority in the House.