Field Marshal Fonseka

Former war-winning Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka went ballistic in Parliament on Friday (08). He fired salvos one after the other at his former political bosses in the yahapalana government, which, he declared, had been a total failure. He said its two leaders had ruined the country. He made no revelation, though. Towards the end of that administration, the then President Maithripala Sirisena himself had realized how disastrous the yahapalana experiment had been; he betrayed the forces that had enabled him to achieve his presidential dream, smoked the peace pipe with the Rajapaksas, refrained from seeking a second term and threw in his lot with the SLPP.  

Why has Fonseka taken on Sirisena and Wickremesinghe at this juncture? Perhaps, he was provoked by the UNP’s attempts to eat into the SJB parliamentary group so that its leader, Wickremesinghe, could become the Opposition Leader.   

Fonseka’s condemnation of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe as total failures has come at a time when the government is struggling on all fronts, unable to make good on most of its promises. It has achieved some success in the country’s fight against Covid-19, but the war against the virus is far from over. It is too early to declare victory against it. Overall, there is hardly anything that the SLPP administration can flaunt as an achievement. It may not be fair to judge a government during an unprecedented health crisis, which has taken a heavy toll on the economy, but that is the way the cookie crumbles in politics.

What is the alternative?

As for Fonseka’s broadsides at Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, the real issue is not whether he is telling the truth about their performance as the President and the Prime Minister respectively or his criticism of the present government is valid; instead it is whether there is an alternative. Sri Lankans have reposed trust in several self-proclaimed messiahs, and elected them only to witness false dawns.  

The key indicators generally used to measure a government’s performance are economic growth, commodity prices, employment rate, people’s purchasing power, public security, literacy rate, public health, democratic wellbeing, the level of accountability, conduct of rulers, the ease of doing business, and, most of all, the quality of life. In some countries, Gross National Happiness is also used for this purpose. 

The leaders of the incumbent government have not been able to live up to public expectations, which they raised immensely during their Opposition days. They promised the people the moon, but have failed to deliver even a meteoroid, so to speak. Some essential commodities are in short supply due to the prevailing foreign exchange crunch, and the prices of imported goods have gone through the roof. Worse, the public feels that the government has let them down, given the manner in which a group of powerful rice millers are determining the prices of locally-grown rice; they have caused even the much-advertised maximum retail prices of rice to be abolished. The milk powder importers have also succeeded in jacking up the prices of their products, citing the depreciation of the rupee as the reason. The prices of many other products from cement to pharmaceuticals are bound to increase shortly unless the foreign exchange inflow improves significantly. Or, even if the rupee appreciates, the general price level could remain high owing to the phenomenon called ‘sticky prices’; the prices of most goods that go up do not return to the previous levels even when the causes of their increases cease to be.

Sri Lanka has found itself in crises due to government failures on several occasions in the past, but in such situations, alternatives to the administrations concerned emerged from within the ruling parties themselves or from the oppositional forces. In the late 1980s, when the road looked dead-ended for the J. R. Jayewardene government, the UNP offered Ranasinghe Premadasa as an alternative. Following the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, President D. B. Wijetunga stepped in to manage a mega crisis.  In 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike presented herself as an alternative, and in 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa came forward. The people pinned their hopes on Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, and turned to Gotabaya Rajapaksa about five years later.

SJB as an alternative?

Field Marshal Fonseka is obviously rooting for the SJB, and promoting it as the only alternative to the current government by bashing Wickremesinghe (UNP), and Sirisena (SLFP) while taking on the government. Otherwise, there is no reason why he should take on these two parties.

Ironically, all those who fell over themselves to share the credit for the 2015 regime change and the progressive actions of the yahapalana government such as the 19th Amendment, which however was not properly implemented, are now condemning that administration. It is said that victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.   

Most of those in the SJB were in the yahapalana government, which Fonseka says, was a total failure. Fonseka himself was a minister in that administration. So, the blame for the previous dispensation should be apportioned to all of them. Most of all, they were instrumental in having Sirisena elected as the President in 2015, and laying the foundation for the yahapalana government, which they dissociated themselves from at the last general election, and are now calling a disaster.

President Rajapaksa is already preparing for his reelection campaign, and Opposition and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa will be the SJB’s choice. The chances of either the SLFP or the UNP securing the presidency are remote. So, this brings us to the question; do the people consider Sajith as an alternative to President Rajapaksa? Or, in other words, is the country ready for Sajith as the President? What really matters is the opinion and perception of the general public, and not just the SJB supporters. There does not seem to be a clear answer to this question.

The SJB is facing some internal problems due to Premadasa’s leadership style and his wife’s alleged interference with the affairs of the party, according to its disgruntled members, many of whom have sided with SJB MP and former Minister Champika Ranawaka.

Speculation is rife in political circles that Champika might run for President; he is planning to be Sri Lanka’s Emmanuel Macron. His supporters are of the view that what Macron did in France is possible in this country as the people are fed up with all mainstream political parties. If what is being speculated plays out at the next presidential election, Sajith will have his work cut out with the SJB being split. Some of the nationalistic forces that supported Rajapaksa at the last presidential election are also likely to back Ranawaka.

It is very likely that the UNP also will contest the next presidential election although, as for its success, it has the same chance as a snowflake in hell. Even if it fails to vie with the SJB, it could poll a considerable number of votes, which would otherwise go to the SJB. Even a few thousand votes could make a difference in a tight presidential race.

Fonseka’s mistake

Perhaps, Fonseka could have offered himself as an alternative to the incumbent administration if not for his political miscalculations in 2010.

It was a huge mistake for Fonseka to pit himself against the then popular President Mahinda Rajapaksa, immediately after the war victory. He overestimated himself and was swayed by the political forces, which took cover behind him. If he had not contested that presidential election, and waited, he would perhaps have stood a better chance of successfully contesting the 2015 presidential election, as the Opposition’s common candidate. By leaving the army and challenging President Rajapaksa, he denied himself enough time to acclimatize himself to politics, and build his image as a civilian political leader. He was very popular as a military officer after the conclusion of the war. He became a much-sought-after public speaker because of the role he had played in the war as the wartime army commander. But he was not popular enough, as a politician, to defeat President Rajapaksa seeking a second term.

Has the Opposition also failed?

The Opposition, especially the SJB, is not functioning as an effective countervailing force against the government, which has chosen to act with restraint because of the pandemic and the attendant problems. Trade unions seem to be playing the Opposition’s role, holding as they do the government in check.

Why the SJB is training its guns on the UNP and the former yahapalana leaders is puzzling. It is the government they should take on if they want to gain any traction on the political front. By fighting among themselves, Opposition politicians are only keeping the government happy. They also seem to be laboring under the delusion that they could win elections with the help of social media campaigns or by creating events for the consumption of the mainstream media. Propaganda no doubt plays a vital role in politics but is no substitute for political activism to mobilize grassroots support. The SJB seniors have not wised up to this fact.



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