Political analysts and weather forecasters have one thing in common, the world over. Their predictions, more often than not, go wrong and they become objects of ridicule as a result. On the political front what looks like a mere storm in a tea cup initially could develop into a devastating tempest in next to no time and what starts off as a tornado may blow over sooner than expected.
Some political observers gave the nascent yahapalana coalition only three months, but it has lasted for more than three years in spite of all its internal and external problems. This has emboldened some commentators, sympathetic to the government, to predict that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration will complete its full term. There is no guarantee that they, too, won’t be proved wrong. Politics is full of glorious uncertainties. The 19th Amendment has taken away the President’s carte blanche to dissolve Parliament for no rhyme or reason after one year of its formation. But, the possibility of crossovers triggering a realignment of political forces in the present Parliament cannot be ruled out.
The current year is crucial for all political parties, especially the UNP, the SLFP and the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna). One may consider what is unfolding at present as the run-up to the much-delayed local government polls, but there is more to it than meets the eye. What we are witnessing is also the preliminary stage of the next presidential race. President Maithripala Sirisena jumped the gun when he asked the Supreme Court whether the length of his current term was five or six years. The court held that his was a five-year term. That seemingly ill-advised move has come to be viewed as an attempt on his part to stay in power for six years in spite of his much publicised claim that he has sacrificed one year of his term ‘unlike any other head of state’.
As for the next presidential polls, President Sirisena has thrown his hat into the ring by proxy. Some of his loyalists have indicated that he will seek a second term. On Jan. 21, Minister Wijithamuni Soysa said something to that effect at a UPFA rally with President Sirisena presiding. Minister Mahinda Amaraweera declared at a media briefing a few months ago that the best presidential candidate the SLFP could think of was President Sirisena. Meanwhile, Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam threw Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s hat into the ring, so to speak. He said at a UNP meeting in Nikaweratiya also on Jan. 21 that the UNP had to work hard and secure the control of local government institutions and the provincial councils so as to enable Wickremesinghe to reach the highest position in the country. The JO has not yet declared who its presidential candidate will be. But, former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is widely thought to be its choice. Its presidential election has, however, begun to all intents and purposes, through various seminars etc.
President Sirisena is apparently exercising some prudence. He has not put all his eggs in the local government polls basket, the safety of which he is not sure of. He has already launched a national campaign against corruption. He says he will bow out of politics after ensuring that all crooks go to hell, of all places. Never mind facilitating their trip to the netherworld, even the task of sending a few of them to jail will take much longer than two more years and he will have to be in power to achieve that goal. Thus, the President has shrewdly embarked on a mission which he can use to justify seeking a second term regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming polls. The problem with power is that once you savour it you cannot give it up easily.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has unveiled his economic vision. He is not apparently keen to flog the issue of corruption maybe because the yahapalana government has failed to make good on its promise to bring all corrupt politicians in the previous government to justice. Worse, the bond scam has irreparably dented the UNP’s anti-corruption credentials. President Sirisena has sought to cut the ground from under the PM’s feet by taking over economic management. Should the President do so, the PM would be like a cavalryman without a warhorse. How can he achieve the lofty goals envisaged in Vision 2025 without control over the national economy? The President twisted the knife on Monday. Addressing a UPFA rally in Kandy he called upon the PM to help him battle corruption without weakening his position.
But, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has not resorted to such unkind cuts, as it were. He doesn’t take on the President in public; he always strikes a conciliatory note, which, however, can be deceptive. (The same cannot be said of the UNP MPs who fling barbs at the President.) The PM shouldn’t be underestimated, though. He is known for his lateral thinking and is made of sterner stuff. Not many thought he would make so dramatic a comeback in 2015 after the infamous Sirikotha riots of 2013 with some big guns going all out to oust him. He is not tired of waiting—at times, to the point of his backers’ patience wearing thin.
The yahapalana bigwigs are busy papering over cracks. Even the President and the Prime Minister try to make light of the situation the yahapalana government finds itself in, nay paint a rosy picture of it. But, their differences are palpable and bound to come to a head with the passage of time. Most of all, there are no permanent friends or enemies in power politics.
The JO could have capitalized on the internal problems of the ruling coalition and public consternation stemming from people’s economic woes and unfulfilled election promises but for the presence of some hate figures within its ranks. Serious allegations and court cases against them have alienated many a voter. The fact that they don’t seem to feel any remorse at what they did while in power is a negative factor which is sure to take its toll on the SLPP’s electoral performance. On the other hand, the government is still digging into their past. And, politically speaking, the chances are that it might hit pay dirt. But, the UNP has forfeited its moral right to continue with its anti-corruption crusade thanks to the total mishandling of the bond scam.
The JVP’s plans have gone awry. It welcomed the coming together of the UNP and the SLFP in the hope that both parties would become unpopular and it would be able to capitalize on the situation and offer itself as an alternative to the two main parties. It, however, did not bargain for dissension within the SLFP much less the emergence of the JO as a formidable political force. It made a bad mistake by accepting the post of Chief Opposition Whip and getting bracketed with the pro-government TNA as a result. It has now come to be called a part of what its opponents call the yahapalana Opposition. Its close rapport with the UNP has provided grist for its enemies’ mill. With its involvement with the National Executive Council formed by the UNP-SLFP coalition government formed to implement its 100-day programme, it came to be identified with the establishment in the process. This is something a Marxist outfit cannot live down as can be seen from the experience of the traditional left. If the JVP thinks it can shore up its image by taking on the President and calling upon the PM to resign over the bond scams, it is mistaken.
The TNA has reduced itself to a single-issue party. It is preoccupied with ways and means of gaining more devolution if not federalism. Its liaison with the ruling coalition and maniacal focus on devolution much to the neglect of the burning issues of the people in the North and the East, have done no good. Some of its constituents have voted with their feet in a huff. It may be without formidable challenges to its supremacy at present but internal disputes and emerging resistance don’t augur well for its future. Constant dropping is said to wear away a stone.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa got it right when he said the upcoming local government polls would be a referendum. But, it won’t be a referendum on the performance of the government alone. All parties including the SLPP will be put to the test come Feb. 10. It looks like we are in for interesting times with politics taking precedence over everything else.