Speculation is rife in political circles that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP, will be reappointed Prime Minister soon. The SLPP has chosen to remain silent on rumors to that effect, and Mahinda gives evasive answers when journalists ask him whether he will return as the PM. Other government leaders respond likewise and keep the public in suspense.

Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena must be having sleepless nights, unable to resign himself to the possibility of losing the coveted premiership.

Political escapology

Mahinda is a talented political escapologist, in a manner of speaking. His ability to escape from restraints and other such traps on the political front is really amazing, whether one likes him or not. He has done a Houdini on several occasions.

When Mahinda lost his parliamentary seat at the 1977 general election, having become an MP when he was wet behind the ears, it was thought that he would not make it to national politics. It took him 12 long years to re-enter the parliament, and his comeback became possible due to his human rights campaign during the second JVP uprising and the brutal counter terror sprees carried out by the governments of President J. R. Jayewardene and President Ranasinghe Premadasa. He won all general elections thereafter. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga did everything in her power to block his path, but he succeeded in outfoxing her, and securing the premiership in 2004 and the presidency the following year.

When President Rajapaksa’s re-election bid failed in 2015, his friends and foes thought it was curtains for him politically, but he made a comeback like Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), the frontiersman, in the Hollywood super flick, The Revenant, and became the Prime Minister before resigning owing to mass protests, last year.

A ruse or possibility?

The possibility of the government floating a rumor to divert public attention from its failure to tackle the current economic crisis, and the cancellation of the local government elections cannot be ruled out. Likewise, now that there has emerged a semblance of political stability, the Rajapaksa family may be trying to consolidate their hold on power by installing Mahinda as the PM to further its interests, especially in view of the next presidential election.

The UNP has already declared that President Ranil Wickremesinghe will be its presidential candidate, and this cannot be to the liking of the Rajapaksas, who do not want anyone other than one of its members to be the next President. They cannot groom one of them as the presidential candidate without gaining direct control of the government. President Wickremesinghe now has power to dissolve the parliament at a time of his choosing, and is expected to call a snap presidential election. So, the Rajapaksa family may be planning to secure the premiership as soon as possible.

Group dynamics of govt.

If Mahinda becomes the PM, he will become more powerful than President Wickremesinghe by virtue of controlling the SLPP’s parliamentary group. Prime Minister Gunawardena, who has only three seats in the parliament, has been left with no alternative but to play second fiddle to President Wickremesinghe. In fact, thanks to the 21st Amendment, President Wickremesinghe will be reduced to a mere figurehead in case of Mahinda becoming the PM because the UNP has only a single seat in the parliament. The President’s position is weaker than that of President Maithripala Sirisena during the Yahapalana government; Sirisena had about 40 UPFA MPs on his side, and subsequently managed to close ranks with the dissident UPFA MPs as well. The UPFA had 95 seats in the last parliament.

President Kumaratunga had her position undermined by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from 2001 to 2004, when she dissolved the parliament and regained its control by winning the general election that followed. President D. B. Wijetunga also faced a similar situation when Kumaratunga became the Prime Minister in 1994, but they got along well, and the latter became the President a few months later.

President prefer weak PMs

All Presidents prefer to have weak Prime Ministers, and there were only two exceptions. President Jayewardene had to appoint Ranasinghe Premadasa PM due to party pressure, and President Kumaratunga also could not deny the premiership to Mahinda as he had the backing of all SLFP stalwarts.

Prime Ministers are known to have presidential ambitions, and this is why Basil Rajapaksa prevented Maithripala Sirisena from being appointed PM in the previous Rajapaksa government. Sirisena voted with his feet, and went on to become the President.

 Mahinda cannot contest the next presidential election for obvious reasons, but he will be able to overshadow Wickremesinghe to the point of making it possible for a member of the Rajapaksa family to be groomed as the presidential candidate. Such an arrangement will certainly be a huge obstacle in the path of President Wickremesinghe if he is planning to enlist the support of the SLPP at the next presidential election, for the UNP is far too weak to go it alone even at the local government polls.

Possible fallouts

A host of factors led to mass protests, which came to be dubbed as ‘Aragalaya’ and the resignation of Mahinda as the PM, last year, are still there. The economy is far from stable, and the cost of living has gone through the roof. Huge tax and tariff increases have driven workers to conduct street protests. The situation remains volatile in the polity. Agitations are likely to erupt again in case of Mahinda being sworn in as the PM, providing a massive boost to the Opposition, especially the JVP.

President Wickremesinghe has gotten tough with protesters, and does not hesitate to deploy the police and the army to crush the Opposition’s agitations. But if protests erupt across the country at the same time, the government will not be able to quell it easily.

PM Gunawardena is a silent partner, and the anti-Chinese forces do not consider him a threat to their interests. But how the US-led western bloc and India will react if Mahinda is reappointed PM remains to be seen. He is widely considered pro-Chinese, and the US keeps the IMF under its thumb, and will not hesitate to make the Sri Lankan economy scream if he returns as the PM, undermining pro-Western Wickremesinghe. This is the last thing the government and the country want at this juncture, but politicians thirsting for power are impervious to reason and reality.








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