Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a political rubber ball, in a manner of speaking; he has a remarkable ability to bounce back up after falls. He is given to lateral thinking and it is difficult to get inside his elusive mind and predict his moves. Most of all, he is not tired of waiting after defeats and making counterattacks when the time is opportune.

One year has elapsed since the launch of the Galle Face protest campaign or Aragalaya to oust Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa and thereby end the Rajapaksa family rule. Mahinda resigned as the Prime Minister last May, and Basil followed suit the following month. Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit in July, paving the way for the elevation of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to the presidency. The rest is history.

Now, speculation is rife in political circles that Mahinda is planning to return as the Prime Minister for a fourth time. Is there any truth in the rumor that he will have himself sworn in as the PM shortly? Some political observers said he would do so after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Or, is it yet another story that the SLPP is floating to unsettle its political enemies and divert public attention away from the real issues the people are beset with?

The story about a move to make Mahinda the PM again is however not without any basis. Some SLPP bigwigs, who have thrown in their lot with Mahinda, are all out to persuade him to secure the premiership, which, they think, is rightfully his, because he commands the confidence of the majority of the SLPP MPs. President Wickremesinghe’s UNP has only a single MP, and the MEP led by current Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has three MPs.

The SLPP appointed Wickremesinghe PM, last May, and then elected him President, two months later, for want of a better alternative. Angry people were out there in the streets to engineer a regime change, and the Rajapaksas, who had become hate figures, had to step down to pacify them. The SLPP expected President Wickremesinghe to do only three things, as SLPP National Organizer Basil Rajapaksa has told the media—strengthening the economy, restoring the rule of law and granting relief to the public. But he has chosen to do much more; he is consolidating his hold on power, and the UNP is all out to recover lost ground and prepare itself for future elections at the expense of the SLPP. Some of the ambitious SLPP MPs have not been appointed to the Cabinet. So, they are desperate to have their interests served and the only way to achieve that goal is to have an SLPP MP appointed the PM. They cannot think of anyone other than Mahinda for the post.

Mahinda has been the PM thrice so far. In 2004, the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed him the PM against her will because the SLFP stood by him solidly. The JVP, which was then a coalition partner of the SLFP-led UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) and had 39 MPs, also went all out to prevent him from securing the premiership. It wanted the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar appointed to that post, but its efforts were in vain due to pressure from the SLFP.

Having lost the presidency and re-entered the parliament in 2015, Mahinda became the PM again for a brief period in 2018, thanks to the then President Maithripala Sirisena’s abortive bid to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP government, and install an SLFP-led government. He served as the PM from 2020 to 2022 again before being ousted.

Political impact of SLPP move

Although Sri Lanka is said to have a presidential system, and the Executive President is extremely powerful, he or she becomes a mere figurehead, to all intents and purposes, unless his or her party has a parliamentary majority. Such a situation arose for the first time in 1994, when the SLFP-led PA (People’s Alliance) defeated the UNP at a general election and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became the Prime Minister. The then President D. B. Wijetunga (UNP) chose to maintain a very low profile and fully cooperated with PM Kumaratunga, who went on to become the President a few months later.

In 2001, the UNP-led UNF captured power in the parliament and began to undermine President Kumaratunga, whose PA had lost the 2001 snap general election. From January 2015 to January 2019, President Maithripala Sirisena, who did not have a parliamentary majority, had the UNP shortchanging him so much so that he tried to sack the UNF government in 2018 but without success. The current situation is unprecedented; neither the President’s party (UNP) nor that of the Prime Minister (MEP) has a parliamentary majority, and both are being propped up by a third party, the SLPP, which has lost both the coveted presidency and the premiership.

President Wickremesinghe is now constitutionally empowered to dissolve the parliament and this power may act like the Sword of Damocles for the ruling party MPs, who fear the prospect of facing an early general election. But it will plain political suicide for Wickremesinghe to dissolve the parliament at this juncture; the SLPP is bound to lose its parliamentary majority, and the chances of the UNP being able to improve its electoral performance significantly anytime soon are extremely remote. A Verite opinion poll has shown that the SLPP-UNP administration’s approval rating has plummeted to 10%.

Mahinda’s elevation to the premiership will have to be at the expense of incumbent PM Gunawardena. What will be Gunawardena’s reaction? In fact, he has already reacted to the rumor that he is going to lose his job. He has categorically stated that he will not step down under any circumstances. Despite his rhetoric, he will be left without any alternative but to step down if the SLPP asks him to do so. He cannot dictate terms to the SLPP, at whose mercy he finds himself. He cannot be unaware of this harsh political reality.

President Wickremesinghe’s position will also be greatly diminished in case Mahinda becomes the PM, for the majority of the government MPs will rally behind him (Mahinda), and the UNP will lose its political clout, and its efforts to revitalize itself will suffer a huge setback.

The economy is showing some signs of recovery, which, however, could turn out to be a false dawn unless the government gets it act together. Now that the government has ended Aragalaya under and gone on the offensive on the political front with the IMF having released the first tranche of its loan, the SLPP seems to think that it is out of danger and could revert to its old ways. But have the factors that led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government actually ceased to exist? And, most of all, how will the public, especially the youth, who took to the streets to get rid of the Rajapaksas, react if Mahinda makes a comeback as the PM?

The elevation of Mahinda as the PM will mean the return of the Rajapaksa family rule, which was considered the root cause of the ruination of the economy and the wellspring of all ills of the country. But President Wickremesinghe has effectively neutralized Aragalaya, and the Rajapaksas have benefited from his tough action, and are now seeking to consolidate their power. Whether they will succeed in their endeavor remains to be seen.







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