Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, in Greek mythology, rolls a boulder up a steep hill in Hades and every time he is about to reach the top the rock escapes his grasp and careens down, and he has to start all over again. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been saddled with a Sisyphean task in politics; he toils for years in an effort to secure the executive presidency only to have his hopes dashed. It is thought that he has been eyeing the much-coveted post since he became the Prime Minister following the assassination of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa in May 1993.
Ranil may have thought his path had been cleared at long last when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted in 2015 and newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena declared that he would not seek a second term, but unforeseen problems have cropped up on the political front besides his party’s humiliating defeat at the last local government polls.
Ranil’s onerous task
Ranil’s faithfulness to the Grand Old Party is not second to that of a European beaver to its partner. Elected a UNP MP at the age of 28, he has been with his party through thick and thin. He stood by it when it suffered the worst ever split in the early 1990s with several of its heavyweights being sacked for trying to impeach the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa. He has been the party leader since 1994 in spite of several attempts by his rivals to knock him off his perch.
Someone has rightly pointed out that Bear Gryll’s survival skills pale into insignificance in comparison to Ranil’s. Grylls of Man Vs Wild fame has to contend with struggles to survive in hostile terrains infested with ferocious beasts, but no wild creature is as dangerous as the smiling assassins in the jungle of politics. However, the methods Ranil has employed to retain the UNP leadership have taken a heavy toll on the party’s unity and demoralized aspiring second level leaders. It is, however, doubtful whether anyone else would have made much of a difference in the party as its leader, given the difficulties the UNP has faced during the last two and a half decades.
The debilitation of the UNP began with the assassinations of President Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. The SLFP revived after the UNP dissidents’ abortive attempt to impeach President Premadasa and the resultant split of the UNP, which led to the emergence of the Democratic United National Front (DUNF), led by Lalith and Gamini. The then Opposition made the most of the political turmoil Lalith’s assassination, in April 1993, plunged the country into and its campaign to capture power received a turbo boost from the assassination of President Premadasa shortly afterwards.
The UNP’s predicament stood Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) in good stead; she won the 1994 August general election for the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) and went on to become the President two months later following the Gamini’s assassination at a campaign rally. Ranil found himself in an unenviable position without party heavyweights to launch a counterattack. Gamini had settled his political scores with Ranil, weakening the latter’s position in the party greatly. The 1994 regime change dealt the UNP a body blow, and nobody expected the party to recover ever again. But Ranil took up the challenge.
The rank and file of the UNP expected Ranil to fight back as J. R. Jayewardene had done way back in 1977. But the conditions were totally different and the UNP was without formidable leaders to take on the SLFP. Ranil became increasingly dependent on a Colombo-based cabal consisting of his Royal College chums who were far removed from the socio-political realities at the grassroots level.
Worse, the UNP wanted Ranil to stand comparison with the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had consolidated the party’s power at the village level and in the urban areas alike. JRJ and Premadasa succeeded in bulldozing their way through and looking after the interests of the party’s rank and file because the SLFP was lying supine from 1977 to 1993. It was plain sailing for the two leaders save the tumultuous period of southern terrorism, which also helped them rig elections to remain in power. But, since 1994, when Ranil became the UNP leader it has been a different ball game. The SLFP has remained very formidable under strong leaders such as CBK and Mahinda. Mahinda is no longer the SLFP leader, but the JO and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, under his leadership, have dwarfed the UNP both politically and electorally.
What the UNP faced in November 1994 was not a presidential election but an electoral tsunami of sorts. CBK won even the Colombo Central electorate, the UNP bastion. Gamini had been assassinated and his widow, Sirima, was in the presidential fray and CBK won hands down. The UNP managed to win only the Mahiyangana electorate. Ranil had to rebuild the party virtually from scratch.
CBK won a series of staggered Provincial Council polls, some of which, like the one in the North-Western Province, were heavily rigged and marred by violence. Those electoral setbacks were used to make Ranil out to be what came to be known as a ‘serial loser’. True, the UNP has suffered many electoral defeats under his leadership, but the fact remains that most of them were staggered Provincial and Local government elections. The UNP lost the first national election, on his watch, in 1999, but under extraordinary circumstances. He unsuccessfully vied with CBK for the presidency. CBK almost on the eve of the presidential contest survived a terror strike and benefited from a massive sympathy vote much to Ranil’s disadvantage. The UNP also lost the general election the following year, but turned the tables on the SLFP-led People’s Alliance in 2001. Ranil was instrumental in engineering mass crossovers from the Kumaratunga government in spite of CBK’s victory. He even got the SLFP General Secretary S. B. Dissanayake to defect! It was no mean achievement for a political leader who had been written off as a loser.
Failed presidential bid – 2005
Ranil is a four-time PM—twice appointed (in May 1993 and January 2015) and twice elected (in December 2001 and August 2015). This is a rare feat, but he is apparently jinxed where the executive presidency is concerned. The UNP, under his stewardship, religiously fails at crucial national elections it faces before presidential polls and ruins his chances of securing the coveted presidency. He failed to manage his electoral gains following his party’s victory at the 2001 general election and, thereby, squandered his chances of becoming the President. His loss at the 2004 general election cost him the presidency the following year.
It is popularly thought that Ranil would have won the 2005 presidential election but for the polls boycott declared by the LTTE. The UNP has accused the Rajapaksas of having struck a deal with Prabhakaran and bribed the latter to prevent polling in the LTTE-held terrain. This allegation has not yet been proved. Prabhakaran did what he thought was good for the LTTE. He may have thought Ranil had international backing and, therefore, the LTTE would come under western pressure again to return to the negotiating table if Ranil became the President. The LTTE was desperate to resume war to prevent the morale of its combatants from sagging and, therefore, preferred a hawk to a dove as the President.
Ranil’s defeat, in the 2005 presidential race, was mainly due to the poor performance of his government between 2001 and 2004 and his failure to retain premiership. His ceasefire agreement with the LTTE cost him a lot of votes in the southern parts of the country. Prabhakaran made the most of the truce to consolidate his power in the North and the East and infiltrate the rest of the country; he readied himself for Eelam War IV. He moved big guns to the East and Palali and had the Trincomalee harbour and the vital northern airstrip within their range. His strategy was clear. He wanted to mount attacks on the port and the airstrip simultaneously and cut off supplies to the military, trap the troops in the North and bring the government to its knees. The LTTE walked away from negotiations, demanding what it called an internally self-governed administration while Ranil was still the PM.
Ranil has had to carry the UNP’s cross. The 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, under the J. R. Jayewardene government, whose supporters spearheaded the riots, alienated a lot of minority voters who had traditionally backed the UNP. One of the biggest challenges Ranil was faced with as the UNP leader was to repair his party’s image as a minority friendly outfit. This mission apparently made him labour under the delusion that he had to appease the LTTE, which even the TNA had declared the sole representative of the Tamils, if his party was to retain its minority friendly image. This proved to be a costly blunder. He was seen to be a weak leader incapable of safeguarding the country’s national security.
Ranil’s hands were tied as the PM because he was under international pressure to keep the peace talks going and the promised foreign aid did not come. The US-led Co-Chairs of Sri Lanka’s peace process used a USD 4.5 bn aid pledge as a carrot to make the UNP-led UNF government remain in the peace process. The UNF government boasted of an international safety net, which was only an illusion. The UNF government failed on both military and economic fronts much to the consternation of the public who had pinned their hopes on the UNP, widely thought to be a better manager of the economy than the SLFP.
There was neither war nor peace and the LTTE got time and space to regroup, retrain and rearm. Prabhakaran’s gain was Ranil’s loss. CBK, who had the UNF government undermining her, sacked it, citing national security reasons and won the 2004 general election. Mahinda became the Prime Minister and went on to become the President.
Blunders and miscalculations
Two Royalists are ruling the country today. The Colombo Royalist (Ranil), who represents the country’s political elite, would not have had to play second fiddle to his Polonnaruwa counterpart (President Maithripala Sirisena) but for his blunders and miscalculations on the political front.
The UNP never thought the war was winnable when Prabhakaran resumed hostilities by carrying out claymore mine attacks on the security forces personnel following Mahinda’s victory in 2005. It sided with the anti-war front and the Rajapaksa government accused it of trying to scuttle the war effort. Ranil gave free rein to some of his men to go to the extent of ridiculing the military operations. Lakshman Kiriella declared in Parliament that any fool could wage war and Ravi Karunanayake claimed the army had mistaken Medawachchi for Kilinochchi and Pamankada for Alimankada (Elephant Pass) while the troops were struggling to wrest control of the LTTE stronghold, Kilinochchi, and suffering heavy casualties. Ranil himself sought to belittle military victories; he told Parliament after the LTTE had been driven out of the Thoppigala area that the army had captured a jungle of no strategic importance.
So, when the LTTE was defeated, the UNP suffered a huge political setback on the political front. Had it but been all! President Rajapaksa declared a snap presidential election to make hay while the sun shines. Caught on the wrong foot, Ranil knew his chances of winning the presidency were as slim as that of snowball in hell. He knew that coming forward to challenge Mahinda at that juncture was plain political suicide.
With an ear to the ground, Ranil knows when to run away or go on the offensive. His strategy has paid off to some extent and helped him with his survival in politics, especially in the UNP. Gales may uproot mighty oaks but not reeds whose resilience consists in their flexibility. Ranil allowed the war-winning Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka, who had just retired, to be fielded as the common Opposition candidate. He only made a virtue of necessity and did himself a huge favour. Fonseka was no match for the Rajapaksa juggernaut. He badly lost. Ranil saved his skin.
Ranil lost two presidential elections, one in 1999 and the other in 2005. He ran away from presidential polls in 2010 and 2015.
Running away pays off
The UNP would not have agreed to back Sirisena as the presidential candidate in 2015 if it had thought it had the slightest chance of winning. It knew odds were stacked against it and Ranil realized that the gamble was not worth taking. He agreed to let Sirisena run for President on the strict condition that he would be appointed the PM if the latter won. He was lucky that Rajapaksa lost.
In 2010, the UNP was accused of backing Fonseka only half-heartedly. But, in 2015, Ranil threw his weight behind Sirisena because his party leadership was at stake. Not many thought President Rajapaksa could be ousted. His fall was mainly due to his own. With his family members and cronies around him, he needed no enemies. With the TNA and the SLMC ready to deliver block votes in addition to the UNP’s tradition vote bank, all that was needed to defeat Rajapaksa was a split in the so-called Sinhala Buddhist vote. It was simple arithmetic. His fate as the President was sealed the day Sirisena defected to the Opposition. Ranil was not a brand and Sirisena had the beginner’s luck, which worked
The credit for engineering Sirisena’s defection should go to CBK, who was all out to bring about Mahinda’s downfall. The then Opposition had the blessings of the foreign powers which the Rajapaksa government had antagonized by granting China the most favoured nation status in all but name. CBK and the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera were instrumental in cobbling together a coalition of strange bedfellows. Mahinda, ably assisted by his family and hangers on, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, so to speak, in January 2015. Ranil was appointed the PM upon Sirisena’s election as the President. The rest is history.
Securing a popular mandate to govern the country is one thing and delivering what it was asked for is quite another. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government bit off more than it could chew. It had raised the expectations of the public by making various promises to secure their support. It has not recovered from the massive pay hike it granted the public sector workers in a bid to win the August 2015 general election. Its 100-day programme was a success to some extent, but it did not yield the desired results as evident from the outcome of the parliamentary polls. The UNP failed to muster a working majority in the House though President Sirisena went all out to ruin the UPFA’s chances of winning as he wanted to prevent Rajapaksa from becoming the PM.
There is no love lost between President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe. They have been at daggers drawn since the 2015 parliamentary polls. The UNP has craftily clipped the President’s wings and reduced the executive presidency to a titular post for all practical purpose. It expected Sirisena to win the presidency, lie low and retire, but he is not willing to do so, much to its chagrin. The hurriedly drafted 19th Amendment to whittle down the powers of the presidency and prevent Rajapaksa from seeking another presidential term has been found to be seriously flawed. The JO now claims there is a gaping loophole in that amendment and Mahinda can run for President again.
‘Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are’. So goes a popular saying. It is also said a man is known by the company he keeps. President Rajapaksa surrounded himself with all sorts of crooks and incurred public opprobrium, which brought about his downfall. It is said that one can protect oneself against one’s enemies but only God can save one from one’s friends. PM Wickremesinghe is in a similar predicament. The Treasury bond scams carried out by his friend Arjuna Mahendran, whom he got appointed as the Central Bank Governor, has tarnished his Mr. Clean image irreparably. Mahendran’s escape has worsened the situation with the government being pressured to bring him back to stand trial. It is only too well known that Mahendran would not have been able to change the direct placement method to facilitate the bond scams without political backing. The JO is now demanding action against the masterminds of the bond scams.
The presidential probe into the bond scams has produced damning evidence which, if made known to the public in 2015, would have ruined the UNP’s chance of winning the last general election. President Sirisena sought to tame the UNP, which undermined him, with the bond probe. The UNP struck back. The President’s chief of staff I. H. K. Mahanama and State Timber Corporation Chairman Piyasena Dissanayake were arrested for having allegedly taken a bribe a few moons ago. Legal action has been instituted against them. Corruption within the ranks of the yahapalana government has given the lie to its claim that it is promoting good governance. The bond scams will continue to dog the UNP for a long time. The government can no longer take moral high ground.
A rocking logan
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday (21) survived a leadership challenge by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. But the thin narrow margin of his win (48-35) is expected to do little to dampen speculation about his future, according to media reports. Ranil has survived many such challenges.
Ranil’s political career has been like a logan. It looks about to fall anytime but keeps rocking without falling. Several have been the attempts to knock him off his perch. A political punching bag, Ranil has taken numerous jabs, hooks, crosses and uppercuts at the hands of many a political heavyweight without groaning or moaning. He has a remarkable ability to wear all pugilists out; he has the last laugh. But his luck runs out when it is needed most.
A prominent Buddhist monk has recently claimed that Ranil, at his wits’ end, once contemplated quitting politics and migrating, but some prelates prevailed on him to change his mind. Chief Incumbent of the Mirisawetiya Viharaya Ven. Ethawetunuwewe Dhanatilaka Thera recalled that Ranil had indicated his desire to hang up his boots and leave the country, but monks like the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera had intervened to prevent him from retiring from politics. Does Ranil get swayed by Buddhist monks’ exhortations? One may recall that in 2011, the Mahanayake Theras of the three Nikayas Intervened to settle a crippling dispute in the UNP and wrote to Ranil, urging him to hand over the reins of the party to Karu Jayasuriya while retaining the post of the Opposition Leader. The letter was signed by the Siyam Maha Nikaya Malwatte Chapter Mahanayake Ven. Thibotuwawe Siddhartha Sri Sumangala Thera, Asgiriya Chapter Mahanayake Thera Ven. Udugama Sri Buddharakkhitha Thera, Ramaggna Nikaya Mahanayake Thera Ven. Weweldeniye Medalanka Thera and Amarapura Nikaya Mahanayake Thera Ven. Dawuldena Gnanissara Thera.
Ranil never so much as acknowledged the prelates’ letter!
The marathon man at a crossroads
Ranil has survived a 40-year-long political marathon because he knows how to pace himself. He has finally reached a crossroads. He has to either give up or keep running. No turning back or running away is possible. He will have to grasp the nettle. If he avoids another presidential contest he will end up in the political wilderness.
The yahapalana camp is now in a dilemma with President Sirisena having succumbed to the lure of power and declared his desire for seeking a second term. The JO is sure to field a formidable candidate. Ranil may be hoping for a deus ex machina in the form of a split in the SLFP vote between Sirisena and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate, but the outcome of the last local government polls has shown that the SLFP is fast becoming a spent force under the current leadership. Worse, he has an unforeseen problem to contend with. Mahinda is girding up his loins. The JO/SLPP insists that he can contest the next presidential election.
In his rear view mirror, Ranil sees the Rajapaksa juggernaut bearing down. The going is getting tough for the UNP. Most of its promises remain unfulfilled and it is still reeling from the Feb. 10 electoral disaster. The government cannot go on postponing the Provincial Council elections indefinitely. The UNP has embarked on an ambitious rural development project called Gamperaliya in a bid to consolidate its power at the grassroots level. The Rajapaksa government launched far bigger projects which yielded impressive results but failed to prevent public resentment from finding expression in a massive protest vote.
Ranil is known for his lateral thinking and his remarkable ability to wriggle out of difficulties. Nobody believed him when he said in 2014, he would topple the seemingly monolithic Rajapaksa regime the following year. He possesses an elusive mind and what he has up his sleeve is difficult to guess. His very political survival being at stake, he will baulk at nothing to keep his enemies at bay. Will Lady Luck favour him this time around when he turns 70 next year?