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Sri Lanka: The Bring Back Mahinda

Campaign Analysis

Sri Lanka's Mahinda Rajapaksa, File photo.

By Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan-June 18, 2015


Sri Lankas former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by the
incumbent Maithripala Sirisena fair and square in the January 2015
presidential election. Yet, Rajapaksa is not convinced that he has lost the
election because he still retains overwhelming support within the Sinhala
community. Therefore, instead of retiring from active politics and enjoying
his retirement benefits, he continue to be in a state of semi-retirement.
Now, he seems to be coming out of the semi-retirement and engaging in
active politics. A couple of days back he declared that he will continue to
fight for his people, even if he is thrown into jail.

Opposition Leader?
Originally, Rajapaksa and his supporters wanted him to be appointed the
prime ministerial candidate of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA)
in the forthcoming parliamentary election. This seems like a distant dream.
While retaining the demand, Rajapaksa now performs tasks of the
opposition leader, unofficially. He criticizes the president (and segment of)
the government headed by the United National Party (UNP). In a way, he is
performing an important task because, as of today, it is not clear who is the
real opposition leader. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is in the
government, as well as the opposition. Recently, Rajapaksa criticized the
government for removing military camps and downsizing the military
presence in the Northern Province, the predominantly Tamil region. He will
continue this role until parliament is dissolved and fresh elections are held.
His strategies could change with the new election.
What does Rajapaksas active politics mean for him and the country?
Ideally, Rajapaksa would like to be the president. This became impossible
with the introduction of the 19th Amendment to the constitution. The
Amendment reintroduced the two-term limit. Within the legal framework of
the country, the best Rajapaksa could achieve is the premiership.
Rajapaksa supporters are organizing a series of meetings, the so called
bring back Mahinda rallies, to demonstrate that he has adequate support
within the Sinhala community to become the prime minister and to force
the president, the leader of the SLFP, to appoint him the prime ministerial
candidate. Now, it is clear that Rajapaksa openly encourages these
meetings.

Peace Talks
Defying orders of the present leadership of the party, an increasing number
of SLFP parliamentarians are attending the Rajapaksa meetings. It is
reported that more than 70 parliamentarians from the UPFA attended the
Matara rally. Most of them should be from the SLFP. This clearly
demonstrates the challenges President Sirisena faces in retaining complete
control over his party. The Rajapaksa rallies and demonstrations also place
Sirisena under tremendous pressure.

Succumbing to this pressure, Sirisena met Rajapaksa for a peace talk.


Insiders say, Rajapaksa demanded the premiership.
A significant aspect of the meeting was that it imparted the impression that
two equal parties were meeting. For example, a round table was used for
the talks. It is not clear whether the use of a round table was accidental
or demanded by the former president. This author wouldnt be surprised if it
was indeed demanded by the Rajapaksa group. The shape of the table has
a meaning in relation to the status of the parties that are meeting. If it was
intentional, Rajapaksa still believes that he is equal to the president of the
country. This author is also not sure if Rajapaksa ever treated former
president Kumaratunga as an equal after he became the president.
The Rajapaksa-Sirisena meeting produced no results. It however, elevated
the status and confidence of the former president. Rajapaksa was supposed
to be a mere retired president; not a political heavy-weight. Rajapaksas
criticism of the president and the government have become vocal in the
post-meeting period. Now, the president has appointed a committee to
coordinate with Rajapaksa. This confirms the significance of the Rajapaksa
factor as he cannot be simply ignored. Instead of taking on the Rajapaksa
challenge, President Sirisena seems to be exposing his weaknesses. This
will further embolden the former president and will further elevate his
status. Sirisena believes that he can retain unity of and control over the
party by appeasing Rajapaksa. He is unlikely to succeed because Rajapaksa
will bring more pressure on the president.
Can Rajapaksa achieve anything substantial politically with his present
strategy of challenging the president? It is doubtful. Rajapaksa has two
major problems. First, the constitution will work against Rajapaksas
aspirations. He cannot become the president again. Also, despite the
introduction of the 19th Amendment, the president retains the power to
appoint the prime minister. Even if Rajapaksa contests the next election
and enter parliament and have enough members of parliament to support
him, ultimately, it is the president who appoints the prime minister.
Sirisena, is smart enough to comprehend the dangers of appointing
Rajapaksa as the prime minister. It would be suicidal. Therefore, Sirisena
will not appoint Rajapaksa as the SLFPs prime ministerial candidate. He
was clear about that.

The only option available to Rajapaksa is to lead his own party and contest
the next parliamentary election. This is where Rajapaksa has his second
problem. He is too loyal to his party, the SLFP. Since he is so committed to
the SLFP, he will not easily decide to formally split the SLFP. Recently,
Rajapaksa blamed other SLFP leaders for dividing the party. This is an
indication that leading a separate political entity in the general election will
be the last option. To form his own party, Rajapaksa needs to break the
SLFP and take a substantial number of its members away. Either way, he
cannot continue his present strategy for too long. Once parliament is
dissolved, Rajapaksa will be forced to decide whether he can continue to
stay in the background and encourage dissidents of the SLFP or take a
direct role in leading his group.
Also, even for Rajapaksa supporters, it is not clear if they can win enough
seats to form a government without the SLFPs electoral machinery. The
machinery is controlled by Sirisena or the group loyal to him. Therefore, at
this point in time, one may assume that the chances for Rajapaksa to lead a
separate group in the general election is very remote. Rajapaksa is simply
trying to bring the SLFP under his control, which he believes will allow him
to form the next government.

Consequences
Although, Rajapaksas present strategies have complicated the political
milieu in the country, the consequences are relatively clear. First,
Rajapaksas actions have seriously divided the SLFP. Now there are two
major factions within the party; the Rajapaksa faction and the Sirisena
faction. Despite President Sirisenas attempts to forge greater unity within
the party, it will face the election as a divided entity. This, on the other
hand, should benefit the UNP. Therefore, in an immediate parliamentary
election the UNP would have an added advantage.
Second, Rajapaksa is undertaking an extremely racist campaign. In the
immediate aftermath of the presidential election he blamed the Tamils for
his electoral defeat. Now, with the intention of winning Sinhala votes, he
claims that government policies are paving the way for the reemergence of
the LTTE terrorism. The argument is that he should come back to power to
protect the motherland from the Tamils. He and his supporters want an iron

grip on the Tamil people. Any conciliatory measures by the government


towards the minorities will be depicted as a sellout of the motherland.
Consequently, the government will be hesitant to make any conciliatory
measures aimed at improving ethnic relations. Rajapaksa politics therefore,
will slow down real peace and ethnic reconciliation.

Counter Strategy
It appears, President Sirisena spends more time trying to resolve problems
created by Rajapaksa than actually governing the country. It has obviously
become a worry for him. What can he do? He should in fact test the limits of
Rajapaksas resolve rather than trying to appease him. Appeasement
should be the last option, not the first. The dissolution of parliament will
force Rajapaksa to make decisions. Also, perhaps, Hirunika Premchandra
was right when she said that the president should have taken disciplinary
action against the SLFP members who participated in the first bring back
Mahinda meeting in Nugegoda. This would have discouraged others from
participating in the subsequent meetings. He could have also avoided
having peace talks with Rajapaksa.
Posted by Thavam