Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • July 2010
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Mahinda lends Ranil a helping hand – and helps himself in the process

Posted by harimpeiris on July 22, 2010

If politics was a boxing match, it would be totally wrong to say that President Mahinda Rajapakse was knocked down to the mat, it would be even incorrect to claim that he was thrown against the ropes but it would be correct to claim that he paused and perhaps even took a step back in the pursuit of removing the constitutional restrictions on his ability to hold the office of the presidency indefinitely. It was the first political pause or set back, post war and post elections, for President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Sub surface dissent internally

One is generally led to believe that the ruling UPFA and its various decision making bodies at the party level, (parliamentary group) and the state bodies it controls (Cabinet) are mere rubber stamps for presidential wishes and desires. However in the fairly far reaching case of constitutional reforms and eliminating term limits on the presidency, it was refreshingly surprising to witnesses some principled politics come into play, led by the old left and its chief standard bearer, presidential advisor and MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara. The old left leaders made it clear that they would find it very difficult to support extending the term of the president by eliminating term limits when the firm position of the various left parties have been the abolition of the executive presidency. Now the old left is fired up. They did well in the last general elections. Also witnessing the demise of the JVP; they recognize their increasing political space for an ideologically left political constituency which is now deserting the JVP. Joining them in internal murmurs of disapproval were some other extreme ethnic nationalist elements in the regime, seen as quite close to the President. It was clear that the UPFA dealing with the issue of leadership succession, or the implied lack thereof, through eliminating term limits, was not a monolithic bloc.

Opposition united

President Mahinda Rajapakse has demonstrated that he has excellent political instincts or a good general sense of the mood in the country. He correctly assessed that the issue of eliminating term limits on the presidency, would unite and coalesce an otherwise divided opposition and do so in a context where his own political grouping, the UPFA, was showing chinks in its armor. The numbers in parliament were probably there, but there were the makings of a mood swing in the country towards disquiet about the move, which could grow to dissent. Paradoxically the only opposition party which stated it did not intend to oppose the move was the Tamil National Alliance. The TNA  and its leader, a bit of a gentleman of the old school, having endured a single Tamil “suriya thevan” or sun god for close upon thirty years was not inclined to use their limited political capital in the exercise of preventing the Sinhala south of experimenting with the same option. Their rather single minded focus and correctly so, is to ensure that the “problems of the North and East” as the Mahinda Chinthanya calls the ethnic problem, is resolved with political solutions aimed at addressing the root cause of political violence and ethnic minority social marginalization in Sri Lanka. However into this political mix, moves in opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe.

 

Ranil seeks a life line

The UNP has been talking about internal party reform, once again, its’ not too subtle euphemism for a leadership change. It is incredible that the UNP, a party which generally likes to preach good governance and sound management to others does not have a functioning mechanism or party constitutional provision for either a leadership election or leadership challenge. Such processes or mechanisms are crucial to a political party since no leader is likely to come to the self realization that their political “use by” date, as the Americans call the expiry date, has been reached. Clearly the opposition leader Mr.Wickreamsinghe still labors under the illusion that he will be an attractive political option to the electorate in 2016. To its credit the SLFP had an orderly transition of power both in 1993/94 from that grand dame Sirimavo to the fresh and new thinking Chandrika Kumaratunga and then again in 2005/06 due to term limits from CBK to Mahinda Rajapakse. The UNP has not actually done anything similar in twenty years since JR handed over to Premadasa in 1989 and its 1994 leadership contest was actually determined by LTTE terrorism, leaving Ranil the best man standing.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe understands the political elite with the same political acumen that President Mahinda Rajapakse understands the country, or at least the Sinhala south, since his understanding of the Tamil North and the Muslim / Tamil East is not very good and they reciprocate this lack of understanding, just check the presidential election results earlier this year in the North and East and General Fonseka carrying them almost en bloc. Accordingly Ranil correctly sensing that the President was taking a step back on a key political issue (of eliminating term limits)  uses back channel messages and offers to discuss and provide conditional support to the President and the government on constitutional reforms that were not sailing smoothly even within government ranks. Hence we have the phenomena of the President’s talks with the UNP leader on constitutional reforms. For President Rajapakse, Ranil Wickremasinghe stepped in when his own alliance had murmurings of discontent. Correspondingly for Ranil presidential patronage and a process with the government, would act to stymie the UNP’s party reforms process and the moves to enforce his retirement.

A mutual interest and a national outcome 

But a Ranil Wickremasinghe’s offer of assistance on constitutional reform can be a poisoned chalice and President Rajapakse needs to be aware of this. Just ask President Kumaratunga who had many rounds of talk with Ranil about the August 2000 constitutional reforms, the only outcome of which were crossovers and counter crossovers after the process.  But the Mahinda – Ranil détente need not be to the detriment of the people’s interest. If it results in a genuine multi party dialogue in good faith that seeks to address the needs of the people, the process while helping the two leaders politically would also result in better policies in government and more positive outcomes for the people.

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