Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Mahinda Rajapakse’s strategies

Posted by harimpeiris on February 17, 2016

Mahinda Rajapakse’s strategies (Published in the Daily News of 16th February 2016)

The past week witnessed several key political events, the main one being the four day visit to Sri Lanka of Prince Zeid Raad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as part of his mandate and partnership with Sri Lanka on the implementation of the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka.

However, the major domestic political events were a renewed and raucous demand in parliament by members of the self-styled “joint opposition” who were clamoring for recognition by the Speaker of Parliament as an independent parliamentary group. This demand was made even as defeated president Mahinda Rajapakse, opened a political office in Battaramulla, largely seen as the headquarters of his intended political party, the nascent “Our Sri Lanka Freedom Front” with the lotus bud as its symbol, which has been duly registered with the Commissioner of Elections. While the mechanics of a new Mahinda Rajapakse political party duly proceeds, it is worth exploring the politics of Rajapakse’s proposed new party and the probability of a quick return to power.

  1. Rajapakse lost two elections

Firstly for those hoping and dreaming of a Rajapakse comeback, mostly the leaders of the minor UPFA allies and those SLFP MPs supporting Rajapakse, who hail from constituencies where the Rajapakse brand still has an attraction, mostly in the South, forget the fact as to why Mahinda Rajapakse and the UPFA he led lost the presidential election of January 2015 to Maithripala Sirisena, contesting from the New Democratic Front. It is because the balance of political and social forces shifted to become one where it was Mahinda Rajapakse verses the rest. Mahinda Rajapakse became politically isolated deserted by even his former allies of the JHU, decried by the JVP and opposed by everyone else from the UNP, the SLMC, Field Marshal Fonseka’s Democrats and the TNA. It was a tribute to the unique political skills and extreme trust in the elder statesmanship of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who coalesced this rainbow coalition into a political front, the NDF which defeated Mahinda Rajapakse. That basic political formulation of Rajapakse verses the rest still holds true. Despite the pressures and stresses of governance and various divergences and competing interests of diverse party politics, no political leader or constituency of the NDF rainbow coalition wants a Rajapakse return. The most reliable indicator of public opinion is not Sri Lanka’s politicized and polarized public media, but election results. Even a casual analysis of the UPFA general election results of August 2015 demonstrate that the UPFA essentially under Rajapakse for the general election, garnered less votes in every single electoral district in August 2015, than it did in the January 2015 election, with the only exception of the Nuwara Eliya district where it got 3,000 more votes due to Thondaman going all out on the UPFA ticket for his own election. Subsequent to the general election, he has switched over from the opposition and tacitly supports the Government along with Douglas Devananda of the EPDP, demonstrating that Rajapakse has actually lost two more allies while gaining none. Rajapakse and his joint opposition now has no elected ethnic or religious minority allies at all.

  1. Nationalism has limits

Mahinda Rajapakse and his joint opposition allies have a single political message, which is that the Sinhala Buddhist people of this country are being betrayed and destroyed by the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe national unity government. This argument seems the flip side of Chief Minister Wigneswaren and his fellow travelers claim that Tamil’s are facing systematic genocide under the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Government. So both Mahinda Rajapakse and Chief Minister CV Wigneswaren would want us to believe that the government is practicing cultural genocide on both the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Quite an achievement but an incredible argument not making much traction except with the extreme ethno nationalist fringe elements on both sides of the ethnic divide. The vernacular mainstream press, much more nationalistic than the silent centrist majority, are happy to scream and increase the decibels of extremism. Accordingly Mahinda’s extremism gets more sympathetic Sinhala press coverage than Maithri’s or Ranil’s moderation and Wigneswaren’s heated rhetoric gets more Tamil press coverage than Sambanthan’s or Sumanthiran’s measured reasonableness. Greater noise does not mean greater support or substance.

  1. No reflection on or correction of past wrongs

One definition of political lunacy would be singing the same tune and expecting a different result. The Sinhala ethnic nationalist card has been play by Rajapakse and while undoubtedly having support in the country, is now just not sufficient to ever constitute a majority. Increasing the decibel or the passion does not increase the attraction and support. The political math of mono ethnic Sinhala nationalism means that Mahinda Rajapakse approximately needs about 65% of the Sinhala vote to constitute 50% of the national vote. Put in another way, he needs two thirds of all Sinhala votes to make up a bare simple majority of all votes. There were heady days of 65% support for the UPFA among the Sinhalese immediately after the end of the war at the 2010 elections, but by 2015 this was no longer possible and the basic dual concerns of nationalism and governance of the Sinhala constituency has returned to stay. An insufficient number of Sinhalese would trade in bad governance, rampant corruption, nepotism, white vans and assaults on democracy for ever increasing doses of Sinhala ethnic nationalist rhetoric.

The Rajapakse’s have done no internal soul searching of what went wrong, especially in their second term of office. They seem to believe that the people made a big mistake in January 2015 and would soon make amends for their error, perhaps at local elections. However it is far more likely that the majority of voters would wait to see if the Rajapakse’s have recognized the many things wrong with their governance and in the absence of such self-realization are likely to confirm the enforced retirement from power of Rajapakse and his joint opposition. Their new proposed SLFP breakaway party, eventually going the way of the UNP breakaway DUNF experiment, twenty years ago.

 

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