Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Will Mahinda Confirm Maithri as Presidential Candidate?

Posted by harimpeiris on November 26, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published on The Island on 24th November 2018)

Prior to end October and the controversial sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe by President Sirisena, the general focus of the political debate in Sri Lanka was on the upcoming presidential elections, the next national elections that was due, nominations for which would be called by this time next year. The Joint Opposition (JO) did make noises about the provincial council elections, wanting to follow up their performance in the February local government elections, with an encore in the provinces, barring possibly the North and East in which they are very weak. However, the focus of the polity was on the presidential election politics. It is perhaps precisely this dynamic, the presidential election politics, which triggered the change in prime minister, as indeed claimed by Ranil Wickramasinghe, early on in the saga to an Indian interviewer.

The Rajapakse problem with a presidential election is well known, with Mahinda being ineligible to contest a third time. It is clear now that President Sirisena, has his sights firmly set on a second term, but the electoral dominance within the Rajapaksa and Sirisena combine, is clearly Mahinda Rajapakse and his SLPP. Which as per the February election results brings about 40% of the national vote to the table, compared to about 12% contributed by President Sirisena and the once proud and governing SLFP led UPFA. So, the presidential election candidate will still be decided by Mahinda Rajapakse. Will he pass the baton on to the younger sibling, Gotabaya or would he opt for Maithri as a stop gap till 2025, when first son Namal, becomes of eligible age to contend for the top job.

However, with the change in Prime Minister, the Rajapakse and SLPP demand has been a general election to Parliament, a tactic which reverses the role of the presidential election as the crucial test of electoral strength. It allows Mahinda Rajapakse to be the leader who delivers an election win, making the presidential election later on in 2019, of secondary or at least lesser importance politically. A general election also plays to the SLPP’s strength, which is that it currently has the largest popular support base in the country, going by the February election results. Combined with the support of the SLFP, it is arguably a majority in the country.

However, a presidential election exposes the electoral weakness of the Rajapakse political project, namely its attraction, largely if not solely, to a Sinhala voter base and that too with a Sinhala nationalist message and appeal. Among the non-majority ethno-religious community, the Rajapaksa’ s fail to attract sufficient support, making their presidential election bid always a tricky exercise and one that failed in 2015 and also only just barely succeeded in 2005. It is precisely this argument, which is made by President Sirisena’s SLFP backers. That he has sufficient appeal among minority communities and a degree of trust from their leaders to enable him to win some support from the non-Sinhala communities.

The UNP too has a problem with a presidential candidate. For their candidate to have any hope of victory, it requires the tacit support from the outside, of the JVP and the TNA, similar to the support given by them to common candidate Sirisena’s campaign in 2015. Whether long time UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe would be acceptable to the political elite, as the presidential candidate and marketable within their constituencies, remains to be seen.

An unstable Rajapakse premiership sans parliamentary support

Meanwhile the new (purported?) Rajapakse government is in relatively dire straits without adequate parliamentary support. The JO / SLPP point out correctly that they and the UNP both have probably the same number of members in Parliament, maybe 101 each, the balance being the JVP and the TNA, which are currently consistently backing the status quo ante in Parliament and especially the JVP playing a lead role in opposing the return of Mahinda Rajapakse to executive office. This point was emphasized by Dinesh Gunawardena at a press conference recently that even if a no confidence motion against the Mahinda Rajapakse Government succeeds (again?), that the UNP will also be forced to form a similar minority government, sans the support of the JVP and the TNA which is unlikely to want to be a junior partner in a short-term government.

However, the political position adopted by the JVP and the TNA, is a principled one, which has allowed them to capture the political moral high ground. Their commitment to the status quo ante, or Ranil Wickramasinghe as Prime Minister is faithful to the general election mandate of August 2015 in which the UNP clearly came out as the party with the largest number of seats. Further the presidential election of January 2015 was a stinging rebuke to Mahinda Rajapakse, whose governance and alleged corruption was the key election campaign platform for the then common opposition campaign. Accordingly, by all accounts of the principles of popular mandate, there is absolutely no basis for President Sirisena to claim in appointing Mahinda Rajapakse, who was defeated twice in 2015 in both January and August, to the office of Prime Minister.

A Friday night appointment as Prime Minister, the suspension of Parliament, an attempt to dissolve Parliament and a Supreme Court push back on the presidential action and the subsequent mayhem in Parliament by Rajapakse allies, the mob led take overs at state media institutions, the lightening transfer (since reversed)  of a CID officer investigating sensitive cases regarding the previous Rajapakse terms , have all made the floating voters consider again carefully exactly why they wanted an end to Rajapakse rule in 2015. A weak Rajapakse Government leading up to a presidential election fraught with internal challenges for the SLPP / SFPF combine may be more a poisoned chalice, rather than the blessing it seems on the surface.

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