By Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne
Some analysts say the power struggle between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ended with both being badly bruised, but the conflict also exposed the limitations of their long-term political strategies. It gave in to the hands of Sinhala Buddhist racism a bogus victory to arouse Sinhala plebeians and create violence in the country.
However, people cannot easily forget that in the run-up to the 10 February Local Government elections the differences within the Yahapalana coalition deepened and Maithri declared that his Government was more corrupt than the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
In sharp contrast, Ranil desisted from criticizing the junior coalition partner and even moved to rein-in his United National Party (UNP) young bucks who tried to snipe at Maithripala.
Ranil was backed by the Leader of the Opposition. That neutralized the situation. For a democrat what were at stake were not just the 341 Local Government bodies. In reality what was at stake was the General Election of 2020. If democracy prevails and things flow without change of Constitution a new President must be in office by January 2020, while the earliest a parliamentary election can be held is February 2020. Many believe that Mahinda is not interested in a presidential election for obvious reasons. However, the majority in his Pohottuwa crowd believe that Gotabaya is going to be the candidate from their side.
On the other hand both Ranil and Maithri may be persuaded by their respective lobbies to contest. Many believe Maithri is hoping to be the SLFP candidate at the next presidential election despite Sirisena having declared at the beginning of his five-year tenure that he will not seek re-lection. The Local Government election result was a bolt that not only brought activists on both sides of Yahapalanaya down to earth, but also sparked a blame game; not so much on bread and butter issues, but on their political maneuverings that may have backfired
With his experience as a leader, Ranil faced the set back with confidence. In his first press conference after the local council elections, he said the main reason for the setback was their failure to prosecute corrupt members of the former regime. He, explaining further, said the main allegation against his UNP Government was its failure on the law and order front while the cost of living and the effects of a drought and floods had also reduced this party’s vote drastically.
Pressure exerted by President
Former Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake readily took the blame and said he was willing to be relieved of that portfolio.
However, political insiders say Ratnayake was barred from taking action due to the pressure exerted by the President. He and Ranil would not have protected former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other criminals without the interference of the President. The LG election results showed that Maithri’s Gotabaya Protection Strategy had clearly failed. Hence, it is incorrect to say that Ranil was hoping that by keeping Gotabaya a free man the UNP could split Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Clearly with minority votes on his side Ranil could win against Maithri without using Gotabaya as a third candidate, in a three-cornered presidential election. The 10 February result clearly showed that Maithri plus Pohottuwa is much less than UNP and the rest put together. It is Maithri, who played the Gotabaya card. He admitted in January that he saved Gotabaya despite having repeatedly denied he ever blocked the prosecution of the one-time de facto Head of State under brother Mahinda.
Maithri loyalists obviously believe Gotabaya could be a useful ally to rally hard-line Sinhala-Buddhists within the splintered Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and eventually to consolidate the leadership of the party. By declaring that he saved Gotabaya from being arrested, it is clear Maithri in January was sending an indirect message to such voters that he was the man who saved their Sinhala racist chandiya and therefore to support him at the local polls. At the same time, Maithri opened attacks on the UNP, but this strategy had an utterly negative effect. Instead of persuading Mahinda loyalists to switch sides and support him, he ended up supporting the arguments of the former President that the UNP was more corrupt than them. The votes polled by the Maithri group were equivalent to what the UNP lost compared to their performance at the August 2015 polls. Hence, one can argue that this shows Maithri did not take any SLFP votes, but only managed to split the UNP. Also in the process, Maithri had delivered the SLFP Sinhala racist base to Mahinda’s new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) the Pohottuwa.