In anticipation of a parliamentary election in just over two months, hardliners on both sides of the ethnic divide are moving in for the kill, threatening to derail a fragile process of reconciliation the new Government has pledged to undertake and bring back an autocratic leader ousted in January.
The 20,000 strong rally in Nugegoda, organised by smaller parties within the UPFA coalition – famously called ‘The Rising’ by former diplomat and political scientist Dayan Jayatilleka. Jayatilleka, who openly campaigned for the defeated leader in last month’s election, theatrically read a message from the former President to participants and forever etched his place in the fringe Sinhala nationalist movement that is coalescing around Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Appropriately, the Sinhala hardline Bodu Bala Sena movement – accused of spearheading a spate of attacks against the Muslim community including the riots in Aluthgama, urged people to attend the Nugegoda rally.
The controversial monk Elle Gunewansa Thera, with his chequered role in the 1983 ethnic riots, was also in attendance. Over enthusiastic organisers insist that the Nugegoda rally drew a 500,000-strong crowd.
The figure is ludicrously over-inflated, but 20,000 is no number to scoff at, since they were gathered to salute a defeated President.
Crowds were brought into the meeting in 212 buses hired for the purpose and parked on High Level Road for the duration of the rally. The rally proved to be an important wakeup call for the new Government which appeared to have got complacent about an opponent in the shadows, as it set about establishing itself in office.
Deprived of the SLFP leadership, any attempt by President Rajapaksa to craft a post-January 8 political future will have to include the most rabidly hardline sections of the southern polity – a group that could also include the BBS and other like-minded groups.
“What we are experiencing today is not defeat but the result of a conspiracy,” the ousted President said in a message to ‘his people’, delivered with aplomb by Jayatilleka. Encapsulated in that one sentence is the Rajapaksa camp’s perception of the January 8 election.
The conspiracy of ‘Eelam Tamils’ and other minority groups, a sell-out UNP and Chandrika Kumaratunga, aided and abetted by the neo-imperialist West. In a vicious attempt to de-legitimise Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the largely UNP Cabinet, the Nugegoda organisers effectively sought to erode the legitimacy of the Maithripala Sirisena presidency. It was not a victory. It was the successful fruition of a conspiracy.
In essence then, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the undefeated President of Sri Lanka. Except that the Rajapaksa backers have no interest in the presidency any longer. In the post-constitutional reform set up, the current President (and he alone) will hold some executive power, but primacy will be afforded to a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system.
Wimal Weera-wansa’s National Freedom Front, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna led by Dinesh Gunewardane, and a host of other small parties know that in the battle for premiership in a June 2015 election, Mahinda Rajapaksa will face off against Ranil Wickremesinghe. This is a battle they believe the ousted President can win.
In the 8 January election, Mahinda Rajapaksa won 90 of 160 polling divisions, even though he lost the election. In a general election, unlike in the presidential poll when the entire country polls as a single constituency, that number will translate to a majority of seats under the proportional representation system. This is far from an inaccurate calculation. But two things could stand in the former President’s way.
Firstly, in order to win the nomination to contest seriously as a prime minister candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have to wrest back control of the SLFP. Following Rajapaksa’s defeat, chairmanship of the party passed to President Maithripala Sirisena as stipulated in the SLFP constitution, amended, ironically by the former President himself to prevent Chandrika Kumaratunga from controlling the party. Assuming SLFP seniors get behind the Weerawansa-Gunewardane-Nanayakkara bandwagon and call for his return – unlikely in the present context – the former President would still need President Sirisena’s nod to win the nomination.
Failing this, Mahinda Rajapaksa will be relegated to being a candidate of a hodgepodge coalition of tiny political parties with no grassroots organisation network and no bloc vote. The Rajapaksa candidacy could lend star power to even such an alliance, but the crucial question remains whether that power will prove sufficient to rout a newly energised UNP base.
To make matters worse, any alliance thus forged will lead to the inevitable split of the SLFP, reducing the party’s chances in the general election. Such a division would only serve to bolster a UNP majority and could even see the re-forging of the rainbow coalition to ward off the Rajapaksa threat, that will contest under the swan symbol.
Senior SLFP members are aware of this threat and seek therefore to postpone Parliamentary Elections as long as possible.
Secondly, the Rajapaksa support base within the UNP deludes itself that Mahinda Rajapaksa will command the support of 5.8 million voters in a fair parliamentary contest. Without the state power he has always commanded to win electoral contests at the national level, Mahinda Rajapaksa will be only another candidate in the fray, with a great amount of money at his disposal.
Against mounting corruption scandals involving his family members and closest aides, will campaign funds and a right wing base, now largely relegated to the fringes of society and without the active support and patronage of the state, prove sufficient to sway the election and make him Prime Minister? If that prospect is unlikely, then the fundamental question remains:
Will Mahinda Rajapaksa contest an election in which he could end up being just another Member of Parliament?
In all likelihood, Mahinda Rajapaksa is pandering to his former alliance partners because a clamour for his return plays well into the long game for his eventual political comeback. In essence, Mahinda Rajapaksa could be offering crumbs to this unwieldy coalition in order to keep hope alive among the ardent sections of his support base, that he will eventually come back and restore the status quo.
The opportune moment for his return to active politics, will not be in June or July this year, when public memory is still alive with the excesses of his family and the corrupt and authoritarian tenor of his regime.
It could be several years down the line, when memory has faded, when the new rulers are well past their honeymoon period and making mistakes of their own or in a time of major national crisis, still unforeseen.