There is a significant contrast between a parliamentary election and a presidential election, considering the psychological impact made with reference to the choice. Let me explain this taking Colombo District as an example. You get a list of 21 candidates contesting for the parliamentary election after voting for a particular party. You have only three preferential votes. Hence, you have to choose three most preferred candidates out of 21. Your choice of three does not mean that you do not like the other 18. It only means that you prefer the chosen three than the others.
Presidential election is different. It is a contest between two candidates. Hence, choosing one candidate necessarily means the rejection of the other after a thoughtful deliberation. At the last presidential election 6.2 million people chose President Sirisena rejecting President Rajapaksa. Similarly, 5.8 million opted for President Rajapaksa rejecting President Sirisena. Obviously, President Sirisena elected to the presidency as 6.2 million is larger than 5.8 million. It is a normal incident.
The abnormal incident took place after President Sirisena assuming office. On 12 January, President Sirisena became the de jure leader of 5.8 million people who rejected him at the presidential election held just four days ago. In fact, he was not the true leader of 6.2 million people who voted for him. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the leader of the majority of them. Sampanthan, Rauff Hakeem, Champika and Fonseka are the leaders of the rest of the people. There may be around 300,000 SLFPers who left the party along with President Sirisena accepting his leadership. He was able to receive 6.2 million votes as the above leaders requested their followers to vote for President Sirisena. Hence, he is not the true leader of 6.2 million voters as well as 5.8 million voters.
Rejected by grassroots
Although President Sirisena was able to secure the leadership of the SLFP through an internal coup, grassroots level SLFPers still consider him as the person who was rejected by them at the presidential election. They are of the view that they were defeated by President Sirisena at the election. As a result, they were humiliated and harassed by the UNPers. They were subjected to physical assaults and death threats. Their properties were damaged. They were arrested over unfounded allegations. They lost jobs. They received punishment transfers. On top of all that, the SLFP lost the governing power. All these ill fates are caused after President Sirisena brought the UNP to power.
In the light of above, the SLFPers have a genuine anger with President Sirisena. Although he became the de jure leader of the SLFP, he has so far failed to become the de facto leader by winning the hearts of the party supporters. He wants to secure confidence of the party members. His strategy for this task is to distance the party members from President Rajapaksa by levelling allegations against him for corruption and extravagance. Unfortunately, it is a wrong strategy.
Swan camp projected President Rajapaksa as a corrupt dictator, who was a champion of nepotism. Betel camp projected him as a unique hero who is one of eight leaders who has unified the nation during our recorded history of 2,600 years. His contribution for infrastructure development was unprecedented in the post-independent history. 6.2 million people decided that President Rajapaksa’s negatives were higher than positives. 5.8 million people decided vice-versa. President Sirisena is now addressing the people who considered President Rajapaksa’s positives are higher than negatives. They have heard enough allegations about corruption and extravagance and decided to ignore those considering his positive contributions. Hence, they would not be disgusted with President Rajapaksa by hearing these allegations. Instead, they get further disgusted with President Sirisena as he insults their beloved leader.
President Sirisena will never be able to win the hearts of 5.8 million people by attacking President Rajapaksa. It can only be done by respecting President Rajapaksa. Unfortunately, he is still in election mindset. He still addresses 6.2 million people who voted for him. He has forgotten the fact that he left the 6.2 million voters to give leadership to 5.8 million who rejected him at the election. Hence, he still speaks to thrill 6.2 million voters forgetting the fact that such speeches hurt 5.8 million people to whom he provides leadership.
Aspirations of SLFPers
President Sirisena should adjust himself for the new atmosphere he entered in on 12 January. Nobody forced him to be the Leader of the SLFP. He in fact initiated the process by calling the SLFP leaders soon after his victory. Hence, as the Leader of the SLFP, his action should reflect the aspirations of the SLFPers, not the UNPers. He should cater for the needs of the SLFPers because his future lies with the SLFP, despite he was elected to the presidency with the support of the UNP. Hence, he should win the hearts of the SLFPers.
President Sirisena has a golden opportunity to win the hearts of SLFPers by naming their beloved Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the prime ministerial candidate. There is a huge demand for Mahinda Rajapaksa to be named as the prime ministerial candidate of the UPFA, the coalition led by the SLFP. There are several reasons for this demand to be popular among UPFA supporters.
Firstly, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the most popular leader in the Sinhala society. He is a historical figure as he is one of the eight leaders who have unified the nation in the last 2,600 years. President Rajapaksa is the solitary leader to unify the nation for the last 600 years. Hence, he is compared not with contemporary leaders such as Chandrika Bandaranaike, Ranil Wickremesinghe or Maithripala Sirisena, but with historical kings such as Dutugemunu, Parakramabahu and Vijayabahu.
Secondly, Nugegoda Group who campaigns for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-entry to politics consists of important personalities. Wimal Weerawansa was the lead orator of the UPFA at three presidential elections held in 2005, 2010 and 2015. Udaya Gammanpila was the lead debater at electronic media political chat shows at all three presidential elections. Hence, the SLFPers used to receive political messages from the above two instead of receiving those from Nimal Siripala, Anura Yapa or Susil Premajayantha. Dinesh Gunawardena is the present leader of the MEP which was used by the SLFP to gain power at its first electoral victory in 1956. Hence, he represents the heritage of the SLFP. Vasudeva Nanayakkara is the most senior elected parliamentarian in Parliament as he first entered in 1970. Hence, ‘Bring Back Mahinda’ campaign is led by four leaders who have secured the confidence of the SLFPers.
‘Bring back Mahinda’
Thirdly, ‘Bring back Mahinda’ slogan assures the victory for the UPFA at the forthcoming parliamentary election. If he is able to attract the very same voters who voted for him at the presidential election, the UPFA will secure 111 parliamentarians against 89 parliamentarians for the NDF. The SLFPers want to form a government of their own instead of establishing a joint government with the UNP which is harassing the SLFPers in an intolerable manner after the presidential election victory. The Nugegoda Group openly criticizes the national government concept and unconditionally criticizes the UNP. Hence, they have won the hearts of the SLFPers without much effort.
President Sirisena should be tactful enough to ride the tide before it turns against him. In fact, Nugegoda Group’s request can be fulfilled by President Sirisena without any damage to him. He will be the President for the next six years. He will be the Chairman of the SLFP and the Leader of the UPFA ex-officio as long as he is the President of this country. They request the SLFP to appoint President Rajapaksa to a post presently not held by anybody. Hence, nobody loses anything by making this appointment. When President Rajapaksa handed over the party reign to President Sirisena on 12 January, he lost the most important office he possessed by that time. Nevertheless, President Sirisena loses nothing by offering PM candidacy to President Rajapaksa. He gains a lot by establishing himself as the Leader of the SLFP as he can win the hearts of the SLFPers.
It is reported that two ministers close to President are vehemently opposing Rajapaksa’s re-entry. They are in fear that they would diminish in politics with the re-entry of Rajapaksa. President Sirisena should not be misled by these advisers. He can look after his colleagues only if he is strong in the party.
If President Sirisena stubbornly ignores irrepressible demand for Rajapaksa, the SLFP will be broken into two. It will weaken the SLFP by breaking into equal two parts. Instead, 90% of the SLFP will join President Rajapaksa. Sometimes, it may go up to 99%.
Hence, President Sirisena is now duty bound to accommodate President Rajapaksa for the sake of party unity.