Ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a gifted deal maker. His two- term presidency was a classic case of successful deal making: He got Velupillai Prabhakaran to prevent Northern Tamils from voting in 2005 and by virtue of that won his first term as the President; he cajoled the JVP to support him, and then split it; he engineered two large scale cross-overs of opposition MPs to the government, first for understandable reasons of the political stability of his government during the height of war, second for the selfish reason of securing a two- thirds majority of Parliament to abolish term limits of the executive presidency.
However this time around, Mr Rajapaksa has played the proverbial Shylock. During the last several weeks, there had been extensive back-door negotiations between the emissaries of President Maithripala Sirisena, and those representing the Joint Opposition (JO), loyal to Mr. Rajapaksa. Despite a written intimation by the President to seek a patch up between the two parties, talks came a cropper because Mr. Rajapaksa insisted that the SLFP quit the government. Even if the talks were successful, it would only have offered a momentary relief to the President; it could have saved his skin at the up-coming local government elections, but only until Mr. Rajapaksa and his JO acolytes run rings around the President, and hijack the SLFP.
Now the President has changed the course and is rebuilding strained relations between the two constituent partners of the Yahapalana government. However, elections in this country are poisonous, and no matter the good-intentioned efforts by the top leadership, very soon the grassroots cadre and local leaders of the two parties would be at each other’s throats. Reportedly, the leaders of the two parties have decided to vet campaign posters, in order to avoid mudslinging at each other. But the grassroots of the two parties and even some of the political acolytes in Parliament are groomed in UNP-SLFP contention. (Take for instance State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe who indulged in a blistering attack against the President just to divert allegation of his alleged collusion with Arjun Aloysius). Old habits die hard.
The President’s futile effort to patch up with the JO is born out from paranoia about a possible rout of the SLFP at the local government election. His advisors, many of whom are pole-vaulters from the UNP, harbour a grudge against the UNP leadership. And the SLFP ministers who grudgingly stick with the President feel they have often been overlooked by the UNP leadership in policy making. At times, that neglect could even be good for economy, in terms of policy consistency, especially when the SLFP’s many concerns are parochial – ranging from the current uproar over the liberalization of the shipping industry to an obstructionist approach towards mega development projects. On the other hand, though that it is bad for political unity of the government.
There are not-so-convincing forecasts peddled by the advocates of a SLFP-JO thaw, that the SLFP sans the JO could end up behind the JVP in the up-coming local government elections. How those assessments are reached is not known, but they ought to be viewed with a greater deal of discretion. The JO can mobilize large numbers to protests, but so can the JVP. However during the elections, the JVP has fared well below their pretended might. Fifty odd JO members got themselves elected to Parliament by contesting under the SLFP led UPFA. That was while the patronage systems they had cultivated during their two terms in government were still fresh. How well the JO can do now under the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is a moot point. If history is any guide, their chances are not as great as one would expect. Even the much touted Lalith-Gamini group of Rajaliya could not make a dent on the UNP.
Rather than cowering down, the President should face-off the JO. The President should be able to win the loyalty of some SLFP members already in local government institutions, and for the rest, he can introduce respected community members with proven credentials, rather than usual suspects who grace those nomination lists.
Also, instead of molly-coddling the JO, the government should de-legitimize it. To that end, the government should seek to pursue aggressively, investigations into bribery and corruption. To expedite things, special anti-corruption courts, which have already been proposed, should be set up. Had that path been taken before, things would have been different and the President may not have been in the conundrum that he is trapped in now.
Instead, the President himself is blowing hot and cold. Recently he vowed to leave everything and join the people to fight corruption. Then there are reports of him intervening to save former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa from an imminent arrest over alleged misappropriation of public funds used to build a memorial for his late father, D.A.Rajapaksa. This duplicity does not help; instead, it weakens the President’s hold of the SLFP. A pro-active choice would be to break out from the siege, and take the battle to the JO itself. A determined approach to expedite investigations into corruption would be a good starting point.
The second step should be to nurture and socialize a new set of leaders for the next Parliamentary Elections which would be held under a mixture of first-past-the-post and proportional representation system, in which individual personalities would stand out more than they did under the old system. Those leaders do not need to come from the old stock, see Emmanuel Macron, the President of France who led a brand new coalition of civil society activists and old hands to win the majority in legislative elections this year.
Sri Lankan voters may not be as enlightened as their French counterparts, however the younger generation in this country is sick and tired of the current status of local politics. JO represents that de-generative aspect of Sri Lankan politics. Rather than embracing it, the SLFP should reject it.