Reams have been written about the existential crises facing the country’s two main parties, the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, coincidentally, currently led by the two leaders at the helm of a fractured coalition Government.
But a lesser known crisis is also unfolding within the fledgling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, a party backed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his siblings and sons. The SLPP had unprecedented electoral success in the February 10 local government election. Entering as a ‘third force’ it captured a majority of local authorities contested at the polls, out-performing both main parties in most parts of the island.
Since that election, the coalition that captured power in 2015 has been in disarray. Nearly three months later, it is still trying to find its footing, with another major cabinet reshuffle on the cards and whispers of a fresh working arrangement to be reached between President Maithripala Sirisena and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
In the political headwinds that followed the local government poll in February, the quiet crisis unfolding within the SLPP has gone largely unnoticed but this week, Hambantota District MP Namal Rajapaksa – still a member of the SLFP for all intents and purposes – took to the social media network Twitter to express his displeasure about the alliance between the SLPP and the SLFP to capture power in the Hambantota Municipal Council. The infamous pistol-toting former Mayor of Hambantota, Eraj Fernando, contesting on the UPFA ticket, is back in the mayoral seat. In 2014, Fernando exploded into the national political scene, when he charged at then opposition MPs Harsha De Silva, Eran Wickremaratne, Ajith Perera and Co who were on an inspection tour of the Hambantota Port and Mattala Airport, brandishing a pistol. The UNP won the Hambantota Municipal Council, but was helpless last week when the SLFP and SLPP closed ranks to defeat its candidate and instal Fernando as Mayor. Namal Rajapaksa’s criticism stemmed from the fact that he had previously made public pronouncements that the SLPP would never join forces with the SLFP in Hambantota to defeat the UNP, despite the slim majority the winning party held in the Council.
Last Thursday, the @RajapaksaNamal twitter account announced that the former first son and young MP from Hambantota was “deeply concerned” about the decision made by what he called the “senior leadership” of the SLPP to ally with the SLFP in the Hambantota MC.
“I am against, & deeply concerned, regarding the decision taken by Senior Leadership of the SLPP in #Hambantota to support the @SLFreedomParty in appointing a mayor there. #SriLanka,” Namal Rajapaksa noted. It is not clear who the young MP implies when he refers to the “senior leadership” of the SLPP.
The SLPP, or Pohottuwa, as it is known, is a complex political entity. To begin with, the mascot and brand ambassador of the SLPP does not hold membership in the party. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who campaigned for the SLPP in the February election, like his son, remains a member of the SLFP led by President Sirisena. Namal Rajapaksa and several other backers of the SLPP are also mere ‘spirit’ members of the party. For all official purposes, they remain members of the UPFA rebel wing, styling themselves as the ‘Joint Opposition’ in Parliament.
Secondly, the SLPP is made up of political factions that in the face of defeat at the January 2015 Presidential election were certainly not getting along. Leaders of smaller parties in the UPFA laid blame squarely at the feet of former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa for the former President’s defeat for his steering of the re-election campaign and the allegations of corruption that dogged the administration largely as a result of the ruling family’s excesses. The shadow of this corruption has followed Basil Rajapaksa to date – he is facing separate indictments for misappropriation of public funds in the High Court of Colombo. NFF Leader Wimal Weerawansa, was one of the former Minister’s staunchest critics. By all accounts, he remains so to this day.
G.L. Peiris is the Chairman of the SLPP, but it is Basil Rajapaksa, the SLPP front-liner who is considered the political mastermind behind the Pohottuwa campaigns and strategy. The SLPP’s success at the February election, is attributed mostly to Basil Rajapaksa’s political ground game and electorate-wise targeting strategies.
Weerawansa and other hardliners within the JO/SLPP combine, are more closely affiliated with ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The former official who was widely considered the de facto leader of the Rajapaksa Government when it was in power, has been engaged in quiet political mobilization over the past year. Backed by Rajapaksa era officials including ex-SEC Chairman Nalaka Godahewa and former Media Secretary Dr Charitha Herath and ultra-nationalist ex-military officials Sarath Weerasekera and Kamal Guneratne, Gotabaya Rajapaksa embarked upon his Viyath Maga initiative last year. The raison d’etre of the movement, that seeks to “mobilize the nascent potential of the professionals, academics and entrepreneurs to effectively influence the moral and material development of Sri Lanka”, is by all appearances, a way to build a platform for a potential Gotabaya presidential candidacy in 2019. The certainty of his candidacy is some way off, but the former Defence Secretary already commands significant support within the JO, particularly, among its more strident nationalists.
This is the ‘Gotabaya Kalliya’ within the JO that JVP Lawmaker Bimal Ratnayake famously referred to in his speech during the No Confidence Motion in Parliament earlier this month. Ratnayake revealed what political circles were already buzzing about – that the No Confidence Motion against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was masterminded by the ‘Gota faction’ of the SLPP/JO as a means to hasten the fall of the Unity Government in the wake of its fracturing after the local government polls. The sense of urgency for this faction is also motivated by signs that investigations into brutal crimes and financial misdeeds appear to be regaining steam and could result in a few indictments and arrests in the weeks and months ahead if inquiries continue at this pace.Other factions of the Rajapaksa camp have different plans for capturing power.
The no-faith motion move lacked the support of Basil Rajapaksa, who believed it was a fool’s errand and unlikely to alter the balance of power in Parliament. In the end game, Basil Rajapaksa was proved half-right. The JO may reap the benefit of a bonus 16 seats in opposition, after SLFP Ministers who voted for its no faith motion decided to quit the Government and requested seats in the Opposition benches in Parliament. But it is not yet clear whether the JO will obtain the full-throated support of the SLFP 16, many of whom suffered grave indignities within the Government when the Rajapaksa administration was at the height of its power.
Authoritative sources within the Rajapaksa camp claim that even the former President had been lukewarm about the moves to defeat the Premier through the no faith motion. In fact, former President Rajapaksa recently acknowledged to a confidant, in a conversation the Sunday Observer has since overheard, that he was not in favour of bringing the No Confidence Motion against Wickremesinghe, unless it contained the signatures of a significant number of SLFP Ministers. In that conversation, Rajapaksa acknowledged however that JO front-liners like Dulles Alahapperuma had forced his hand in spite of his warnings that the time was not right for the move.
In a way, the moves by the Gotabaya faction seem politically amateurish compared to the long-term goals for the Rajapaksa comeback project being carefully laid out by brother Basil.
On the face of it, the January 8 coalition – now fractured and badly betrayed by its political custodians – has a problem that looms large. As it looks towards the 2019 Presidential election, now less than 18 months away, it must search high and low for a candidate to stand for the issues the movement represents. A year is a long time in politics, but at the moment at least, this problem seems insurmountable.
The fact is however, that the Rajapaksa camp faces a similar existential question. Its candidate for the 2019 presidential poll is in no way decided. In fact, the political alliance between Basil Rajapaksa and former President Rajapaksa seems to be the stronger one at present. The nexus between the Gotabaya faction and Mahinda Rajapaksa appears weaker for the moment. The former Defence official’s recent image-building exercises have irked the former President. So far, Mahinda Rajapaksa does not see Gotabaya as heir to the Rajapaksa presidential brand.
The inner circle is careful however not to stand openly against Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential ambitions, mindful that if his candidacy takes shape by the second half of 2019, the former ruling family would be forced to back his campaign.
But the hunt for the Rajapaksa backed candidate is still on. In this the SLPP has a major problem. Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot run for presidential office again. He is prohibited by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which re-imposed presidential term limits repealed by the 18th Amendment. With his brand power, it would seem that any candidate the former President chooses to back will have a good shot at the Presidency. But in the hands of a non-family member, how will the Rajapaksas ensure their will is done?
Once candidates wrest control of presidential office, they often abandon the movements that swept them into power. There is no guarantee that the Rajapaksa-picked candidate to stand for Presidential election will do the bidding of the former ruling family once in office. This is a risk the family may be loath to take. Gotabaya poses the same risk – that he will be uncontrollable by the more moderate political forces within the Rajapaksa camp, if he wins presidential power.
The Basil Rajapaksa strategy therefore is a somewhat sophisticated one.
From the moment that the SLPP won the LG elections in February, the leaders of the party have had one consistent demand. The Rajapaksa camp wants a snap Parliamentary election. Never mind that under the 19A early elections cannot be called at whim any longer. Never mind that under the provisions of the 19A, a resolution backed by a two thirds majority of the House would be necessary to advance the date of a General Election. The SLPP wants a Parliamentary poll. And it wants it now.
This is part of the reason why Basil Rajapaksa refused to back the JO no-faith motion move last month. Toppling the government and realigning the balance in Parliament – this is not how the Rajapaksas want to be restored to power. The Basil Rajapaksa master plan is to force a Parliamentary election – to that end, perpetuating Government instability is useful, but only if it results in a public clamour for an election to end the political uncertainty.
While victory at a Presidential Election is far from certain for the SLPP, Basil Rajapaksa may feel more confident that the party can pull off a narrow victory at a parliamentary poll. That clout would have to be used to obtain a super majority in Parliament, made up of minor parties and UNP defections. In this hypothetical scenario, the SLPP could then use a two thirds power in the House, to repeal the 19th Amendment, including the provision imposing a two term limit on persons holding the office of President. Only this would pave the way for Mahinda Rajapaksa to stand for election in the next presidential poll that will be declared in due course.
For Basil’s plan to work, therefore, the parliamentary election must precede the presidential poll. The campaign and agitation for snap General Elections stem from that political reality.
The success of the Rajapaksa machine (and correspondingly, the abject failure of the current administration) is that it manages to cobble things together and carry forward its common agenda, despite the fissures and the fractures within.
Mahinda Rajapaksa himself is a master at this game – he spent the better part of his decade long presidency engaged in a delicate balancing act, pacifying disgruntled SLFP seniors, intimidating frustrated UNP defectors and pitting warring officials against each other. But for the decision of then Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena and a few other Ministers to join the common opposition campaign in November 2014, he would have managed to hold things together until he won a third term in office, transformed Sri Lanka into a full-fledged autocracy and declared himself President for life.
In the unlikely event that Basil’s master-plan plays out, that may well be Sri Lanka’s dark and oppressive future. Unless the juggernaut is stopped in its tracks once more by an internal rebellion or the external mobilisation of anti-Rajapaksa forces.