The Sunday Observer” Political Editor
It came like a bolt from the blue.
All of a sudden, the concerted preoccupation of the Rajapaksa proxy Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Joint Opposition camp is to push the theory that the former President, twice elected and once defeated in presidential elections over a decade, can contest a fourth time in 2019.
It has been three years since the 19th Amendment was enacted, restoring term limits on the executive presidency. In all this time, the JO, whose members voted overwhelmingly in favour of enacting the 19A, never contested the 1978 constitutional provision that ‘no person who has been twice elected to the office of President by the people, shall be qualified thereafter to be elected to such office by the people’ [Article 31 (3)].
But the latent realisation dawned on the SLPP leadership after a technical legal argument put forth by renowned jurist and former secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Dr Nihal Jayawickrema. Dr Jayawickrema wrote a lengthy legal analysis pointing out that neither Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa nor Chandrika Kumaratunga were barred from contesting the presidency again by provisions in the 19A. His arguments, discussed elsewhere in this newspaper (See interview on Page 10) rests on the premise that the 19A created a new office of the president by repealing and replacing Article 30 of the constitution, instead of merely changing a word in the relevant section to shorten the presidential term, from ‘six’ years to ‘five years.
For all intents and purposes, Mahinda Rajapaksa remains a member of the SLFP. The party has held no disciplinary inquiry against the former leader, even though he continues to function as the standard bearer of the pohottuwa faction and openly campaigned for the SLPP at the local government elections in February this year. Political non-entities were put forward as candidates in that election by the SLPP, but the Rajapaksa brand proved powerful enough to carry the party to victory in the polls. The SLPP/JO faction has been grappling with how to deal with a similar problem when the party faces presidential elections in 2019. This may also explain why the SLPP has agitated strongly for a parliamentary election ahead of the presidential poll.
The Government faces its own existential crisis with regard to its candidate for the 2019 election. But this conundrum has been completely overshadowed by the full blown crisis within the JO/SLPP that has been leaking into the public domain. The debate is dominated by the question – ‘which Rajapaksa in 2020’ – but in fact the crisis goes much deeper. The most obvious contender for the SLPP nomination is to date former Defence Secretary and Viyath Maga Chairman, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. While JO members lock horns publicly about who should be the candidate, the former Defence Secretary has been quietly acquiring a ground-game, mobilising support in multiple quarters as he seeks to bulldoze his way if necessary to the 2019 candidacy. Gotabaya Rajapaksa holds multiple meetings every day, from ex-soldiers to female lawyer groups to Tamil and Muslim media associations as he seeks to build his candidate credentials. Separately, his network of ex-military personnel are busy taking the message of his candidacy and credentials as a strong and ‘uncorrupt’ leader, to the villages. In meetings with senior diplomats serving in Colombo, the former Defence Secretary openly states that he will be the Rajapaksa faction candidate. In a recent meeting with Tamil media personnel, he admitted as much when upon being pressed about whether he would be the choice of the SLPP, he said “it looks that way”. Publicly, however the Gotabaya Rajapaksa faction defers to former President Rajapaksa, claiming that his word will ultimately be law.
His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa pulled a similar tactic on former President Kumaratunga in 2005, practically forcing her hand on the nomination by mobilising support in powerful sections of the party and the Buddhist clergy. At this rate, there are grave concerns within the party that if the former Defence Secretary’s bid for the nomination fails, his band of former military officials, professionals and academics will train its guns on the SLPP leadership. On the other hand, the prospect of a Gotabaya candidacy is not sitting well on the rest of the JO and sections of the SLPP. JO frontliners like Vasudeva Nanayakkara have already gone public with this opposition.
Political observers with knowledge of the inner workings of the Rajapaksa faction argue that Nanayakkara, a close confidante of the former President, is mirroring Mahinda Rajapaksa’s own opposition to a Gota 2020 candidacy. Recent revelations in a Tamil language newspaper that the former US Ambassador Atul Keshap had told the former President that the US would “not allow” Gotabaya Rajapaksa to contest appeared to have leaked practically from the horse’s mouth, media reports said. The editor of the newspaper is a well known close associate of the former President. The idea was to get the message that Gotabaya’s path to the presidency in 2019 may not necessarily be smooth, observers noted. With his own sights set securing the presidency in 2025 for his eldest son Namal Rajapaksa, the former President is grappling with finding the candidate who is mostly likely to pave the way for that political eventuality. At least for the moment, in his calculation, the former Defence Secretary will not cut it.
In an interview with a Sinhalese newspaper this weekend, JO heavyweight Udaya Gammanpila who strongly backs the prospect of a Gotabaya candidacy, said there were several names in play for the nomination. Dinesh Gunewardane and Chamal Rajapaksa were strong contenders, while former Transport Minister Kumar Welgama also appeared to be harbourng presidential ambitions, Gammanpila said in the interview.
When the candidate debate within the JO/SLPP was getting completely out of hand, former President Rajapaksa placed a blanket moratorium on discussing the party’s 2019 candidate, but this has had little effect. SLPP frontliners see the debate as a major distraction from taking the fight to the ruling coalition, a serious fodder for the Government and its allies. Naturally the prospect of a split in the Rajapaksa camp, is music to the ears of the anti-Rajapaksa forces that mobilised to defeat the regime in January 2015.
In this backdrop when Dr Jayawickrema floated his analysis, naturally SLPP Chairman G.L. Pieris, a professor of law himself, jumped at the chance. If the SLPP has the slightest chance to put its main standard bearer back into the fray in 2019, it will make all other contenders pipe-down for the time being. The best case scenario for the SLPP is still to force the Government’s hand on a parliamentary poll. Given its poor record with the ethnic minority communities – a gap the former Defence Secretary at least is trying desperately to bridge – any SLPP candidate faces an uphill task on the arithmetic to secure victory at a presidential election.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, better than anyone else, probably realises the prospect of his contesting the presidency a fourth time is a remote one. SLPP insiders claim that despite Prof. Pieris’ bluster, it was extremely unlikely that the party will move the courts on the question of the former president contesting again in 2019. Despite contesting legal opinions, there seems to be broad consensus that the provisions of the 19th Amendment leave little wiggle room or ambiguity. But at this point, in the backdrop of the Hitler saga and heated internal debates about the 2019 candidate, the prospect of a Mahinda presidency is the SLPP’s best chance to quell the mini rebellions.
For both the Government and the opposition, internal squabbles and pressures dominate the political discourse about the future.
But Mahinda Rajapaksa, better than anyone else, knows that internal rumblings and simmering discontent can have devastating effects on the trajectory of political power. The fissures within his own ranks cost him the presidency and state power once three years ago. He knows that any sign of a split in his camp at this time, will kill any momentum the SLPP mustered in the February local authorities election. And he knows these internal fractures will embolden his opponents, who will smell blood a second time, if the Rajapaksa monolith shows the slightest sign of a crack.