The seven-week-long curse which blighted this beautiful and bountiful land from 26 October onwards ended over the mid-December weekend.
On Saturday 15 December former President and Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa terminated his illegitimate tenure as purported Prime Minister by signing a letter of resignation at his residence amidst a gathering of acolytes, thereby demonstrating that he was relinquishing a post that was never rightfully his in the first place.
The letter was dutifully submitted to President Maithripala Sirisena who had capriciously removed “Prime Minister with a majority” Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with “Prime Minister without a majority” Mahinda Rajapaksa. Thereafter on Sunday 16 December at the auspicious time of 11:16 a.m. Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in by President Sirisena as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the fifth time. Thus ended the 52-day-long political crisis that will go down as the darkest chapter in the constitutional history of Sri Lanka.
Incredible and unprecedented display of resistance
Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena did not call it quits gracefully. They did not change their stances willingly and step down. They were made to back off by an incredible and unprecedented display of resistance – to an unconstitutional, illegal act – on multiple levels in different forms. This resistance was demonstrated in Parliament as well as the public domain.
Never in the post -independence history of this nation has such a popular non-violent protest movement cutting across race, religion, caste, class or creed been witnessed. Substantial sections of the Sri Lankan population mobilised together as a united nation and rallied around a principled common cause. It was basically a case of the country and people defending constitutional democracy and resisting flagrant attempts to capture power through the backdoor.
People constantly maintained vigil at Temple Trees, picketing, placard waving, sit-in demos, pocket meetings, processions and mass rallies were held. Sections of the media as well as social media activists conducted a ceaseless barrage of criticism at those responsible for causing this anti-constitutional political crisis.
The blatant power grab attempt through the backdoor relied on a cynical premise. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Likewise the Maithripala-Mahinda duo calculated that a majority could be cobbled together in Parliament by enticing MP’s through various incentives of a dishonourable nature. Despite a few who succumbed to such entreaties, the bulk of the parliamentarians remained honourable.
Intertwined with the assault on the Legislature was the physical targeting of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya in the House. The Speaker withstood all the “attacks” and spearheaded resistance within parliamentary precincts. Unable to procure a majority in Parliament, President Sirisena violated the Constitution again by dissolving Parliament and scheduling elections.
Several entities including political parties, an elections commissioner and a civil society organisation filed Fundamental Rights petitions; 122 MPs also went to courts seeking a quo warranto writ in a separate move. In an indicator of what could be in the pipeline, both the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal issued interim orders pending final determination of cases. Maithripala and Mahinda could have backed off gracefully at least then. But they did not as the lesson had not sunk in. Finally the Judiciary delivered the coup de grace through two unanimous rulings. In the meantime the purported premier and his purported ministers had lost six votes in Parliament. Grudgingly compelled to accept the inevitable, the power-hungry violators of the Constitution have now thrown in the towel.
No room for complacency
The political crisis that began on 26 October is now abating. There is however no room for complacency as the struggle for political power compounded by an incompatibility of personalities will definitely continue in the coming days in new forms and fresh directions. Ranil Wickremesinghe may have been restored rightfully to his position as Prime Minister but the power-hungry elements who conspired to topple him will certainly persist with their efforts in the future.
The farewell speech made by Mahinda Rajapaksa at the time of his resignation as well as the address to the UNP made by President Sirisena after swearing in Ranil Wickremesinghe as Premier indicate clearly that the battle-lines are drawn with no respite possible even for a brief period.
Both Mahinda and Maithripala will jointly and separately work hard to undermine the Government although Sirisena as President is the nominal head of the same Government. Having failed in their anti-constitutional coup to remove and replace Wickremesinghe, both Maithripala and Mahinda will now continue from where they were compelled to stop. They will continue with renewed vigour the task of completing their unfinished agenda.
Mahinda Rajapaksa with the aid of his followers in the UPFA and SLPP camps will keep agitating against the UNF Government on the basis of a four-point agenda. Firstly he would keep clamouring for an early parliamentary election. Long-overdue Provincial Council elections also will be demanded. Secondly, he will oppose all moves to enact a new constitution that would among other things envisage the abolition of the executive presidency. Thirdly, Mahinda will orchestrate a not-so-subtle racist campaign alleging a betrayal of Sinhala Buddhist interests by exploiting the fact that TNA support from Opposition ranks provides a majority to the UNP. Fourthly, all economic projects of the Government will be condemned as a sell-out to Western imperialism and neo-liberalism. Wide-spread protest demonstrations will be organised.
Sirisena Will Function as a Fifth Column
President Sirisena on the other hand would will the fight against the Ranil Wickremesinghe in his own peculiar way. He will function as a fifth column within the Government that he is nominally head of. Sirisena gave thundering notice of what could be expected of him in the future when he delivered a nasty frontal attack on Ranil and the UNP after swearing in Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister.
Current news reports indicate that Maithripala is delaying the formation of the new Government by demanding extra portfolios for himself. He is also objecting to particular persons being made ministers and also preventing those who want to do so from joining the Government. It is crystal clear that Sirisena will continue to obstruct and undermine the UNF-led Government in every which way he can in the days to come.
Thus we can expect Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa to continue waging war against Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Government from within and without. Rajapaksa will launch attacks from outside and Sirisena will sabotage from the inside.
While this war of attrition goes on, the Mahinda-Maithripala duo is also likely to pick up the pieces of their abandoned original plan and continue. The earlier plan was to garner the support of MPs from different political parties quietly and then defeat the Govt on a Budget or another money bill vote. This plan was jettisoned for the subsequent conspiracy of appointing Mahinda as premier and following it up by cobbling together a majority of MPs in support.
Now that the anti-constitutional, anti-democratic exercise has been soundly defeated by the people’s resistance, the defeated duo will continue from where they left off and continue enticing MPs through incentives. If they do acquire a majority, then they may strike again.
Demand for Parliamentary elections
The mainspring of the opposition movement against the Wickremesinghe regime would be the demand for parliamentary elections. Both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena have sought to justify their power grab attempt by saying that all they wanted was an early general election.
The dissolution of Parliament and scheduling of elections by gazette proclamation that was very correctly deemed as a constitutional violation by the Supreme Court is being defended by the guilty parties as an exercise undertaken in good faith to ensure early elections and nothing else. There has been unfair criticism of the courts on the lines that the Judiciary was preventing polls to the Legislature.
After their plan was thwarted and Ranil Wickremesinghe was restored to his rightful post, the Mahinda-Maithripala duo and acolytes persist with a propaganda campaign that the people want an early election and that Wickremesinghe was not heeding the demand because he is afraid of facing defeat in an election.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP and UNF, the TNA and JVP and all other organisations and individuals who opposed the power grab attempt keep on reiterating that their opposition was to the illegal, anti- constitutional power grab exercise and not towards the holding of elections. But Mahinda and his minions in true Goebbelsian mode keep repeating that the Government is preventing the exercise of the people’s franchise rights.
The present Government is entitled to go on and complete its full term of office as long as it commands a majority in the House. This the UNF has with the support of the TNA even if the UPFA-SLFP elements who were part of the Government earlier opted out. Nevertheless it remains somewhat vulnerable to charges of not holding elections because of a perception – promoted and propagated by diverse elements – that Wickremesinghe and the UNP-UNF would lose badly in an election. Hence the UNP and Ranil will be assailed by a constant barrage of propaganda that they are delaying the holding of Parliamentary elections because they are afraid to lose.
U.N.P. On Defensive About Facing Elections
The UNP-led Government is well within its rights to refuse an early Parliamentary poll but is somewhat on the defensive when it comes to refuting the assertion of deliberate delay due to fear of facing definite defeat. This is due to two main reasons.
The first is that many in the UNP are not very confident of winning the polls if and when held. Going by the February 2018 Local authority results, the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp sees itself as the favourites in a general election as the SLPP got the better of both the UNP and SLFP in that poll. With the political realignment between the Mahinda-led SLPP and Maithripala-led SLFP, the joint forces of Mahinda and Maithripala are expected to defeat the UNP conclusively. Sadly for the grand old party significant sections of the UNP also subscribe to this viewpoint privately.
The second reason is that many stalwarts in the UNP have bought into rival propaganda that Ranil Wickremesinghe will not be able to lead the party to victory at elections. In order to cover up their shortcomings and deficiencies they find it convenient to scapegoat Ranil as the cause.
Wickremesinghe stepping down to facilitate the presidential candidacy of Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena in 2010 and 2015 has not helped to dispel such doubts about Ranil’s “unwinnability” either. However the recent power grab through backdoor fiasco has jaded the images of both Mahinda and Maithripala considerably. Their stock has certainly fallen while the long-tarnished image of Ranil Wickremesinghe has been refurbished.
The arbitrary and unfair manner in which he was removed and replaced as Prime Minister has made people of different backgrounds rally around him and engage in a people’s protest. In spite of Wickremesinghe’s perceived faults and deficits, he became the symbol of the people’s resistance movement. This has enhanced his political image to a great extent. What the future may be is somewhat unpredictable, but right now Ranil rides the crest of a populist wave.
Things are not as rosy as earlier for Mahinda
While Ranil is on a roll, things are not as rosy as earlier for Mahinda Rajapaksa. There is a great deal of disillusionment in different degrees about Mahinda among even his supporters. The cumulative result of the recent political crisis has resulted in the diminution of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political stature and reputation.
There is no doubt that Mahinda Rajapaksa is still the single most popular mass figure in the seven Sinhala majority provinces of Sri Lanka. This aura however has suffered erosion in recent times. Mahinda’s hasty, ill-advised attempt to grab power through Machiavellian stratagems has resulted in the ex-President cutting a pathetically forlorn figure. The man described as the “Medamulana Machiavelli” has been denied the spoils of prime ministerial office. The abortive attempt to capture power through the backdoor has shocked many people. The show of force in seizing control of State media institutions, the disgraceful violence by members of Parliament against the Speaker, the flagrant violation of constitutional norms and other related acts of omission and commission have caused anxiety in the minds of many about the fate that may befall the beloved country if Mahinda Rajapaksa returned to power.
Furthermore, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s larger-than-life image has been considerably dented by his political shenanigans. Mahinda is depicted by his detractors as a selfish, power-hungry politician without principles or scruples who would resort to diabolical measures to seize power. This portrayal is perceived as correct by a growing number of people.
Reinforcing this negative image further is the once purported Prime Minister’s craving for the disputed post of Leader of Opposition. The Kurunegala District MP who is seldom present in the House now wants to be Opposition Leader also, instead of allocating it to someone else from the UPFA like Dinesh Gunawardena who has been functioning like a de-facto Opposition Leader in the past.
Against this backdrop, the earlier calculation that Mahinda and his cohorts are electorally invincible may not be entirely correct. Mahinda’s short-lived tenure as purported premier has pinpointed his feet of clay. Six defeats in Parliament voting and adverse judicial verdicts have downsized but not eliminated his political clout.
The wide disparity between the Sinhala vote banks of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe that existed earlier has been somewhat reduced at least for now. Mahinda still has more “Sinhala support” than Ranil but it may not be as huge as perceived earlier.
There is a subterranean increase in sympathy for the wrongfully-victimised underdog Ranil. This, combined with the high level of support among the minority ethnicities for Wickremesinghe as demonstrated clearly during the recent political crisis, indicates that an electoral tussle may not be a hopelessly one-sided fight as speculated earlier.
Ranil and the way forward
The UNF rally at Galle Face Green this week had a mammoth attendance. The number of people who gathered to hear Ranil and others speak topped six figures. An ebullient Ranil Wickremesinghe made an announcement of far-reaching consequences at the mass meeting. He spoke about forming a new political alliance named the National Democratic Front (NDF) and contest elections seeking a two-thirds majority. Excerpts from a news report in Daily FT about the Galle Face Rally stated as follows:
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday led from the front by calling on the public to give a two-thirds majority to a coalition led by the United National Party (UNP) at the next general election to abolish the executive presidency and outlined plans to form a new coalition titled the National Democratic Front (NDF), insisting the constitutional crisis had shown that no other major party could be depended on to implement the changes needed to protect democracy in Sri Lanka… He pledged to establish a broad coalition to promote democracy and said the proposal would be presented to the UNP Executive Committee as early as this Friday.
“I have no doubt the proposal will be accepted. We will call it the National Democratic Front (DNF).This coalition is needed to promote and protect democracy. I ask everyone here and the public at large to give us a two-thirds majority at the next general election. It is clear we cannot depend on anyone else to abolish the Executive Presidency. We need to have the capacity to do this ourselves. There are still many laws that undermine the independence of our institutions, hinder the development of human rights and prohibit the expansion of democracy in this country. We need to change this…
“If they wanted an election they should have brought a motion to Parliament and asked for a vote. That was all that was needed. We intend to speak with all political parties on when elections should be called. That is the way it should be done.”
The above-stated excerpts from the Prime Minister’s speech provides much food for thought. In a bid to fathom Ranil Wickremesinghe’s present state of mind on the current situation and possibly discern what future course of action he may be contemplating, this writer spoke to a number of informed people capable of shedding some light on the UNP Leader’s mindset.
Although it may be too early to arrive at firm conclusions, the impression I gathered from these conversations is that Ranil Wickremesinghe is determined to shed his customary cautious approach and stride intrepidly into politically-uncharted waters. William Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark was faced with the dilemma of “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/And by opposing end them”. Unlike the vacillating Hamlet, Ranil wants to oppose his troubles and end them rather than suffer.
Ready To Form Fresh Political Alliance
It appears therefore that Ranil Wickremesinghe is getting ready to form a fresh political alliance and face early elections seeking a two-thirds majority for the broad front. Instead of reacting defensively to attacks launched by Maithripala and Mahinda and their minions, Ranil wants to go on the political offensive and confront his political adversaries directly.Arguably Ranil’s popularity with the people at large is at peak point right now.In spite of his perceived flaws Wickremesinghe has become the symbol of people’s resistance to anti- Constitutional attempts to capture power. The brazen acts of highhandedness displayed by Mahinda’s minions during his brief stint as puroported premier such as the violence in Parliament and the mob seizure of State media institutions caused trepidation in the people’s minds about what lay in store under a full-fledged Rajapaksa administration. Ranil in comparison was seen as”safe”.
The recent crisis has also strenghened unity within UNP and UNF folds. The party closed ranks and remained loyal to the leader.Constituents of the UNF also firmly backed Ranil. The TNA also went the extra mile by extending support to Wickremesinghe. All this has infused Ranil with fresh confidence. He feels emboldened at this juncture to confront his adversaries frontally.Ranil also realises that this current moment of being on top may not last for ever.Already the composition of the new cabinet in general and the re-entry of Ravi Karunanayake in particular has evoked negative responses.
So instead of passively responding to taunts about fearing a Parliamentary poll, Ranil plans to call an early Parliamentary election (for which he needs two-thirds consent) with the support of other parties and face up to the challenge. Wickremesinghe may be wanting to capitalise on the current favourable situation and hold elections. This he may do after presenting a people-friendly budget in January/February. By doing so he will deprive the Rajapaksa-led Opposition from resorting to the familiar cry of “elections, elections”.
It remains to be seen as to whether the UNP will be able to form a broad new alliance as envisaged. It is also uncertain whether early elections would or could be held with the consent of other political parties. What is certain however is that Ranil Wickremesinghe – restored to his rightful position as Prime Minister – will be resolutely proactive in fighting his political battles in the future.
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This article was written for the “My View” Column appearing in the “Daily FT” of December 21st , 2018. It can be accessed here: