In the heady days before a presidential election was declared on 22 November 2014, a UNP delegation comprising key party strategists held a secret meeting with the man who was being proposed for common candidate of a grand opposition coalition gearing up for battle against the mighty Rajapaksa regime.
The civil society movement mobilising support for the common candidacy had vetted several options and landed on a most surprising choice. SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena was a quiet politician, hailing from a remote village in Sri Lanka’s ancient capital of Polonnaruwa. In a political career spanning 40 years, he never made big waves. For this reason perhaps, his image had remained intact.
He was an unassuming candidate, without the ambition and power-hunger that had tainted all other potentials in the ring. Once the choice was made, it was up to the UNP to conduct its own assessment of whether it could throw its weight behind his candidature. Without the UNP, there was no electoral base and no common candidacy. The party was grappling with how it could get behind a true-blue politician, and they needed a good enough reason to do it.
It was the UNP’s first meeting with Sirisena. In his quiet, steely way, the man who would be President of Sri Lanka in under 60 days told the UNP group that when he made the decision to contest the presidency, he had realised it could mean death. “I am willing to lose my life, if that is what it is going to mean. If we win the election, I will not give up even if they try to kill me,” Sirisena told the UNP delegation.
Five months ago, Sri Lanka was a different place. It was far from exaggerated to believe that contesting against the incumbent could mean death or imprisonment. Sarath Fonseka, the last challenger had been made an example of, and it was a lesson no politician would forget in five years.
2015 was Mahinda Rajapaksa’s do-or-die election. The question of whether he would surrender power if he was defeated was foremost on the minds of opposition strategists. With the might of the armed forces and the entire public service at his command, if President Rajapaksa had decided not to go, the Opposition was convinced there would be blood on the streets on 9 January.
Maithripala Sirisena knew he was putting his life on the line with his candidature. His decision to contest in spite of what could prove dangerous consequences, convinced UNP strategists that he was serious about challenging an all powerful-incumbent.
“When he said that, that was the moment when we knew we could get behind him, because truth be told, that was our greatest fear about this election. We knew we could win it, but we didn’t know if Mahinda would go, any candidate we fielded would have to know the risks involved,” said one member of the delegation who sat in on the secret talks that day.
So when President Sirisena told the people in his address to the nation last Thursday that his decision to contest the presidency was like deciding to jump into the sea with his children, he was not being hyperbolic.
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