By Rasika Jayakody
One and a half months ago, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the fifth Executive President of Sri Lanka, seemed invincible. He was surrounded by a family clique who wielded immense power in the country’s political sphere. He was the war-winning President as well as the leader of the Commonwealth nations who met in Colombo one and a half years back. It looked as if the opposition, which was already in shambles due to internecine power struggles, had only meager chances of defeating him.
Today, Rajapaksa is not only out of power; but also out of the ‘power-circle’ of his own party. Now he cannot influence the decision making bodies of the SLFP. He has been confined to the role of a ‘Patron’ which is more like an honorary position. Maithripala Sirisena, who was the main rival of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the recent election, is now at the helm of Rajapaksa’s party. Sirisena’s appointment as SLFP leader came with the unanimous consent of the Central Committee. The incumbent President has the backing of the entire Parliament – a privilege no other Sri Lankan head of state enjoyed in the past.
Rajapaksa’s letter of resignation, which was sent to the SLFP General Secretary on Friday (16), did not lack emotions.
“With effect from today, I will be handing over the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to President Maithripala Sirisena. Having held membership and various offices including the Party leadership, and having nurtured and safeguarded the Party with great dedication for over 50 years, I am taking this decision as I have a great dislike to see the Sri Lanka Freedom Party face the danger of division. It is the responsibility of all of us who love the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to ensure the unity of the Party, which has helped protect and develop our Motherland. Therefore, the new leadership, the Executive Committee and all officials of the Party should steer it towards the welfare of not only the Party but the entire Nation as well.
I believe that all of you will pay heed to your responsibility of ensuring the safety and security of all Party members as well as upholding democracy within the Party. I also wish to further emphasize that I will strongly represent the wishes and aspirations of the more than 5.7 million members of the public who voted for me at the recent Presidential Election.
I also take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to all of you for the support extended to me throughout the years.”
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation came a day after his brother and former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s resignation from his post as National Organizer of the party. Basil Rajapaksa, stating he spearheaded the election campaign of the party, resigned accepting his failures. The former Minister is now in the US – where he is a citizen – and his return is almost impossible. Former President Rajapaksa’s elder brother, Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, has also reached the end of his long political career and he is likely to retire from active politics with the dissolution of the present Parliament. Former Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, despite the key role he played in the country’s politics, was never a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
At the moment, there are only two Rajapaksas who are actively involved in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. One is Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa who was the de facto ‘prince’ of the SLFP under his father’s rule. He headed the youth wing of the SLFP and was being groomed to be the party leader and the leader of the country one day! The other one is Shashindra Rajapaksa, Chief Minister of the Uva Province until this week. Although he lost his CM position at the council with Harin Fernando capturing power, Shashindra is still an active member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
Former President Rajapaksa dodged the Sri Lanka Freedom Party Executive Committee and Central Committee meetings which took place at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) on Friday (16). It was the most crucial Central Committee meeting which endorsed Maithripala Sirisena as the new Leader of the party among several other important decisions. Even though it was earlier speculated that former President Rajapaksa too would attend the meeting, it seemed as if he changed his mind at the last moment due to some undisclosed reason.
At the meeting Nimal Siripala de Silva was appointed as the new Opposition Leader and John Seneviratne as the chief opposition whip. De Silva’s appointment ruled out the possibility of Rajapaksa’s re-entry into the country’s legislature to lead the parliamentary group of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Now, Nimal Siripala de Silva, who was formerly the Leader of the House, is entrusted by the party with that task.
With this appointment as the Leader of the Opposition, one has every reason to believe that Nimal Siripala de Silva is likely to become the opposition’s Prime Ministerial Candidate at the next general election. This, in other words, means de Silva will lead the election campaign of the party while party leader Maithripala Sirisena will take a “neutral” position, observing the moral high ground. He will be in a position to work with any political party that secures power with a clear mandate at the next general election.
If the UNP grabs power at the general election, the present government will remain with minor changes.
If the SLFP comes to power, a new Cabinet will be appointed by President Sirisena with Nimal Siripala de Silva as the Prime Minister.
Either way, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be out of the equation.
Former President Rajapaksa can only make inroads into the Parliament either by contesting the forthcoming Parliamentary election or finding a slot in the “national list” or its equivalent under the new electoral system. For such a move, former President Rajapaksa needs the consent of the SLFP Leader, who was his main rival at the recently held presidential election. Therefore, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political future now lies in the hands of President Maithripala Sirisena.
Meanwhile, Rajapaksa also met President Maithripala Sirisena at the Speaker’s residence on Wednesday. It was their first meeting after their brief encounter at the Elections Department in early December when presidential candidates handed over their nomination papers. The meeting was held immediately after the former President informed his party seniors that he was willing to hand over the chairmanship to the incumbent President.
Rajapaksa made this decision not because he had any love for the new President. It was clear that the party was facing a major split due to Rajapaksa’s non-cooperation and the majority of its members were aligning themselves with President Sirisena.
At the meeting with President Sirisena, Rajapaksa urged him to ensure the safety of his family members – especially his son Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa. The former President said his son had also lodged a complaint with the Tangalle Police over some death threats he received. In response to this, President Maithripala Sirisena had said he would look into the matter and take necessary steps to ensure the security of the former President’s family members.
It is also important to examine as to how the SLFP’s transfer of power would affect ongoing investigations into bribery and corruption allegations against the previous government. Many quarters have already asked whether the “new shift” will hamper the anti-corruption initiative – which was in fact a key election promise put forward by the group who supported Maithripala Sirisena.
The government has already set up a mechanism to collect details from the public with regard to bribery and corruption over the past ten years. The mechanism is now operating under former UNP Provincial Councilor Shiral Lakthilake and Power and Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka. In addition to that, President Sirisena’s 100 day mechanism, promises to set up a special commission to investigate into bribery charges.
Meanwhile, the anti-corruption activists of the national unity government have already stated that the SLFP’s internal transfer of power will not make any impact on the ongoing investigations into bribery and corruption. They told ‘The Nation’ that stern action would be taken against those who were responsible for bribery and corruption during the period between 2005 and 2015 – which includes the two terms of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
“Even the President cannot influence this process,” a spokesperson of the anti-corruption initiative, who expressed his views on this matter, said. They added that the new government would strengthen the institutions so that the positions of power would not be able to influence the processes like in the past.
Courtesy: The Nation