Battle Lines Drawn for 2015 General Elections Between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa

General elections 2015: MR’s nomination ups the ante

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The chips are down – the battle lines for the 2015 general election have been drawn between two key political personalities – Ranil Wickremesinghe, UNP leader and the party’s prime ministerial candidate, and Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president whose nomination from the UPFA was confirmed by that coalition’s leadership at the eleventh hour, without naming him as prime ministerial candidate. Just how the innumerable variables in this contest will shift, combine and coalesce to produce a new parliament, will be the stuff of public debate and political movement in the two months ahead.

On Friday evening UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha issued a brief statement announcing the decision made at a party leaders’ meeting presided over by UPFA leader, President Maithripala Sirisena, where it was agreed that Rajapaksa would be given nomination. The surprise announcement was followed by a press conference at Abhayaramaya, Narahenpita, addressed by some of the former president’s main supporters including former MPs Dinesh Gunewardena (MEP), Vasudeva Nanayakkara (DLF), Wimal Weerawansa (NFF) and Tissa Vitarana (LSSP) along with former SLFP MPs G L Peiris and Dulles Alahaperuma.

The stalwarts behind the ‘bring-back-Mahinda’ project described the moment as a milestone in their long campaign to have Rajapaksa lead the UPFA to victory in the upcoming election. They evaded a journalist’s question as to whether he will be given the top spot in parliament in the event of a UPFA victory, referring instead to a remark by Sirisena that if the UPFA won, the choice of prime minister would be made by the elected MPs.

Main rival

Though his detractors sought to portray him as a ‘has been’ in politics, the evidence of Rajapaksa’s larger-than-life presence has come from none other than Wickremesinghe himself. Why else would he be so anxious to throw out challenges to Rajapaksa from every platform, vowing to ‘destroy the Rajapaksa regime’ (“Rajapaksa regimaya vanasalaa damanna kriya karanawa..”) etc.? In issuing these threats and challenging MR to contest, Wickremesinghe has correctly identified his true rival and main opponent in the political firmament.

It could be said that the ‘bring-back-Mahinda’ campaign’s following had reached ‘critical mass,’ at the point in time when it was decided that Mahinda would be allowed to contest from the UPFA. The formidable crowds attending the series of rallies held in Nugegoda, Ratnapura, Kurunegala and Matara seemed to indicate that for the majority Sinhala-Buddhist constituency islandwide, it would not matter what party or symbol he contested under. They would vote for him regardless.

It is often said that the size of crowds attending rallies is not a reliable measure of the final outcome in any election. But observation of the video footage would show a difference in the behaviour of crowds attending the pro-MR rallies, which always turned out to be ‘interactive’ events, where people who gathered spontaneously expressed their support for Rajapaksa in a very emotional manner. Political analyst Dayan Jayatilleka has described the pheonomenon as ‘a grassroots populist movement of a sort we have not seen since 1956’ – the more remarkable in that it doesn’t even have a formal party structure behind it.

Sirisena’s responsibility

As leader of the SLFP and the UPFA coalition, it was President Maithripala Sirisena’s onerous responsibility to make the final call on the crucial matter of Rajapaksa’s candidacy. He made a bold decision, and with it he has averted the inevitable split that would have occurred in the SLFP as well as the UPFA, had he turned down the appeal. It also reduces the likelihood of a hung parliament that might have resulted from a three cornered contest, had the Left parties in the coalition broken away and contested separately in support of Mahinda, taking a sizeable segment of the SLFP along with them. Of all the possibilities, this would have had the most destabilizing effects.

The president will no doubt face intense criticism from his UNP partners in government on account of this decision. He has already caused displeasure among many who helped bring him into power in the UNP, the JHU and the JVP, for even considering the arguments in favour of Rajapaksa. At the same time he’s taken the flak from his own party while attempting to resolve the differences between two groups in the SLFP on this thorny issue.

Anti-imperialist coalition

There is a marked nationalist and anti-imperialist orientation in the loose coalition that has been backing Rajapaksa since his Jan 8th election defeat. It was evident at the Abhayaramaya press briefing where LSSP leader Tissa Vitarana said the project to dislodge the UPFA and install a UNP government was similar to developments elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. There were forces at work to change governments, democratically if possible but otherwise through the gun. The UNP had endangered the independence and sovereignty of the country by aligning itself with the US he said. He thanked President Sirisena for understanding that there was a strategic attempt to divide the SLFP and UPFA, and for allowing Rajapaksa to contest. G L Peiris said that just as Rajapaksa’s remarkable qualities made it possible to eradicate terrorism, those same qualities were needed now to deal with new threats to national security and the economy.

DLF leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara (outside, after the briefing) asked to comment on reports that there was foreign influence brought to bear on President Sirisena, said there was pressure from the US, Europe, UK and Canada to block Rajapaksa’s candidacy, according to his information ‘on the grapevine.’ He rejected the idea that India was involved. He warned that there might be further nasty repercussions from abroad, and did not even rule out the possibility of assassinations.

The UNP-led government’s pro-Western foreign policy has come in for criticism in Parliament as well. During an adjournment motion debate on 25th June, Liberal Party leader Rajiva Wijesinghe lambasted what he called the ‘blind emulation’ of J R Jayewardena’s foreign policy, which he warned would lead to ‘similar disastrous results as in the 1980s.’ Wijesinghe also referred to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s remarks reported in Japanese media, on ‘reviewing Sri Lanka’s China-dependent foreign policy,’ and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s attacks on Australia. Commenting on the Foreign Ministry’s treatment of former UN Permanent Representative in Geneva Tamara Kunanayakam he said “the real tragedy we find is that personal vendettas are destroying the interests of the country.”

Referring to answers given in parliament earlier by the Foreign Minister in response to his questions he said “The foreign minister knows what happened in 1983 was appalling. To condemn Ms Kunanayakam as an LTTE activist for her outlining of information with regard to that incident is incredibly shabby.”

Yahapalana report card

On the short-lived UNP-led minority government’s ‘Yahapalanaya’ record, on which it will be judged at this election, the report-card does not read too well. The new government spoke of creating an ‘independent police force’ and it set up the FCID (Financial Crimes Investigation Division) that is accused of selectively targeting political opponents. It spoke of an ‘independent judiciary’ but it removed judges at will, criticised Supreme Court judgments and on occasion encouraged the flouting of magistrate’s orders. It spoke of ‘good governance,’ only to end up whitewashing one of the biggest financial scams in Central Bank history. It positioned itself as a ‘national unity government’ and yet encouraged serial defections from the Opposition, enticing some MPs with ministerial portfolios while others complained of harassment. It spoke of a foreign policy of ‘non-alignment’ and ‘friendship with all,’ but proceeded to alienate China, one of Sri Lanka’s oldest, most valued and now most powerful allies in the international arena. And it has aligned itself with the world’s only superpower, compromising sovereignty.

The single (and important) achievement of the ‘yahapalana’ government, was the passage of the 19th amendment which trimmed the powers of the executive presidency and set up a Constitutional Council to appoint independent commissions on Elections, the Police, the Judiciary, Public Service etc.

As for the former president, he will have to simply shed his former corrupt friends and ubiquitous relatives if he expects to project the image of having ‘cleaned up his act.’ In his speech at Medamulana where he announced his readiness to contest the election, he did pledge to ‘correct any mistakes’ and form a more people-friendly dispensation. But this message would have to come out far more loud and clear if he hopes to win back the votes he lost last time around, for any potential UPFA government.