President Mahinda Rajapaksa, while he was ensconced in power, thought his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga would dree her weird in retirement without troubling him. He did not know her. She bode her time and made a stunning comeback by engineering his downfall. He did now know what hit him! President Maithiripala Sirisena, having defeated Rajapaksa in January thought the latter would resign himself to his fate. He, too, thought wrong. His predecessor has bounced back to worry him.
Mahinda is now becoming a movement as in his Opposition days. For the first time in several years he is seriously engaged in politics at the grassroots level the way he did while the SLFP was in total disarray from 1977 to 1994. If he had done so during his second term, he would have won the Jan. 08 presidential election easily. Veteran leftist D. E. W. Gunasekera, who objected to President Rajapaksa’s decision to go for a snap presidential election, pointed out that the latter had not carried out a serious political campaign for years. The President had been only opening development projects, making public speeches, carrying babies and kissing them instead of mobilizing the grassroots of the SLFP, Gunasekera argued.
It is popularly said that when politicians have brains they have no power and when they have power they have no brains—mole thiyanakota bale ne, bale thiyanakota mole ne. Having lost power, Rajapaksa seems to have adopted a bottom-up approach in a bid to reassert himself in the party. He has targeted the base of the party pyramid by winning over a host of SLFP local government members and provincial councillors besides more than two dozen MPs of the party. President Sirisena has consolidated his power at the apex.
It is too early to say whether Rajapaksa’s strategy will help him become the UPFA’s prime ministerial candidate, but he has succeeded in unsettling his political enemies within and outside the SLFP. His campaign has rattled the new government so much that it has already appointed 77 ministers including 26 SLFPers, who lucked out recently. Speculation is rife in political circles that 10 more senior SLFP MPs who have sided with Rajapaksa will be bribed with ministerial portfolios in the wake of last week’s successful Bring Back Mahinda rally in Ratnapura. It was attended by more than 25 SLFP parliamentarians and over 400 local government and provincial council members in spite of a party order that they boycott pro-Mahinda rallies. At this rate by the time the government’s 100-day programme comes to an end, the country is likely to have more than 100 ministers!
Rajapaksa is not so naïve as to expect to be fielded at the next general election as the UPFA’s prime ministerial candidate. President Sirisena, not wanting to be in the same predicament as the proverbial Arab who shared his tent with a camel only to sleep under the stars in the end, is sure to resist his predecessor’s efforts to contest the parliamentary polls on the UPFA ticket. Kumaratunga, too, will do everything in her power to scuttle her bête noire’s plan. They may seek to expand the Cabinet further to let more and more SLFP MPs savour power in what is being described as a national government and postpone the general election in the hope that Rajapaksa’s campaign will run out of steam with the passage of time.
The government might even be compelled to resort to repressive measures, out of desperation, to keep Rajapaksa at bay. Hostile action will only give him an excuse to challenge Sirisena more vigorously in the coming months and field a separate team at the next parliamentary polls and shift the blame for jeopardising the party unity to the new leadership which is honeymooning with the UNP much to the consternation of the SLFP’s rank and file. The next Parliament is likely to be hung with each party with a considerable number of MPs wielding enormous bargaining power.