By Jehan Perera
Shortly after his unforeseen defeat at the presidential elections of January 2015 by an alliance of opposition parties, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa began to campaign for a comeback that was backed by more and more members of the UPFA. Although President Maitripala Sirisena made clear his unhappiness, and initially resisted the comeback bid, he finally yielded on the grounds that it was the only way to prevent the division of the former ruling party. President Sirisena’s decision to go along with the former president’s nomination to the UPFA was viewed as a betrayal of all that the joint opposition, civil society and the president himself had campaigned for at the presidential election. They had all highlighted the corruption and abuse of power that they pointed out had become a norm under the leadership of the former president and his government.
President Sirisena faced a difficult choice. If he had not given nomination to the former president, he would have fed a perception that the former president was being unfairly kept out of the UPFA and that the UPFA was being unfairly weakened. It would have enabled the former president and his allies to claim that he continued to be immensely popular and beloved of the people and that the decision to keep him out of the electoral contest was injurious to the interests of the former ruling party. This would have given an opportunity to political forces that failed to obtain representation or power at the general elections to use the former president’s name and fame and seek to get him back to a position of power through other means.
President Sirisena’s rationale for agreeing to the grant of nominations to the former president was to preserve the unity of the former ruling party. By acquiescing in the UPFA’s decision to include the former president and almost all of the members of his government, even those accused of corruption and abuse of power, President Sirisena appeared to give to the UPFA virtually everything it wanted. By following the democratic process and acceding to the wishes of the majority within the UPFA President Sirisena also effectively negated the role of undemocratic forces. Instead he permitted the former president to contest from within the UPFA and to prove his popularity and the extent to which he is beloved of the people.
It is ironic that by granting the former president nomination, President Sirisena also created a situation in which it became impossible for sections of the UPFA to continue to remain within it. During the presidential election in January they had campaigned against the former president and for President Sirisena who sought election on an anti-corruption platform. By granting of nominations to the former president has set in motion a train of events is likely to doom the efforts of the former president and his allies to regain power. Former president Rajapaksa’s entry into the electoral fray led several leading members of the UPFA who had opposed the former president and his allies on the grounds of corruption and abuse of power to leave the party. They have now joined the UNP to form the United National Front for Good Governance. This has not only deprived the UPFA of formidable allies but also turned them into formidable opponents.
The UPFA expected, and is likely to continue, to use a mixture of Sinhalese nationalism and arguments on national security to mobilise the ethnic majority vote to their side. This was evident at the first campaign rally of the UPFA at Anuradhapura where party speakers brought up the issue of the impending UN report on war crimes to allege that more than 40 members of the security forces and government members would be implicated by name and be at risk of being taken for war crimes trials. However, with the departure of the JHU from the UPFA in protest at the nomination of the former president and those accused of corruption, the government alliance, the United National Front for Good Governance has equal credibility to claim the defence of the country. Further, the emphasis in the past seven months since the end of the Rajapaksa government has been on issues of economy, corruption and good governance, and not on nationalism. It will be difficult to bring the latter back to the centre stage for purposes of mobilising voters.
The day after nominations closed, President Sirisena undermined whatever prospects that former president Rajapaksa had to get back to power. In an address to the nation President Maithripala Sirisena explained his controversial decision to go along with the grant of nominations to the former president as due to his bowing to the wishes of the majority in the former ruling party. In his address to the nation he explained the circumstances under which he felt compelled to accede to the demand from within the rank and file of the UPFA to grant the former president nomination. He said he was forced to give the nomination as this was what the majority within the party wanted. As a democrat he had no choice but to accept the verdict of the majority.
In his address to the nation, the president went on to say that he had been given a mandate to usher in a new era and a culture of good governance and democracy, social justice, accountability and transparency. Accordingly, he would not appoint the former president as prime minister, even if the UPFA obtained a majority in parliament as there were other suitable leaders within the party. He also said that he would not permit anybody to turn back the change brought about since he took office. The last term of former president Rajapaksa was notable for the weakening of the rule of law, as it saw the impeachment of the chief justice in a manner that violated due process and the passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution that legally eroded the independence of institutions that play an essential check and balance role in society.
The president’s words are bound to evoke a strong resonance with the general population who can see the weakening and collapse of institutions taking place as a result of mis-governance over the past several years. Corrupt practices have become institutionalized and it is difficult to get anything done in a government office without resorting to bribes. The general public had become resentful of this at all levels of society. There is also a fear of the impunity enjoyed by those who have political connections, where those even accused of rape are difficult to arrest or charge due to political interference that comes from the highest levels.
With his address to the nation, President Sirisena has dealt a devastating blow to the electoral prospects of the former president and to the UPFA itself. The belief of the general public in President Sirisena’s commitment to the country, even at the expense of his role in the party, has been established. The president’s address to the nation will influence voters to give priority to issues of corruption and abuse of power when they make their decision about which party and for whom to vote. It is also to be hoped that the campaigns by civil society organisations for good governance, including the March 12 Declaration that calls on political parties to only nominate candidates who fulfil the good governance criteria for electoral office, will influence the way the voters behave.