The Rajapaksa rage and a weak and ineffectual leader Maithiri

Hyde Park in London is famous as a venue where those who want to stage a protest against the establishment state their case. Many a rebel has stood at Hyde Park corner and lambasted the powers that be and gone on to greater deeds.

Probably by virtue of being a British colony, Sri Lanka has its own Hyde Park in the heart of Colombo, a stone’s throw away from Lipton Circus, another landmark that frequently attracts demonstrators. Last week, it was the venue chosen by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to take the plunge and appear on stage with the self-styled ‘Joint Opposition’.

The rally was styled the ‘jana satana’ or ‘peoples’ battle’. It attracted a massive crowd, certainly more than what the ruling United National Party was able to muster a few days earlier at Lipton’s Circus where they staged their own demonstration demanding that they be allowed to take the country forward.

Rajapaksa loyalists

However, having been defeated at the 2015 January presidential election and having seen the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) being relegated to second place at the 2015 August general election, Rajapaksa should know by now that crowds at rallies do not necessarily translate into votes.

At the presidential election, Rajapaksa’s meetings drew mammoth crowds. There were accusations that the crowds were contrived with chosen people being provided with incentives and transported by state buses to attend the meetings. Maithripala Sirisena too attracted crowds in his campaign- most of them from the rank and file of the United National Party (UNP) – but not as much as Rajapaksa did. At the vote however, Sirisena comfortably outperformed Rajapaksa.

Between the presidential poll and the general election, the ‘joint opposition’- Rajapaksa loyalists within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and his supporters in the smaller parties of the UPFA- staged rallies in major cities, commencing with one at Nugegoda hardly six weeks after the presidential election. It too attracted a large and enthusiastic crowd. One commentator known for his pro-Rajapaksa sentiments was so carried away by the spectacle that he called it ‘The Rising’ and predicted that the Rajapaksa faction would race to victory at the general election. That was not to be.

Nevertheless, what happened at Hyde Park is significant for many reasons. If its aim was to demonstrate that Rajapaksa still commands a following, it is a huge success although even Rajapaksa’s critics would grant him that without a debate. However, whether that following is sufficient to topple a government elected less than a year ago is a moot point. And, there is no major election on the horizon for the next four years anyway.

If anyone other than the Rajapaksa faction is to be happy about Hyde Park, it would undoubtedly be the UNP. Until Hyde Park, Rajapaksa was fighting shy of formally aligning himself with the ‘joint opposition’, preferring instead to mount his campaign through public comments to the media from time to time. With Hyde Park, he has shed that reticence- and the UNP leadership will know that any division in the ranks of the SLFP will only help its own cause.

Hyde Park is also a test for the SLFP. When the rally was announced, the SLFP issued a pre-emptive warning to potential dissidents. The party’s General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake categorically stated that those who attend an alternative political grouping will be dealt with through disciplinary action. Now, Dissanayake has to walk the talk.

In the post-Hyde Park scenario, there has been much speculation about what action the mainstream SLFP would take with regard to the alleged violation of party discipline and already, there appears to be some diversity of opinion.

Dissanayake has said in response to queries from the media that the matter would be referred to the party’s highest decision making body, the Central Committee of the SLFP, adding that any inquiry would be held in the most democratic and transparent manner, allowing the dissidents a fair hearing.

SLFP hierarchy

If that doesn’t sound like an all out attack on the Rajapaksa faction, Mahinda Amaraweera, the newly appointed General Secretary of the UPFA has an entirely different opinion. He is of the view that since neither the SLFP nor President Maithripala Sirisena were criticised at Hyde Park, there is no necessity for disciplinary action!

Amaraweera’s interpretation is indeed a stretch of the imagination. Speaker after speaker at Hyde Park lambasted ‘yahapaalanaya’, President Sirisena’s slogan, although they did not attack the President personally. In his speech, Rajapaksa himself said, ‘if you can’t the run the country, hand it over to me’. To suggest that this is not a criticism of President Sirisena is convenient at best and dishonest at worst.

Indeed, President Sirisena’s only public response to events at Hyde Park was to reply to Rajapaksa’s request to ‘hand over the country’. Visibly angry, he said ‘someone’ is asking for the country to be handed over to him but that the nation was aware of how the country was run by that person.

Nevertheless, the ball is now firmly in the SLFP’s court. Rajapaksa loyalists in the ‘joint opposition’ have dared to defy the SLFP hierarchy and it is now up to the party to deal with them. Ultimately, the decision will rest with President Sirisena who is faced with an unenviable task.

If he moves to act against the dissidents, it will formalise the split in the party where until now, divisions have been simmering under the surface but not boiling over and creating two separate political entities. If the SLFP moves to expel the rebels, it could also lead to a protracted legal action where neither the President nor Rajapaksa would be the winner and the ultimate loser would be the SLFP.

Alternatively, if the President soft-pedals the issue and refrains from taking decisive action against the Rajapaksa faction, it would portray him as being a weak an ineffectual leader- and would also encourage more defiance from the dissidents who will be emboldened to stage more rallies of the Hyde Park variety across the country.

It is in this context that speculation grew of a post in the SLFP being offered to former Defence Secretary and Rajapaksa sibling Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. There have been moves by some party seniors to bring about reconciliation between the warring factions within the party by installing the younger Rajapaksa within the SLFP.

SLFP’s Central Committee

This may be a well-meaning move from the perspective of the SLFP but it raises more questions than the issues it aims to resolve. Will President Sirisena allow such a move, knowing that his credibility will take a severe beating if he does so, given that he campaigned and was elected to office on the slogan of ending the excesses of the Rajapaksa regime?

Then, how would the UNP which is the majority stakeholder in the government react to installing a Rajapaksa in the government? Does the younger Rajapaksa- though highly respected in his role as Defence Secretary- have as much public appeal as Mahinda Rajapaksa? And last but not the least, will the former President be content to fade away from the political arena, allowing his younger brother to take his place?

Therefore, at this stage, although accommodating Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is a move that is being spoken about, it is unlikely to eventuate. As an observer who is a cricket fan and following the T20 World Cup pointed out, it would be akin to asking Sanath Jayasuriya to rejoin the Sri Lankan cricket team to revive its flagging fortunes. Yes, it is theoretically possible, but the chances of it happening are virtually nil.

The next meeting of the SLFP’s Central Committee will reveal which way the wind is blowing: will it sweep away the Rajapaksas from the party or will it only ruffle its feathers and let them stay? Either way, the drama in the SLFP has only just begun.