President, After The Poll

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Some may call our country, the Land of the Lotus Eaters; others the Pearl of the Orient, it has always been the Resplendent Isle and to cynics the

Enter Maithripala Sirisena »

Common Candidate to contest under our national front with telephone as symbol – Mangala’s party   The chocs are off: President Rajapaksa asked the Elections Commissioner to set the date…

By N Sathiya Moorthy

By naming incumbent Health Minister and ruling SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena as the common Opposition candidate in the January polls to the nation’s highest office, the Opposition may have surprised President Mahinda Rajapaksa. If not to the same extent, it might also many a liberal in the UNP, who are averse to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism beyond the decimation of the terrorist LTTE.

This is not to say that Maithripala is a weak candidate, or the Opposition has a losing proposition already on hand. UNP liberals otherwise opposed to President Rajapaksa almost from day one of his assuming office way back in 2005, could not do much about it when he was winning the war could be expected to vote for whoever was opposed to him in this election as in the last.

With Maithripala, Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne also appeared at the news conference. More may follow, but then many of these veterans have not been able to retain the ruling combine’s vote-share of 2010 in more recent elections prove that their so-called constituencies are already on the other side. That could also make the Opposition’s vote-dividend calculations that much more confusing, for the self and the rest.

What Maithripala is expected to bring in to the Opposition poll kitty, and straight, is a substantial portion of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist voters from President Rajapaksa’s side. First to divide that constituency, and secondly to narrow down the 17-plus per cent victory margin that he had in the previous polls of 2010. It’s a huge gap, but in a 50-per cent vote-decision, the gap nearly halves itself. In the company of other Ministers and MPs leaving the ruling combine, the Opposition combines hope to make the grade this time round or so it seems. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa laughsMore Sinhala-Buddhist

It can happen in two ways. One, Sirisena and some of the other government leaders now joining him are supposed to be more nationalist the Sinhala-Buddhist way, than anyone in the present Opposition camp the JVP included.

If his candidature were to push under the carpet, the perceived sin of the likes of  erstwhile JHU partner in the present-day ruling combine deserting a sinking ship, if at all the SLFP-UPFA combine were one, that may help the party to try and retain its own limted vote-share, but not bring in more. That’s if the JHU were to follow up on its earlier decision to withdraw its Ministers from the governments at the Centre and the Western Province, with a decision to cross-over to the Opposition and back Sirisena.

But the idea is to demoralise the ruling combine, and what better way could the Opposition have dealt a blow like this than first woo the once-perceived Rajapaksa-loyal JHU away, and follow it up with the defection of the ruling party’s General Secretary, to be made their common candidate! 

Gentleman politician, gentlemen voters

A gentleman-politician, Maithripala Sirisena’s choice is not made exclusively on his gentleman character but more on the perception of his being a Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist/nationalist, it can cut both ways. A low-profile politician, compared to the inevitably high-profile President Rajapaksa, the Opposition would have to struggle to market him to the nation and its voters, for starters. Whether they have enough time for doing so is a question.

The presumption is all gentlemen voters are already with the Opposition, particularly the UNP. Which means, Sirisena’s use for the combined Opposition is in terms of the Sinhala nationalist voters that he could muster. Will his name alone be able to do the trick? If not, what other guarantees and guarantors would be required to woo those voters, and how?

Some of it will depend on what Sirisena would have to say and do to woo those voters. It would also depend additionally on what the controversial Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) thinks and how it acts between now and the presidential polls, which under the law cannot go beyond January 2015.

Should Sirisena’s Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist identity has to be proved on the streets of the South, then it could end up sending a wrong and at times strong message to the North and the East namely, the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Muslims. Should the BBS jump on to his camp, and take his campaign to their hearts, then it could mean more trouble. Either way, there could be trouble in terms of a relative reduction in the number of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist votes that President Rajapaksa can now count on until proved otherwise.

It can still cut both ways. If the Rajapaksa campaign can still keep the focus on Geneva and UNHRC, there is still the possibility of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist votes getting divided on the lines of religious linguistic nationalism on the one hand and larger Sri Lankan nationalism on the other. A lot will depend on the way the respective campaigns take off from here.

 

Uncomfortable questions

Having been in the ruling SLFP for 47 long years, and being its longest-serving General Secretary (13 years), Sirisena would have uncomfortable questions to answer, if his campaign were to revolve around such issues as Executive Presidency and the 18th Amendment. Yet, a lot will also depend on the kind of momentum that his campaign is able to generate pushing issues behind and putting personalities on the straight, not in terms of what they are but what they ought to have been.

In his maiden news conference after announcing his candidature himself, he said that 18-A was a major blow to democracy in the country. He would have more than some explanation to make, viz his conduct while in office and continuance in office. Likewise, he was known to have sought the abolition of Executive Presidency while in office and in the SLFP, though in his news conference he promised to do precisely that.

 

Personal predilections

Sirisena’s defection and the presence of former President Chandrika Bandaranayke-Kumaratunga at his maiden news conference possibly the first major political appearance by her since demitting office in 2005 – has the potential to woo some more of SLFP ministerial colleagues, particularly some veterans and also some disgruntled others.

However, their disgruntlement has had more to do with their own personal and political predilections than issues of legality or morality involved in the passage of 18-A or any other act of the government (of which they were anyway partners). Questions remain how the Rajapaksa campaign would want to and be able to take these issues to their own voters from 2005 and 2010. It would also remain on how the voters, who get to see it all being played out in their homes, on their TV sets, assimilate messages of the kind from both camps.

What could also prove worthwhile to the Sirisena campaign would also be the commitment that UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa could show on the ground, across the South, particularly his native Hambantota district. He had earlier patched up with party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, but how far did that accord cover a non-UNP candidate for the presidency would be known only when the campaign unfolds.

How and when the Tamil and Muslim voters endorse the common Opposition candidate, if at all,  would also matter, should things get tougher for Sirisena than expected in the Sinhala South. At a time the Pope is scheduled to arrive only a week possibly after the presidential polls, the influence on the Catholic voters, particularly in the Sinhala areas, also needs to be evaluated.

The former can cut both ways for Sirisena in the South, as happened to Wickremesinghe (2005) and Fonseka (2010). So can the latter for President Rajapaksa in the South.

 

Poignant telling

That way, the photograph of President Rajapaksa and his Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga looking at their respective wrist-watches for the auspicious time to strike, before the former signed the election proclamation just a day before Maithripala S went to town with his decision, was both poignant and telling. Poignant in terms of the past and ‘telling’ as far as the future goes.

Political opponents and other critics of President Rajapaksa would want everyone to believe starting with the self, given the continuing lack of self-belief in most of them that the time has come for him to bow out, and through democratic elections. Supporters would still assert that better time that awaited the President and the nation, thus, now that the Supreme Court has cleared the incumbent to contest a third term under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

It’s not often that politicians who advance elections that they need not have to call at once have lost them. In neighbouring India, however, Prime Minister Vajpayee and his ruling BJP-NDA, advanced the elections by about six months and not nearly two years, as is the case in Sri Lanka lost the re-election bid in 2014.

Worse still, the BJP’s Andhra Pradesh ally and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, who hoped to reap the benefits of BJP’s India Shining campaign, went down along with the BJP and Vajpayee at the time. It took Naidu a State bifurcation and 10 long years for returning to elected power in a truncated Andhra Pradesh.

 

Conventional wisdom

The comparison should stop there. In Sri Lanka post-war 2010, Secretary Lalith Weeratunga President Rajapaksa defeated a surprise candidate in Sarath Fonseka more convincingly and conclusively than he had done in 2005, against UNP’s Wickremesinghe. Conventional wisdom dictates that President Rajapaksa can afford to lose close to seven percentage points from his 57.88 per cent vote-share of 2010, to finish victorious as in 2005 (50.28 per cent).

Against this, the Opposition today would still require an additional 10 per cent vote-share after retaining all of the 40.15 per cent votes that Fonseka obtained in 2010. One sounds as much a tall order as the other in which, President Rajapaksa, not Executive Presidency or even the economy, will be the issue more than ever.

Sirisena, yes, is not a light-weight, nor are all those supporting and cheering him; yet, neither he, nor all of them with him put together, is all strong as President Rajapaksa. That’s the paradox of this election just now.

 (The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

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