This analyst has always maintained that the formulae for the defeat of the Rajapakse regime, was a divided government and a unified opposition. Given the absolute fragmented disarray in which the main opposition United National Party was in, only a very short while ago, it was nearly impossible to imagine a situation in which the opposition could coalesce around a single candidate and a common program. However, due to the astute political coalition building of a few key national political leaders, including opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, we have today what was thought the near impossible, a common opposition presidential candidate, in Maithripala Sirisena, around whom everyone can rally. So seasoned were the key leaders, that despite all the phone tapping and e-mail monitoring, the Administration was unaware that a deal had been concluded and that large swathes of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party would essentially peel away from President Rajapakse, led by its General Secretary.
Even as the opposition united, the Rajapakse Administration came apart at the seams. From the JHU on the one hand, to the tiny Liberal Party of Professor Rajiva Wijesinghe on the other end of the spectrum, from the youthful Duminda Dissanayake and Wasantha Senanayake to the seasoned Rajitha Senaratne, the ruling coalition begins to unravel and former political allies, in the campaign to come will explain to Mahinda Rajapakse’s core constituency, why seven more years of Rajapakse rule would be a very bad idea.
Meanwhile, expect the broad opposition rainbow coalition supporting the common opposition candidate to grow, as other political parties, civil society groups, including trade unions and professional bodies all rally around an attractive proposition, that of re-democratizing Sri Lanka through constitutional reforms. The proposition is attractive to ruling elites and is broadly supported by the Sinhala constituency for whom the 18th amendment, impeaching the Chief Justice and pushing through a casino based development strategy, are all quite unpopular. Economic pain felt by the public has been successfully linked to government corruption.
Maithripala, a rare breed of a gentleman politician
Maithripala Sirisena is a rare breed of a gentleman politician in today’s political landscape, a politician with an impeccable track record, untainted by either violence or corruption. It is possible to imagine the end of the white van culture under a Maithripala presidency or “Maithri palanaye” or Maithri’s governance. Like Mahinda Rajapakse was before him, Maithri is a political leader with a genuine national appeal. The son of a farmer, he had practiced a brand of centrist, moderate and clean politics, which characterizes the best in Sri Lanka’s political culture. The drastically divergent choice before the Sri Lankan people will become clearer as the campaign unfolds.
A Rajapakse third term, lacks a compelling message
Facing the unified Opposition, is a Rajapakse Administration hemorrhaging support, especially from within, basically setting up an election which will become a Rajapakse verses the rest contest. Mahinda Rajapakse can no longer use the war or the LTTE as rationale for a disputed and unprecedented third term, especially when serious concerns exist within the mainstream Sinhala constituency, including its Buddhist nationalist element regarding governance. The only message the Regime seems to have, based on its initial reactions to the basic fragmentation of its coalition are its usual bogeys of a western conspiracy, a supposedly emerging Muslim Jihad and an alleged regrouping of the LTTE. These messages did not resonate earlier this year, either at the Western, Southern or Uva provincial council elections and is unlikely to stem the flow of support away from President Rajapakse.
From the various governance issues raised by the 18th amendment, to impeaching the chief justice, to insisting on flag ship status casinos, unsolicited mega projects generating minimal local jobs and general economic mismanagement, the Sinhala constituency is basically coming to the conclusion that a third term Rajapakse presidency or seven more years, (six year term plus the next term beginning in November 2015), is not really in its interest. A solo UNP campaign would have challenged Mahinda Rajapakse on his weaknesses, including with minority communities, but the Rajapakse’s had already discounted and dismissed the minorities and had a game plan of banking heavily on getting a preponderance of the Sinhala vote. It was after all a winning formula, in 2005 and 2010, though in 2005 it just about barely worked. However in 2015, Mahinda Rajapakse is being challenged on his strong suit, Sinhala nationalism, by a moderate centrist challenger, whose essential message is that seven more years of Rajapakse rule is bad for every sector of society and that Sri Lanka requires a re-democratization process, which includes eliminating or reducing the powers of the executive presidency.
A minimally free poll is a challenge
The real challenge facing all of Sri Lanka is to insist and work towards a genuinely free and fair election. As a nation, that received universal adult franchise in 1931 and has a proud if rather fragile democratic tradition, we as a society we must insist on a free poll and an end to the abuse of state resources. For starters both satellite TV service providers, should be held accountable for their actions in shutting off the Sirasa political discussion by the common opposition. These are public companies traded on the Colombo Stock Exchange and minority shareholders should demand an explanation from both companies, to prevent such partisan caving in to the regime. However a mass scale rig is also not really possible, simply because the system tends to become self corrective as popular sentiment moves against an incumbent. Take for instance the current issue of the mass transfer of police officers. The IGP and the former IGP, now installed as Secretary of the Law and Order Ministry are at loggerheads over the issue. The regime also is now unsure as to who they can trust, as shifting loyalties of former confidantes, creates a fifth column inside the Rajapakse Administration. A divided Rajapakse Administration facing a unified opposition coalescing around constitutional reform and common candidate Maithripala Sirisena, holds out the real prospect that the days of the Rajapakse regime are numbered.