The announcement of Maithripala Sirisena as the common Opposition candidate yesterday came as no surprise. That he wanted to challenge his political boss had been on the political grapevine for quite some time and the differences he had with the Rajapaksas were only too well known. He was also one of the several prime ministerial aspirants in the SLFP.
In a strange turn of events replete with irony, the next presidential election will be a contest between the SLFP and the SLFP, so to speak.
The UNP lost three presidential elections (in 1994, 1999 and 2005) in a row and has not been able to find its own candidates for two contests (in 2010 and 2015)! It has come to such a pass that it is dependent on an SLFPer to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa! This is certainly not something the UNP seniors can be proud of, having preened themselves on their performance at the last Uva Provincial Council election. What kind of impact their latest move will have on their party remains to be seen. An influential section of the UNP is said to have looked askance at the common candidate arrangement which will see another presidential election being held without a UNP candidate in the fray.
Several key government politicians including ministers have already pledged their support to Maithripala and speculation is rife that some more will follow suit. The government is all out to engineer some defections from the UNP by way of damage control. We are in for very interesting times!
The Opposition’s battle plan is now clear. It wants to eat into the SLFP vote bank with the help of Maithripala while securing the support of other parties which are expected to coalesce shortly in a bid to spring a big surprise for President Rajapaksa. This advantage, Gen. Sarath Fonseka did not have at the last presidential election. He was banking entirely on the oppositional forces besides a handful of senior SLFPers. But, the question is whether Maithripala has the same charisma, stature and popularity as the shortchanged war winning Army Commander Gen. Fonseka in 2010. Moreover, will he be able to muster the support of a sizeable chunk of the SLFP as the common candidate?
Time was when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and her late husband Vijaya left the SLFP in a huff, but they failed to cause a debilitating split in the party. Chandrika had to return to the SLFP’s fold. Similarly, the late Gamini Dissanayake, who was sacked from the UNP by the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa following an abortive impeachment bid, had to rejoin the Grand Old Party. The same is true of Karu Jayasuriya, who defected from the UNP with several others, claiming to strengthen President Rajapaksa’s hands to win the war. He retraced his steps a few years later. Political observers are of the view that the UNP and the SLFP are far too strong to be swayed by defectors. Will Maithripala be able to prove them wrong?
In 2010, the UNP did not go all out to back Gen. Fonseka as evident from the election results and Maithripala’s success hinges on the UNP leaders’ ability or, more appropriately, willingness to deliver enough votes for him.
A presidential aide is quoted by social media as having said that President Rajapaksa looked amused on hearing that his one-time minister and General Secretary had come forward to challenge him. But, he ought to realise that there is growing resentment within the SLFP ranks and the fallout of Maithripala’s defection cannot be gauged in a day or two. The Opposition is desirous of destabilising his government by inducing mass crossovers as it did in 2001, when it managed to bring down the Kumaratunga government. This, no doubt, is a tall order in that the government has 160 MPs––126 from the SLFP alone––but the threat cannot be wished away. The SLMC is straddling the fence and the JHU is already out.
The biggest challenge before Maithripala, the common candidate, is to convince the public, especially the SLFP’s rank and file, that his failure to realise his dream of becoming prime minister of the Rajapaksa government was not the actual reason for his defection and, above all, that his mission is driven purely by altruism and a genuine desire to abolish the executive presidency and not his antipathy towards the current SLFP leadership.