Attempts made by a substantial section of SLFP parliamentarians to make former president Mahinda Rajapaksa the prime ministerial candidate of the party at the forthcoming parliamentary elections under the leadership of President Sirisena could be seen as an endeavour to wipe out the country’s political developments during the past six months and ignore the momentous event of January 8.
No doubt the SLFP which ruled the country for a near decade with utmost confidence and appeared to be steaming ahead for many more years has within a very brief period of time been reduced to shambles. The man who had done it is Maithripala Sirisena. It is equally true that the only person who can make the party rise from the debris scattered around is Mahinda Rajapaksa. And the proposal to make this resurrection possible is for the two antagonists to come together, shake hands, unite the party and defeat the UNP with other opposition parties that had defeated the SLFP just five full moons ago.
Most observers of the Sri Lankan political scene consider a resurrected Freedom Party returning to power under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa as wishful thinking. Yet hope lies eternal in the breasts of the defeated, particularly of those who have tasted the fruits of victory for over a decade.
Faith is placed on the potential of the former president mainly because at the last presidential election he scored an impressive majority in predominantly Sinhala electorates. The support of the Sinhalese in these electorates dropped in significant proportions but still Rajapaksa was their choice. At the forthcoming parliamentary elections the party that wins the election will be determined by the number of electorates won by the party. The voting pattern of the minority parties in the north and east would not determine the final outcome because the majority of electorates are in Sinhala areas. Supporters of Rajapaksa believe that these factors together with President Sirisena’s leadership of the party would give them control of parliament.
Despite the belief that Rajapaksa has greater support in the Sinhala electorates, past elections indicate that he cannot win by himself. He needs party support and that is why he is willing to contest in the shadow of president Sirisena who is now the leader of the SLFP. In his first presidential election he scored barely over fifty per cent but after the defeat of the LTTE his majority was much more. But that majority is not likely to last.
The initial difficulty of the MS-MR deal is that there have been no moves to bring the two antagonists together. They have been severely critical of each other in public and Maithree has spoken of the shabby way he was treated by the president when he served as general secretary as well as a minister of his cabinet.
It was the family cabinet that governed the country using the presidential system, Sirisena confessed. On assuming presidency, he has cracked down on the Rajapaksa clan and his cronies. Brother Basil has been arrested over disbursement of funds under his ministry. Brother Gotabhaya too has been questioned while Mahinda Rajapaksa himself has been questioned by the Bribery Commission. There are ongoing investigations of key officials of the Rajapaksa regime including some diplomats who are relatives of Rajapaksa. All these are instances which could prevent the two SLFP veterans sitting down to chew a friendly bulath vita.
Besides, promoters of the MS-MR pow-wow have forgotten that there is an elephant and its allies in the negotiating room. It was the UNP together with certain other parties and minority parties that worked hard to make Maithripala Sirisena the president while his fellow SLFPers were organizing jeering squads and even stoning parties at his rallies.
Can Maithripala disown the UNP and go on a racist orgy against the Muslims and Tamils without whose assistance he wouldn’t have been president?
Maithripala Sirisena is an astute politician. While political tsunamis were raging in Lanka’s political firmament he formed a minority government from two bitterly opposed parties – the UNP and SLFP. Now he is heading the SLFP at the parliamentary elections and will be clashing head on with the UNP and other parties that brought him to power.
He is also answerable to the respected Buddhist monk, the Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, who was the first to challenge the Executive Presidential System and its exploitation by Mahinda Rajapaksa for family gains. There is also the Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thero who contributed immensely to Maithripala Sirisena’s victory.
President Sirisena needs political skills, perhaps, hitherto unknown, to resolve a political conundrum of which he is very much a part of.