By Asoka Abeygunawardana
The political arena was churned on November 21, 2014 when the Minister of Health and General Secretary of Sri Lanka Freedom Party Maithripala Sirisena resigned from his Ministerial portfolio. Since then, things have taken a drastic and uncertain tack through the political landscape of the country. Every single incident that followed was a new experience to Sri Lankan society.
Then incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated; Maithripala Sirisena became the president; Ranil Wickremesinghe became the Prime Minister; Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from the leadership of both SLFP and UPFA; Maithripala Sirisena became the new leader of both the SLFP and UPFA; a half-baked National Government was formed; the powers of Executive President were diluted with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution; reforming the election process as declared in the Presidential election manifesto by Maithripala Sirisena failed; the promise to form the Constitutional Council and independent commissions failed; Mahinda Rajapaksa was allowed to contest the parliamentary elections; Ministers Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka, and Arjuna Ranatunge who led from the front for the victory of Maithripala Sirisena decided to contest the parliamentary elections under the UNP symbol; and then came the historic speech of the President Maithripala Sirisena on July 14, 2015 declaring that he will not support Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Parliamentary elections.
The general public, voters, political party activists, political party leaders, the politicians, civil society leaders and political analysts are finding it difficult to understand what happened nor were they in any position to predict what will happen next. I believe that most of them are still struggling to understand what is happening. The situation is complex, people are confused and as a result things got complicated. It is important to have a new approach to analyse what is happening. The best option is to carefully listen to the speech made by the President on 1hJuly 15, with an open mind.
I agree that the President made an emotional speech when compared with his standards and yet, it is far better than the speeches made by most of the previous Executive Presidents. The speech will definitely help us to understand what is going to happen next and how we should intervene to improve the situation. We need to recognise that President Sirisena had two major issues to resolve; First, unlike other Executive Presidents he did not have the full control of either of the two major parties in Sri Lanka; second, all the previous Executive Presidents exercised their power unethically while President Sirisena is determined to change this culture through practice.
It is important that the followers of MR realise that Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential election. He ruled the country for two terms; he changed the constitution to rule the country as long as he wished; he declared his intension to contest the next presidential election at a time he felt was most appropriate; he lost. The Rajapaksa followers should face this reality. Unfortunately they have failed to do so. The historical responsibility vested in Mahinda Rajapaksa ended on January eighth 2015.
The SLFP and UPFA need to get ready for the next era without Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is clear that they need to find a new leader. Maithripala Sirisena was appointed as that new leader albeit against a very complex political background where it was imperative that there be a second in command for the SLFP to face the then prevailing challenges. In the immediate aftermath of the presidential elections, despite the fact that he was elected the leader of SLFP, President Sirisena was not in a position to lead the SLFP and UPFA from the front due to two reasons. First, he contested against the UPFA candidate during the presidential election with the result that that UPFA members believe that he betrayed them. Only time can repair that damage. Second, Sirisena won mainly due to the support he received from the UNP and its allies. He cannot betray them immediately after the elections. It is a fact that it is not possible for him to split from the camp until there is a clear disagreement with his allies.
Now, those who voted for Sirisena to defeat Rajapaksa believed blindly that they can do whatever they wished. They thought that they could stop giving nominations to Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the parliamentary elections under the UPFA banner. That is not correct. The rules of the game are different when comparing the general election with the presidential election. We need to realise that if the presidential election is a T-20 game then the general election is a Test match and we have to adjust accordingly. Not allowing Mahinda to contest under the UPFA ticket cannot be justified since it would mean ignoring the wishes of the SLFPers.
It is critical that Sri Lankan society reads Maithripala Sirisena properly as he is going to be the President of Sri Lanka for the next five years. I think even his close followers failed to read him right. Ministers Senaratne, Ranawaka and Ranatunge did not realise that Sirisena would make a public statement after submission of the nomination papers. If they read Sirisena correctly they may not have left him to join the UNP but rather, have stayed with him to protect him from his enemies.
What should have happened before the Parliamentary Election was to reform the election system as proposed in the ‘Compassionate Government – Maithri – A Stable Country’ election manifesto. Unfortunately the two main allies, the UNP and JVP did not corporate with Sirisena to complete the task. As a result the country had to go ahead with the existing system, which is tailor-made for corruption. With this failure, the country lost its first great opportunity to reinvent its political landscape for a more equitable and fair socio-political future.
The second opportunity the country had was for the political parties not to give any opportunity for MPs with corruption allegations to contest the elections. Unfortunately that did not happen since political party leaders failed to take necessary action against the corrupt. They claimed that although the MP stood accused, they had not been yet identified with criminal offences by the courts. All fine and well but the responsibility of a high quality political party would be to suspend the accused until they are proven to be innocent. This was not done and the unethical practice of political party leaders with respect to these issues is disgraceful.
The next stage of the parliamentary election is for the parties to make public their election manifestos. While these documents may cover a number of sector policies however what voters really need to know differ from party to party? Let us take the example of the Presidential election. What voters wanted to know from Sirisena was how he can manage different political parties and civil society organizations who sided with him since it was a diverse group of various pairs: TNA and JHU; JHU and SLMC; UNP and JHU; Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero and Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero. They wanted to know the exact compromise formula that would satisfy all parties. Sirisena’s manifesto resolved all these issues. On the other hand voters were not keen to know about the policies of Mahinda Rajapaksa since the budget was presented just before the elections and people therefore had a clear idea of his policies. However the people did want to know how he was going to tackle the corruption issues. Rajapaksa did not address that issue in his manifesto and therefore he was defeated at the presidential elections.
The attention is now on the election manifestos of the various factions in the lead up to the parliamentary elections. The UNP ruled the country during the last six months and the people already know how they perform. What is unknown to them is how UNP will behave after the elections. Two issues; firstly they want to know the UNP’s response to the Geneva report and next they want to know if the UNP will plan to form a government with the TNA if it doesn’t get an outright majority and if so, under what conditions. If they fail to give fair answers to these questions then voters will think twice about voting for them.
Similarly what are the questions that need to be addressed by the UPFA before the elections? People are already disappointed about the nomination list of the UPFA since that includes candidates with corrupt allegations. Now they talk of a ‘new beginning’. What is meant by this term? Is it the same wine in a different bottle? Their priority now is to come up with a fair and frank self-appraisal and perhaps self-criticism so that people understand that they recognise their weaknesses. The UPFA should then explain what remedial measures they are going to take to rectify the errors they made. If that happens, the people will check how reasonable their statements are and see whether they can trust the leaders of UPFA.
The JVP too has questions to answer. They have the potential to get some seats in the parliament and play a part in determining who is going to form the new government. Unless they clearly state their position with respect to forming a government then people cannot vote for the JVP as that will lead to a minority government similar to what Sri Lanka has experienced during the last six months. That situation cannot continue further as it leads to too many uncertainties.
The game is still open. I believe that given the confusion of the post-presidential era, the bulk of the floating vote is still undecided. At present none of the major parties can form a stable government with at least a simple majority. The swing of the floating vote during next two weeks will ultimately decide the future of Sri Lanka. All parties need to pay attention to the questions raised and answer them in a satisfactory manner if they want to get their fair say and fair share in the next parliament.