Sri Lankan parliamentary polls: President Maithripala Sirisena faces tough challenge!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
On August 17 people of Sri Lanka are going to elect a new parliament that would assist president Sirisena to fulfill his electoral pledges, including of good governance. Since the right and responsibility to elect the prime minister rests with parliament, the parliamentary poll acquires tremendous importance.
The Lankan parliamentary poll assumes importance also because if his defeated predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksha eventually emerges victorious as premier of the island nation, he would certainly challenge the president and his powers and thus president Maithripala Sirisena would face troubles both in the parliament and outside, though the poll outcome, will not affect the presidency directly.
So far, President Maithripala Sirisena has performed to the satisfaction of people, notwithstanding his and Lanka’s drawbacks. Rajapaksa assuming premiership would certainly lead to confrontation with Presidency and resultant uncertainly in Lanka. If by chance politically experienced and manipulative Rajapaksa win the elections he can certainly pose problems for the presidency. Rajapaksa is very shrewd and President Sirisena is fully aware of that.
It’s not unlikely that President Sirisena feels uncomfortable to work with Rajapaksa if the latter were to be elected prime minister. It’s commendable that he has said that he would not take sides in the elections, indicating that he might not even campaign for his SLFP-UPFA candidates.
Despite murder and corruption cases against his rival former president Rajapaksa, President Maithripala Sirisena, therefore, faces tough challenge in the poll. If his party does not secure absolute majority, his position at the presidency would become problematic, get weakened.
It is argued that the August 17 parliamentary poll has the potential to divide the Sinhala majority. This explains why President Sirisena declared that he would not let fellow Sri Lanka Freedom Party-United People’s Freedom Alliance (SLFP-UPFA) candidate and defeated predecessor Rajapaksa to become prime minister, if the combine got a parliamentary majority.
For the Sirisena camp wanting the world to believe that he had all along been against a Rajapaksa return, it cannot be relied upon wholly. True, media reports had claimed that Sirisena as party chief had climbed down and accepted Rajapaksa for parliamentary polls, but not for the prime minister’s post.
In January, soon after President Sirisena took over as the head of state and government, United National Party (UNP) rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as prime minister. President Sirisena seems to be careful not to mingle the powers of the nation’s executive president to invite or not invite an individual of choice to be sworn in prime minister and he officiating premier now. President Sirisena is sure of Wickremesinghe retaining premiership after the poll. It was a part of the Sirisena poll promise – hence his electoral mandate too.
All strenuous efforts by Rajapaksa to prevail over president Sirisena to consider him to be his premier failed flat. In fact, when the president announced the general poll a section of Lankan press canvassed for Rajapaksa’s placement as premier and even viewed that the president would let him assume power as prime minister.
Rajapaksa faction in the SLFP-UPFA, however, argued that there was no way they could have brought in Rajapaksa to parliament through the National List. As pointed out, the latter is frozen at the time of nominations for the previous polls, held in March 2010.
Of course, the Government is treading on unknown territory, constitutional territories unknown to the nation, and its polity too. Given the constitutional complexities that could be anticipated after the parliamentary polls, President Sirisena should have a fresh look at his team of advisors.
In declaring that he would not entertain Mahinda Rajapaksa for prime ministership, Sirisena has not come up with any constitutionally viable arguments. They are based on his poll promises – both in word and spirit. Yet, they are based on his role as SLFP and UPFA president, both by a default clause in the SLFP constitution that Rajapaksa had amended in his favour when in power and adapted by the UPFA without any second thought.
Rajapaksa should be ruing his day now, maybe. Yet, for President Sirisena to claim that Rajapaksa had not allowed the emergence of other senior leaders in the party, even while true, could fly on the face of the constitutional scheme.
If the situation so arises that Rajapaksa and his followers could muster a parliamentary majority, what could President Sirisena be expected to do?
If nothing else, the island nation cannot afford another spell of political uncertainty, confusion and contradictions at the top, as had happened in the J.R. Jayewardene-Premadasa era or the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga-Ranil saga. The former was intra-party confrontation, the latter inter-party rivalry. Depending on what the voters have to say on August 17, this could turn out to be something like the latter, but could be worse.
The combine’s nomination list shows that it was a ‘compromise’ between the two factions in the party, almost from the beginning. Not only has some Sirisena loyalists, including those that had jumped the Rajapaksa camp after the presidential poll, found their names, some of Rajapaksa’s loyalists too had found their names missing.
Sirisena came to power not just on the mandate of ‘good governance’ alone. Anyway, it applies to the whole nation, just not the Sinahala-Buddhist majority. On the more specific issue of ethnic divide, he had personified the moderate Tamils hopes and aspirations of the Tamils to a greater extent, and of the Muslims, as well.
Sirisena did not promise anything specific, either to the Tamils or Muslims, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), other than ousting president Rajapaksa through the democratic process. If he had committed anything in private to the political leaderships of these two communities that had backed him at the time, there did not seem to be any written agreement of the time. Yet, in addressing the nation on keeping Mahinda Rajapaksa out of power, President Sirisena has talked still only about the Sinhala polity and society – possibly to ensure the votes of Singhalese majority. There has not been anything about the Tamils and Muslims in President Sirisena’s recent outburst against his predecessor.
The current predicament facing the majority Sinhala polity in general and the more hard-liner of the two, between the SLFP and the UNP in particular, has a demographic element, as a sociological construct has remained an accompanying factor in any political discourse of the nature, more so in Sri Lanka. It’s all a part of the post-war transition, for which the nation had not prepared itself for. It’s inevitability of the kind that the monolith LTTE had faced when the cease-fire agreement (CFA) triggered a comfort zone, leading in turn to the ‘Karuna split’ in the East. Independent of the credit going to the government of the day, the ‘Karuna split’ also was a reflection of the inherent demographic distinctions and dissensions in the larger Tamil community in the North and East – parts of the unified Tamil province with Trincomalee as the capital.
Demographically, the current struggle within the SLFP-UPFA could be seen as a struggle for and against Sinhala elitism at the same time. At one level, it’s against the Colombo Seven urban elitism of the Ranil, C.B. Kumaratunga kind. At another level, it’s against the Sinhala elitism of the Rajapaksa kind that the Sirisena leadership is seeking to oust and replace. The August 17 parliamentary polls are thus also about the end – or, continuance – of the ‘ethnic war’ in the Sinhala public mood, and fighting their forgotten internal squabbles from a comfort zone that they had kept in the back-burner for a time.
Rajapaksa has vowed to win an outright majority in parliamentary elections. Rajapaksa said in Sinhala language that he was confident of winning more than half the seats in parliament. He is hoping to become prime minister, but the result is far from clear-cut. A Rajapaksa win would mean an uneasy cohabitation with party rival Maithripala Sirisena, who beat him in presidential elections in January. Their Sri Lanka Freedom Party remains divided over the two men – the president failed to stop his predecessor from standing as a party candidate in the polls.
Rajapaksa was giving his first BBC interview since he was elected president in 2005 – relations during his nine years in power were strained over accusations of human rights abuses and media freedoms being curtailed. “Clearly we will secure 117 seats,” he told BBC Sinhala. But Rajapaksa’s close allies do not seem to share his view. He rejected claims by the current Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe that his campaign was in disarray. But not everybody seems to agree with Rajapaksa’s optimistic assessment of how votes will be cast.
An analyst said both Wickramasinghe’s United National Party (UNP)-led governing coalition and Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) will struggle to secure an outright majority in the 225-member parliament. A close relative of Rajapaksa said that they are expecting about 105 seats. The general secretary of the UPFA told the BBC’s Azzam Ameen in Colombo that it may not be easy for any of the main parties to secure an outright majority. Perhaps it is because of that concern that Rajapaksa has changed his tough approach towards the media, including the BBC.
After nearly a decade of strained relations, Rajapaksa, however, was friendly and even laughed while he answered questions. He said he does not regret any of the policy decisions he took while in power – apart from one. “Calling an election two years ahead of schedule, I think, was a wrong decision,” he said. He strongly defended the controversial impeachment that ousted Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike in January 2014. The move was heavily criticised by the international community and legal watchdogs as an authoritarian and undermining the rule of law.
Perhaps most controversially, Rajapaksa also accused his successors of not doing enough to investigate killings and abductions that occurred during his tenure. The killing of senior journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga, a fierce critic of Rajapaksa, shocked the world in 2009. Many will find his accusations extraordinary, coming as they do from a man who was in almost total control of Sri Lanka for years.
Interestingly Rajapaksa was very careful not to criticize President Sirisena, who now heads the party and coalition Rajapaksa himself led for nearly a decade.
Rajapaksa should acknowledge that President Sirisena has the right to cite and act on his 100-day program and after.
Just a couple of days left for the people of Ceylon to declare their mandate for good governance and meaningful coexistence!