Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa’s ‘Topple-Threat’ Unnerves PM Ranil? – Analysis

By N. Sathiya Moorthy*

By trying to react half-mockingly at former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s open threat that he would try and topple the present Government in the New Year, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has only expressed nervousness, not confidence. As has been the case since the duo came to power in January 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena has come up with a ‘measured reaction’, if it’s any.

There is a difference, though. Unlike on earlier occasions whenever their two parties, namely Ranil’s UNP and Maithiri’s SLFP, had different views on an issue of governance, the latter has actually reacted in this case. He has said that the Government would complete its full term, ending (only) in 2019. His camp did not immediately clarify if he meant this Government, or another, with or without the ‘senior’ UNP partner.

It’s not given to democracies for the political Opposition to publicly challenge the governing party or parties that they would be toppled. It can happen only in Sri Lanka, which is definitely a democracy – but not with all the western norms (!) in place and effectively so. Not that all of the western norms amount to ‘best practices’. Not that all the western nations have the ‘best’ of democracy.

Best practices

Democracy is all about (healthy) precedents and (best) practices. In Sri Lanka, however, floor-crossing midway through the life of a Parliament is a practice – good, bad or ugly. In nations like Italy and Japan, floor-crossings are dime a dozen, en bloc though. There, a new government without fresh national elections every other year, if not month, is the preferred way. Without acknowledging, Sri Lanka has been among the ‘best practitioner’. It may not be the best of practices, however.

In Sri Lanka, again, parties and political leaderships have given themselves new Constitutions, greater powers, et al, from time to time. No leader or political party in power can absolve himself or herself of the ‘constitutional fraud’, all in the name of the people and the nation. Where they succeeded, the nation and democracy suffered. Where they failed, again the nation and the people did not succeed.

Politicians in this country have never ever talked about an ‘anti-defection law’. They need the ‘flexibility’ that the continuing scheme offers to reassure themselves, and promise the moon for intended/ anticipated ‘defectors’. The present (purported) efforts at Constitution-making are no different. It may be so for years and decades to come.

It could not have been otherwise, either. President Sirisena, and all of his SLFP team-members in the Government or in Parliament and Provincial Councils, or outside, have been ‘defectors’ themselves. Rajapaksa had turned the defection games of his predecessors in office into a fine-art. So much so, he did not – or, could not see – it was a weapon that could hit and hurt the holder-user at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

In power, Mahinda provided for checking defections from his own side to the other in Parliament and PCs. He did not expect his own No 2 to defect. It’s another matter that most, and not just many, of the ‘defectors’ in the Sirisena-led SLFP faction did so only after Rajapaksa had lost the presidential polls.

Though known and expected to defect on a future date, Sirisena kept his counsels mostly to himself. Rajapaksa anticipated a ‘Sirisena rebellion’ from within on a wicket that he thought had a strong emotional appeal – namely, ‘Sinhala Buddhism’, and provided for the same even in his post-war political moves on power-devolution. He did not expect the other to take up a larger cause, that too in the name of democracy – and succeed, too.

Notice on China?

Rajapaksa made his intent and declaration at a meeting with ‘foreign correspondents’ based in Colombo. Not that it needed any explanation, elaboration or even publicity. Political parties the world over, especially so in democracies, have always acted with similar intents and purposes. What they intent doing, how they go about it, and where they succeed, is alone what makes the difference.

It’s anybody’s guess why he chose the forum instead of talking to the domestic media, which is the best communication platform available to any leader in any democracy. Better still, Mahinda R could have openly challenged the present-day rulers from a political platform – and in Sinhala, the language that his ‘electoral constituency’ understands, and/or understands better.

Clearly, Mahinda was serving the first notice on the ‘overseas backers’ of the twin leadership at the helm. It does not have to mean that they are all funding and propping up the present leadership. Either he has come to see them as doing so, or it’s just an ‘early warning’ that they better draw the line lest they should pay a diplomatic and/or a ‘decisive’ price in bilateral terms.

Ever since losing the presidential polls, Rajapaksa has been talking about western powers working on a ‘regime-change’ in Sri Lanka and that some Sri Lankans too had conspired with them. He did not name names about domestic ‘co-conspirators’, but named only the Indian neighbour in the process.

Maybe, he did so in March 2015 only because he was talking to an Indian journalist. Maybe, he did not talk to a western journalist and named his or her country, as the value-based questions might have been of a different kind – say, on human rights, war-crimes and accountability issues. It would not have been focussed as much on the betterment or worsening of bilateral relations. But that’s what Indian interlocutors, including journalists, are prone to.

This time round, Rajapaksa used even a stronger term to ‘describe’ the Indian behaviour. He said that India was behaving like a ‘mouse’ (holding its breadth and keeping mum) when the present Government (too) was moving closer to the latter’s Chinese ‘adversary’.

But it could also imply that Mahinda R was addressing and targeting China, too.  After all, China also quickly adapted itself to the emerging/existing ground realities in Sri Lanka and has been doing ‘better businesses than during the Rajapaksa era. It hurts, and naturally so, for Rajapaksa to see that China too has been looking at the ‘business’ end of the bilateral game, and not of politics and ‘political loyalties’ anymore!

Bothering question

Does it mean that China could and would begin talking even more about the past deeds and deals in the country, as much as it has started talking about the present-day rulers, the latter more in the nature of policies and not personalities?  If so, where could it begin and where would or should it end – when, how and why? That should be a question bothering the Rajapaksas already.

As coincidence would have it, the Rajapaksa ‘threat’ comes after top Rajapaksa aide and ex-Foreign Minister G L Peiris declaring that the former did not discuss ‘regime-change’ in Sri Lanka when the two were in Beijing a few weeks ago, as a ‘State guest’ or sorts. It might have been the case, too. But did it imply that the Rajapaksa camp was expecting/hoping that it would have been the case, otherwise?

Clearly, China has learnt real-politik from western counterparts/competitors, well and fast? They do not drop ‘old friends’ like hot bricks. They maintain the traditional Chinese SOP, yes. But when it comes to acknowledging that they needed to do business with the new rulers in a democracy, they would rather do so than try and prop up someone who is not going to return to power by any stretch of imagination.

The new Government’s 19-A has returned the nation to the days prior to Rajapaksa’s 18-A, which gave him the opportunity of serving a third term, if voted in. It went beyond the original constitutional upper-limit of two five-year terms for the President. The new Constitution is expected to reiterate the same even more forcefully and fiercely. Whether the ‘senior’ UNP partner in the Government and Parliament would otherwise be able to ‘abolish’ the Executive Presidency wholly and whole-heartedly is another question.

Sirisena-centric?

For all purposes, the Rajapaksa threat is aimed at his own camp-followers in the JO parliamentary party. He needs to reassure them that he has not given up, or would not yield to political or legal pressures of whatever kind lest they should themselves cross over. Two, he needs to unsettle those on the other side of the political fence, starting with the SLFP, but not excluding others – parties and parliamentarians, jointly and severally.

Rajapaksa’s threat however is as much aimed at Sirisena as any other SLFP leader. Obviously, he wants the present Government unsettled as early as can be achieved. There is no denying that the popular imagination that the anti-Rajapaksa social media in particular in the weeks and months ahead of the twin-polls for the presidency and Parliament in January and August 2015 are all dead and gone. No third force other than the ruling combine and the Rajapaksa-centric Joint Opposition (JO) is visible even remotely in the distant horizon.

Even without the Rajapaksas trying it, anti-incumbency is beginning to catch up, as can only be expected. It’s only natural in any political climate. The more the Rajapaksas had tried, the greater would have been the cohesion in the past. But the slow pace of the Rajapaksas’ political mobilisation post-polls meant that the inherent differences within an ‘unnatural cohabitation’ would have to end.

In the case of CBK-Ranil combine, mutually-opposed as they were since the beginning of the latter’s Prime Minister Job in the first half of the last decade, the inherent divisions meant that the former would sack the ‘democratically-elected’ Government under a democratic provision that UNP’s very own JRJ had included in his Second Republican Constitution of 1978. Incumbent Sirisena now does not have any use for the same. Nor does he have the luxury of dismissing elected Governments and dissolving functional Parliaments at leisure and pleasure, just because they had completed the first year in office. His own Government’s 19-A has ensured as much.

Mahinda R’s current threat thus primarily targets Sirisena, also because he does not have the numbers to have the latter replaced without fresh elections that are not anyway due for three more years. The message is that the latter take the lead, unsettle the UNP leadership of the Government, and let Mahinda R or someone of his choice to become Prime Minister in Ranil’s place. It’s a job that Rajapaksa was ready to settle for, and campaigned for, after losing the presidential polls. He even came down to contesting and winning a seat in Parliament.

Third narrative

Alternatively, the Rajapaksa camp could also target the Sirisena faction of their SLFP to deplete him of a parliamentary majority – and thus credibility. A third narrative seems to be that the Rajapaksa camp would readily adapt the GLP-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), ‘taken over’ by them not very long ago, and bid their time until such time the ‘official’ SLFP welcomed them back with open arms – rather, with folded arms and whispering humbleness.

Peiris has already indicated more than once that the SLPP would contest elections in the company of the Rajapaksa-centric JO. It’s another matter that barring a few, none in the camp has the capacity and/or capability to win their own seats – that they may either hold now in Parliament or in the PCs, or intent holding – without the ‘Mahinda’ stamp, blessings and campaign-power.

By mockingly challenging Mahinda to ‘topple’ the Government when he is away on a foreign tour in the first half of the New Year, PM Ranil has not displayed any confidence. He has only exposed the UNP’s legitimate nervousness at the possibility. It’s then not for him or the UNP, or even President Sirisena, who also heads the SLFP partner, to set the time and mode for a Rajapaksa attempt of the kind. The latter would choose his time, place and mode. That’s politics.

Close to two years in office, the Maithri-Ranil duo has done little to discredit the Rajapaksa regime – other than in mere words. They have gone the Rajapaksa way on key issues of governance and performance, foreign and economic policies. More importantly, they have done precious little to curtail Malinda’s political mobility in terms of corruption charges that they had flagged since his days in office. PM Ranil has also punctuated his innings with a periodic outburst at the media, building upon the reputation that Mahinda R had accumulated during his years in office.

Under the Constitution, Mahinda R cannot return as President, at least until a further amendment became possible and is carried through. He may not be able to become Prime Minister if cornered in a corruption case. It’s the line that’s still available to his detractors in this Government. But neither can deny him the political leadership and electoral backing that he demonstrably has. That’s a beginning, not the end. Mahinda seems to be banking on it, and wanting to cash on it, too!

This article was published in The Sunday Leader.


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