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Sri Lanka: Despite Poll Reversal, Rajapaksa May Still Be A Man To Watch – Analysis

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy*

Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa has lost two elections in a row – as his incumbent-challenger Ranil Wickremesinghe alone might have done so far in the nation’s post-Independence electoral history. Yet, he might still be a man to watch – if not the man that the nation needs to watch, if he has to move forward from the past that he may have already left behind for it.

The astute politician that he is, Rajapaksa conceded defeat in the parliamentary polls on Tuesday (August 18) as he had done even pre-dawn on the counting day for the presidential polls in January. Unlike then, there were no wild rumours now about the possibility of a pro-Rajapaksa coup this time round.

It could still do him and his supporters a world of good if he himself were to re-visit the pre and post -war past to assess where he might have gone wrong, and where he could have done better. In the past months, of course, he was reported to have said that he had trusted some and too much.

Unfinished task or what?

As president, Rajapaksa was known to have confided in confidants that his family members or party itself could not expect to succeed him as if by routine, as it was against the nature of the nation’s elections. As he was believed to have conceded, no party had retained office after an innings, which however had remained fairly long in the case of other leaders and parties before him. He himself had succeeded fellow – Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) president Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, chip of the original Bandaranaike founders of the party, to the nation’s highest office.

Between them, the two leaders had already completed 20 long years as Executive President. Thus, Rajapaksa’s aim to stay on in power, as if to complete the ‘unfinished task’ of the ‘ethnic war’ and the rest by amending the nation’s Constitution and jumping the mandated upper-limit of two terms, ended up back-firing.

In an IT-driven telescoped world, the new generation Sri Lankan voters did not have the time and patience for a leader who they had loved and respected until the other day, but who had outlived his immediate utility for them.

Minus the LTTE and Prabhakaran, they were moving onto a new Sri Lanka, and they did not want a relic of the past to remind them of what it used to be. The question thus Rajapaksa could be asking himself in the coming days could also be about his camp continuing to beat the war drums in the parliamentary polls, long after it had lost its relevance and emotional appeal. His followers refused to trumpet his other achievement on the ‘rural development’ front – where again he had a first to his credit, though his inspiration might have been the LTTE-slain, rival-UNP president Ranasinghe Premadasa, whose tenure was relatively a short-lived two-plus years.

Mutual support/suspicion

In the coming days and weeks, the Rajapaksa supporters in the camp that he has headed in the elections, would be asking themselves if he would stick on, to lead them from the front – or, would retire quietly as he had said he would after the shocking presidential poll defeat. In turn, Rajapaksa might be asking himself if he could count on all those SLFP-UPFA second-line leaders and those below them, who had enticed him to return from his planned retirement, to lead them in the parliamentary polls.

Both sides might be justified in reviewing their positions on this score. Pragmatic as he is, Rajapaksa would know that his leadership days are over, and unless there is a sudden reversal of his fortune – which no astrologer might have predicted for him just now – there is no meaning in meandering along. As a leader who has loved his party as much as any other, he would need to create space and set the pace for the SLFP-UPFA to move forward beyond him.

Rajapaksa also knows that his son, Namal, or anyone else of his choosing, would have had to put in years and experience before the party and the nation considered him/them for a leadership role. He, along with brothers Chamal and Basil, if not ex-defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had taken off from where their father and uncle had left, in their time – which was before theirs. The experiences of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga or Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a kin of the late J. R. Jayewardene, the nation’s last full-term president from the United National Party (UNP) that he now leads, are also there.

Yet, it is not unlikely that future day Sri Lanka might want to leave behind its ‘ruling dynasties’ of the yore. Despite a strong party to boast of – better than Rajapaksa could have done, for the parliamentary polls in particular – and a party constitution that has rested in his person all powers and authority, but with shared accountability, though not responsibility – Ranil is yet to win an election in 25-plus of them over the past decade, outright.

This time again, Rajapaksa lost, Ranil did not win – nor did the UNP or the party-led United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), which rested even more on the Muslim and upcountry Tamil parties than ever before in recent times. The question would then be asked if Ranil and the UNP really won this time, too – or, could have won without the smaller, ‘minority’ parties. Unlike all those ‘smaller’ Sinhala parties, whose need for Rajapaksa was more than the other way round, those ‘minority’ parties with the UNP actually carried substantial vote shares with them.

‘War crimes’ & ‘accountability’

A lot of the nation’s future will depend on how President Maithripala Sirisena leads, not just the nation and the government, but what essentially is a left-leaning, ‘Sinhala nationalist’ party from the very word, ‘go’. There is nothing to suggest that the party has moved or grown with the time. Any effort thus by President Sirisena, in his capacity as the national and party president, could cut both ways.

Already, Sirisena has handed over the limited reins of the government that still rested in the presidency, to the office of the prime minister and the person of Ranil Wickremesinghe, following the enactment of the 19th Amendment that he had ushered in himself. But the party has a left-leaning constituency, whose policies are at variance with those of the centre-right UNP, which is all for ‘market economy’ since the pre-Independence era.

Possibly hoping for Rajapaksa to fail the party, and Sirisena to fail as the party leader, the other left-leaning, one-time Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has been crowing that it would be the ruling party the next time round. The party has barely managed to retain the five per cent vote-share, which had ballooned to 11 percent in the company of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga-led SLFP-UPFA combine. Under Rajapaksa, to whom they dictated harsh terms for continuing with the alliance, they lost almost everything, after he had blessed a split in the JVP.

The thrice-split JVP – the other two had no Rajapaksa hand behind them – seemed to be hoping for a disinterested Rajapaksa, a dis-spirited Sirisena and a dis-illusioned SLFP cadre looking for a credible political leadership, which the nation’s voters would trust as more credible and corruption-free, than all those that the nation has had since Independence. It’s too much of a tall order, or seems so just now.

A lot will depend on what Rajapaksa does and how the party treats him and the rest of them all, particularly over the ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’, now before the UNHRC at Geneva. That would also be one reason that Rajapaksa would need to fight his own political, diplomatic and at times legal battles on his own – and with others, and who knows with the nation or against the nation, as the case may be.

*N. Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at email: [email protected]

South Asia Monitor

South Asia Monitor

To create a more credible and empathetic knowledge bank on the South Asian region, SPS curates the South Asia Monitor (www.southasiamonitor.org), an independent web journal and online resource dealing with strategic, political, security, cultural and economic issues about, pertaining to and of consequence to South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Developed for South Asia watchers across the globe or those looking for in-depth knowledge, reliable resource and documentation on this region, the site features exclusive commentaries, insightful analyses, interviews and reviews contributed by strategic experts, diplomats, journalists, analysts, researchers and students from not only this region but all over the world. It also aggregates news, views commentary content related to the region and the extended neighbourhood.

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