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Is Mahinda leading Sirisena down the Garden Path?

The Presidential elections are nigh and we are likely to see a brawl rather than a straight fight

By Arjuna Ranawana


The lights are dimmed in the arena. The spotlights are trained on the boxing ring in the center. There is a referee, bearded, wearing large thick glasses and wrapped in a shapeless tunic, leaning against the ropes and occasionally glancing at his watch.

But there are no fighters, yet.

There is a susurrus from the crowd and the muffled sounds of scuffling near the ring, but the bout hasn’t begun and the crowd’s impatience grows because they know there’s going to be a fight, but are unsure who the contestants are.

In the week to ten days that have passed, there indications who our prizefighters may be in the Presidential elections due in less than nine months.

Gotabaya  the candidate

From the Rajapaksa camp, it will be Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who will contest as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna nominee. There’s a caveat, though, as he needs to renounce his American citizenship before nominations are called, as dual citizens are barred from holding elected office.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa leaves court surrounded by bodyguards/Sarath Kumara RepublicNext

Rajapaksa has been conducting his campaign over the past 18 months or so. In it, he has emphasized that he looks to develop the country and “instill discipline.” He also takes credit for the “beautification of Colombo.” His economic policies are close to the United National Front’s Western Liberalization agenda, which contrasts with the professed “Socialism” of his brother Mahinda.

On the down side, he has never been a politician and his achievements in public office have been when he was the all-powerful Defense Secretary in a war situation, backed by his strongman brother, who is one of the most popular politicians this country has ever seen.

The younger Rajapaksa carries considerable baggage as he faces multiple charges of corruption including in the infamous MIG purchase and alleged misappropriation of Government funds to build a memorial for his parents. He is seen as an autocrat who has threatened the press and belittled the murder of journalists. He also has said that he does not believe that the minorities, particularly the Tamils of the North and East need a political solution, but an economic deal. He has also protected Right Wing extremist groups that have attacked Muslims. In keeping with the SLPP’s voter base, Rajapaksa will aim to win the Presidency by garnering most of the majority community votes.

Ranil Wickremesinghe a third attempt

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Jaffna wooing the North/ PM Media

His possible opponent, nominated by the United National Front, will be UNP party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe has been Prime Minister five times and lost two bids at the Presidency. Twice, he has stepped aside in favor of a “Common Candidate.” At present, there are no other candidates who can make the cut from the party, although there is a school of thought that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is also a possible candidate.

Wickremesinghe is a seasoned politician who has consistently pursued Liberal economic policies. In recent years, he has been an advocate of the free media, and championed the Right to Information Act, although he was a senior Cabinet Minister during the Presidency of R Premadasa in the late 1980s and early ’90s when there was suppression of the Media. His oblique link to the Bonds Scam has dented his reputation as “Mr Clean.” Expect him to advocate a Liberal policy and continue to build relationships with minority parties.

So what of President Sirisena?

And for the first time, turning this contest into a possible three-way fight – a Donnybrook  brawl rather than a clean bout under Queensberry rules – could be the decision by the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena to run again. Sirisena has made no secret that he would like to seek a second term in office, although he vowed not to do so when he was elected in 2015.

President Maithripala Sirisena in campaign mode in Polonnaruwa/Udesh Guneratne President’s Media

Currently, he looks like he is on the campaign trail, travelling across the country, declaring open buildings, handing out freebies, and being photographed with school children. He has decided to show his electoral strength using the considerable resources he commands as the President.  

Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party was beaten into a poor third position during the Local Government election and during the political crisis, he was further diminished as a leader. He certainly will not get any support from the UNF and its constituent parties, and his short-lived romance with the Rajapaksa camp looks like it will end shortly.

As rumors circulated that the former President had informed Sirisena that he will not be supported by the SLPP at a future Presidential poll, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s spokesmen issued vehement denials. One of them told me “certainly not. We have not said that to the President. How can we say that when we are negotiating an alliance between the SLFP and the SLPP? First, we have to decide who our candidate is.” Mahinda added to these denials by telling Mediapersons on Wednesday (27) that “Gotabaya is not confirmed and Basil will not contest. We will decide who our candidate is when we see the UNP candidate.”

And now the Garden Path

But the very negotiations between the SLPP and the SLFP are an indication that things are not going well for the Sirisena faction. At the talks, the SLFP side has sent in comparative heavyweights General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara and former General Secretary Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa. However, from the SLPP, the participants are lightweights. Prof G L Peiris is the nominal head of the party and the other two MP Dullas Alahapperuma and Academic Jagath Wellawatte. Reports say that some sharp differences have emerged, although publicly, the two parties are maintaining that they will build an anti-UNF front.

Then there is the move by the UNF to ask a number of SLFPs out in the cold without a Ministerial Portfolio to join them to form another National Government. UNP sources say there are at least 7 SLFPers willing to join the UNF. One of them, Wijith Wijijayamuni de Zoysa, appeared with the PM at the recent ceremony in Hambantota and made the cryptic comment that the SLFP “is shuffling the pack (of cards) and I will take a decision depending on where the cards fall.”

On the other hand, Former Minister and UPFA MP Duminda Dissanayake says Sirisena should contest. He said his party would select another candidate only if the President is not interested in a second term.

Expect fickle, unprincipled MPs from whatever party to go with a possible winning candidate rather than back a losing captain and risk more years in the wilderness without ministerial perks.

In the meantime, the SLPP is going through with the charade of the talks with the SLFP with the implication that Sirisena might get the new alliance’s support. One source said “the President is in denial” that Mahinda will support him.

So that hope will surely fade away and Sirisena will come to the conclusion that all this time, Rajapaksa was leading him down the garden path.