President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to nominate his arch rival former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the general elections from his party came as a major shock especially to the president’s closest supporters. To make matters worse for them, the president also gave in to the demand that the former president’s allies also be given nomination despite the poor reputations most of them suffer from on account of their conduct during the previous ten years of their period of government. There was a vain hope that the president would reverse his decision at the last moment. One of the civil society groups that campaigned for the president at the presidential election in January met him and reported that he had asked them to wait until the day after nominations closed.
The belief that President Sirisena would act at the last minute to upset the former president’s comeback bid had a rational basis to it. Soon after his election victory, President Sirisena was widely reported to have said that he would have been six feet underground had he lost the presidential election. He followed up on this statement by rejecting the former president’s comeback bid as prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP. He had said that this would give an opportunity to those who had failed to win the presidential election by the ballot to accomplish their objective through a bullet. President Sirisena even prohibited members of the SLFP from attending the” bring back Mahinda” rallies organised by the former president’s supporters.
There are many theories about why President Sirisena suddenly changed his mind and gave nomination to the former president. These include inducements from China and even blackmail. But the more likely explanation is the president’s growing sense of isolation from the two major political formations in the country. By crossing over from the SLFP to contest the presidential election as the joint opposition candidate, President Sirisena lost his legitimacy with the SLFP voter base which, by and large, remained with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. But thereafter President SIrisena found to his discomfiture that the UNP-led government that he had appointed in fulfilment of his election campaign promise was making decisions without taking him into confidence.
It is unfortunate that as the country heads towards a decisive general election, President Sirisena’s stock among the general population is no longer as high as it was. Earlier he lost most of the SLFP by breaking ranks and contesting the presidential election as the joint opposition candidate. The 5.8 million voters who cast their votes in favour of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa would have viewed President Sirisena with disfavour. Now after his nomination of the former president to the SLFP parliamentary list, it is likely that the 6.2 million who voted for him would feel betrayed, as their vote was a negative vote to defeat the former president. By bringing this very person back to the centre of the SLFP’s campaign at the general election, he is seen to have acted against the mandate he asked for and received.
However, there has been positive fallout of the president’s turnaround. This action of the president has compelled the fractious coalition that defeated former president Rajapaksa at the presidential election to unify again. This is because they see the re-entry of the former president into national politics as the biggest threat to themselves and the changes they seek to make to the polity. By unleashing the former president and his allies upon the electorate, President Sirisena has mobilised the coalition of political parties that united behind him eight months ago to oust the former president from the most powerful position in the polity. The decision of the JHU and dissident sections of the SLFP, along with several ethnic minority parties, to join the UNP in a coalition can re-forge the winning combination that defeated former president Mahinda Rajapaksa under even more unfavourable conditions than presently exist.
This time around there will be at least two factors that will assuredly be in favour of the anti-Rajapaksa coalition. The first is that the state machinery will not be controlled by the former president and his allies. During the presidential election in January, they were able to utilise the state machinery to the maximum degree. During the election campaign, the area of weakness that could not be addressed with any degree of effectiveness by any countervailing authority was the abuse of state resources, including the state media, by the government. PAFFREL for instance reported that the abuse of state resources was three times greater this time than at the previous presidential election. On this occasion, however, and after the passage of the 19th Amendment there is a greater degree of independence for state authorities vested with the power to conduct elections and to monitor them.
The second factor that will make a difference is the paradigm shift that has taken place over the past six months. During the past six months the paradigm has shifted and national security and the issue of the revival of the LTTE and ethnic and religious conflict is no longer at the centre of people’s attention. By way of contrast, until his defeat at the presidential election and the loss of governmental power to him and his allies, the former president and his government stoked the fears and passions of ethnic conflict, the LTTE and national security in the hearts and minds of the people. Every effort was made to keep the people in fear and to utilise the possible revival of the LTTE and the division of the country to instil apprehension in the people.
However, since the presidential election campaign began in November 2014, the issues that have begun to take the centre stage are those of corruption, abuse of power and inter-ethnic and the need to promote inter-religious reconciliation. With the change of government after the presidential election, the national security state is no longer given so much emphasis. There has been a sense of relief and ease amongst the general population, and especially the ethnic and religious minorities, who feel a greater sense of confidence in the law and order machinery of the state, which has more independence to act with integrity.
Finally, there is also a third factor that could decisively swing the election in favour of the anti-Rajapaksa alliance of political parties. This is the role that President Sirisena himself might play during the election campaign. He was elected on a platform that promised clean government and good government. The president’s commitment to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution that reduced the powers of the presidency earned him a reputation of being a statesman. After agreeing to the nomination of former president Rajapaksa and his allies, President Sirisena made a public speech in which he pledged not to abandon the “silent revolution” that took place at the presidential elections. This will also be in keeping with his promise to the civil society members with whom he met, and to whom he promised favourable action after nominations close on July 13.