President Sirisena’s second act of defection, if it were to happen at all, will be very different from his first act four years ago. The defection on 21 November 2014 was historic, heroic and dramatic. The likely second defection will be none of that, but unheroic, undramatic and opportunistic. There is more than speculation about a Sirisena defection from the shambolic ‘unity government’ to a new and mutually beneficial ‘Rajapaksa arrangement.’ The plan apparently is to defeat the UNP-government on the budget vote in November by mobilizing ‘anti-UNP forces’, and to replace the defeated UNP-government by a government of ‘anti-UNP forces’, with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.
That is only Phase 1 of the plan. In Phase 2, Maithripala Sirisena will contest the 2019 presidential election as the anti-UNP candidate, presumptively win the election and prepare the base for the next phase. Phase 3 will start in 2024, when Namal Rajapaksa will be legally old enough to be a presidential candidate. Presumptively, as well, the same anti-UNP coalition will win the 2020 parliamentary election again with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Between 2019 and 2024, the younger Rajapaksa would be able to gain cabinet exposure and experience under his father’s tutelage to create whatever presidential material that can be made out of him. The prince’s learning will be aided and abetted by his uncles who will all be accommodated in a generously large cabinet of ministers to make up for frustrated presidential ambitions.
By the looks of it, the plan is no more than a comprehensive family plan. But one should not be too cynical about it because what is in it for the country is no less than the assurance of the re-enactment of the ten-year economic miracle that Sri Lanka apparently went through between 2005 and 2014,without anyone actually noticing anything. The only proof of this fantastic miracle is in the assertion of the former Central Bank Governor that under his leadership at the Bank and the overall leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the country, Sri Lanka’s economy grew through the roof from USD $24 b in 2005 to USD 79 b in 2014. It is left to the economists to figure out whether the former Governor is (ac)counting current prices or constant prices, not to mention the current rupee’s constant decline against the US dollar from 1978.
The plan and its pitfalls
The falling rupee is naturally a political football and it is fair game in politics for the opposition to make as much kick out of it as it could. There is no harm in the current opposition doing it and under whatever name – JO, SLPP, SLFP-SLPP, or the catch-all anti-UNP forces. The question is one of credibility, the credibility of ability as well as past record. But the business of the economy is not the driving motor behind the new Rajapaksa-Sirisena PM-President plan. The driving motor is family succession and the politics of the plan has four aspects, or challenges, to it: its organizational viability; its implications for the SLFP of SWRD Bandaranaike at the national level; its implications for the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe; and the response it could and should generate among the so called yahapalanaya forces.
On the organizational front, the plan may just pass without any fuss but there are also pitfalls. Harnessing the so called anti-UNP forces in sufficient numbers to defeat the UNP-government on the November budget may prove to be just as futile as it did during the failed No Confidence Motion against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe earlier this year. The new Rajapaksa-Sirisena unity plan may repel some parliamentarians just as it might attract others. On the final count, the numbers may not be just enough to defeat the UNP-government on its budget.
As well, the UNP and the Sirisena-SLFP may be joined a little too much at the hip to their own likings, and severing them cleanly may prove to be too painful, if not impossible. For example, the formal severance of the fake unity-government will make it impossible for the President and the Prime Minister to resolve the government-made problem over Provincial Council elections. Their acolytes can mudsling one another but the mud will land on the two leaders quite equally, so much so that the Rajapaksa faction may have second thoughts about forging unity with a muddied president.
A second fault line could be the aversion within the opposition forces to the brazen family purpose behind the plan – to engineer lineal or hereditary Rajapaksa succession in the presidential office. On the ridiculous side of politics, competing hereditary aspirations may arise among the Sirisena children the longer their father stays in office as president. After all (to the Sirisena children) it is their father, and not the other father, who helped attenuate the aggrandized presidential powers by pulling off a near unanimous support for the 19th Amendment in parliament. Nobody can take way from Maithripala Sirisena the credit for the passage of 19A in parliament. The sad irony, however, is that Mr. Sirisena has since done much harm to the spirit of 19A and positive little to advance its real purpose. And the blame for this falls equally on his failure to seek good political advice and the limitations of those who gave him wrongheaded advice.
Anti-UNP politics then and now
On the more sublime side of politics, the question is how the Rajapaksa-Sirisena arrangement could be squared with the founding principles that the late SWRD Bandaranaike would have thought through when he launched the SLFP after he made his own historic defection from the UNP. To digress a little here, soon after the breakup of the United Front in 1975, Dr. Colvin R de Silva let out of his chest, what the Left might have been holding up for almost 15 years – that the only worthwhile point of the sacred Bandaranaike principles was that the United National Party could not be defeated without a broad coalition of all anti-UNP forces. In fairness to Mr. Bandaranaike, there was more to his politics than just defeating the UNP. Although in classic leftist polemics he was eviscerated for this, it is fair to say that SWRD genuinely wanted the SLFP to be a centre-left alternative to the UNP not only in left-of-centre economic policies but also in the style and tone of parliamentary democracy.
In particular, SWRD abhorred the family bandysim of the UNP and kept his family, nuclear and extended, totally and cleanly out of the business of politics. At the broader level, SWRD was all for enabling the role of the opposition parties, which were primarily leftist in his time, in the functioning of the parliamentary system. The UNP, on the other hand, was all for deploying the state resources to its sole advantage and none to the benefit of other political parties. The celebrated B-C Pact that Mr. Bandaranaike reached with his Tamil counterpart, SJV Chelvanayakam is still a touchstone for inter-ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka. As it turned out, SWRD both benefited from and was overwhelmed by the forces of chauvinism unleashed by electoral politics. His assassination brought to an untimely end what was meant to be a different trajectory for politics in the island. No less tragically, his successors chose to ride the expedient components of his legacy for electoral success and jettison the more statesmanlike initiatives that required greater commitment and exceptional ability to sustain them.
It is against this backdrop of history that one must assess the current politics of mobilizing anti-UNP forces under a joint Rajapaksa-Sirisena leadership. The first question that should be asked is how a political scheme to create a clear path for Namal Rajapaksa to become President of Sri Lanka in 2025 would ever be compatible with SWRD Bandaranaike’s founding principles for the SLFP. The second point is that the tone and style of Mr. Bandaranaike’s politics are much of what now goes as good governance. The corollary question is what common ground there is between the politics of the Rajapaksas and the attributes of good governance.
The biggest incomparableness between the anti-UNP politics of the last century and the purported mobilization of anti-UNP forces in 2018 under a Rajapaksa-Sirisena leadership stems from the fundamental contextual difference between then and now. The only thing that is common between then and now is the surviving remnants of the Old Left who were against coalition politics then, but are genuflecting before the Rajapaksas for ministerial validation now. Their recycled rhetoric has no correspondence to today’s realities. There is nothing else that is common between what are in fact two different eras – politically, socially, demographically and most of all globally. Put another way, any claim of the Rajapaksas or their supporters to be the custodians of socialism in contemporary Sri Lanka should be dismissed out of hand as pure fakery and poor fiction.
Maithripala Sirisena got to where he is now not by mobilizing anti-UNP forces but by mobilizing the common opposition forces against a seemingly invincible juggernaut of a Rajapaksa regime. If he is planning to rejoin the Rajapaksas on the pretext of mobilizing anti-UNP forces, he should ask himself and should be asked by others – what assurances there are, or Sirisena has been able obtain from the Rajapaksas, that they will be any different on their return from what they were when Sirisena defected from and defeated them in 2015. The bigger question is how will those, who did the political leg work for Sirisena’s historic victory in January 2015, respond to his not so sudden turnaround to play checkmate politics now? The answer to that question invariably involves an elaboration on the failure and the future of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the leader of the UNP, which is also a very different animal from the UNP of the last century.
(Next week: Ranil Wickremesinghe’s diminishing options).