Haunting the SLFP

13 July 2015 03:36 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


It was quite evident from the very beginning that the campaign by a group of Mahinda Rajapaksa acolytes to nominate the ex-president as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party/United People’s Freedom Alliance was self-seeking and opportunistic. 

It was a campaign that sought to draw on from the Rajapaksa cult that the ex-president carefully cultivated during his tenure. Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva and et al bolstered by generous financing by a coterie of nouveau rich businessmen, who made their fortune thanks to their association with the ex- president and the then first family believed that the return of the ex-president was the only way that would guarantee their political survival and, of course, the security of their ill-gotten wealth. 

They cared little about what Mr. Rajapaksa’s comeback would mean for the SLFP and its political legitimacy. The new President, Maithripala Sirisena capitulated to the pressure, fearing the prospects of a split within the party. Despite his initial protestations against granting nomination to his predecessor, President Sirisena finally gave in. 

Of course, he did not nominate Rajapaksa as the Prime Ministerial candidate, but should the SLFP win the general elections, Rajapaksa’s accession to the Prime Ministership would be a mere formality. 

While the political pressure from his own party has more to do with President Sirisena’s decision, than any other abstract factors, he is justified in not succumbing to the initial temptation against granting nomination to Rajapaksa. Such a decision would have amounted to disenfranchising a man who not long ago won 5.8 million votes. That is not democracy; though Rajapaksa’s come back itself is bad news for democracy.  

Therefore, hauls of complaints about President Sirisena and that he has betrayed his mandate are more or less sour grapes.

However, the Rajapaksa coterie and UPFA/SLFP heavy weights, including the two Party Secretaries Susil Premajayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who insisted on Rajapaksa’s inclusion, disregarded the simple electoral arithmetic. 

Their decision, they should have known well, would alienate minority voters from the SLFP/ UPFA alliance. It has now happened. For the Muslim voters, Rajapaksa and his ambivalent approach towards Bodu Bala Sena, would be a major turn off in deciding their vote. 

Even under the most optimum condition (For the SLFP), the majority of the Muslim votes were expected to go for the SLMC, which is now contesting with the UNP. Now with Rajapaksa onboard, the others would also have second thoughts about voting for a party which, if elected, is destined to succumb to the pressure from the Sinhala ultra-nationalists, who would, probably be the only group that would whole heartedly support Rajapaksa. 

Tamil voters in the South have more reasons than any community to loath the comeback of Rajapaksa. Those in the North and the East will choose the TNA, which recently refused to accommodate rehabilitated former Tiger cadres in its ticket (in a decision that is controversial within its own audience), perhaps eyeing for a greater national role. 

However, the dilemma the SLFP is now faced with is that Rajapaksa is scaring away the enlightened Sinhala voters, who earlier voted for the SLFP in the absence of an alternative or because, they then thought that the political and economic circumstance at that time warranted a vote for Rajapaksa.

However, the vacuum in the political leadership for that group was filled by Maithripala Sirisena, when he dared to take on Rajapaksa’s authoritarian rule.   
President Sirisena’s challenge made sense to some quarters of the mainstream non-UNP Sinhalese voters, partly because, some of the political leaders who followed him from the former regime to the opposition camp, themselves had a following among populist Sinhalese voters. 

They included among others, Champika Ranawaka, Arjuna Ranatunga, Rajitha Senaratne and Ven. Athuraliye Rathana. They made it hard to brand Sirisena’s presidential campaign as a ‘western conspiracy’. 

That was an important contribution to the Sirisena campaign at a time when the propaganda mill of the former regime was running at full swing. 
However, now they have walked away from the SLFP and are planning to contest under the UNP led coalition.

What would that augur for the SLFP campaign? 

One thing for sure is that the SLFP/UPFA would have to relive the past abuses of power and allegations of corruption blamed on the former regime. It would have to defend them or deny them (The latter is difficult though the temptation is there to do so). 

Without Rajapaksa on board, SLFP could easily have disassociated itself from the irregularities in the past (Even while claiming credit for its achievements such as ending the war). 

The military victory against the LTTE is obviously the trump-card of the Rajapaksa camp. There is no denying that it is a major accomplishment. 

However, when Rajapaksa’s former war winning, and later imprisoned general, Sarath Fonseka runs from the opposite camp, that glory is bound to be shared among many. With the State propaganda mill no longer at its disposal, Rajapaksa can no longer claim for the monopoly of the glory for conclusively defeating the most egregious terrorist group in this part of the world. 

Instead, Rajapaksa would have to defend himself and his former regime against wide range of allegations of corruption and abuse of power. He would have to explain, among other things, as to why the tenders in mega infrastructure projects were awarded at inflated prices; why the foreign service was filled with his acolytes; why people disappeared after taking a ride in white vans; why media institutions were regularly attacked and journalists assaulted under his regime; why he turned judges into puppets and, finally, why he thought he was the State.

Understandably, Rajapaksa would feel quite a discomfort. And the election campaign of the SLFP would be haunted by the undesirable accounts of the Rajapaksa regime’s past.

President Sirisena would be of little help. Having campaigned against those same ills, he cannot now defend them, without having a dent on his reputation. At best, he would play the role of a neutral arbitrator of the disputes within his party. In fact, he has already announced he would remain neutral in the election campaign. 
That would mean that the SLFP/UPFA campaign would have to rely solely on the appeal of the ex-president. Of course, Rajapaksa’s contribution to the country is far beyond the reach of his immediate predecessors. 

He ended a war, going an extra mile to do that. None of his predecessors, from J.R. Jayewardene onwards had guts to do that. He put in place mega- infrastructure projects, only late President Jayewardene would have even a distant comparison. 

There are allegations that economic growth generated during Rajapaksa’s term did not reach the grassroots. According to statistics, while the economy grew at an average seven per cent during the past five years, average household income did not grow more than one per cent.

However, that is a recurrent phenomenon in the immediate terms in the pro-growth authoritarian systems, as seen in countries ranging from Singapore to South Korea. However, in all those countries, in the long run, economic growth lifted all their citizens. 

Also important to note is that economic growth under Rajapaksa had been construction driven, relying heavily on major infrastructure projects, which have a lasting long term impact on the overall economy, though their short term gains may be limited. (For instance, one report on modernizing India’s ailing railway says, that every rupee invested there, would generate three rupees across the economy in the long run) 

However, as much as he dared to break the infrastructure deadlock and to end the war, two areas, none of his predecessors dared to venture, Rajapaksa unleashed an unprecedented attack on our democratic traditions and our independent institutions. What he did is public knowledge (At least among enlightened public) and there is no point in repeating them.

It is those negative aspects of his regime that would come to haunt the SLFP campaign. That is partly because, while he is, probably, genuinely, committed to economic growth and to leapfrog the economy, the UNP, a party which is traditionally pro- business, is better equipped to do that.

That means in the absence of other alternatives, the SLFP would have to rely on the desperate last resort: ultra nationalism that Rajapaksa himself nurtured during his regime (By tolerating the antics of the BBS and Sihala Ravaya).

To quote Samuel Johnson, patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel. However, Rajapaksa is not destined to be one such, nor are the majority of the Sinhala voters. Therefore, it is interesting to see how Rajapaksa, haunted by his past, meets the challenges that are thrown before him.  

However, Rajapaksa’s past would haunt the election campaign of the SLFP just like the white vans that trailed their victims.

Follow Ranga Jayasuriya @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter. 

  Comments - 1

  • alisten Syndey Monday, 13 July 2015 07:16 PM

    A great analysis.

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