Gota would’ve been a political casualty if MR-MS’ Oct. 26 coup succeeded
Imperative for Rajapaksas to pick candidate with best chance of winning
Is former President Mahinda Rajapaksa playing fair by his younger brother Gotabaya as far as the presidential election candidate issue is concerned? This question has popped up in the minds of many observers of Sri Lanka’s political landscape in recent times. Although the Rajapaksa brothers present an outward image of monolithic unity, the political grapevine has hummed many times about strong political differences existing within the ‘Kurakkan Sataka’ clan. This has been particularly so in the case of a family decision on publicly announcing the candidate for the presidential election this year.
While it is “unofficially” presumed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the chosen candidate, the fact remains that the former defence secretary is yet to receive the green light from sibling Mahinda “officially.” This is all the more striking because Gotabaya has been going ahead resolutely with the spadework necessary for being a presidential contender in 2019. This gives rise to the belief that Mahinda has already sanctioned Gota’s candidacy and will announce it at the right time. What jars however are some acts of commission and omission by Mahinda that seem to run contrary to the ‘Gota as presidential candidate’ project. This makes many feel – though few have dared to express it openly – that the “Medamulana Machiavelli” may be having other ideas and is not playing fair by Gota in a political sense.
Of course it must be said that a powerful segment of pro-Rajapaksa loyalists would “pooh-pooh” these doubts. They would say – and are saying – that there are no chinks in the Rajapaksa armour and that the family is “marching to a single drum.” There may be minor points of disagreement among family members but they are all firmly united on the presidential candidacy issue. Mahinda being politically astute is only biding his time to make the announcement at the right time. He may be wanting to protect Gotabaya from being “politically persecuted” by delaying the announcement. Furthermore, there are some who opine that the Rajapaksas are projecting an image of dissension and division as a political tactic to put opponents off their guard. At the right time the Rajapaksas would announce Gota’s candidacy and close ranks behind him.
With the ex-President being debarred from contesting the presidency again, it is of utmost importance that the candidate endorsed by him should romp home the winner. A defeat would result in the eventual decline and fall of the Ruhunu Rajapaksas
One obvious factor that cannot be ignored in the current scenario is the political desperation of the Rajapaksa dynasty, particularly Mahinda. With the ex-President being debarred from contesting the presidency again, it is of the utmost importance that the candidate endorsed by him should romp home the winner. A defeat would result in the eventual decline and fall of the Ruhunu Rajapaksas. Right now, the Rajapaksa camp candidate with the best possible chance of winning the poll seems to be Gotabaya Nandasena Rajapaksa. A Gotabaya victory would ensure the consolidation and preservation of the Rajapaksa family’s political fortunes. Hence, the family has no option but to rally around Gotabaya in the final analysis. Those rooting for Gota would subscribe to the above stated view. Indeed, Gota himself has been operating on that premise.
“THE TREE DESIRES TO REMAIN STILL BUT THE WINDS WON’T STOP”
In fairness to Gotabaya, it must be said that the ex-defence secretary was not a person who wanted to contest the presidential elections willingly. Having lived in the USAfor many years and gained citizenship there was every chance that Gota may have opted to “retire” peacefully to California and fade away gradually from Sri Lankan politics. That did not happen. There is a Chinese idiom; “The tree desires to remain still but the winds won’t stop.” In Gotabaya’s case, his decision to enter active politics was greatly influenced by the political adversaries of the Rajapaksa family. The 19th Constitutional Amendment was the primary cause.
19A reversed the 18th Amendment by restricting the presidential terms of office to two. Since Mahinda Rajapaksa had served two terms as president, he was disqualified from contesting the elections again. This was the first blow. The 19th Amendment also debarred dual citizens from contesting presidential and parliamentary polls. This rendered Mahinda’s brothers Basil and Gotabaya ineligible to contest. This was the second blow. 19A also raised the age limit to be President. Earlier, it was 30 but now it was 35. Mahinda’s eldest son Namal was born in 1986. As such, he would only be 33 in 2019 and therefore cannot seek the presidency even if he wanted to. This was the third blow.
The 19th Amendment was seen by the Rajapaksas as one that targeted the family. With Mahinda being Constitutionally debarred from contesting the presidency again, it appeared that the political fortunes of Ruhunu Rajapaksas were on the wane. A number of inquiries probing the alleged corruption and abuse of power by various Rajapaksa family members were initiated. Cases were filed in court and a few Rajapaksas like Basil and Namal were even imprisoned for short periods. Gotabaya continues to wage many legal battles to ward off arrest and potential detention.
The pre-emptive strike by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government of yore to prevent the potential presidential candidacy of Gota proved counter-productive. In a rather convoluted sense, it amounted to a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was pressure on Gotabaya to enter the political fray directly by family and party. This mounting pressure was further enhanced by an influential section of society consisting of retired defence services personnel, administrators, professionals, mercantile sector bigwigs, academics and Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalists. The cumulative result of all this was the willingness of Gota to contest the presidential poll. He was prepared to renounce his US citizenship in order to contest the presidency poll. His decision resulted in the launching of a well-coordinated campaign by a powerful segment of Sri Lankan society to project Gotabaya as a potential candidate at the next presidential elections. Gota was portrayed as a visionary and strong leader who would cure Sri Lanka of its troubles and lead the country towards a bright future.
ORGANISATIONS LIKE “VIYATH MAGA,” “ELIYA” AND “HARI MAGA”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the first potential presidential contender for the 2019 hustings apart from the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena. Gota’s campaign however had to be somewhat restrained as he had not been promulgated or acknowledged as candidate by any party. So organisations like “Viyath Maga,” “Eliya” and “Hari Maga” were set up to promote the undeclared candidacy of Gota. Gotabhaya himself did not make any declaration in public of his candidacy and maintained a non – committal stance for quite some time. However, the contender recently confirmed that he was prepared to throw his hat into the ring by declaring publicly “I am ready.” Gota has also been meeting with different sections of society in different parts of the country with the emphasis on youth.
While pro-Gota organisations like “Viyath Maga” and “Eliya” promoted his candidacy at one level, there was another support group within MPs, provincial councillors and local authority representatives too. While vociferous MPs like Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila have been hogging the microphone in this regard, Gotabaya’s sources of support are much wider and deeper within UPFA-SLPP and even SLFP folds. These sections have been promoting Gotabaya’s candidacy at what may be termed as a subterranean level. It could be seen therefore that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential candidacy is being “pulled” externally by organisations like “Viyath Maga” and “Eliya” while his supporters among MPs and other elected representatives are “pushing” for it within party folds.
Mahinda being a seasoned politician would have realised or will soon realise that his tentative moves to make common cause with the UNP and other parties to abolish the executive presidency will backfire on him
In spite of all this, Mahinda Aiya is yet to give the go ahead to Gota Malli. This delay by itself would not amount to a serious problem or give rise to doubts but for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s questionable conduct in matters relating to this issue. “Watch what we do, not what we say,” was the famous saying attributed to former US President Richard Nixon’s first Attorney General John Mitchell who later fell from grace due to the Watergate scandal. Against the backdrop of Mitchellian wisdom watching what Mahinda Rajapaksa has been doing in recent times sheds much light on the question of Gotabaya’s presidential candidacy.
Two courses of action by Mahinda Rajapaksa in recent times raise grave doubts about the Medamulana Machiavelli’s real intentions on fielding Gotabaya as the presidential candidate. While Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s camp followers and fellow travellers go about the country promoting Gota’s candidacy, Mahinda has engaged in and is currently engaged in attempts to seek power through alternative methods thereby negating the rationale behind Gota’s presidential candidacy. In short, Mahinda has been trying to change the rules and nature of the game while his brother practises ardently to play the game as determined earlier. The two courses of action pursued by Mahinda in this regard are the abortive October 26 anti-constitutional coup and the on going attempts to abolish the executive presidency.
MAHINDA’S OBJECTIVE WAS TO GRAB POWER THROUGH BACKDOOR
In the political crisis triggered off on October 26 last year, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s objective was to grab power through the backdoor by getting appointed prime minister without a majority and then cobble together a majority by enticing MPs through various incentives. When that failed he and President Sirisena opted to dissolve Parliament unconstitutionally and hold elections earlier than scheduled. Resistance by a majority of MPs and commendable rulings by the Supreme Court thwarted those plans. Had Mahinda succeeded in that attempt, he would have ended up as prime minister with a viable majority in Parliament after elections. Thereafter, presidential elections would have been held with Maithripala Sirisena as the SLPP-SLFP-UPFA combine candidate. Sirisena would have been a puppet President with Mahinda wielding real power. If possible, Mahinda may have tried to procure a two-thirds majority and restore the 18th Amendment after negating 19A. If that happened, Mahinda had the option of becoming President for the third time. Mercifully for the country and democracy that did not happen.
What is important however is to note that Gotabaya too would have been a political casualty if the Mahinda–Maithripala duo’s October 26 coup had succeeded. Gota’s presidential ambitions would have been foiled. It may be recalled that Gota remained rather aloof and quiet during the 52-day crisis apart from paying lip service to the need for having fresh elections. Most of Gota’s non–MP supporters were also conspicuous by their deafening silence at that time. Parliamentarians from the Gota camp did accept ministerial portfolios in that “illegitimate government.” What may have happened if Mahinda had seized power as premier and nominated Sirisena as presidential candidate at the expense of Gota is hard to tell and merely of academic interest now. But if Gotabaya had protested vehemently and encouraged dissent, Mahinda may have had a revolt on his hands.
The second course of action by Mahinda Rajapaksa that has the potential to dash Gotabaya’s presidential hopes once again is the current exercise of attempting to abolish the executive presidency. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe are all on the same page in this for different reasons. Mahinda debarred from contesting the executive presidency by the 19th Amendment would like to abolish it altogether and become a powerful “executive” prime minister with a ceremonial President. Ranil whose chances of winning a presidential election against an “ultra-nationalist” opponent are rather slim also would like to do away with the presidency and opt for prime ministership where his prospects are much brighter. Maithripala is the least important in this calculation but he too would prefer to be a ceremonial President without power than to hold no post at all. Sirisena already a lame duck President has no hope at all of winning a presidential election. In the context of such a triangular configuration, the executive presidency could easily be done away with if the JVP sponsored 20th Amendment is fully supported.
The abolition of the executive presidency would also abolish the presidential aspirations of Gotabaya. It is highly unlikely that Mahinda Rajapaksa would be having this ulterior motive in trying to abolish the executive presidency. What impels Mahinda in this regard is the compulsion to seize power completely as a full-fledged premier and not play second fiddle to an executive President downsized by the 19th Amendment (In any case Maithripala Sirisena has demonstrated through his shameful and shameless conduct how even a lame duck President with restricted powers could wreak havoc and obstruct the progressive work of a duly elected government). By the same token, Mahinda’s abortive October 26 coup too was more of an attempt to seize power rather than deprive Gota of a chance to become President.
MAY VERY WELL TRIGGER OFF AN INNER-PARTY AND INTRA-FAMILY CRISIS
Nevertheless, the fact remains that both these attempts in general and the current exercise in particular will have the - unintended perhaps - consequence of eliminating Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s likelihood of becoming the president of Sri Lanka. Whatever the motives of Mahinda Rajapaksa in toying with the idea of abolishing the executive presidency, there is no doubt that he is not being fair by his brother Gota in this regard. After encouraging Gotabaya Rajapaksa to prepare himself as a presidential stakes contender and then abolishing the executive presidency itself amounts to meting out shabby treatment by Loku Aiya to Podi Malli. It is like getting an athlete to train for an event and cancelling it when the person concern has peaked physically. Gota withdrew into silence during the October 26 coup but it is highly improbable that the ex-defence secretary would take the abolition of the executive presidency lying down. If Mahinda Rajapaksa persists with his efforts to collaborate with the UNP and JVP to abolish the executive presidency, he may very well trigger off an inner-party and intra-family crisis.
Gota himself has not confronted his brother Mahinda publicly over the question of abolishing the executive presidency but it is crystal clear that the ex-defence secretary is opposed to the idea. This is not merely because Gota’s presidential aspiration would evaporate but also due to a conviction that abolishing the executive presidency is inappropriate at this juncture. Gota’s mindset on this matter is clearly revealed in a recent interview to P.K. Balachandran of “NewsIn Asia” website. Here is the relevant excerpt – “As regards the move to abolish the executive presidency through the proposed 20 th Amendment, Gotabaya said that abolition should not be done piecemeal. The executive presidency should not be discarded before changing the election system. The present Proportional Representation System should be abolished before the executive presidency is done away with. The PR System creates instability in Parliament. You can’t have a divided and weak Parliament as well as a ceremonial Presidency. I don’t think that there are many takers for the abolition of the executive presidency,” he said.
Mahinda Rajapaksa being a seasoned politician would have realised or will soon realise that his tentative moves to make common cause with the UNP and other parties to abolish the executive presidency will backfire on him. The Rajapaksa camp has for long been supportive of the executive presidency and critical of attempts to undermine it or abolish it. Thus it would appear to be a complete “U” turn if Mahinda collaborates with other parties to do away with the executive presidency. Furthermore, if suspicion gains ground that Mahinda is trying to abolish the executive presidency to prevent Gotabaya from becoming President, it would go badly against the elder brother. Mahinda Rajapaksa is certainly the single-most popular mass figure in the seven provinces outside the North and East. However, the popularity of Gotabaya is not to be underestimated. Although untested so far in hurly-burly politics there is a strong possibility that Gota may come a close second to Mahinda in mass popularity. Even the slightest suspicion that Mahinda is undercutting Gota may therefore cause an unexpected upheaval.
Already such signs are beginning to be visible. The firebrand Wimal Weerawansa has openly stated that the move to abolish the executive presidency is a sinister plot to deprive Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the executive presidency. He has threatened to break away from the UPFA if the moves to abolish the executive presidency continue. Weerawansa’s outburst and threat should not be taken lightly as he seems to be voicing the inarticulated opinion of the silent majority within the Rajapaksa camp. Already Mahinda seems to have realised the implications of the prevailing volatile situation. The meeting with the JVP proved to be a damp squib without any forward movement on the executive presidency abolition issue. It appears that Mahinda the consummate politician is extricating himself from the executive presidency abolition exercise.
GOTA HAS BEEN LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR HIS CANDIDACY
The recent political turns and twists indicate that Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot keep the presidential candidate carrot dangling in front of Gotabaya for long. The elder brother must play fair by the younger one and confirm the candidacy formally and officially soon. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been laying the groundwork for his presidential candidacy so far. He has been patient as it was not his intention to launch an election campaign too early because it would have been difficult to sustain the momentum. So Gota and his campaign planners have been engaged in preparatory efforts. But what they seem to be aiming for is an intensive ,whirlwind campaign lasting for about 4 to 6 months and culminating with the presidential election that has to take place on or before December this year. Time therefore is running out and a formal announcement confirming Gota’s candidacy is needed soon. Gota has to launch his campaign by June this year. Therefore Mahinda will have to give the green light anytime after the April New Year.
It is also very likely that Mahinda may not be able to proceed at his own, leisurely pace in this matter. Gotabaya so far has never been overtly critical of his elder brother and it is unlikely that he will depart from this practice now. But it seems highly improbable that Gota will simply watch and wait patiently for Mahinda to make the announcement. Gotabaya’s strength has been his quiet confidence in the inevitability of his candidacy. Despite the many political storms threatening his potential candidacy and the prolonged delay by Mahinda, Gotabaya has not lost his cool. He has not faulted Mahinda publicly and is never likely to do so in the future either. Gotabaya’s strength lies in the confidence that he and he alone has the capacity to harvest votes in the absence of Mahinda as a presidential candidate. Gota perceives himself as a winner and knows that if the Rajapaksa camp has to have a winning candidate then it is he Gotabaya Rajapaksa who would be the only choice. It is this supreme confidence that has enabled Gota to wait patiently so long for the decisive announcement.
In spite of the stoic patience displayed so far by Gota, he cannot afford to continue with this state of affairs. With “time’s winged chariot drawing near” Gota needs to force the pace and is now engaging in initiatives to do so. It is noteworthy that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa who remained outwardly non – committal about his presidential candidacy bid changed his approach after the October 26 political crisis. It was after the crisis that Gota said in January this year “I am ready if you are ready.” This was to show that he was still ready, able and willing to be a contender despite the October 26 crisis generated confusion. With Mahinda’s ill-advised abortive attempt to abolish the executive presidency it is very likely that Gota too will take steps to pressurise Mahinda into announcing the presidential candidate soon.
One such initiative is the staging of meetings in different districts with UPFA/SLPP political representatives in attendance. Gotabaya’s candidacy is endorsed by these politicians at these meetings. The candidacy campaign gathers momentum steadily. On the other hand, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also demonstrated firmly that he was not prepared to tag along without his candidacy being endorsed and authorised. When a series of political meetings were organised in different districts by the SLPP with the expectation that Gota would be on stage the ex-defence secretary refused point blank. He made it known that he should not be taken for granted and that he would not mount a political party platform without being officially recognised as the presidential candidate.
GOTA AWAITS HIS INEVITABLE TRYST WITH DESTINY
All this shows that matters are drawing to a head in the Rajapaksa camp. Mahinda Rajapaksa has to act speedily and dispel the impression that he is not playing fair by Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential candidacy issue. It is time to formally announce the UPFA/SLPP presidential candidate also. It is imperative for the Rajapaksa camp to pick the candidate with the best chance of winning. Many opine that Gota is the winning candidate. It is in this evolving situation that Gotabaya Nandasena Rajapaksa awaits his inevitable tryst with destiny!