- The UNP cannot decide on a workable strategy until it put to rest the simmering internal dissent
The Pohottuwa’s inaugural national convention held on Sunday was plain-dealing, so to speak. Ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa took over the leadership of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and then announced that his younger brother Gotabaya would be the party candidate for the forthcoming presidential election. No one fretted about internal party democracy or the lack of it. None cried wolf over nepotism. Almost every soul in the audience listened religiously as the two brothers spoke. Patriotism oozed. Party acolytes gulped down every bit of it.
Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s nomination as the party candidate was a long-time coming. And, he was undoubtedly the front runner, though the SLPP did not have any pretense of a party vote. Still, it was rather odd for a political party as a whole to surrender itself to the wisdom of one man. It felt like the Mao’s era Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps it could also be a harbinger of things to come in the not too distant future.
In the past, the widows, daughters, and sons of ex-leaders of this country had been appointed as prime minister and nominated as presidential candidates. Probably, now it is high time for a brother to be given the honour. This is not unique to Sri Lanka either. Recently, Kazakhastan’s long-serving autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron grip since 1990, ceded power to his handpicked deputy Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. His successor renamed the Capital Astana after the departing strongman. It is now called Nursultan. The new president also won a shame election which gave a veneer of legitimacy to his reign - though many observers suspect that he is just a seat-warmer for the ex- president’s daughter who is currently the chair of the Senate.
People are now remembering the well- kept Colombo of the not so distant past. That is while much of the city is stinking with heaps of uncollected garbage under a Mayoress who spent Rs. 5 million to renovate the toilets of her official residence.
Cynics say that Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself is a stop-gap candidate who would hold onto it until young presidential scion Namal Rajapaksa is ready for the office.
However, such calculations could go wrong. In Angola, the kleptocratic president José Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled since 1979 handed power to his chosen anointer João Lourenço. Dos Santos reign was one of the crooked, even in the African standards. During which, his daughter amassed wealth to become the richest woman in Africa. However, Dos Santos’s handpicked successor did not let his former boss pull strings from behind. He cracked down on the Dos Santos clan, sacking the members of the former first family from plum positions, many of whom are now being investigated for corruption.
However, it is not fair to attribute Gotabaya’s candidacy to nepotism alone. Mr. Rajapaksa has a stellar record of an able implementer of the state policy. As the defence secretary, he merged administrative efficiency with a sense of political authority and became a cornerstone in the military success against the LTTE. His contribution to the beautification of the city of Colombo, though ridiculed by the stakeholders of the Yahapalanaya, proved that Mr. Rajapaksa did indeed have a vision, that is also shared by a large swathe of aspiring Sri Lankans.
People are now remembering with a sense of nostalgia the well- kept Colombo of the not so distant past. That is while much of the city is stinking with heaps of uncollected garbage under a Mayoress who spent Rs. 5 million to renovate the toilets of her official residence.
However, Mr. Rajapaksa is no saint. During his time in power, he was feared than loved. Critics who crossed his path faced an untimely end. He is facing several court cases at home and in the courts of California over the charges as wide-ranging as the misappropriation of public funds and rights abuses, including the alleged command responsibility in the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickremetunge.
His rivals of the Yahapalanaya rode to power promising to investigate the crimes of the former regime. Nearly five years on, they have done little or nothing. Not a single case of high profile human rights abuses or corruption blamed on the former regime leaders, including Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa were investigated to leading to a conviction.
Even the public who do not believe that the Rajapaksas were innocent are now pondering as to which one was the lesser evil: Is it the former regime leaders who were accused of some of the most egregious abuses or the Yahapalanites who left a trail of broken promises, who were so incompetent that they cannot even jail their opponents.
Perhaps, more than anyone else, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe deserves the gratitude of Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa for his and his siblings’ political comeback. Mr.Wickremesinghe and his coterie of handpicked loyalists appointed to top Cabinet posts became the by-word for incompetence and vacillation. That coupled with the usual procrastinations of the country’s judiciary gave a way out for the Rajapaksas from their legal troubles.
Now it is the payback time. Mr. Wickremesinghe and the UNP are burdened by the squandered opportunities of the last four years. Few seem to bet on the electability of Mr. Wickremesinghe.
As Rip Van Winkle columnist of the Sunday Times noted if it is Mr. Wickremesinghe who is running against Gota, the latter might well start appointing his cabinet now.
Probably Mr. Wickremesinghe’s objectives are much less ambitious. He seems to be more interested in holding onto the leadership of the UNP, than defeating Mr. Rajapaksa.
The deputy leader of the UNP and another ex-presidential scion, Sajith Premadasa has thrown his hat into the ring. Yesterday, his loyalists held a rally in Badulla, where Mr. Premadasa’s candidacy was promoted. Sajith Premadasa is a better bet than the party leader Wickremesinghe. A third candidate, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya could probably emerge as a compromise candidate. However, whoever competes from the UNP will be facing an uphill battle against Gota.
But the UNP cannot decide on a workable strategy until it put to rest the simmering internal dissent. The dearth of internal party democracy in the UNP is a recurrent problem, repercussions of which are now threatening to split the party along loyalties. Internal jockeying is intensified by the fact that what is at the stake is not just one position, but, three positions: candidacy for the presidential election, the prime ministerial nominee and the party leadership itself.
However, that could also provide the basis for a compromise. Those opposing Mr. Wickremesinghe’s run for the presidency can guarantee him of the continuation of his party leadership, and a say in appointing the Cabinet under a future UNP government. He could either be the prime ministerial nominee, which in fact is far more powerful than the presidency after the 19th amendment comes to full force with the new term of presidency. Or better still, he can be the senior leader or the minister mentor, just like Lee Kuan Yew had been during his twilight years in politics. That would also enable the UNP to field a more electable candidate for the presidential election, and also save the party from a crippling split.
Follow @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter