He may be a maverick or a Machiavelli but the irrepressible Wimal Weerawansa is in the news again. The Minister for Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities and the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) leader is at the forefront of opposing the northern provincial polls.
Weerawansa, whatever his faults, is a great platform orator. These days he is in his element, making pronouncements at every available opportunity opposing the proposed elections which are scheduled for September. It is a strategy that has raised concerns about his political future.
" Indeed, Weerawansa’s detractors would argue that his current rhetoric against the northern provincial election is carried out at the behest of the powers that be. They would claim that sections of the government are not at all keen about conducting the polls and would gladly call it off if they could "
Such speculation first arose because he broke with tradition to hold a separate May Day rally this year. There he explained the rationale for that decision saying he needed an opportunity to express sentiments that could not be voiced at a United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) rally.
He said he would not cling to his portfolio if he didn’t agree with the policies of the government. A northern provincial poll which granted land and police powers to that province will be inimical to Sri Lanka’s unity, he argued, and said he was willing to sacrifice his position for this cause.
This is not the first instance that Wimal Weerawansa has dared to be defiant. In July 2010, he staged a fast or farce ‘unto death’ at the United Nations (UN) Colombo office to protest against UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon setting up a panel of ‘experts’ to probe alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.
After three days Weerawansa meekly called off the fast when President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited him and offered him a glass of water. Weerawansa won no concessions as a result of his effort but gained some international publicity.
When the now forty-three-year-old schoolboy cricketer from Kalutara Vidyalaya ended his schooling, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was in the midst of a second insurrection. It was with the JVP that Weerawansa cut his political teeth in the early nineties, as a ‘journalist’ in the party’s newspaper.
Weerawansa’s style of public speaking often heaped ridicule on his opponents but this made him a star attraction at political rallies. His value as a platform speaker propelled him to the forefront of the JVP where he was promptly designated as its propaganda secretary.
When general elections were held in 2000, Weerawansa entered Parliament from the Colombo district. In Parliament, Weerawansa was often the public face of the JVP. In 2005, Weerawansa was a tireless campaigner for UPFA candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa in his presidential bid.
Weerawansa was at the forefront of the JVP’s campaign to de-link the northern and eastern provinces which were merged under the Indo-Lanka Accord. This move saw the provinces being separated under an order of the Supreme Court which ruled that merger was ‘illegal’.
Weerawansa’s relationship with the JVP was to sour over a series of issues, mostly related to his unqualified backing for President Rajapaksa. The JVP wanted to extract more concessions from the President. Weerawansa maintained he should be supported because of the then ongoing Eelam war.
In 2008 Weerawansa defied the party and along with several other JVP parliamentarians, voted with the government on the Budget. They were expelled from the party and Weerawansa formed the JNP of which he is the leader with only a handful of other nationally known politicians.
The JNP became the JVP’s harshest critic and by 2010, when the next general elections were held the JVP’s parliamentary strength was reduced to a few seats. Weerawansa, contesting from the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was re-elected and appointed a minister.
Weerawansa’s style of politics has had mixed results. His oratory has kept him in the limelight and fast tracked his political career but his style of belittling his opponents has won him few friends. As a result, when he blunders, his detractors have been quick to pounce on him.
One such instance was when Weerawansa publicly announced that he had “not had time” to visit Sigiriya. Critics quickly seized on the issue querying how a personality who proclaims patriotism at every turn had not undertaken a task which most Sri Lankans attend to as school children.
There have also been incidents when Weerawansa’s personal life has come under intense scrutiny in the media. In a country where such issues are usually kept off the front pages, it is fair to surmise that this was because of Weerawansa’s abrasive manner towards his opponents.
Controversy has also dogged Weerawansa both as a parliamentarian and a minister. Perhaps his most embarrassing faux pas was when, attending a literary festival in September 2006, he erroneously said that the Ernest Hemingway novel ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ was written by Guy de Maupassant.
Nevertheless, Weerawansa continues to be a leading figure in the UPFA, at times upstaging his colleagues from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. It is a style of politics that has won him few friends but he has never been short of publicity.
Given his past track record of being quite compliant with the whims of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it appears unlikely that he will carry through his threat to quit the government. If he does so, there is little to fall back on because the JNP does not command an extensive vote base in the country.
Indeed, Weerawansa’s detractors would argue that his current rhetoric against the northern provincial election is carried out at the behest of the powers that be. They would claim that sections of the government are not at all keen about conducting the polls and would gladly call it off if they could. It has been speculated that the northern provincial elections is the price the government would have to pay for hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November. India which used its good offices to ensure that Colombo plays host, will surely want its political pound of flesh.
An increasingly likely scenario-in the face of protests from Weerawansa and to a lesser extent from fellow minister Champika Ranawaka - is the government diluting the powers devolved to the provinces and then holding elections. Then Weerawansa will be able to save face-and so will the government.