Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempt to seize power through the backdoor with the support of President Maithripala Sirisena has been roundly defeated by a courageous display of united resistance by concerned citizens in combination with decisive votes in the legislature and unanimous rulings by the Judiciary. After clinging on stubbornly from October 26 for 51 days, former president and Kurunegala district MP Mahinda Rajapaksa terminated his illegitimate tenure as purported Premier by signing a letter of resignation at his residence on December 15. Thereafter on December 16 Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in by President Sirisena as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka again.
The rightful restoration of Ranil as Prime Minister has been welcomed joyfully by all those adhering to principles of constitutional democracy both nationally and internationally. The undignified exit of Mahinda and triumphant re-entry of Ranil has a fairy tale ring to it and most fairy tales have an ending where everyone lives “happily ever after”. Unfortunately it is not so in real life. Similarly the Sri Lankan political crisis too has had a happy ending due to the defeat of the anti-constitutional or extra-constitutional coup. The celebratory mood therefore is understandable. However there is no room for complacency. The rightful return of Ranil Wickremesinghe is indeed most welcome but it cannot be regarded as a grand finale to the Political crisis which will certainly continue in new forms and ways in the days to come.
Error of Estimation
The armed intervention of India in the ethnic crisis of Sri Lanka in 1987 proved to be a costly blunder for our big neighbour. This was mainly due to an error of estimation. India under-estimated the capability of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and over-estimated the capacity of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). Likewise one is able to discern errors of estimation in the aftermath of the recent political crisis. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political defeat has led to an under-estimation of the ex-president’s political capability and popularity. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political victory has resulted in an over-estimation of the Prime Minister’s political capacity and popularity.
For many many years now there has been sustained propaganda that Ranil Wickremesinghe is a serial loser and that he will never be able to lead the UNP to overwhelming electoral success. As such Ranil was projected as a political liability to his party. Sadly for Wickremesinghe many stalwarts in the UNP also bought into rival propaganda that Ranil would not be able to lead the party to victory at elections. In order to cover up their own shortcomings and deficiencies some green elephants found it convenient to scapegoat Ranil as the cause for the party’s decline. Wickremesinghe stepping down to facilitate the presidential candidacy of Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena in 2010 and 2015 has not helped to dispel such doubts about Ranil’s “unwinnability” either.
However the recent power grab through backdoor fiasco has jaded the images of both Mahinda and Maithripala while the long tarnished image of Ranil Wickremesinghe has been re-furbished. The arbitrary and unfair manner in which he was removed and replaced as Prime Minister made people of different backgrounds rally around Ranil and engage in a people’s protest. In spite of Wickremesinghe’s perceived faults and deficits he became the symbol of the people’s resistance movement. This has enhanced his political image to a great extent. What the future may be is somewhat unpredictable but right now Ranil rides the crest of a populist wave and has energised Ranil with enhanced confidence. So much so that an ebullient Ranil is now planning to forge a new political front and seek a two-thirds majority in Parliament through an early election. While Wickremesinghe’s desire to seize the moment is quite understandable there is every possibility that Ranil is misreading the situation and may be over-estimating the nature and extent of the political clout he enjoys right now.
On the other hand it is indeed a fact that the cumulative result of the recent political crisis has resulted in the diminution of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political stature and reputation. There is no doubt that Mahinda Rajapaksa is still the single-most popular mass-figure in the seven Sinhala majority provinces of Sri Lanka. This aura however has suffered much erosion in recent times The man described as the “Medamulana Machiavelli” has been denied the spoils of prime ministerial office after an abortive attempt to grab power through the backdoor. Furthermore Mahinda Rajapaksa’s larger than life image has been considerably dented by these political shenanigans. Mahinda is depicted by his detractors as a selfish, power-hungry politician without principles or scruples who would resort to diabolical measures to seize power. This portrayal is perceived as correct by a growing number of people.
This has led to a situation where the growing tendency is to write off Mahinda Rajapaksa politically. This line of thought seems more prevalent among those who battled bravely to confront the Mahinda-Maithripala duo and their minions these past weeks. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena were compelled to abandon their power grab attempt because of this struggle. Mahinda and Maithripala did not change their stances willingly and step down. They were made to back off by an incredible and unprecedented display of resistance - to an unconstitutional, illegal act - on multiple levels in different forms. This resistance was demonstrated in Parliament as well as in the public domain. Never in the post -independence history of this nation has such a popular non-violent protest movement cutting across race, religion, caste, class or creed been witnessed. Substantial sections of the Sri Lankan population mobilized together as a united nation and rallied around a principled common cause. It was basically a case of the country and people defending Constitutional democracy and resisting flagrant attempts to capture power through the backdoor.
Against that backdrop it is understandable that people in a jubilant state of mind would tend to perceive Mahinda Rajapaksa as a deflated balloon politically. It would be a grave mistake to misread the situation and under-estimate Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political strength. Downsized he may be , but the giant has not been turned into a midget. Mahinda Rajapaksa may be down, but is certainly not out yet. In spite of being politically de-valued to some extent by recent happenings, Mahinda Rajapaksa remains a force to be reckoned with still. Though thwarted at this juncture, the return of the Ruhunu Rajapaksas to power is a distinct possibility in the near future.
In that context, it is necessary to re-iterate that over estimating Ranil Wickremesinghe and under estimating Mahinda Rajapaksa could prove to be a serious political miscalculation and blunder. A huge contributing factor to such a blunder may lie in a mis-interpretation or mis-understanding of the nature and composition of the resistance to Rajapaksa and support to Wickremesinghe. The opposition to Mahinda Rajapaksa was more due to the anti-constitutional, illegitimate manner and mode through which he tried to capture power rather than to the man himself. The support extended to Ranil Wickremesinghe was more due to the unjust, illegal manner and mode through which he was ousted rather than for the person himself. It is very possible that a very large number of people who opposed Rajapaksa may and could vote for Mahinda and his party in a free and fair election. It is equally possible that a very large number of people who supported Wickremesinghe may and could vote against Ranil and his party in a democratic poll.
Most men who grew up in Sri Lanka have in the days of our youth participated in many a Baila session where some verses were ribald. One sanitized verse in the perennially popular tri-lingual Baila medley “Rangadina Baila, Mevvaa Iganaganilaa” was as follows – “Jumping through the window Darling, What Will People Say? If you want to marry me Darling, Come in the Proper way!
In that context, it is necessary to re-iterate that over estimating Ranil Wickremesinghe and under estimating Mahinda Rajapaksa could prove to be a serious political miscalculation and blunder
The above mentioned Baila verse comes to mind in the current context where Mahinda Rajapaksa’s power grab attempt through the backdoor has met with strong disapproval. What is of key importance here is to note that the basic reason for this opprobrium is the method used to capture power. Had Rajapaksa sought power through legitimate channels there would have been little resentment. Even those who are against the Rajapaksas politically would have had no choice other than to reconcile themselves to a Rajapaksa-run administration if they came to power by winning elections. It was the attempt to break into the seat of power unconstitutionally which shocked and put off people. As according to the Baila, ‘Jumping through the window is not the proper way. If you want to marry the darling one must use the proper way’. So if Mahinda wants power he cannot just come in through the back door. He must come through the front door or the proper way.
After Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential election in January 2015 he underwent several political reversals. There were many in the “Yahapalanaya” camp who were cock-a-hoop at this state of affairs and were predicting a “retirement” by the Lion of Ruhunu. This writer in an article written in November 2015 stated that Mahinda Rajapaksa would not opt for retirement and would plunge into politics zestfully and seek a comeback. I outlined three main reasons for such a stance by Mahinda then which remain valid even now. Here are the relevant excerpts –
Mahinda’s Three Reasons
“Why is it unlikely that Mahinda Rajapaksa would quit politics at this point of time and retire? There are three reasons. One is the combative personality of Mahinda Rajapaksa. In the words of Dylan Thomas, Mahinda is one of those who would ‘rage against’ what he may consider as ‘ the dying of light’. One cannot imagine him going out ‘gently into that good night’.
“The second and more important reason is that he cannot retire from politics at present even if he wants to. He cannot afford the luxury of retirement as J.R. Jayewardene, D.B. Wijetunge or even Chandrika Kumaratunga.Ghosts of the past haunting him at present would not leave him and/or his extended family alone in the future. There is a Chinese saying that the winds will not let a tree remain still even if it wants to.That aptly sums up Mahinda’s present situation.”
“The third reason is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s self-perception of being the chosen guardian of Sri Lanka and divinely sanctioned saviour of the Sinhala Buddhists. There is no denying that the separatist threat posed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was defeated militarily due to the political leadership provided by Mahinda Rajapaksa. In his mind, he was the one who defeated the perceived enemies of Sinhala Buddhism and restored the majority community to its rightful place in the country.Yet he was defeated at the presidential elections by the votes of the Tamils and Muslims. Nevertheless it was he and not Maithripala who gained greater support among the Sinhala voters. This Sinhala vote base got further eroded at the Parliamentary elections but analysts say the UPFA got more “Sinhala” votes than the UNFGG at the August 17 polls”
“It is this third reason that will provide greater impetus to Mahinda Rajapaksa in continuing to be in politics. Saying “ I am a fighter by nature” or “I have to be in politics to safeguard myself and my family” is direct and honest but is politically inconvenient. On the other hand saying “I will be in politics to protect race, nation, faith and country” will be more acceptable politically. Of course Mahinda will be criticised severely by the league of political correctness but as long as a majority of the majority community which is regarded by Mahinda as his true constituency is supportive Rajapaksa will be content”.
Those words stated in November 2015 were subsequently proved true. Mahinda not only remained in the political scene but also actively engaged in politics. In the aftermath of the 19th Constitutional Amendment which re-imposed the two-term limit for the Presidency, it appeared that Mahinda could never be President again. With Mahinda Rajapaksa being Constitutionally-debarred from contesting the presidency again, it seemed 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 Rajapaksa continues to wage many legal battles to ward off arrest and potential detention.
In such a situation, many political observers felt that the writing was on the wall politically for the Ruhunu Rajapaksas. But that did not happen. Despite the adverse setbacks, the political stock of Ruhunu Rajapaksas continued to remain on par with ‘Medamulana Mahinda’ continuing to retain his position as the single-most popular political leader in the seven provinces outside the North and the East. Moreover, the newly-formed Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) which revolved around Mahinda Rajapaksa got the better of both the UNP and SLFP and emerged as the leading victor at the local authorities’ elections in February 2018.
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
Against that backdrop the Mahinda-led opposition was very confident that the days of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government were numbered and that the political resurgence and return to power of the Ruhunu Rajapaksas was inevitable. The Rajapaksa camp asserted boldly that either Mahinda or a suitable person nominated by him would be at the helm of Sri Lankan affairs soon. The situation was such that the confident Mahinda Rajapaksa camp was demanding elections to the Provincial Councils where polls were due. The “Yahapalanaya” government had no convincing answer. It was simply trotting out lame excuses for delaying elections thereby strengthening the impression in the country that a return of the Rajapaksas to power through elections was inevitable.
Buried The Hatchet
In another bizarre turn of events, President Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa who were supposedly at loggerheads with each other seemingly buried the hatchet in a political move aimed at undermining Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The political grapevine buzzed with the news that the Sirisena and the Rajapaksa camps had realigned politically. There were also unconfirmed reports of clandestine canvassing of members from many shades of opinion within Parliament. A substantial number of MPs from the SLFP as well as sections of the UNF were tipped to switch loyalties. There was a strong possibility of the UPFA-SLFP faction within the government “officially” pulling out. Speculation was rife that the political reconfiguration process would result in a defeat for the government during the budget vote. If and when this happened President Sirisena was expected to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister who would then be seen as commanding the confidence of the House in a drastically-reconfigured Parliament. This belief began gathering momentum and it seemed that the return of the Rajapaksas was unavoidable. Many even began preparing for such an eventuality.
It was at this juncture that Mahinda and Maithripala embarked on their ill-fated venture to seize power through the backdoor. The details of this sordid exercise remain fresh in the collective memory of the nation and need no further elaboration here. The Mahinda -Maithripala attempt to seize power has been foiled. Grudgingly compelled to accept the inevitable, the power hungry violators of the Constitution have thrown in the towel. There is however no room for complacency as the struggle for political power will definitely continue in the coming days in new forms and fresh directions. Ranil Wickremesinghe may have been restored rightfully to his position as Prime Minister but the power -hungry elements who conspired to topple him would certainly persist with their efforts in the future.
Both Mahinda and Maithripala will jointly and separately work hard to undermine the Government although Sirisena as President is the nominal head of the same Government. Having failed in their anti-constitutional coup to remove and replace Wickremesinghe both Maithripala and Mahinda would now continue from where they were compelled to stop. They will continue with renewed vigour the task of completing their unfinished agenda. Thus we can expect Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa to continue waging war against Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Govt from within and without. Rajapaksa will launch attacks from outside and Sirisena will sabotage from the inside.
Tamil National Alliance
A key feature of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s propaganda drive against Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNF government will be on communal lines. Rajapaksa who sought the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to bolster his unconstitutional, illegitimate Government was rebuffed by the premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Furthermore 14 MP’s of the TNA joined with the UNF and JVP in defeating the purported premier Mahinda Rajapaksa and his purported Govt during Parliamentary votes. The TNA went the extra mile by supporting the motion expressing confidence in Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Since the JVP abstained on this issue, it was the TNA bloc of 14 MP’s who provided the majority to Ranil in this vote. Wickremesinghe was endorsed by 117 MP’s out of 225 Parliamentarians. The UNF had only 103 and it was the TNA’s 14 which helped increase the tally to 117.
Apart from its stance in the legislature the TNA also pursued appropriate legal courses of action. TNA chief and leader of the opposition Rajavarothayam Sampanthan filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court against the gazette proclamation by President Sirisena dissolving Parliament and scheduling expedited elections. Others too filed similar FR petitions. Initially the Supreme court issued a stay order pending a final decision. The TNA Parliamentarians were also among the 122 MP’s who sought a writ of Quo Warranto from the court of appeal against purported prime minister Rajapaksa and 48 other purported Cabinet ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers. The appeal court also issued a stay order pending final determination. Mahinda Rajapaksa appealed against the court of appeal stay order to the Supreme court. Subsequently a seven judge bench headed by Chief Justice Nalin Perera ruled that the expedited dissolution of Parliament by the President was anti-constitutional and therefore null and void. A three- judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Eva Wanasundara rejected Mahinda Rajapaksa’s appeal and upheld the interim order issued by the court of appeal. Both rulings were unanimous. TNA spokesperson and attorney-at-law M.A. Sumanthiran was part of the legal team arguing the above mentioned cases at the Appeal and Supreme Courts.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was furious with the TNA over these matters. Conveniently overlooking the fact that he himself had sought the support of the TNA to set up an administration and would have had no qualms about accepting it if indeed it was forthcoming, Mahinda chose to raise not so subtle chauvinist cries against the TNA for supporting the UNF. Mahinda Rajapaksa delivered a farewell speech on December 15 when he signed his “resignation” letter. In that speech Mahinda launched an attack on the UNP and TNA. Referring to the support given by the TNA to increase the tally of MP’s supporting Ranil to 117, Mahinda charged the TNA of holding the “remote control” in Parliament forgetting the fact that he was prepared to let the TNA have the alleged remote control too. The relevant excerpts from Mahinda’s speech are as follows
TNA Remote Control
“A total of 117 MPs voted calling for Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe to be appointed as Prime Minister. Fourteen of those votes belong to the TNA. Even though the TNA also requested that Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe be appointed Prime Minister, on the same day, TNA Parliamentarian Mavai Senathirajah made a special statement in Parliament on behalf of the TNA saying that though they voted for Mr Wickremesinghe to become Prime Minister, they would not join the government and would remain in the opposition”
“So what has actually happened here is that the UNP which has a minority of 103 seats, has been taken hostage by the TNA. If they do not adhere to the diktat of the TNA, the UNP minority can lose their parliamentary majority at any moment. The TNA now holds the remote control in Parliament”.
“On December 12, even before the Supreme Court judgement was delivered, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe spoke in Parliament about bringing in a new constitution. This new constitution has already been drafted and published in the newspapers as well. Under the provisions of that draft constitution, this country will be divided into nine semi-independent federal units”.
Sinhala Buddhist Constituency
The battle lines are clearly demarcated now. Mahinda Rajapaksa will spearhead an intensive campaign tinged with racism against the Wickremesinghe Government and its key ally the TNA. By doing so Rajapaksa hopes to boost his support base within the Sinhala Buddhist constituency. The support extended by political parties such as the TNA, TPA, SLMC and ACMC to Ranil Wickremesinghe has shown Mahinda that he has very little support among the Tamils and Muslims. Hence it appears logical and practical from his perspective - though morally reprehensible – to pursue a chauvinist campaign that would mobilise Sinhala Buddhist votes in his favour. Whether this course of action would yield dividends or not is hard to predict at this time but the sad reality is that Mahinda Rajapaksa is going to follow that path. It is against this backdrop that the politics of Mahinda Rajapaksa has to be weighed and evaluated. As stated earlier there is a complacent view among certain sections of the people that Mahinda Rajapaksa has been defeated politically and that he is a spent force. Such an opinion could be dangerously wrong. In the eyes of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters only a “battle”has been lost. The “war”is not over. It will be fought relentlessly.
If Ranil Wickremesinghe and his party think that Mahinda Rajapaksa has been politically neutralized, then they are badly mistaken. Under-estimating Mahinda and over- estimating Ranil without gauging the ground realities correctly may result in political disaster. The “Medamulana Machiavelli” Mahinda Rajapaksa may be down but he is certainly not out!
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com