Sunday, November 23, 2014

Options for the government

Vasudeva Nanayakkara, speaking to the BBC, has this to say about the recent defection by a group of SLFP ministers: "It's a serious loss." That's big, coming from him. He tries to justify his support for Mahinda Rajapaksa while claiming that he and he alone should abolish the Executive Presidency. He stumbles on the way, of course, but Nanayakkara admits the following: "True SLFPers will continue to oppose the UNP. They won't vote for a candidate picked by that party." That's true, but hardly comforting. The government has been stumped, and for all I know we're in for a crossover drama in the days to come. This is not to say that the government has halved, as Victor Ivan claims in his interview with the BBC. Still, I wouldn't be too cheerful.

The problem with this regime isn't just the Rajapaksa factor. The problem is that it hasn't really made tactical decisions when it comes to appointing people. Rajiva Wijesinghe, whose antipathies to the External Affairs Ministry are as well documented as Dayan Jayatilake's, is reported to have said that while he feels sorry for the president, he thinks everyone around him is tarnishing his image. That's true. The president is popular, a point conceded by those who defected the other day. The issue isn't with him. The issue is with what has repeatedly been called the "Maharajaneni Club". If the government wants to go beyond a victory at this stage, it clearly must focus on this issue. But how?

It's well known that most if not many of those who cheer Mahinda Rajapaksa now were once his adversaries. It's also well know that most of them are disgruntled with him today. Janaka Bandara Tennakoon probably spoke for them when observing how badly the SLFP fared after allowing kudu karayo (drug dealers) in. There's talk that Tennakoon is to leave the party in the coming days. This isn't what stumps me here. What stumps me here is the basis on which Tennakoon made that remark.

Party defections aren't uncommon in Sri Lanka. We've had Left mingling with Right. We've had parties within parties. We've had defunct political movements separate from dominant parties, only to reconnect with them after some time. That's politics, after all, not at all uncommon to Sri Lanka. The problem for Rajapaksa is however that he made some mistakes. He welcomed party defectors, with open arms. He forgave. And forgot. At this stage, speculation is rife about some of these very same former defectors defecting from the SLFP, but the truth is that both they and those who despise them are dissatisfied with the current regime. If it's about restoring balance and strength in the party, therefore, Rajapaksa shouldn't be content with a victory at the election alone.

The SLFP is a constituent party. The UPFA is an altogether different matter. While defections from the SLFP may be an indication of the Bandaranaike-Rajapaksa split therein, it's clear that growing unrest in the larger, parent party reflects how disgruntled certain elements are with the Executive Presidency. Only the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna have come out unanimously in support of the president. Nearly every other constituent party in the UPFA, the LSSP included, have time and time again opposed the 18th Amendment. Nanayakkara's statements to the BBC are reflective of this.

Mahinda Rajapaksa isn't going to promise EP-abolition, this much is clear. Politicians can get stubborn. The problem however is that there's a limit to this. While I'm not entirely sure that the president has reached that limit, I am however quite certain that unless and until he heeds the anti-EP movement, he clearly won't see beyond "election victory". It's a foregone conclusion already in the minds of those supporting Maithripala Sirisena, after all, that Mahinda's going to win. The aim of these voters is not to topple Rajapaksa completely, but to ensure he doesn't win with a clear majority. The aim is to get him to see beyond election victory, hence.

This however is merely a part of the problem.

Let's assume, by a wild stretch of imagination, that the likes of Chandrika Kumaratunge and Ranil Wickremasinghe really want to abolish the Executive Presidency. Even then, it's clear that they have other aims and motives in supporting Sirisena. Kumaratunge has in no uncertain terms voiced her personal grudge against Rajapaksa. That's not the way to restore democracy in a democracy-robbed country, but the point is that the mandate given to Sirisena isn't only to abolish the Executive Presidency. There's a host of other things they're planning to do away with, which perhaps is where the government should get cold feet.

I'm no political analyst, but it doesn't take an analyst to figure out that this government has got some things wrong when it comes to appointments. Both Rajiva Wijesinghe and Dayan Jayatilake have rooted their opposition on this. Still, this doesn't mean they oppose Rajapaksa unconditionally. Crooks and stooges have been given high places, granted, but at the same time it's also true the opposition are silently wooing some of them.

The message is clear, hence.

"We are disgruntled with the regime, though this doesn't mask personal antipathies to the president himself. He's surrounded by goons who're piggybacking on him. He's created an all but complete family dynasty in the government. This doesn't mean we're against him per se, but that we're against the only instrument he can use to entrench power even further. We're not doing this for the public good alone, of course, and we concede that the opposition's making us the scapegoats. But the point is that unless the SLFP returns to its traditional roots, devoid of the nobodies who are running riot in it today, it won't be the UNPers alone who'll vote against it."

Strengthening political parties is no easy task. Restoring confidence in a party threatened with internal rifts is harder. This is true even when those creating such rifts try to mask their personal vendettas and hide their own past abuses, with chest-thumping words that try to make saints out of them. There's talk going around town that Maithripala Sirisena got suckered in. I'm not so sure, but I won't say that this is a groundless claim either. Whether or not this is true, however, the government still needs to take a leaf out of what the common (sic) opposition is doing.