Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The opposition's moves

Chandrika Kumaratunge is reported to have said that if she (i.e. her movement) doesn't defeat the Budget on its third reading, she will no longer be her father's daughter. That was three or four days ago. The Budget was passed two days ago. It was passed with a 157-57 vote gap. That's a 2/3rd majority. "චන්ද්‍රිකාගේ අප්පා කවුද?" ("Who is Chandrika's father?") is a sly comment made by a mildly pro-regime news (sic) site online. Typical.

This isn't all, by the way. The way the opposition harangued a week ago, we were expecting more than a dozen defections from the ruling party by yesterday. Hasn't happened. It is sensationalised claims like these which rob the opposition of its credibility. I'm not complaining or hooting, oh no, but the point is that until now we've had precious little "walk the talk" from the opposition. Meanwhile, the regime continues to laugh its sides off. Typical.

It would, however, be outrageous to claim that Maithripala Sirisena's campaign is all frill. Nothing could be further from the truth. This isn't election month. We have around a week before papers are handed over. Much can happen by then. It's always dangerous to speculate, especially at this time, but the truth is that the opposition has left us with nothing but speculation. That's sad, but hardly disheartening. If it's about thawing the ice in the regime, however, it's about being more clear, instead of holding on until the last minute. There's a reason why the Sirisena defection went "viral". No one knew. No one expected. But this doesn't and in fact shouldn't mean that waiting until the last moment is going to be of help all the time. Sirisena's defection is done and dusted. We don't need a repeat of it.

Still, I wouldn't raise a cheer for the government. Not yet. Their reaction has been anything but gentlemanly. Hooting your enemy doesn't get you votes. People can calculate. They know that for all the confidence the regime is "exhibiting", it's not entirely without cracks. The government's "slip" is showing. It's been caught off-guard, though not to the extent most anti-regime commentators will have you believe. There are claims that up-to 100 million rupees are on offer to keep disgruntled MPs back. As overstated as this figure may be, it is true that very many sections of the government are disenchanted. They aren't defecting for the public good, and anyone who believes otherwise clearly has some reading to do. There are big bucks for defectors and loyalists. It's about benefits. Money. Perks. Ego. Nothing else.

Speculating, as I've pointed out, can and will always be dangerous. At this stage, you can never be sure. At all. There's talk of several MPs from the UNP joining the government. There's also talk that the government itself has several MPs who'll cross over "in good time" (Maithripala Sirisena's words). Neither side has lived up-to claim, needless to say, so at this point I can only come up with a few scenarios. I'm not at all sure whether any of them will turn out to be true, or whether an alternative scenario will come about. I have talked with a good many people on the road, from both sides of the political divide. The common voter is always a shrewder political calculator and speculator than the political commentator, this I've always believed. Based on their estimations and extrapolations, I can come up with three different scenarios.

Scenario #1: Maithripala wins

Let me admit it right here. Choosing Maithripala Sirisena was a masterly move. It stumped the government. It stumped those who were cheering it and thought that "it's unified to the teeth". I'm not a prophet, so I can't say whether Sirisena will win out-rightly. "MS", however, has credibility. The support he gets is from elements of the SLFP who have grumbled about the "clan mentality" of the Rajapaksas. He courts popularity alright, but is it enough to dent the government in a way that its credibility is compromised?

It's after all a fact that UNP voters this time will be voting for a "blue man", whether they prefer MS to MR or vice-versa: a no-win situation as far as party colours go. Several of those I've talked to, who have admitted that they're of the kepuwath kola type, however, see no problem with this. This is not to say that there aren't UNPers who begrudge a "blue" man in the common candidacy, and I have met up with this kepuwath kola crowd too, but it's 2010 all over again: they won't be voting for Maithripala, they'll be voting against Mahinda. That's consoling for the opposition perhaps, but hardly a consolation for the kepuwath kola type, unless Ranil Wickremasinghe gains power via the "EP-abolition within 100 days" movement. Which is where another problem rises up.

This is the problem explicated by Dayan Jayatillake in the article he wrote last Sunday. The entire argument is this: why would anyone vote for Maithripala to keep him in power for 100 days? What happens after that period? Ranil Prime Minister? Power struggle? Chandrika stepping in? Chandrika bringing in her son (it's reported that she's grooming him) for a fresh election from which Mahinda and his family are banned? These questions don't help, I agree, and I also agree that the situation might not turn out to be as bad as I cut it out to be.

Scenario #2: Mahinda wins (sort of)

"God forbid, no!" those opposed to the regime might say. It's an open secret, however, that very many of those voting for Maithripala know he's going to lose. Which means, obviously, that this election isn't about "victory" alone. Dayan Jayatilleka's argument holds water as long as what people want is election victory. I've argued (imagining that I'm rooting for the government) that for the regime to win with a clear majority, it must focus beyond this. This is where the thrust of the pro-regime movement has so far failed. It's all about nice, shiny (and even laughable) campaign ads. Nothing beyond that. One can argue that at this stage both sides should focus on victory. That's true, but only to an extent.

Victory by Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn't automatically translate to victory by his government. He will still be the Executive President, true, but there's a problem that'll still come about notwithstanding this. Politicians are shrewd, at times at least. There's a rumour going about town that Ranil Wickremasinghe's "succession" to the "throne" after Maithripala's first 100 days wasn't included as a provision in the original opposition manifesto. If it's true, this means that most if not all to-be defectors want a SLFP government with Maithripala as their head. Which in turn means that what they want is a government with their party colours but minus MR.

If the opposition's shrewd, it should take note of this. I think it has, as does one person I've talked to. This person, a small-time businessman who's a mild UNPer, tells me that while Mahinda may win, the "defections" as such will happen after the election, which will probably topple the government through parliament and force a cabinet reshuffle. According to him, the focus isn't on the January election, but rather the parliamentary and provincial council elections. Now it's well known that the "buying rate" of councillors is far less than that of MPs. Councillors can be bought and sold. It's open season, always. The aim of the opposition, therefore, is to get as many MPs into their side, create a rift in the SLFP that far dwarfs the one already there, and "greenify" the provincial councils.

Scenario #3: It's all hot air

This is a situation not many predict. It basically amounts to this: business as usual. Accordingly, Mahinda not only wins, but wins with a clear majority, which calls for a repeat of 2010. That's nonsense. 2015 isn't like four years ago. The opposition is at least trying. Maithripala is a seasoned politician (unlike Sarath Fonseka), despite claims made by certain government ministers that he was all hot air while secretary of the SLFP. It's ludicrous to imagine that those opposed to this regime will keep their mouths shut even if the entire country votes for Mahinda. Regime-fatigue has set in. No two words about it.

Still, I wouldn't put down the possibility. Until fairly recently, the argument wasn't "Not Mahinda" ("මහින්දට බැහැ") but "Not with Mahinda" ("මහින්දත් එක්ක බැහැ"). Times have changed. I'm not predicting defeat for the government. I'm merely suggesting that Maithripala Sirisena comes as a formidable challenge to it, though not formidable enough with the likes of Kumaratunge and Wickremasinghe by his side. Now if the situation was different and it was someone like Sajith Premadasa or Karu Jayasuriya who was presented as the "Prime Minister after a hundred days", things would have looked different. The opposition would have seemed stronger, if only for the reason that both Premadasa and Jayasuriya are "clean" and come as individuals to reckon with.

It's too early to say where 2015 will lead to. Until the last few weeks, speculation will be rife. There'll be pundits putting their two cents' worth on "perfect outcomes". Based on what's evident for all to see, however, I'm certain of two things.

Firstly, the government clearly needs to see beyond January, and probably beyond March as well. Secondly, the opposition must stop extrapolating. Claims can get you only that far, after all. Chandrika's still her father's daughter. No amount of wild make-or-break prophecies is going to change that. So enough with the frill. It's time both parties got together and acted. Walked the talk. Otherwise, it'll always be "early days". And hot air.

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