Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Mahinda Factor is just a factor

Sri Lanka has almost never voted for people. Neither has it voted for parties. It has voted for people and parties. Strange, yes, but true. People-factors are taken into account, and so are party-factors. But voters rarely acknowledge one of them in isolation. People are elected on the basis of their parties and parties are elected on the basis of their members. That's the truth, that has been the truth, and I suspect that that will be the truth. For a long time.

We're seeing a "phenomenon" today. I don't think this phenomenon is enough to break into either of the two main parties in the country. To put it simply, Mahinda Rajapaksa has a base, yes. But you can't translate this into a "third force". It's not possible. No former president (or prime minister) could do that here. Rajapaksa won't be any different. He can’t cut into either major party. Period.

Still, his base shouldn't be forgotten. For one thing, he has a stronghold in the South. It is true he won it marginally this time, barring those electorates he won by a massive margin. The SLFP and UPFA, let's not forget, couldn't come up with a proper successor to the man. Part of the reason why they went against him was because he was (unduly) using his party to boost his family, a point highlighted by many grassroots SLFP'ers who (to put it colloquially) were "fed up" with him. Doesn't and shouldn't mean he should be cast out. Not yet.

The man should not be absolved. He committed and sanctioned abuse. Like all politicians, however, he knows charisma and political mileage. He knows how to distill action from words, but the problem with his last few years was that he relied more on words and less on act. Winning wars are alright, indeed commendable. But Winston Churchill did not create a quasi-dictatorship (or, as President Maithripala Sirisena put it on November 21 2014, a "benevolent dictatorship"). He was elected out. We remember postwar Britain not for Churchill's Old Conservatism but for Attlee's New Socialism. It's that simple.

And yet, the war remains Rajapaksa's biggest trump-card. Even now. It is heartening to see that he doesn't spew nationalist rhetoric based on that today, although I am deeply disturbed by how he and his cohort "remind" us that they won the election except for the North and East. Defeat must be conceded. Harping about how one part of the country made you lose isn't going to help. Next thing you know, his cohort will be claiming that the country must be divided to ensure his victory! Yes, it's that ironic. Ironic because Rajapaksa claims to be the one who unified this country and got rid of terrorism.

The biggest tragedy, however, is that the SLFP is looking at all this like a shell-shocked person. It doesn't know what to do and isn't sure where it's going. Maithripala Sirisena is President, yes, but he acts more like a figurehead with Ranil Wickremesinghe calling the shots. Not surprising there, but the man must assert himself. Going by Wickremesinghe’s recent remarks (including his "threat" to certain Sinhala language newspapers allegedly whipping up racism), it would be better for President Sirisena to make himself known, without talking so much about his predecessor's abuses and how his regime is far better in comparison. Let's not forget that even Rajapaksa was humble enough not to badmouth Chandrika Kumaratunga. I am, of course, talking about his first few years in power after he succeeded her: his and his party-faction’s take on the lady during this year's campaign was nothing but despicable.

Bottom line, hence: Rajapaksa wants to come back. My point is that he can't make a comeback. There are grievances he must address and apologise for. There are concerns he must take note of should he decide to stage a return. And most of all, there are problems with the electoral system and Constitution that he must acknowledge. Without doing any of this, I find it hard to believe that he will or he can return. The Mahinda Factor, therefore, will be just a factor, to be taken in or thrown out at the whims of those in power.

Rajapaksa was probably laughing behind the cameras after he said, "I did not engage in vindictive politics while in power". More statements like that and his opponents can most certainly win against him. But then again, his own party doesn't seem to know what to do with him. Sad and tragic, yes. Ironic, certainly.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at