Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Revisiting the Mahinda Factor

Mahinda Rajapaksa is the most famous former president this country has known. The numbers that go to Medamulana and attend his rallies prove this. It doesn't mean he's making a comeback or that he's ready to, of course. There were some 6.2 million who voted against him, and while 5.7 million supported him it's difficult to see whether that number has increased or decreased in light of what's happening now. For the moment, everything seems uncertain. That's democracy, some might say. I'd agree.

The UNP has not failed its mandate completely. But both it and the SLFP are missing the point which brought them to power. What we have today is an Opposition-less Parliament that sees both major parties enjoying ministerial posts. In this context it's only natural that a weak rubber stamp legislature would meet its rallying point in the Mahinda Factor. Outside Parliament. Democracy, you'd say. I'd agree again.

Rajapaksa is not without fault, clearly. He needs to be investigated. There is however one thing that stands in the way of his critics. Popularity. It is popularity after all that can provoke parliamentarians to sit through the night. It is popularity that can even provoke those who have sided with President Maithripala Sirisena to speak on his predecessor's behalf.

The move to bring him to the Bribery Commission is clearly UNP-made. It does not have the sanction of the SLFP barring a few stalwarts who are against him. If the UNP and in particular Ranil Wickremesinghe want to gain legitimacy however, this was clearly a bad choice. And it's not hard to see why. The main allegation leveled against the former president is that he bribed Tissa Attanayake through a ministerial post.

This is interesting. If Tissa Attanayake was indeed bribed through a ministerial portfolio then what about those who were appointed as ministers by President Sirisena even though they sided with his predecessor during the election? Are we to call those appointments bribes? Are we to call the appointment of a minority party leader as Prime Minister a bribe? Where does this lead us? Nowhere, clearly.

What is tragic here is that while the SLFP has the numbers, the UNP is not making use of the opportunity open to it. The UNP may be in the minority but it has brains. Ranil Wickremesinghe is intelligent enough to know that in a country where former presidents are bowed out the Mahinda Factor remains relevant. That is what he acknowledged on January 9 when he said that Rajapaksa would remain in our history books. There was humility in what he said. Even the President acknowledged it. We didn't hear Chandrika Kumaratunga echoing that. Shows the difference.

So what has the UNP got to do? Going by recent developments the road hasn't become any clearer for it. The Supreme Court determination on the proposed 19th Amendment was a blow, clearly. The Jathika Hela Urumaya, which has even less of a presence than the UNP, has asserted again and again that there can't be a role-reversal when it comes to who wields power at the top.

To top all that, one would expect the party that has Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne to be more circumspect when it comes to assertion. Going by the chest-thumping, self-righteous speeches certain UNP parliamentarians have given recently however, I am losing hope. In a country where demagoguery unfortunately seems to count and policy is constantly pushed into the backroom even the likes of Wickremesinghe look as though they are content in playing Mark Antony. That's bad, and hardly what you'd expect of that party given its composition.

In this scenario marginalising Mahinda Rajapaksa would not be prudent. He is popular and will remain so. Given that in politics no one is a permanent friend or enemy one can even foresee him team up with President Sirisena. The latter hasn't said anything about recent events, moreover. That's telling. Some would call it expedience. I'd agree and disagree. President Sirisena will not risk an open confrontation with his predecessor, but neither will he go out of his way to grant largesse to a man he successfully took on during the election campaign. The UNP, sadly enough, has failed to acknowledge this. If it doesn't address this soon, that will be its undoing.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com