Monday, August 17, 2015

The Maithripala-Mahinda tug-of-war


About 15 years ago, there was a Parliamentary Election, one which saw the ruling People's Alliance (PA) obtain a near-majority with 105 seats. Barely a year later, when several MPs defected to the opposition United National Party (UNP), the PA slid. Badly. It managed to obtain 89 seats, while the UNP got 18 more. What happened for the next four years was a series of defections and alliances which more often than not became the laughing-stock of the entire country. And of course, an unresolved war went on without a hint of protest from either party.

The point is that in 2000, everyone or rather almost everyone believed that the Alliance, led by the then president Chandrika Kumaratunga, would stay. Forever. Implausible, yes, but then again no one thought her front would lose just a year later. Political equations can be wrecked sooner or later, this was learnt then. The UNP, to its credit, was humbled three years later, when that wave they rode on in 2001 went down.

Who'll win and who'll lose this time? Extrapolating from the past, one can predict victory for the party which won the presidential election. But the situation's different here. There was no real party which won that election. Maithripala Sirisena contested from a coalition. True, despite his avowed neutrality he seems to be favouring the United National Front (UNF) over his own party, the SLFP. But the fact is that even with all that, both major parties are own their own. As such it would make sense to delve into what each of them has to offer and how it seeks to "gain" an edge over the other.

Writing to The Island 10 years ago, Professor H. L. Seneviratne reduced the fight between then presidential candidates Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa to one between economics ("arthika") and nationalism ("jathika"). Having identified what was ailing the country back then ("the disintegration of the foundations of social order") he then went on to pontificate about the (perceived) rift between policy and nationalism:

"A Mahinda Rajapaksa government saddled with the JVP and the JHU can only lead the country to war and economic ruin. This is not to say that a Ranil Wickremesinghe government is going to be perfect. But his manifesto at least mentions good governance, and his party seems to have learnt some lessons from its recent defeat."

History, Marx observed, repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce. Take out the JVP (which is grabbing on to the Greens) and the JHU (which is contesting under them) and you have one essential rift: between Ranil and Mahinda. Like in 2005, the leader of the SLFP has vowed not to support his own candidate. Like 2005, the UNF is gearing up its commitment to a better social order, though whether that commitment is mere rhetoric is something to be seen with a UNF victory and thereafter.

2005 was a "tragedy": war, economic ruin, and corruption. 2015? A farce, certainly. Here's why.

The United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is on a populist line. Unlike the presidential election though, while it's laced with nationalist rhetoric it's bereft of the type of character assassination we saw back then. I have mentioned before that most of those who resigned from the national government led by the UNP did so seeking the popularity that their former leader, Rajapaksa, was courting. I've called him a trampoline for this reason. As such the UPFA campaign is essentially Mahinda-led. Whether his political resurgence will survive the election aftermath, however, remains to be seen.

In 2005 the internal rift was between Rajapaksa and Chandrika Kumaratunga. The lady's back, canvassing for the UNF while claiming she's still loyal to her father's party. The real rift is elsewhere though: between Maithripala Sirisena and Rajapaksa. And this is where the UPFA is set to lose: because unlike in 2005, here the figure who's opposing Mahinda is not only his party leader but his country's president.

Sirisena's conduct during the election was anything but neutral. Firstly, he bragged about how he defended Ranil, a man who's trashing his party all over the country. Secondly, he reiterated his stance on Mahinda not being made Prime Minister, which again weakened the SLFP-UPFA given that its campaign was headed by his predecessor. Thirdly, he showed himself to be absolutely incapable of maintaining neutrality when the opposing UNF used him as poster-boy for its campaign.

A context like this hardly favours the UPFA, particularly given that state resources are at the disposal of the UNF. Inevitably it'll have to "focus" on something to ensure victory by default. For better or for worse therefore, it has chosen to go back to the Mahinda Option, i.e. to install him as Prime Minister and to use this as a means of getting those 113+ seats for a majority. Whether this is enough is for another article, but for now how the party is set to achieve this is pertinent.

Few would bet on the UPFA losing by a large margin. True, it doesn't have state resources to (ab)use like last time. But six months isn't six years. People forget, but not that easily. There's a Mahinda Resurgence, built on populist charisma on the part of the man and those who side with him. It's no surprise that they're targeting the more rural areas in the country, and have all but completely conceded defeat in the non-Blue areas, including Kandy, Badulla, and much of Colombo.

The problem here isn't the fight between Mahinda and Maithripala. Rather, the issue is with the factions the SLFP alone has broken into. One can identify five of them, consisting of: 1. Those who have sided with Mahinda by default (Wimal Weerawansa et al); 2. Those who've taken him in for temporary gain (don't be fooled by those who worship him for forgiveness, that's all "show"); 3. Those who are still vocally against Mahinda (Duminda Dissanayake); 4. Those who're neither here nor there (S. B. Dissanayake); and 5. Those who've truly embraced neutrality without trashing either Mahinda or the president (Mohan Lal Grero).

Is unification possible? If the UPFA is to win it's not only possible but mandatory. With its leader avowing neutrality (sic) though, there's an absence of a centre with which to make unification a reality, As such it's natural that everything and everyone gravitates towards Rajapaksa. As a sine qua non, this means that the party as a whole is embracing what Mahinda wants it to embrace: ethnic populism and a return to pre-January, both bitterly opposed by the UNF and the Maithripala-SLFP Faction. Getting the party together, therefore, is harder than it seems.

Weaknesses show within a party easily when it's split this way. The UPFA to its credit has come off clean(er), with its most reviled candidates not even being nominated. But "clean" doesn't guarantee strength all the time. Fact is, the likes of Wimal Weerawansa and the Mahinda Camp are reiterating that their figurehead will become not just Prime Minister, but EXECUTIVE Prime Minister after the election.

What does this mean? By using the qualifier "Executive", Weerawansa is asserting superiority over Sirisena. How? By hinting that Rajapaksa will be stronger than the president who clipped his own wings with the 19th Amendment. For someone who's highlighting that the UPFA is for self-unity, he's implying that his side of the party is hellbent on trashing and undermining the president. No one, not even someone as simple as Maithripala Sirisena, can or will tolerate that.

Moreover, a Rajapaksa Restoration isn't possible without restoring the political climate to what it was before January. This is unlikely. The majority were against how things were run back then. It's not hard to suppose, even factoring in the disgruntled voter who's reverted to the loser in the last election, that the majority will be against it even now. Given that a restoration of the political situation this way needs for its fulfillment the re-installation of the former president (the two go together), it's hard to imagine how he will ever be the Prime Minister, Executive or otherwise.

This in itself isn't enough to defeat the UPFA though. Much of the UPFA's campaign is run on the premise that Rajapaksa will retain his political signature after the election. Without that premise, it's reasonable to assume that SLFPers would have spoilt their vote for the most. As such one thing needs to get across from the Weerawansa-Gammanpila-Gunawardena-Nanayakkara nexus: that a restoration to pre-January cannot and should not come at the cost of Sirisena's dominance over the political sphere.

As things stand, the situation's tough on Rajapaksa. The conflict before January was between him and Ranil's proxy Maithripala. Now it's between Mahinda and Ranil (explicitly) plus Maithripala (implicitly). The wave that's on the former's side will continue even after the election, which means that his signature as such will remain relevant for a long, long time. With a near-majority for the UPFA, whether or not he's made Prime Minister, the UNF will be trashed. Severely.

What of Sirisena's role in all this? He's vowing to have his party cleaned. By "cleaned", he's indicating a purge from within, to get rid of everyone who's firmly on his rival's side. Pertinently enough, this recalls what another party leader from another time tried to but failed to do. Mikhail Gorbachev.

Contrary to popular opinion, Gorbachev did NOT want to obliterate the Communist Party. He wanted to democratise it, and there by institutionalise political reform before economic reform in the Soviet Union. Naturally enough, he failed in this. He failed because by privileging democracy and dissent, he tried to reform a party which was opposed to both from the outset. Communists who love to trash the man as an imperialist lackey, therefore, fail to realise this.

The SLFP is different. A purge as such can only be legitimised through a person who's proven loyalty to party and unity. Sirisena fits the bill. Whether he can contend with the Mahinda Wave (which to its credit has a good and bad side, unlike the post-Stalin Communist Party) is another story.

Unfortunately however, the the UNF is filled with former SLFPers, some of those who have dubious track records and whose possible return to the SLFP (they are contesting from the UNF, NOT the UNP) after the election will lead to either of two outcomes: a purge that's done for the benefit of the personal vendettas they have against Mahinda Rajapaksa, and one done to serve the UNP's interests. One doesn't have to be a political scientist to conclude this.

Will Maithripala Sirisena do what Mikhail Gorbachev couldn't: reform his party and democratise it without self-castration? Gorbachev couldn't because the Soviet Union was based on a dictatorship, which meant that embracing dissent and reform within the Communist Party implied, as a sine qua non, that the party itself had to be obliterated. Thus he ended up turning it into a nonentity. On the other hand, Sirisena has a bigger chance. Let history grant him that chance. For that though, a genuine move to reform without ruining the party must be made. Possible? Certainly.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at