Photo by AFP, via AsiaOne

Two cheers then for Maithripala Sirisena whose act of resistance and rebellion is truly heroic. Why cheer at all? And why two cheers instead of three? Hearty cheers are entirely warranted because Maithripala Sirisena has produced a Black Swan event; a real game changer.

Having argued in the print and electronic media for years that Ranil Wickremesinghe should not be the Opposition’s presidential candidate, that a viable Opposition candidate must be one whose profile would cut into the incumbent’s monopoly of populist-patriotism, and as someone who has commended Maithripala Sirisena on many of my fortnightly TV shows, I am delighted at his candidacy. However, I am unconvinced about his electoral prospects and platform.

Maithripala Sirisena has rendered the Presidential election a real race instead of the walkover it would have been with Ranil Wickremesinghe as Mahinda’s opponent.

More importantly he has reintroduced competition and balance into a hitherto unipolar system.

Even if he loses the Presidential election, he would hopefully have founded a dissident SLFP; a centrist alternative to the populist neo-conservatism of the Rajapaksa regime.

Thereby he would have made feasible the prospect of defeating the government at the parliamentary election or at a referendum.

That’s the upside; now for the downside. For starters the joint Opposition’s widely-rumored plan to defeat the Budget is short-sighted. This Budget was intentionally populist in content and character, and any defeat in the legislature will permit the President to credibly depict the joint opposition as having deadlocked the process which would have permitted material benefits to accrue to the public. As the public did when Congress gridlocked President Obama, public opinion will swing against the parliamentarians and in favor of the incumbent. He will then prorogue parliament, hold the Presidential election, and translate his victory into a renewed dominance of the legislature.

That isn’t even the main weakness of the Sirisena challenge. The flaws in the joint opposition platform were all on display at the inaugural media conference. Maithripala Sirisena himself fared well, pitching it more or less right. Then it all began to go retro and sag, with Rajitha Senaratne taking too much time with his political autobiography –one would have thought him the candidate rather than Sirisena—followed by a prolonged and self-justificatory lamentation by CBK.

This poses the question as to whether Maithripala will be allowed to offer a better future for the country – a “Maithripaalanaya”—or whether the message is that of a return to the golden era of the Bandaranaikes, and especially of CBK. This is of no small consequence. The utterly fundamental fact that Mr. Sirisena’s loquacious companions at the media conference (who should have left time for Vasantha Senanayake and Arjuna Ranatunga some speaking time) failed to grasp is this: the vast majority of this country clearly and emphatically prefer the flawed but peaceful present, to the past of war and weakness as a nation. Simply put, if the choice is the flawed present and memories of the past, the voters much prefer the Mahinda Rajapaksa present—siblings and all– to the Chandrika past. The country was ripped apart and the State was weak then. We are at peace and much stronger now. That is something that neither CBK nor Rajitha seem to understand. This was the fatal flaw of Sirimavo Bandaranaike too—she just did not get the point that in the public mind, even JR Jayewardene’s presidency seemed vastly better than the memories of her glorious years at the helm.

Maithripala Sirisena must foreground himself and not CBK. He must seem a kinder gentler Mahinda Rajapaksa, just as Clinton seemed a kinder gentler Reagan and Tony Blair a kinder gentler Thatcher, who would consolidate the positives of their formidable predecessors, while moving forward, not back to the future.

Compounding these weaknesses is the very weakest point in the Maithripala Sirisena platform: his promises to abolish the executive Presidency in one hundred days and to appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as his PM. In the first place there isn’t a shred of evidence in the form of a public opinion poll that the majority of voters wish the executive Presidency abolished. Thus Maithripala’s campaign seeks to convince the voters of two things, not just the one—turn away from Mahinda Rajapaksa and endorse a radical, potentially risky dismantling of an entire system. This would turn the Presidential election into a double referendum—on Mahinda Rajapaksa who dominates the political landscape and on the executive presidency which the masses have become accustomed to over for decades. Now that’s a tall order. In a conservative society that’s far too much of a psychological change to expect in a short time and in one fell swoop. It is too much to swallow. Athureliya Rathana and Champika Ranawake’s suggestion of a slimmed down Presidency is much more palatable.

As if this weren’t bad enough, there is Maithripala’s pledge to make Ranil the PM. Why should anyone vote for Maithripala if he is not going to be the president after a hundred days while Ranil is going to be PM? What happens to the man the people have voted for, after the act of abolition? Since the Prime Ministership is going to be the power center after the Executive presidency is dismantled, would the people wake up to find they had unwittingly elected Ranil as their leader? If not, and if Maithripala is going to the Executive PM, then what happens to Prime Minister Ranil?

There are plenty of reasons to vote for Maithripala if he were running for the presidency, pure and simple. He may lead the country better, if only because Mahinda Rajapaksa has allowed himself to be a poster boy for his family clan and their thuggish and crooked courtiers. But why should anyone vote for Maithripala only to find that Ranil and Chandrika are back in power, having done what they tried to but failed to do in 2005, colluding against Mahinda? Are we to move forward or backwards? If the voters sense a risk that it will be a ride back on a time machine; that Maithripala will be used, dominated and discarded by Ranil and Chandrika; that he is just a front man for them rather than his own man, then the voters will, quite understandably and even rightly, opt to remain with Mahinda.

Without a clear roadmap, the voters are being asked to opt for something like chaos and a political vacuum. Right now, the joint opposition’s discourse is a lot of white noise.

Both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena seem like masks or human shields for their respective blocs: Mahinda for his avaricious family-centred oligarchy and Maithripala for Chandrika, Ranil and the old guard. Of these two combinations, the collective Sinhala voter psyche will almost certainly prefer Mahinda and Gotabhaya to Maithripala, Ranil and CBK.

There is only one way to rectify and thereby save the Maithripala campaign and the political space he has opened up. Only one way to prevent this moment from ending up like the Arab Spring, with the Empire striking back due to the dumbness of the democratic Opposition. That is to bring in Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Champika Ranawake and Sajith Premadasa — sharp young personalities and compelling speakers, none of whom are yesterday’s men — to the centre of the policy process, the campaign planning and the head table, flanking Maithripala. Mr. Sirisena is a brave and decent man; possibly our last hope. He deserves better than to be overshadowed or drowned out by his current companions and patrons who represent and recall the failures of a past from which Mahinda Rajapaksa, to his lasting credit, rescued the country.

  • Dev

    The big question is will Dayan jump if Siri wins ?
    If he does like Rajiva ,will it not be the same old same old .. Just old wine in new bottles ? Will the country actually benefit or will the masses be fooled again ?

  • dd

    MR is the future
    Maithri is too weak to be a leader he won’t be able to control the military or the nation
    He will succumb to foreign pressure just like all the previous presidents and send Sri lanka back to its old days

    • PM

      Before they came to power we didnt know Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksha or Mr. Obama will be weak or strong for presidency. Also Mahinda was weak or weaken by Chandrika when Chandrika was in power. Just think fair on behalf of country not for just traditional party politics.

  • Asiripala

    “Dr” Dayan never saw this coming. Let’s not listen to this fellow. All he’s good is to describe in some framework where only Sajith can beat Mahinda, when he clearly can’t. All bets are off Jaya boy. Just shush and enjoy the show.

  • disgustman

    DJ does not wish to hurt his colleague Rajiva. 100-day sacrifice is to eliminate MR. In the process even
    CBK might get voted by new arrangement as the ceremonial President and MS as co-pm. With UNP support
    chances of winning are greater and all are thankful to the 10 Judges agreeing with MR to give Sri Lankans
    a chance 2 yrs. ahead to decide the fate of its future away from Chinese interference. Gota might be planning
    a move with China in case of a failure to continue the dynasty-buildup. Will MR take this new twist lying down?

  • n. ethirveerasingam

    Dayan’s question of what position MS will hold under a Parliamentary system is a relevant one. I am sure MS and CBK has thought it out. My guess is that Ranil will be PM in the current Presidential System until it lasts. CBK will be posted as SL Rep at the UN, Seneratne to UK, MR to China, Gota to Pakistan as soon as MS wins.

    Thondaman may go to India and Rauf Hakeem to Saudi. They will all take-part in drafting the new constitution and return to SL to contest the Parliamentary elections. In the current election campaign all parties will trod gently to avoid stepping on toes. How the parties will reform and coalesce will be an interesting exercise. Tamils really has no part in this political game. They however can spoil the victory of either candidate by publicly supporting the one they wish to loose! If they stay neutral they will be accused of spoiling the Kanji that has a little bit of something for everyone. TNA is in a difficult position. They will be dammed by one or the others irrespective of any decision. Is silence golden?

  • srivanamoth

    Between the devil and the deep blue sea! A very difficult choice for the voter indeed. Alas! nothing changeth.

  • Tom

    It’s strange how people who were not going to vote for Ranil are now going to vote for MS. Basically that is the same thing since MS has clearly stated that Ranil will be the PM – the mail man when he abolishes the executive Presidency. And if MS wins, does anyone know how they are going to contest in the next election? Are they going to continue as an alliance? Or will the likes of JVP and UNP again lock horns in battle?
    Even I’m not sure who to support at this moment but I sincerely hope that whoever wins, he does by the skin of his teeth. At least then, he wouldn’t act as if he is invincible.

  • ban

    There is no politics in Sirisena’s changeover. Only personal grudge

  • Gamarala

    Dayan, can you put forward something other than mere assertion to support your claim that Mahinda is way ahead? As regular readers of ground views, by now, we have learned, through a Pavlovian process, that it would be better that way 😉 Not because I begrudge the fact that you, like myself and others, were seduced by Rajapakse’s reality distortion field, voted for the dark-side, and are now reaping the results, but because I don’t see how the numbers add up.

    By my calculations, 25% of the vote in Sri Lanka constitute of minority ethnic groups. If the minorities vote rationally, Rajapakse will lose that in its entirety, but since I’m not a political analyst and leaving some room for irrationality, I’ll peg that at 20%. Count so far: Mahinda: 5%, Opposition: 20%.

    This leaves the Sinhala vote of 75%. Of this vote, again, the rational choice would be for Christians to not vote for Rajapakse, given the lawlessness that they have experienced. That would eliminate another 5% or so of the vote. Let’s make it 3. Count so far: Mahinda: 7%, Opposition: 23%.

    Which brings us down to the purely Sinhala-Buddhist vote of 70%. Now, the UNP seems to have a Sinhala voterbase of about 15% minimum (calculated by subtracting the minority vote from last election’s 40%). Count so far: Mahinda: 7%, Opposition 38%.

    Now, all the Opposition needs to do is to gain another 13%. The JHU is anti Mahinda, the JVP is anti Mahinda, heck your pal Rajeeva Wijesinha is anti Mahinda, and Maithripaala is also anti Mahinda.

    13% more doesn’t seem out of reach, and I’ve tried to keep my estimates conservative, but I welcome revisions. In fact, the odds may well be against Mahinda, barring of course the fact, that, there will probably be election irregularities on a scale never before seen. Basically, since last time, the Muslim and Christian votes have probably swung away, as well as the votes of most rational Sinhala voters, and all Mahinda is likely left with are the hard-core loonies, beneficiaries and the politically naive.

    So how exactly do you figure?

    • Dev

      Unlike mathematicians, for political scientists like Dayan the no’s don’t need to add up 🙂

  • LoseLoose

    It is a game of numbers. If MS gets even 20% of the old SLFP vote plus UNP voter base he can make this a win. He gets almost all the Muslim and Tamil votes too. This is a real numbers game. Even if MR gets a higher percentage of Sin-Bu votes, MS can make this a two-horse race unless elections are rigged.