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THE SIRISENA SURGE: WHY MAHINDA IS STILL WAY AHEAD

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.