Image courtesy The New Yorker
The UPFA’s election campaign is based on Four Ignoble Lies: Sri Lanka and all true-born Lankans are suffering; the reason for this suffering is the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa on January 8th; national salvation depends on bringing Mahinda Rajapaksa back to power; the way to do it is to make Mahinda Rajapaksa the prime minister on August 17th.
At their inaugural rally in Anuradhapura, the leading lights of the UPFA stood in orderly rows on the main stage, held up their hands and swore a solemn oath, not to protect the country or to improve the lives of the people, but to make Candidate Rajapaksa the prime minister of Sri Lanka.
In his July 14th speech, President Maithripala Sirisena used the word monarchy (rajanduwa) twice to identify the regime of his predecessor. The Rajapaksa comeback project seems to have regressed beyond monarchism and assumed the form of a primitive, virulently monotheistic faith. Mahinda Rajapaksa is the sole deity of this political religion. Salvation can come only through him; denying him is the path to eternal damnation.
Prof. Nalin de Silva, a key Rajapaksa-ideologue, let the cat out of the bag when he informed the media that the UPFA intends to gain a two-thirds majority, deprive President Sirisena of party leadership and impeach him. The plan, said the professor, is already in place[i]. The comeback story is easy to imagine. UPFA wins the election. A cowed President Sirisena appoints Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. PM Rajapaksa does in 2015 what President Rajapaksa did in 2010: use carrots and sticks to ensure a sufficient number of defections from a reeling opposition. A new amendment removes presidential term-limits. Maithripala Sirisena is impeached. Mahinda Rajapaksa becomes president. Paradise is regained.
It must have seemed so easy and so beguiling, during those late night discussions in various echo-chambers, especially with in-house electoral statisticians proclaiming that the UPFA will get 7.1 million votes this time![ii]
The Party Coup
Pictures, they say, are worth more than any number of words. Just such a photograph appeared on the internet the day after President Sirisena delivered his verbal blast against the Rajapaksa-comeback project. Members of the UPFA election steering committee sit around a table with Candidate Rajapaksa at the head. Anura Priyadarshana Yapa stands beside Candidate Rajapaksa’s chair, looking not like the powerful general secretary of the largest constituent party of the UPFA, but like a footman waiting for his lord’s commands[iii]. (A satirical website[iv] compared the General Secretary to a tea boy, a comparison which does tea boys substantial injustice).
That submissive pose helps understand why it was so easy for Mahinda Rajapaksa to bend the SLFP to his will, even after he was decisively rejected by the electorate. The UNP was liberated from its feudal mindset by the Jayawardene-Premadasa revolution; no such politico-psychological transformation occurred within the SLFP. It remained a Bandaranaike party until 2005. During the next nine years the Rajapaksa brothers worked with systematic – and ruthless – thoroughness to turn the SLFP into a Rajapaksa party. The SLFP hierarchy, including the Central Committee, consists predominantly of Rajapaksa loyalists. Mr. Yapa was Mr. Rajapaksa’s choice as the General Secretary. It was this thraldom of the hierarchy, rather than any pressure from the grassroots, which enabled the Rajapaksa faction to win the nomination battle so decisively.
When Maithripala Sirisena inherited the SLFP on January 16th, the obvious course of action would have been to appoint a less disloyal general secretary and change the composition of the Central Committee. And President Sirisena did make a try, when he dismissed five prominent Rajapaksa-loyalists and appointed five of his own supporters to the CC in April (one of those appointees, Prasanna Solangaarachchi, filed the petition which prevented the Rajapaksa faction from summoning the CC to remove Mr. Sirisena from party leadership). But President Sirisena needed the support of the UPFA to implement his election promises (especially the 19th Amendment). That dependency may have prevented him from taking any further disciplinary action against errant party bosses. At least that is what he said in his speech, and it does have the ring of truth.
Had Mahinda Rajapaksa been satisfied with nominations for himself and a handful of loyalists, President Sirisena, who seems to prefer the middle ground, might have played along. He did come up with a compromise formula – blacklist 20 politicians with particularly noxious reputations and give nomination to Mr. Rajapaksa from his usual Hambantota district. Had the UPFA and the SLFP seen the sense of these proposals and persuaded Mahinda Rajapaksa to go along, they could have enjoyed the best of both worlds. But they lacked the guts to stand up to Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted nothing less than a total victory. He threatened to contest separately if all his demands were not met, thereby breaking up the SLFP. So the SLFP hierarchy succumbed. They lined up behind Mr. Rajapaksa and made clear that their allotted role for Mr. Sirisena was not even that of co-leader but Rajapaksa-appendage. Mr. Rajapaksa told his supporters that Mr. Sirisena is now isolated and needs their protection. Perhaps he did not understand how demeaning such condescension would be to the man who was elected the president of the republic by an absolute majority of Lankans just six months ago. Given no option other than utter humiliation and political hara-kiri, Mr. Sirisena, not unsurprisingly opted to fight back.
There is no internal democracy in the UNP and the SLFP. Both parties have constitutions which give dictatorial powers to the leader. The General Secretary’s authority is limited to election times. If Maithripala Sirisena decides to exercise his powers as party leader, there is little the party can do to stop him. In fact he is already doing so. While the Rajapaksa Carnival is busy with its own brand of electioneering, Mr. Sirisena seems to be moving with unusual decisiveness to place his own stamp on the SLFP. He has already appointed several new electoral organisers. The success of Mr. Sirisena’s efforts will depend not just on the soundness of his own moves but also on the fundamental nature of the SLFP.
Is the SLFP a party of free citizens or a slavish entity which responds not to reason and intellect but to the whip?
The Zombie Apocalypse?
Comeback attempts in democracies work, but they usually require a decent passage of time and sufficient makeover, if not in terms of policies at least in terms of rhetoric. The Rajapaksas, blinded by their power-hunger and guided by their innate extremism, are attempting a comeback with neither condition fulfilled. It’s the same rogues’ gallery and the same failed arguments.
There is no virtue in Basil or Gotabhaya Rajapaksa not seeking nominations. Their absence does not indicate a dilution of the familial nature of the comeback project. Post-19th Amendment neither can contest without giving up his American citizenship; and both opted to keep their ties to Uncle Sam. Basil Rajapaksa remains his brother’s campaign manager. As Namal Rajapaksa said in his first post-defeat interview, “….the leader needs someone they (sic) can trust… We always trusted each other….”[v]
In his hour-long speech in Anuradhapura, Mahinda Rajapaksa made clear that he will be waging a campaign which is fundamentally racist and Sinophilic. He claimed that the LTTE has made a comeback and stated that once again people are frightened to travel from South to North. He said that with Chinese help he turned the country into a workplace and accused Mr. Sirisena’s government of putting a stop to this ‘development’.
The Kurunegala district has a 7% Muslim populace; but the UPFA list, headed by Candidate Rajapaksa, does not have a single Muslim on it[vi]. According to a media report, tellingly titled ‘UPFA banks on Genevaleaks’, the UPFA is hoping to use the ‘Imperilled Hero’ syndrome to win Sinhala-Buddhist sympathy and votes: “If the UPFA, by its contacts, especially in the international theatre, are able to get a whiff of what the international community’s agenda at Geneva would be in another two months’ time and if it has found that the island’s then leadership has been made culpable of alleged war crimes, then that may be to the UPFA’s advantage….. If, however, there are no leaks….then such a campaign among the Sinhala masses by the UPFA would be ineffective.”[vii] In the absence of actual leaks will the UPFA manufacture a fake Geneva report, like the Elephant-Tiger Pact it fabricated during presidential election? According to Dharisha Bastians, Rajapaksas faction is indeed preparing a “fake draft of an OHCHR report, highlighting 42 names including that of Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa…. The fake ‘report’ could be released only a few days ahead of the election to mislead voters and whip up mass hysteria….”[viii]
The best possible riposte to the Rajapaksa development myth came from a very unusual quarter, the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter. In an unprecedentedly forthright statement the prelate said that “….no proper development had tricked down to village…. People of Hambantota had pressing needs besides a port and an airport… As a result people virtually took to the streets to unseat the last government.”[ix]
Sri Lanka has to pay Rs. 250 million, monthly as loan-servicing, for an airport which gets only a single flight a day (maintaining that airport costs another 250 million rupees)[x]. Starting this year, Sri Lanka has to pay another Rs. 7 billion annually, to service the loan (also Chinese) used to build an equally unnecessary port in Hambantota. Little wonder the Chinese might be so keen to have the Rajapaksas back in power. A text message, reportedly sent by the Chinese Embassy to business leaders, claims, “Chinese funded projects created 100,000 job opportunities to SL in the past five years. 90% of workers in Chinese funded projects are Sri Lankans. Spokesperson Chen Chuan of China Chamber of Commerce at Sri Lanka told media today…. One Minister figure’s allegation of only Chinese workers lost jobs at Chinese Funded projects is totally wrong. We suggest politician check facts and figures before make remarks and misleading people.”[xi] The message is not backed with facts about how many jobs were created by each Chinese-funded project. In the meantime, four Chinese beggars (reportedly sponsored by a wealthy Chinese resident in Sri Lanka) were arrested by the police outside the Fort station[xii]. What will we have next? The Triads?
So once again Sri Lanka is facing a make or break election. The political momentum, even in spite of such criminal disasters as the Central Bank Bond scam, is with the UNP. This is the UNP’s election to win or to lose. Ironically, without the threat of a Rajapaksa comeback, many floating voters and first time voters who played a key role in the January 8th victory might have stayed away on August 17th. With the Rajapaksas out of the way and democracy restored, there was nothing much to be excited about. It was precisely the comeback project of the Rajapaksa raj which turned a standard, somewhat boring, democratic election into a do-or-die battle. The potential danger of every single democratic gain of the last six months being destroyed is likely to drive young voters, minority voters and floating voters to the polling booth in unusually large numbers. If there is such a surge, the UNP will be its main beneficiary.
The electorate will be beat back the zombie apocalypse on August 17th. But a narrow UPFA defeat may not suffice to put a definite end to Rajapaksa zombie politics. The defeat must be undeniably substantial, so that the absolute majority of SLFPers will realise with Mahinda they can only fail and fail and fail.