The Sunday Leader

Back To A Game Of Russian Roulette

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Independent of President Maithiripala Sirisena’s decision on fielding his one-time boss and predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as a nominee of the Opposition SLFP-UPFA combine the  August 17,parliamentary polls promises to be yet another game of Russian roulette.  The continuance of the proportionate representation (PR) poll scheme, combined with the continuing absence of an anti-defection law would mean that whoever becomes prime minister at the head of a coalition government, post-poll, he would add up the numbers from across the aisle, no questions asked and a lot of justification proffered.

The irony of the situation, particularly in these months after the presidential polls, has been brought out by two elements. Two and even more important is the ways of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). At the time the 1978 Constitution, Executive Presidency and PR scheme were brought in, they were all supposed to be for the good of the minorities. The Executive Presidency in particular was marketed as the guard, guardian and guardian-angel of the minorities.

Yet, by not ensuring that the Executive Presidency is distanced from party politics, the scheme was not even given an honest and honourable test and trial. On the contrary, after President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power, his SLFP even had the party constitution amended, instead, to ensure that the person occupying the highest position in the government would automatically inherit the party mantle, too.

Throughout the 19-A debate, no political party or leader, or even the otherwise vociferous civil society, surprisingly, said nothing about this dichotomy, which contributed to ensure that the nation remained as autocratic as the ruling party that had been made one. There is no political party in the country that is not being run on autocratic lines, and no political party constitution that does not facilitate it.

In the case of the minority Tamils and the TNA, unlike the ‘proportionate representation’ that the existing electoral scheme has ensured for close to four decades now, there is no PR scheme at work in the Tamil areas, be it for the Provincial Council, or regional membership to national Parliament. It owes to the people’s mandate, no questions asked. Yet, having come to power in the Northern Province, for instance, or in position to leverage the levers of power at the national-level, the Tamil moderates, including the TNA, have sat out, through and through.

Truth be told, it owes as much to personality clashes as to perceptions of concepts and ideologies. The TNA could have convincing, and not-so-convincing reasons for not joining the Rajapaksa Government after the 2010 parliamentary polls, but that could not have been the case with the pre-dissolution Sirisena-Ranil team.

With the result, the Tamils have not got the due representation in government and governance that they deserved as equal/equitable citizens of a multi-ethnic nation.  Neither the PR scheme, nor the 1978 Constitution, or even the ‘ethnic issue’ per se is to be blamed for any or all of these contradictions.

 

Playing hide and seek

According to news reports, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is said to be playing hide-and-seek on the electoral front.

On one day, she is claimed to have distanced herself from politics, electoral politics in particular. On the second, she is said to be claiming that if Rajapaksa could be given SLFP nomination, so should she be.

There is a difference. ‘Political morality’ pertaining to a President defeated in nation-wide elections being given party ticket in the ensuing parliamentary polls, that too not months away, is the question on the Rajapaksa front. No issues of the kind exists in the case of CBK, who too should however care for propriety, of a Head of State  on whose office the authority of the Head of Government and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces rested — working as a parliamentarian or minister. If she wanted, CBK should seek and contest the parliamentary polls, there is no constitutional bar on that.  In the case of Rajapaksa, too, the question is not about propriety or morality. It’s on the other hand about perceptions of his continuing popularity.

His camp seems to think that his popularity among the Sinhala-Buddhist masses should not be allowed to go waste.

Many of them would lose elections, under whichever symbol they contested the upcoming polls, if they did not get a due share of the ‘Rajapaksa vote-bank’ from the presidential polls, totaled at a high 48 per cent. It’s this that has been problematic for those that oppose him from within this Government at the party leadership. It’s natural for President Sirisena to feel the jitters, but for the rest of them all, who have crossed over mindlessly once again after the presidential polls, any return of Rajapaksa to the centre-stage of parliament/party politics would mean the end of their political career, possibly for good.

A proven tactician by now, President Sirisena seems to have played the CBK card well, to put off the Rajapaksa faction within the party. Whether or not CBK herself bites the poll-bullet, Sirisena is not unlikely to play the CBK card once more, to try and ensure that he found a ‘nominee’ acceptable to all sections of the SLFP-UPFA to be made prime minister.

That’s if the SLFP-UPFA were to obtain a majority or near-majority presence in the new parliament. But will any person in President Sirisena’s place be comfortable under the continuing and enlarging shadows of CBK or anyone else in her place? Or, if the Rajapaksa faction were to have a fair majority of seats, one way or the other, and are told/made to wait?

Needless to point out, that should the Rajapaksa faction fail to obtain power in the first round, post-poll, then they may not be able to taste it early on. It’s equally so with other parties, factions and coalitions, if they were to let the mantle pass, in the first round. In the absence of an anti-defection law, as already mentioned, MPs would be for hire and for chair no questions asked.

 

UNP strategy and more

Against President Sirisena’s tactics, his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP seems to be playing to a strategy. Such has been the pull of power that for once since the commencement of their political/electoral campaign for the presidential polls the party has remained united for such a long spell.

For the party to remain so for a considerable period after the parliamentary poll, it has to form a government, or be the main stake-holder and power-broker in it. That – and that alone – would ensure that the jinx of the past years and decades do not haunt the Ranil leadership all over again.

Yet, the UNP’s strategy remains in identifying/accepting Sirisena as the front man to bring the presidency and governance closer to them than any time in the past decade. It has also involved, as was only to be expected, an inevitable split, in spirit and/or reality, in the monolith SLFP-UPFA that the Rajapaksa leadership had made it out to be.

Yet, it’s the non-SLFP, rather, the non-Rajapaksa votes that had made the latter lose the presidential polls. They came from the UNP for sure, and from the Tamils (TNA) and the Muslims. In a parliamentary poll that aims at weakening the SLFP for good from the UNP’s perspective, and as far long as possible in what has remained a two-party political system, and at times State structure, the party has quietly looked at pre-poll and post-poll alliances, to fill up the gap(s) that they may be anticipating to cobble together a majority, post-poll.

It’s thus that the UNP has quietly encouraged the three, pro-government Upcountry Tamil parties to form a coalition of their own, and negotiate with it for seat-sharing in the region. It’s, for instance, the Upcountry Uva Provincial Council poll victory last year that gave the UNP and the rest of the Opposition at the time that the Rajapaksa juggernaut could be stopped and put on the reverse gear, too.

The Uva poll also showed that many SLFP stalwarts and those of the CWC ally of the time would have to scramble for cover, to win their own seats in the region, as and when parliamentary polls were held. There is nothing to suggest that the situation has changed, since.

As has been its wont, the Muslim-centric SLMC, after making appropriate noises in the last session of Parliament against what has come to be understood and acknowledged as the ‘Ranil/UNP Government’, of which too they were still a part before dissolution, seems to have clinched a deal with the party, on the seat-sharing front.

Post-poll, the UNP can also expect the TNA to start by extending ‘outside support’ to the government, if the former were to show up numbers that would be enough to convince President Sirisena. It’s another matter that the latter too might want to be convinced by the UNP than possibly by Team Rajapaksa.

It’s in this context that the UNP’s more recent offer to give party nomination to CBK should be viewed. It’s another matter if she who is the scion of a family that had founded and nurtured the SLFP would want to be seen as a ‘traitor’ or ‘time-server’. It also remains to be seen how and why the UNP could adequately utilise the services of a veteran like CBK within Parliament, when it would be done better if and only if she is outside of the government.  CBK today heads the Government Task Force on minority issues. Given her greater acceptance at the time of her first election as President than what the LTTE ended up convincing the Tamil population of the times later on, her time would be better utilised that way, if especially the Ranil/UNP leadership were to return to power. Under pressure from all those that can’t give him votes in the parliamentary polls  and the UNP that would not want to give, and naturally so – it is the question that President Sirisena should be asking himself, viz the Rajapaksa votes.

It’s another matter that if she were to contest the parliamentary polls, she would require all of the votes that the UNP or the Rajapaksa faction could give her. Figures from past elections in her family backyard of Horagolla Walauwa in Atanagala show that the candidates that she had actually backed and in public against Team Rajapaksa in successive presidential and parliamentary polls could not get more votes than the other.

 

Proven both ways

It’s a basic dictum in politics, as in private life, that he who pays the piper calls the tunes. President Rajapaksa has also proved another. After winning a war that the global experts said no one could win against the LTTE, he also managed to lose the presidency before long, in democratic elections, whose method his faction has never ever contested.  Today in a situation, the stakes have been made high for him, more by his followers, who want the Rajapaksa votes transferred in full, to win their own parliamentary seat. That they could hope to happen if and only if those 48 per cent of the nation’s voters who were with him in the losing presidential polls felt – and strongly at that – that their leader needed another term at the helm some way, and that the only way to do it under the circumstances is to ‘transfer’ the votes that they had given him, earlier. It’s thus that the Rajapaksa advisors might not be able to accept what was said to have been a Sirisena decision not to name a prime ministerial candidate for the SLFP-UPFA, and name one after the polls, in consultation with the elected MPs from the group (and possibly new supporters, if any). That’s also the Rajapaksa problem, as despite coming to power, promising the abolition/ dilution of the high office that he has been elected to, Maithripala Sirisena continues to be the Executive President.

His candidacy in the presidential polls showed how Sirisena is capable of holding all the cards close to his chest, until he is ready for it. It’s also the problem that the Rajapaksa team might have faced in the President not wanting to name their faction leader as the SLFP-UPFA prime ministerial candidate. After all, he who has stuck to his side of the deal on making UNP’s Ranil prime minister, even after the party and the leader had converted what was promised to be a ‘national government’ involving the ‘Big Two’, cannot change his approach just now, not when a stronger personality in Rajapaksa is the alternative, seems to be their calculus.

It can cut every way possible for every big player in the poll fray. Rajapaksa has his 48 per cent vote-share, he has to prove that they are ‘transferrable’ at will, at least this one time. He has to contend with the possible loss of some percentage of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist votes’ that the BBS in its new avtar as Sri Lanka’s BJP – from ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ to ‘Bodu Jana Peramuna’ – would grab away under what they want to be the ‘Cobra’ symbol.  It’s also more likely than not that whatever votes that the EPDP partner in the Northern Province and what the CWC brought in the Upcountry Tamil areas might be reduced even more, if not lost completely. In a parliamentary poll, even small margins could make a difference, not that the nation-wide presidential polls are exempt from it, as Rajapaksa and Ranil found for themselves in 2005. In critical times such as the one ensuing, the Rajapaksa leadership would also miss the traditional JHU and JVP votes that it had let go off, long ago. That’s also the irony.

On the one hand, they lost the moderate Muslim votes, and Sinhala-Catholic Christian votes, which were with them for long. It was evident in the presidential polls. On the other, they also lost the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ votes of the JHU and the JVP – and now, possibly that of the BBS, whatever be their numbers. It might be good in a way, but too early to make an impact on the moderate Sinhala, Muslim, Catholic and Tamil voters just now. The success of the Rajapaksa faction in the parliamentary polls, like the UNP against it, also lies in what the other does not get this time round. It depends on how ‘autocratic’ a future Rajapaksa prime minister ship would be considered now by the ‘urban, middle class’ mainly Sinhala-Buddhist voters in Colombo and other urban semi-urban centres.

 

Cooking own goose

The Rajapaksa Government funded and facilitated the emergence of these urban and semi-urban centres through his ten years of presidency than any time in the previous decades. It also facilitated the emergence of an urban/semi-urban middle class during the period. Yet, it did not notice the inevitable and fast-tracked emergence of ‘urban, middle class values’ as an electoral aspect, which was also that which cooked its goose, though in a very limited way, across the ‘Sinhala heartland’.

Therein also is the possible cure and consequent expectations of Team Rajapaksa. The middle-class, often identified as a class of ‘undecided, non-loyalist’ voters – and would like to call themselves so – and basing their electoral decisions on issues and ‘values’, have enough reasons to be apprehensive about a possible return of Rajapaksa, yes. They are also equally unhappy with the successor government that they have been told is a ‘UNP government’.  The bond scam, the return of the traditional UNP high-handedness at the turn of victory, which the new generation voters have tasted in the past six months, the charges of every other form of corruption that they had been made to believe existed only under the Rajapaksa regime, may all have the potential to put them off from the polling booths this time.

So could it be with a section of the substantial number ‘armed forces family votes’, which despite expectation/anticipation by the candidates concerned, had moved away from the Rajapakasa candidacy in the January polls. Their immediate concerns in the immediate context of post-war governance issues, like the rest of the Sri Lankan society, particularly the rising and increasing ranks of the middle class, seems to be getting replaced by longer concerns of security and the feared ‘return of the LTTE’ and the larger concerns of the UNHRC-type probe, from which the Sirisena-Ranil leadership too had promised to insulate them, but only what is seen as the ‘reverse’ happening on the ground!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

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