Since the pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa elements in the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) staged a rally in Matara – the first in post-Rajapaksa era in the deep south of the country – and attracted an impressive crowd, speculation has grown about Rajapaksa’s comeback bid and his potential chances.
Usually when a government is defeated, the new rulers are allowed a decent time interval before they are criticized for their lapses. After his defeat in January though, Rajapaksa has tried to fast track this process because the government that replaced his regime has run into quite a number of obstacles.
The United National Party (UNP) government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is hamstrung by the lack of a parliamentary majority. It is also handicapped by the lack of executive power which is wielded by President Maithripala Sirisena who, for example, is yet to agree to dissolve Parliament.
President Sirisena himself is beleaguered by a faction of his own party colleagues in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who want Rajapaksa returned to Parliament under the SLFP banner. It is this lack of firm control, both by the President and the Premier that allows Rajapaksa breathing space.
Meanwhile, despite a great degree of co-operation between the President and the Prime Minister, the Executive and the Legislature are in a tussle for supremacy. The tug-of-war seen during the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution is being enacted all over again for the 20th Amendment.
The government nearly went in to panic mode, when there were reports this week of a fresh initiative to settle the differences between the President and his predecessor. Clearly, the UNP pins a lion’s share of its general election victory hopes on the prospect of the SLFP remaining divided.
Rajapaksa, the seasoned politician that he is, knows that he is the reason for the SLFP to be in its current plight today. Had he gracefully retired and opted to be out of the limelight, he would have made life much easier not only for the President but also for the other Rajapaksas, Basil and Namal.
However, he has chosen to fight for control of the SLFP, even though it means risking the unity of the party with which he stood loyally for forty-five years. It is a big gamble but it appears that Rajapaksa, nearing seventy years of age, feels he must take the plunge now or leave the political stage forever.
That Mahinda Rajapaksa has charisma in abundance is no secret. His is a personality that is stronger than both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe put together. His role as the leader who prosecuted the Eelam war to a finish ensures his place in Sri Lankan history like no other.
But, he comes at a price. Whoever embraces him politically will also have to answer to all the charges of corruption and abuse of power under his watch. Even if the accusations leveled against his regime are not proved, Rajapaksa has acknowledged that he did turn a blind eye to these some of these vices.
His political allies will also have to kiss goodbye to the minority vote. This happened at the January election and will happen again at the general election because Rajapaksa loyalists are not once bitten twice shy: even now, their campaign slogans have a strong Sinhala Buddhist nationalist undertone.
Despite these obvious drawbacks, a significant faction of the UPFA remains with him. This is a disparate group. Among them are those who, because of their alleged acts of corruption, are unlikely to receive nominations for the general elections from President Sirisena. But there are others as well.
These include a host of National List MPs who are beholden to Rajapaksa for their nomination to Parliament, those from the smaller parties within the UPFA and a group of younger legislators who, having aligned themselves with Namal Rajapaksa, see themselves as the next generation of the SLFP.
Also, unlike at a presidential election where the two major party candidates are fighting it out, a general election has more immediate relevance to each and every parliamentarian. Regardless of which party comes out on top, every parliamentarian is also battling to be in the next Parliament.
In such a scenario, Rajapaksa has a special allure. There are many parliamentarians who believe that, without the former President on their side and campaigning for them, they are at risk of losing their seat. So, they feel their best bet is to pledge their loyalty to Rajapaksa and not necessarily the SLFP.
Weeks of talks, manipulation, ‘bring back Mahinda’ rallies and committees for uniting the SLFP only prove that Mahinda Rajapaksa will be a crucial factor in the next general election though its outcome may not please either Sirisena or Rajapaksa. It may seal Rajapaksa’s fate – and that of the SLFP.