President Maithripala Sirisena

This week saw the emergence of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a candidate for the upcoming general election when he made a formal announcement to that effect from his home base at Medamulana – although that did not help to clearly demarcate the battle lines for the August poll.

Rajapaksa’s much awaited declaration on Wednesday came after frenzied negotiations between stalwarts of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who were shuttling between Colombo and Kandy and trying their best to reconcile differences Rajapaksa had with President Maithripala Sirisena.

These talks led to an announcement on Tuesday that Rajapaksa would be offered nomination from the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the coalition where the SLFP is the major partner. If President Sirisena intended to unite the SLFP with this offer, it had the opposite effect.

By the time Rajapaksa was making his announcement at Medamulana, there was consternation within the ranks of the SLFP. Several ministers who had defected from Rajapaksa’s cabinet to support the President last November were protesting loudly at the offer of nomination to the former President.

That led to a further clarification from the President’s Media Unit. A statement stated that while Rajapaksa had been offered nomination he had not been offered the prime ministerial candidacy. That would be decided by the parliamentary group after the election, the statement said.

The UNP voiced its disappointment through scathing remarks from Uva Chief Minister Harin Fernando at a press conference as did former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The Jathika Hela Urumaya said it would not be a party to any electoral alliance that accommodated Rajapaksa.

The reasoning of those aligning against Rajapaksa is simple: the President’s January 8 mandate was to end the Rajapaksa era. To offer him nominations would be a betrayal of that undertaking and would call in to question the bona fides of the President. Some SLFPers even threatened to join the UNP.

For his part, Rajapaksa was careful enough to be vague about his immediate plans: he only said that he would contest the election. Deliberately, he did not state whether it would be from the SLFP, the UPFA or a different political alliance. His strategy is not any clearer at the time of writing.

However, it appears as if Rajapaksa is heading more towards contesting with an alliance of his own. This would comprise of the smaller parties led by Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunewardena, Udaya Gammanpila and a group of SLFPers who are loyal to Rajapaksa.

This is because of several reasons. Firstly, President Sirisena, despite offering nominations to Rajapaksa, has been firm that he would not be named Prime Minister if the UPFA wins. Then, many difficulties would arise in accommodating Rajapaksa loyalists within the UPFA’s nomination lists.

It is no secret that among those fiercely loyal to Rajapaksa in the Parliament that was dissolved last week are also those who have charges of bribery and corruption pending against them. The President is on record saying that such individuals will not be accommodated by him at the election.

Thus, if he were to accept the offer of nominations from the UPFA, Rajapaksa would be in the unenviable situation of contesting the polls without at least some of those who stood by him when he was ousted from office. Reportedly, he was not very enthusiastic about this prospect.

However, at the time of writing, Rajapaksa has made no firm commitment indicating that he is also keen to keep his options open. Meanwhile individuals such as Minister Rajitha Senaratne keep muddying the waters by reiterating that Rajapaksa will not be allowed to contest from the UPFA.

This whole exercise has refocused attention on President Sirisena’s role in the current political developments. He has the difficult task of leading his SLFP against the party that propelled him in to office, the United National Party. He also has to reconcile the various factions within the SLFP.

When news broke that the President had secret talks with Rajapaksa which ended in a separate fiasco when the President’s office denied the meeting citing an error in the venue and when it was announced that Rajapaksa had been offered nominations, the President’s credibility took a nosedive.

Both President Sirisena and the SLFP need to be cautious in the approach they adopt to the election. Rajapaksa’s ‘popularity’ among the masses is an unknown quantity; it is based on the media hype he generates and measured by the attendance at his meetings. As the last polls showed, this was flawed.

Many former SLP parliamentarians believe they need Rajapaksa to help them get re-elected. Yet, Rajapaksa’s inclusion in the SLFP may also push many undecided voters who voted for Sirisena away from the party. It is a fine line to tread and Rajapaksa is still playing his cards very close to his chest.