President Maithripala Sirisena’s speech on Tuesday raised a storm of controversy plunging the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) campaign into disarray just as the alliance believed it had united behind the candidature and de facto leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
President Sirisena had maintained a stoic silence in the run up to the deadline for nominations when the two factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) were battling it out, one promoting Rajapaksa’s re-entry to politics and the other trying to stall it. Finally, the Rajapaksa faction prevailed.
That led to a public outcry against the President who was accused of betraying the pledges he made during his own election campaign only six months ago. Some Sirisena loyalists who quit Rajapaksa’s government along with Sirisena joined a broad coalition led by the United National Party (UNP).
Faced with dissension from both within and without the SLFP, the President took the plunge on Tuesday, attempting to carefully deconstruct the popular conception that he had betrayed the ‘cause’ of good governance by offering Rajapaksa and most of his loyalists nominations through the UPFA.
In what was a measured and sincerely presented address to media, the President also dropped a political bombshell: he categorically stated that even if the UPFA emerges as the single largest party at the August general election, he would not be appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as his Prime Minister.
This is what struck at the heart of the UPFA’s election campaign which is almost entirely based on Rajapaksa’s charisma and the public support he attracts. If there was a cold war between the bickering factions before, all hell broke loose in the SLFP on Wednesday following the President’s address.
General Secretary of the SLFP Anura Priyadarshana Yapa wanted to summon a meeting of the party’s highest decision-making body, the Central Committee. Amidst fears that there was a move to oust the President from the leadership of the SLFP, the meeting was pre-empted by obtaining a court order.
SLFP stalwarts, who only hours ago were praising the President’s foresight in granting nominations for Rajapaksa, were venting their anger publicly and claiming that the statement would only help the UNP. Others were claiming the President’s speech would unite all SLFPers against the UNP.
In a bid to consolidate his grip on the party, the President offered five electoral organizer positions to his loyalists. Among them was Nirupama Rajapaksa, a daughter of former minister George Rajapaksa, a first cousin of Mahinda Rajapaksa. She was offered the post of electoral organizer for Mulkirigala.
It appears that a tussle to wrest control of Sri Lanka’s second largest political party would now ensue. This is eerily reminiscent of the internecine clashes between Sirima Bandaranaike and Maithripala Senanayake in the early eighties and Chandrika Kumaratunga and Anura Bandaranaike in the nineties.
What is more interesting is the President’s announcement that Rajapaksa would not be appointed Prime Minister if the UPFA wins the elections. Already, UPFA stalwarts have challenged that, saying the President has no choice but to appoint the person who commands the confidence of Parliament.
However, what the recently enacted 19th Amendment states is that, “The President shall appoint as Prime Minister the Member of Parliament, who, in the President’s opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament”. This sets up a fascinating conundrum for constitutional pundits.
Thus, if the UPFA does win the poll, the President could still nominate any individual from the UPFA as his Prime Minister. It would then be the Parliament’s responsibility to veto that nomination. Even if that does occur, the President could still nominate yet another individual other than Rajapaksa.
Whether such events come to pass will be determined by the outcome of the general election but given the convolutions Sri Lankan politics has been subjected too in the last nine months, nothing is impossible. It is however undeniable that the President’s address has damaged the UPFA campaign.
Ironically, President Sirisena’s current powers as the SLFP leader were enhanced during Rajapaksa’s time to give him more control over the party. Similarly, some of the executive powers he enjoys in the Presidency were retained after changes were made to the 19th Amendment by the Rajapaksa faction.
Compounding the UPFA’s woes is the fact that some Sirisena loyalists such as Duminda Dissanayake and Nandimithra Ekanayake are on the UPFA lists. They will find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the President when their party colleagues are criticizing him severely.
Watching all this, the UNP must be ecstatic. The rift in the SLFP has widened, though not in the way it had expected. However, the UNP and its allies must also realize that it must win in its own right and gain a comfortable simple majority to govern effectively and not simply aim to win by default.