This week, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was summoned before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges after which sittings of the Commission had to be suspended.
Rajapaksa is the latest in a list of persons being brought before law enforcement authorities in recent weeks. Janaka Bandara Tennekoon, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (Pillayan), Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Pelpita were summoned before various authorities for on-going inquiries.
Always a master in public relations, Rajapaksa used the opportunity to good advantage. There was a decent crowd of protestors supporting him and Rajapaksa’s lawyers initially stumped the Commission by claiming that the appointment of High Court judges as Commissioners was unconstitutional.
The summoning of Rajapaksa does not bode well for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) where there is an uneasy cold war between the former President and his successor, President Maithripala Sirisena. At this point in time, President Sirisena appears to hold the edge, but only just.
After President Sirisena won the presidential election, when the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was preparing for the general election, parliamentarians were conspicuous in their support for Rajapaksa rather than Sirisena who took to the media to lambast Rajapaksa’s bid for the Premiership.
Even at the general election, many Rajapaksa loyalists were returned to Parliament with convincing majorities while some of the President’s prominent supporters lost. The President countered this by accommodating them in the National List at the expense of Rajapaksa’s nominees on the list.
The Rajapaksa-Sirisena tug of war has continued since then. The President has attempted to win over some Rajapaksa loyalists by offering them ministerial portfolios. Rajapaksa’s hand-picked secretaries, Anura Yapa and Susil Premajayantha are now ministers. Others are deputy ministers.
There was a move to press for the Leader of the Opposition position and install Kumar Welgama, who doesn’t hide his support for Rajapaksa, in that position. That was stalled by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Now, there is a plan for Rajapaksa loyalists to function as a separate group in Parliament.
This move is mooted by ‘smaller’ parties of the UPFA. Wimal Weerawansa, Dinesh Gunewardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Udaya Gammanpila wish to promote Rajapaksa as the mascot for a new political alliance that will oppose both President Sirisena as well as the United National Party (UNP).
The big question is whether Rajapaksa will take the plunge. Through his political career, a constant theme has been his love for the SLFP. When it was in the political wilderness, bearing the brunt of the J.R. Jayewardene and Premadasa regimes, Rajapaksa was literally a street fighter for the party.
Even in the run up to the general election, Rajapaksa maintained that no matter what, he would not desert the SLFP. Now though, he finds himself in a tight corner. A government headed by a SLFPer is seeking to prosecute him. Some of his acolytes have pledged loyalty to President Sirisena as well.
It is a moot point whether Rajapaksa would have been prosecuted had he chosen to exit the political stage after his defeat at the presidential poll and retired. He didn’t do so and he is being rewarded for his comeuppance. That the SLFP is a party to the government that is doing so must be jarring.
Matters will come to a head at the local government elections, presently slated for March next year. President Sirisena wants to extricate the SLFP from the UPFA. His rationale is that the smaller parties of the Alliance have no popular vote base; hence the SLFP does not need to accommodate them.
Even if Rajapaksa agrees to provide leadership to a group of SLFP loyalists and the smaller parties of the UPFA at the local government poll, it is unlikely that he will be very successful. Weary after two national elections, voters are unlikely to flock to the polling booths to endorse third tier candidates.
Having being defeated at the presidential election and relegated in the general election, whether Rajapaksa would risk a third electoral snub is questionable. However, if the knives are sharpening and the prosecutions turn into persecution, the former President may not have much of a choice.
Whatever decision Rajapaksa arrives at, the prospects for the SLFP are not rosy. Though technically in a national government, most key policy areas are under the control of UNP ministers. The Budget will provide the UNP with another chance to impress the voter. The SLFP can only grin and bear it.
The key to the SLFP’s success lies not so much in President Sirisena providing decisive leadership: suffering under the weight of a regime where the UNP has a majority, he is unlikely to do so. Instead, it must come from another source: through forging unity between warring factions within the party.