The 17 August parliamentary election in Sri Lanka is reminiscent of India&’s 1980 Lok Sabha election when the choice before the people was to bring back to power Indira Gandhi whom they voted out decisively three years earlier or back a khichdi of infighting political forces. The BJP was not born then. Similarly, the choice before the people of Sri Lanka is to bring back former President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa who was routed in the 8 January presidential election in his new avatar as prime ministerial candidate. To a question whether it is proper for the former President to aspire to become the Prime Minister, Udya Gammanpila, leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, a constituent of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led United People&’s Freedom Alliance, says, “If Vladimir Putin can become Prime Minister after serving as President of Russia, why not Rajapaksa?” Anyway Sri Lanka is committed to do away with the presidential form of government and return to the parliamentary system.
Rajapaksa says the people are already disappointed with the six-month-old Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government and want a change and that he will be the instrument of change. It is difficult to believe that the 6,217,162 people who voted against Rajapaksa in the January revolution to restore rule of law and a semblance of democracy in the country are so disenchanted with President Sirisena to bring the dictator back to power. That Sirisena did not live up to the people&’s expectations cannot be denied, but that does not mean they are yearning for the bad old days of the Rajapaksa regime. The Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, the monk who played a pivotal role in the January revolution, says his dream of yahapalanaya (good governance) remains shattered. “The future is bleak. Those of you who can get out, the time is ripe. If you can get a visa even to hell, please go,” was his advice to the people of Sri Lanka.
A coalition led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe of the United National Party under the banner of a hurriedly formed United National Front for Good Governance is the main alternative platform available for those opposed to Rajapaksa&’s comeback. A number of UPFA MPs, disgusted with the sudden turn of events, have shifted their loyalty to the UNFGG. They will be contesting under the elephant symbol of the UNP. Also contesting under the elephant symbol are candidates of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress except in the districts of Batticaloa and Wanni where the party will contest under its own symbol. The Muslims suffered a number of attacks by the Bodu Bala Sena, orchestrated by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the dreaded defence secretary under President Rajapaksa. The Janatha Vimukti Perumana has also left the UPFA and has fielded candidates in many districts. The Tamil National Alliance, though not a constituent of the UNFGG, is among those supporting Wickremesinghe for prime ministership. It has fielded candidates in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces. The Tamils have not forgotten the kind of surveillance that was carried out when Rajapaksa was in power and how the Northern Provincial Council was reduced to a non-entity. At a special convention of the UNP at Borella, Wickremesinghe said if the UNP front was voted to power, it would devolve power to the provinces, one of the long standing demands of ethnic Tamils. He also promised to return large tracts of land acquired during the civil war in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces, since converted into cantonments, to the rightful owners. Around 50 political parties and more than 100 independents are in the fray for the 17 August election. If the UPFA or the UNFGG does not get a majority to form the government, which seems the most likely scenario, horse trading will bloom. The party with the deepest pockets will have an edge. Everyone agrees Rajapaksa has the deepest pocket.
For Sirisena, who came forward from the ministerial ranks of the Rajapaksa government on 21 November last to announce his historic decision to contest against a seemingly invincible leader “to be the harbinger of a resplendent dawn,” handing over the SLFP nomination to Rajapaksa to contest the parliamentary poll was a painful choice. Denial of nomination meant a split in the party. He put party interest before national interest. To make up for his seeming betrayal of the trust 6.2 million people placed on him in the 8 January presidential election against the 5.8 million votes garnered by Rajapaksa, Sirisena has vowed to work for the defeat of the former President in the 17 August parliamentary election. “I continue to stand against Mahinda Rajapaksa and he will be defeated again,” said Sirisena.
When Sirisena assumed office as President on 9 January, Sri Lanka stood poised to change the culture of thuggery, crime, drug mafia, embezzlement and nepotism institutionalised under the Rajapaksa regime. Out of the national budget of Rs. 1.7 trillion, Rs. 1.2 trillion was controlled by the Rajapaksa family. An investigation into Rajapaksa amassing Rs 18 billion was ordered but made no progress Projects in which China had invested, including a $ 1.4 billion port city in the capital, Colombo, were re-examined and put on hold. China had already built a harbour and airport in southern Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa promised to resume Chinese projects suspended by the Sirisena government immediately if elected. Rajapaksa as Prime Minister will have more powers than any of his predecessors following the 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed in April this year.
On his becoming chairman of the SLFP, close associates in the party, including former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, called on Sirisena and advised introduction of drastic reforms to clean up the Augean stable the party had become under the stewardship of Rajapaksa. They also advised him to remove Anura Priyadarshna Yapa from the post of general secretary of the SLFP and Susil Premajayantha as general secretary of the UPFA. Both were known acolytes of Rajapaksa. Sirisena ignored their advice. Had he heeded the advice he would not have found himself in the present predicament. Rajapaksa, on the other hand, did not consider his defeat in the presidential election as the end of his political career. Instead, he swung into action plotting his return to power by building a constituency within the SLFP with the support of those MPs who benefited enormously in terms of power and monetary gains when he was President. They organised rallies on the theme ‘Bring Back Mahinda’ in Nugegoda on 18 February, in Kandy on 7 March, in Ratnapura on 26 March, in Kurunegala on 1 May and in Matara on 12 June. These rallies demonstrated that his Sinhala-Buddhist vote bank was still intact. Only the Sinhala liberal constituency was upset at his comeback bid. Kumaratunga, disgusted with the ongoing shenanigans, left the country on a long European holiday.
The majority which voted to oust Rajapaksa in January need not despair of the possibility of his bouncing back in August. A formidable alternative is already in place in the form of UNFGG. Election watchdog People&’s Action for Free and Fair Elections on 12 March launched a Code of Nominations to be followed by all political parties while granting nominations to candidates in all elections. Its purpose was to ensure ‘rogues and rascals’ will not be nominated. The Code enshrines eight principles, among them one should not be a criminal, free of bribery and corruption charges, free of anti-social trades, free of abusive financial contracts and environment friendly. This document was approved and signed by leaders of all main political parties. Sirisena signed it on 16 June in his capacity as leader of the SLFP. Rajapaksa had stated on more than one occasion that he had safeguarded and covered up every misdeed of the members of his government. He should now reveal their names so that the known bad apples could be weeded out of the 17 August race.