Can Ranil ‘fix’ the Rajapaksas, still?

N Sathiya Moorthy

One of the immediate fallouts of the twin ‘constitutional crises’ in which they played their part(s) is that the UNP leadership of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, now on a re-bound, may be braying for their blood. With the ‘Special High Courts’ constituted for the purpose set to commence trial against Gotabhaya R on 22 January, in one of many criminal cases against him, other Rajapaksas, can expect to begin their turn(s) in the none-too-distant future.

In turn, this could well mean that either the Rajapaksas would be in the news for all wrong reasons during the long run-up, first to the presidential polls, which is due by January 2020. It will be followed by the parliamentary polls, now due only by August 2020. Respectively, the two sets of elections are one and one-and-half-year-plus from now. That is a long time for the police investigators to prove something against any or many of the Rajapaksas, or for each of them to disprove the case or cases against them.

Yes, in between, there is the third set of elections, for the Provincial Councils. Despite claims of moral, and of course, legal victory, no UNP leader has since talked about going to the people, as fast as they can, and prove their increased or increasing popularity with the masses. Instead, UNP leaders, if at all, are talking about simultaneous polls to all three bodies.

In context, the presidential polls cannot be delayed, nor can the UNP divine to advance it. If President Maithripala Sirisena does not oblige them with a resignation in advance, the UNP-UNF would not want to try out the impeachment route. One, they just do not have the two-thirds number in Parliament at least for now, and the figure is far away in their estimation, as well. Two, they may end up losing whatever moral and political advantage that they deem to have gained after the ’constitutional crises’.

This means, the UNP wants, if at all, the PC polls to be delayed and parliamentary elections advanced, to coincide with the presidential polls. This implies that their Government has one full year to prove one or many of the Rajapaksas guilty for criminal offences from Mahinda R’s days as President. Taking such a route still, and not wanting to face the voters early on, also implies that the UNP is still not sure of getting a fresh mandate, even if of the PC poll variety.

It’s all political

Whether because of the political storm that accompanied the ‘constitutional crises’ or of the consequential UNP determination to put them to political rest, at least two of the Rajapaksa brothers have been maintaining a low profile, since. Gota R especially used to be in the news constantly ahead of the twin crises, but not since. Basil was always playing the family’s back-room operator, and his name was doing the rounds during the constitutional crises, as well – but not beyond those levels.

The oldest of the Rajapaksa brothers, former Speaker Chamal R, may find himself in the woods if someone began speculating that he might be the family’s presidential candidate, after all. Mahinda R’s son, parliamentarian Namal, has been too much in the news through the past weeks and months, and that could mean more trouble for him.

As Mahinda is not tired out pointing out since the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo got Parliament to pass 19-A in circa 2015, there may be truth in his allegation that the increasing the qualifying age for the presidency to 35 years may have been aimed at stalling Namal entering the fray in 2020. If that was the way the UNP especially was approaching Elections-2020 at the height of their own hour of glorious return to power, even if by the Sirisena proxy, they seemed not to have shed those apprehensions, even after the moral victory over the ‘constitutional crises’ issue.

It’s all political, yes. Worse still for the UNP, the stiffer their Government investigators get in having any or many of the Rajapaksas convicted by courts between now and the election season, greater are also the possible chances of the common man being convinced that it is political vindictiveness, to keep them away from contesting or campaigning in elections. If the cases were to progress slower than expectation, the UNP may lose the opportunity to tell their constituency and civil society backers that they had lived up to their pre-poll promise of 2015. They may then be accused to ‘collusion’ as before the constitutional crises.

It is the kind of ‘heads-you-win-tails-I-lose’ moment for the UNP despite being in power for four years now. With the UNP assuming that the dependable President was also dependent on them, Sirisena has not only turned hostile. He was/is also ready to dine with the devil, as his camp too had described the Rajapaksas, starting with Mahinda R, since the presidential polls of 2015 – but not anymore.

Transferrable votes

The UNP’s electoral calculations do not seem to have been founded on any positive factors. If anything, a return to administrative normalcy after the era of constitutional crises could well bring back to the voter’s mind the bad economic management from the pre-crises days. The party does not seem to have any short-term antidote to clear the nation of its economic and fiscal ills, and keep it that way, at least until the elections.

The UNP’s poll strategy for 2020 seems to have been built entirely on negative factors – and since 2015.  The party had all along assumed that they could wish away the Rajapaksas, especially Mahinda R, especially owing to the constitutional bar, re-introduced by 19-A and their own perception of the strong public dislike for the family’s return. The parliamentary polls and more recent local government polls proved otherwise. Hence, the Special High Courts, too.

The question before Mahinda R is if he could transfer the 40-45 per cent ‘committed’ Sinhala-Buddhist vote-bank of his to any presidential candidate of his choice. He also did not want to be seen as eating out of a non-Rajapaksa hand, under a new President. Instead, even if it were only as Prime Minister, he would have wanted to be in the driver’s seat, all over again.

The constitutional crises have sort of consolidated the Sirisena-Rajapaksa re-union. Nothing of course is stable in politics, especially with Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are involved. They seem to be always thinking for the other man, not for the self. It has consequences, and they both have since paid for their immoral union of 2015. Rather, the nation paid even more for attesting to their immoral union from that past.

For all intents and purposes, the Rajapaksas do not have a presidential candidate from within. The perception even in the larger Rajapaksa camp is that they needed one from the family to win the presidency. Even the name of Mahinda R’s wife, former First Lady Shiranthi R, was doing the social media rounds, pre-constitutional crises. But with the Special High Courts in place, the UNP Government may not spare her if the family were to develop electoral ambitions for Shiranthi R.

That should leave the Rajapaksas and their new SLPP-SLFP-UPFA union with a fait accompli. Sirisena does not seem to remember or recall his 2015 commitment, not wanting to contest a second time. Under the changed circumstances, post-crises, Sirisena has also become a part of the nation’s polarising factor. This could mean that he may fit into the UNP perception of the Rajapaksa camp.

This in turn should make things easier for Sirisena to market himself to the Rajapaksas and the re-fashioned UPFA. This should also make this that much difficult for difficult to ignore Sirisena’s claim. As an average SLPP voter may want to believe, “He is still one of us”, given Sirisena’s long innings in the SLFP-UPFA before parting company with Mahinda R, ahead of Elections-2015.

The problem for the Rajapaksas would still be to ensure that their candidate won the presidency. It could be Sirisena, but they have to convince themselves and also their core cadre-voters that Sirisena is a changed man. How they could get Sirisena to do both is the question that the latter too should be pondering and bothered about, too.

Yet, if they are fairly confident of Mahinda R being able to transfer all of his vote-bank to Sirisena or any other, the UNP may have a problem on hand, ahead of the presidential polls. Court cases and even verdicts of conviction may not mean much if the Rajapaksa candidate were to become President. The list could include Sirisena, whose name may still come up on the top.

If a Rajapaksa candidate still won the presidency – that should include Sirisena – then the possibility of an unholy alliance of the 2015 type cannot be ruled out. Rather, that alone would be the immediate result and follow-up. Then courts and cases can be forgotten. Convictions may be appealed and that could throw up a favourable situation for the Rajapaksas to contest the lower court verdict, with the prosecution turning the tables on the self.

Worse still, the UNP and the Wickremesinghe’s cannot complain, they having set the precedent in 2015. They now need to look up not only at the mirror, but also elsewhere for a strategy to reverse the Rajapaksas’ electoral popularity. Such a strategy has eluded them through four long years. And their new-found Special Courts route may not be the one, either.

If anything, it could become counter-productive even as court-ordered convictions keep the Rajapaksas out of immediate electoral reckoning. It’s so even otherwise. With the result, court convictions of the kind being envisaged can instead turn the tables on the UNP, and consolidate ‘sympathy votes’ in favour of the Rajapaksas, of whom Mahinda could be able to ‘transfer’ his vote-bank to any presidential candidate of his choice. It’s something that the UNP needs to keep in mind, but does not seem to have, thus far!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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