Talking to the nation’s media moguls, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is credited with wanting to seek a second term. He crossed the half-way mark in office in May this year. The next presidential polls are not due in the natural course before November 2024. Yet, for him to be talking about wanting a second term has caused eyebrows to raise both within the ruling SLPP combine and outside.
In his chat, the President was optimistic that he could achieve the targets and goals he had set for himself. “I have time. Not only three more years. I have five additional five years,” he reportedly told the news bosses. In doing so, Gota implied that his self-professed commitment to save the country from chemical fertilisers and promoting organic agriculture was not expected to be achieved within five years and that he had worked out a two-term presidency. So were his ideas such as renewable energy, including hydro, wind, and solar power.
True as the case may be, these are not goals that could be achieved in a five-year term, whoever the President and whatever enforcing mechanisms at his disposal. As has turned out, the government is finding out that there is not enough stock of natural manure in the country to replace chemical fertilizers, whose import it had banned. Ask the wise man, he would say, it is putting the cart before the horse – or putting things on their head and expect them to work the way they should, otherwise.
The implied message, hence the meaning of President Gota’s statement may be something different. Even his audience in this case could have been different. It is not thus impossible that he was talking to the so-called rebels from within the ruling SLPP combine.
It was a message, “Behave or else…” The ‘else’ part refers to his continuing for a second term and consequent ability to deny them parliamentary ticket when that became due in 2025. As for his sacking/dropping ministers, he is constitutionally-empowered to do it even now.
Going by the experience of the predecessor ‘Government of National Unity (GNU ???), President Gota may be tempted to drop some of his ministerial nominees if that alone would ensure that they all spoke in one voice. The worse thing about President Maithripala Sirisena and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was that even the top two leaders of the previous coalition fought, letting others fire from their respective shoulders – and doing so themselves.
If today, Gota is President and the SLPP is in power, it first owes mainly to the inherent instability that became the hallmark of the predecessor regime. Even the circumstances leading to the ‘Easter blasts’ owed to that instability and factionalism in the government – and the people read it as such. In contrast, the Rajapaksas had given a stable government for full ten years, five of them after successfully completing the nation’s war on terror, to its entire satisfaction.
It is this faith of the nation, or at least of the majority Sinhala population that came under pressure when multiple voices began coming out of the SLPP combine on a multitude of issues. It was becoming clear that as and when the Covid pandemic came under full control, the SLPP combine too could become yet another ‘Tower of Babel’ as the GNU was even at commencement. That needed putting down.
At a time when Gota’s brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapajksa was second-term President, he brought forward the 18th Amendment, which empowered the incumbent to contest for a third or more times. As TNA President R Sampanthan rightly pointed out at the time, there was no issue about the terms of an incumbent or the constitutional amendments. After all, it was the voter to choose or reject the incumbent, in the third or fourth time.
As it turned out, Mahinda R lost his call for a third term. Elections-2015 showed that it was not enough that an incumbent empowered himself to seek a third term. He too needed to entice his voters one more time. This is true also of an incumbent seeking a second term, which is now the maximum possible, after the 19th Amendment.
Even without constitutional constraints, anti-incumbency is a real possibility in democracy after two long terms in power. The better a ruler makes life and living for his voter, greater now are the chances of their wanting more and different. It has become so obvious and visible in this social media era, where the first-time voters have their expectations etched in snow and erected in mid-noon summer.
Independent of the youthfulness of an aspirant political master, his climbing up to where he has reached creates a distance between him that is difficult for him to fathom, to be able to fill. Minister Namal Rajapaksa, son of Prime Minister Mahinda R, is the youngest of the clan, whose face-recognition among all sections of the population is for real. It is more so among the majority Sinhala community, but it is not unreal about other ethnicities.
In ten-plus years he has been in electoral politics, Namal R has reached a level where the vision is closer to the earth from his parental generation. But looked from below, he is just about visible for the younger generation voters. His parental generation possibly does not exist them. It is not about the senior Rajapaksas, but every other political leader in that age-group – give or take years!
When President Mahinda was toying with the idea of 18-A, with a third term possibility for self, his camp-followers argued that it was not necessarily for him to contest – that decision would be taken ahead of the polls. But it was to ensure that party leaders and parliamentarians did not make him a lame-duck President even during his conclusive second term.
They pointed to the precedent of Mahinda’s party boss and predecessor, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (CBK), who had a two-year term. In her second term, especially the second half thereof, her own party men, starting with ministers and MPs, showed her scant respect. From outside her SLPP, rival UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe showed even less, and for all the world to watch, while negotiating ceasefire and beyond with the LTTE.
Worse still, the Norwegian facilitators, where were in the country at CBK’s instance, did not even care for her. They wanted to believe that informing the President was an internal job and that it was for PM Wickremesinghe to do it – not for them to consult and/or update the President of the host-nation. They learnt their lesson when CBK sacked the Wickremesinghe government and dissolved Parliament, ordering fresh elections. Her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa, to the Norwegians and the LTTE, proved to be from a different kettle.
In his time, President J R Jayawardene did suffer such humiliation at the height of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the Thirteenth Amendment. A vocal section of the ruling UNP that he had led with an iron-hand until the other day started protesting – loud and clear. Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa felt secure in the knowledge that JRJ could not run a third term, and hence could not stall his political progress more than already.
Premadasa, Sr, needed to create a constituency to call his own, and it had to come also from outside the elitist UNP. The ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ constituency was then in the hands of the insurgent JVP. He killed two birds with one stone. Premadasa hijacked ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism’ for himself within and outside the UNP, where he was still considered an ‘outsider’. In the same vein, he slaughtered JVP insurgents out of existence – and claimed added credit for it.
There is a difference between then and now – or, between all predecessors and the present incumbent. Unlike on all those occasions, here, President Gota has aired his hopes of running for a second term even when the nation is not yet ready – or, has not given up on him (as was the case with the Maithiri-Ranil duo).
Strange but true — did you say?
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)