Mahinda Cannot Become PM Or Can He?

25 06 2015

Mahinda Cannot Become PM Or Can He? By N Sathiya Moorthy

It’s now official, or so it seems. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has decided to contest the parliamentary polls, whenever held. Spokesman Rohan Weliwita has been quoted as saying that President Rajapaksa would definitely contest the parliamentary polls but was yet to decide under which party he would contest. The report has not been denied. Rajapaksa’s supporters have not come out with an over-pouring of support, as may have been expected. For them, maybe, it was an official reiteration of what they consider is a fact. It has also not been challenged by Rajapaksa’s detractors, both in politics and outside. They seem unsure how to take it, stomach it.

Prior to the announcement, UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had said that Rajapaksa cannot become PM as he has not received the mandate of the people. As for President Maithripala Sirisena swearing him in as Prime Minister after he himself had assumed office on 9 January nine, Wickremesinghe said that it had derived from Candidate Sirisena’s promise made to the people. It had received the people’s mandate. No one is talking about Rajapaksa becoming prime minister without getting elected, first by the people of any particular electorate where he chooses to contest the parliamentary polls from. Then, he has to be elected by a majority of parliamentarians as their leader. Only then can Rajapaksa aspire to become prime minister.

PM Wickremesinghe has said that they were ready to face parliamentary polls. So has the Rajapaksa faction/team has been saying almost from the day he lost the presidency. The question now remains if President Sirisena as the leader of the SLFP-UPFA combine, to which Rajapaksa too still belonged, would nominate him as a candidate for parliamentary polls. Hence, also Rajapaksa spokesman claim/clarification that the ex-President had not decided on the party or symbol under which he would contest. Minister Rajitha Senaratne, Cabinet spokesman who is also seen as the conscience-keeper of President Sirisena, has said that Rajapaksa would not be considered for nomination. In his subsequent reaction, the Rajapaksa spokesman said that the ex-President was optimistic that he would be given nomination by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to contest under the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) or the People’s Alliance (PA).

The spokesman clarified that reports that President and SLFP Chairman Maithripala Sirisena had rejected nominations for Rajapaksa are not yet confirmed. MPs Susil Premejayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa are still trying to get the nominations for Rajapaksa. For his part, twice-defected former Minister Dilan Perera, now back in the Rajapaksa camp, has said that it was up to the SLFP central committee to decide on party nominations for parliamentary polls. He was obviously implying that President Sirisena could not take any unilateral decision in the matter.

Putin in the making?

The comparison is inescapable that Rajapaksa is emerging or seeking to emerge as the Vladimir Putin of Sri Lanka. After completing the mandatory two-term upper-limit for the all-powerful presidency, the Russian leader became the nation’s prime minister, for which there was no bar. The man rather than the office that he came to hold became the power-centre. Later, he returned as President, and again there was now no bar after the prime ministerial break. Clearly, the Constitution-makers had not foreseen such possibilities and consequent eventualities. There is a difference, however. Rajapaksa went beyond Putin, to have the constitutionally-mandated two-term upper-limit removed. He contested for a third term, even advanced the polls by nearly two years. He lost. So for him to try and return as prime minister, that too under the man who had defeated him to the presidency, could not be compared to Putin’s constitutional skulduggery of a near-similar kind.

If elected prime minister, Rajapaksa could be expected to amass politico-administrative power in the office of the prime minister. After all, the main campaign-plank of his detractors in the run-up to the January polls was to dilute or do away with the office of the Executive Presidency and redistribute the unequalled powers amassed in the high office between the prime minister and a cabinet under his care and leadership, under the original Westminster scheme.

The Rajapaksa detractors had personalised the powers of the Executive President in him, and more so after he had got 18-A passed, overthrowing 17-A before it. The Sirisena-Ranil leadership’s 19-A falls woefully short of the promised one, and expectedly so. At best, it conveys an intention, and more needs to be done, requiring a public referendum. As a matter of abundant caution, the duo had promised to do so after a new parliament had been elected. They could not have promised more for a Prime Minister Rajapaksa, if that’s also the people’s mandate in the parliamentary polls.

Weak arguments

PM Wickremesinghe current arguments against Rajapaksa’s possible return as prime minister are weak. They are centred on a change of prime minister before parliamentary polls. Rajapaksa does not seem to be looking at the possibility, however, even if his faction could be looking at a change of prime minister with their own man, or a neutral representative from the SLFP-UPFA combine, of which President Sirisena is still be de jure head. Stronger arguments against Rajapaksa’s return to power could emerge only in the context of his wanting to contest the prime ministerial polls. They should have centred on the impossibility of a leader, rejected by the people in a nation-wide election, wanting to return to power through political subterfuge. Worse still, the rejection became possible through the overwhelming vote of the nation’s minorities, to preserve and protect whose interests mainly, the Executive Presidency had been created in the first place.

National government still?

There is yet no denying the fact that Rajapaksa had polled 48 per cent votes in the presidential polls that he lost. Translated, it meant that he had got a majority in the ‘majority Sinhala-Buddhist community’ votes. Translated, it could mean a substantial share in the parliamentary seats, based on the existing proportional representation (PR) scheme. Hence, also the haste with which his faction wants the poll scheme changed through a 20-A, as a return to the first-past-the-post system (alone) could ensure a parliamentary majority in his favour. There can still be no denying that Rajapaksa is still the single most popular leader in the country, particularly among the Sinhala majority. His voters did not look at his track-record on governance issues, including corruption charges and human rights violations, including those against perceived detractors of every hue from among his majority Sinhala-Buddhist community. They voted for the man, the man who won the ‘war on LTTE terror’ that had frightened them out of their breath and sleep for decades without end.

Today, Rajapaksa needs the party and politics as much as the latter needs him – for his votes. Whether Rajapaksa’s 48 per cent vote-share in the presidential polls is transferrable to individual parliamentary candidates of his choice – independent of their own track-record – would remain to be proved. Then, and then alone can he hope to become prime minister, even if it could have to involve the mean yet masterly ingenuity of the kind that kept him going without challenge through his 10 long years as President. For her part, Rajapaksa’s predecessor SLFP-UPFA President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK), has said that there was no burning problem in the party for someone to try and split it. The reference is to Rajapaksa and to the party that her slain Prime Minister-father, S W R D Bandaranaike had founded. Yet, there is no knowing which way the wind would blow if the party denied parliamentary ticket for Rajapaksa, or decline to make him prime minister, if at all it came to that on a later day.

In between, senior UNP leader Sajith Premadasa, who used to be an eternal detractor to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in their United National Party (UNP), has revived talks of a national government after parliamentary polls. It used to be Wickremesinghe’s baby, but after the way he had treated his ministerial colleagues from President Sirisena’s faction in the SLFP, it remains to be seen if the latter would want him as their prime minister, post-poll, if it came to that.

Between them, CBK and Sajith P have indicated that post-poll, the ball would still lie in the court of President Sirisena, who still has the unfettered powers to choose his prime minister. It could be more so if the situation remains as confusing as it is now. A hung parliament which is a real possibility under the PR scheme of parliamentary polls could make matters worse. Reports now indicate that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe leadership could induct five more junior ministers, obviously by encouraging cross-overs from the rival Rajapaksa faction, if only to shore up their parliamentary strength ahead of dissolution. They had added five others earlier, to the 25 who had been given ministerial berths not long after the duo took control. It’s yet an old game that Rajapaksa excelled in and was criticised for. He can play it, too, and possibly better, if after the parliamentary polls, if required to acquire a majority.

After Rajapaksa’s defeat in the January polls, a lot of people from within the polity and also the civil society still want the Executive Presidency diluted or done away with. They had also blamed Rajapaksa’s jumbo cabinet as among the ills of the times. Yet, they too are not talking about a constitutionally-mandated anti-defection law, which and which alone can fix political corruption that they all claim to despise still. But then, it’s only an anti-defection law that could put an end to the Tissa Athanayake kind of cross-overs, for which they continue to blame and want to criminally charge President Rajapaksa, too, with.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)