There may have been sixty three candles on President Mahinda Rajapaksa's birthday cake last week, but it also marked half-term in the Rajapaksa Presidency. The President has now completed the first three years of his first term of office and is now embarking on the latter half of his tenure, a timely opportunity to not only recapitulate the events of the years gone by but also to assess the prospects for the foreseeable future.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa ran for the Presidency in November 2005, not many — including those in his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) — believed he could win. But Rajapaksa cobbled together a motley coalition and fashioned an unlikely victory. It was the first indication that Rajapaksa was a man who firmly believed that politics was the art of the possible.
The opposition United National Party cried foul. It claimed — and rightly so, that it was robbed of victory in the presidential poll because voters in the North and East were prevented from exercising their franchise by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. There was speculation that the Rajapaksa and his campaign managers had done a deal with the Tigers — while his platform rhetoric boasted of an 'ali-koti givisuma'. If indeed he had any such secret deal, Rajapaksa sold a dummy to southern electorate, he did it pretty well.
Even after Rajapaksa ascended the Presidency, there were those who doubted his ability to govern. How could the President rule with only a wafer-thin majority in Parliament? And what would a candidate, who pledged to abrogate the Ceasefire Agreement and banish the Norwegians, do to counter the pressures exerted by the international community?
To his credit President Rajapaksa has, to a large extent, proved his critics wrong. Not only has he governed, he has managed to destabilise the opposition and entrench himself firmly in power — and that is not solely due to the victories the armed forces are notching up in the North in the last three years; President Rajapaksa has indeed proved to be a master of real-politik that has left his rivals in disarray. His rainbow Cabinet, jumbo as it may be, ranges from Arumugam Thondaman to Champika Ranawaka, and from Douglas Devananda to Dinesh Gunawardene, from D.E.W. Gunasekera to Milinda Moragoda.
To get to where he is, the President had to overcome tremendous odds. Breaking into the leadership of the SLFP — until then the family heirloom and the bastion of the Bandaranaikes — was in itself no mean task. That he did, even though many in the SLFP considered him an 'outsider' even during the presidential election campaign.
Having done all that hard work and halfway into his first term, Rajapaksa's agenda appears to be re-election in another three years. Towards this end, the stage is being set and the script being written. Even if there are villains in the story, Rajapaksa is banking on emerging the hero at the end of it all — and barring any unforeseen circumstances, that is the likely ending, at least in the next presidential polls.
To a large extent, the plot is simple. Rajapaksa gambled his election on a strategy of winning over the southern voter by beating the war drums against the LTTE. It worked. Now, he is gambling on winning his next election on annihilating the LTTE. And, by all accounts, it seems to be working too.
The war effort is popular and President Rajapaksa is not coy to flaunt it. If any evidence was needed, the sentiments that followed the fall of Pooneryn are ample testimony. Rajapaksa should take the kudos for refusing to blink in the face of mounting pressures that have come from across the Palk Straits, and from other influential sources such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and the ever-present peace-broker, Norway.
The UNP, which bent over backwards to please these sorts, now finds itself pinned down to a corner. The UNP may believe in devolution and a 'political settlement', but that is not sexy with the southern electorate. And the more talk about devolution and a political settlement the more the UNP looks as if it is against the war effort — and it is all the more easier for Rajapaksa to play the role of messiah to the majority!
If prosecuting the war was clever political strategy, dividing the opposition was a masterstroke. The President may be governing with a Parliament elected four years ago, but more astoundingly nearly two dozen Parliamentarians in his camp have been elected on the UNP ticket — and that would have made the Machiavellian J.R. Jayewardene blush.
It is perhaps also an indictment on the SLFP, but most of the UNP stalwarts who crossed over are now cosy with Rajapaksa. The public faces of the government that frequently pop up in the media — the Rambukwellas, the Bogollagamas, the Peiris', the Bandula Gunewardenas and the Lakshman Yapa Abeywardenas — are all UNPers.
With that single manoeuvre, the President emasculated the UNP and the country's once single largest party which is now reduced to the state of a political eunuch, wrong-footed time and again, even unable to take the credit for the split in the LTTE which, in every which way you looked at it, was biggest military dent inflicted upon the LTTE since the 'war' began, the fruits of which are being enjoyed unabashedly by the Rajapaksa regime.
The Grand Old Party's stalwarts are trying to blame it all on Ranil Wickremesinghe, but the truth is that replacing Wickremesinghe will not take the party any closer to the prospect of returning to power. If that is done, the resultant in-fighting for the leadership would surely split it further to a point of no return.
Dividing the UNP may pay more dividends but dividing the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) probably took more effort and Rajapaksa has managed that too. The off-shoot Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) is nothing more than an appendage of the government that chooses to sit in the Opposition benches, but showing its hand by voting for the budget last week. Rajapaksa can be pleased with his ways in dividing the Opposition to him. What political analysts ask is whether he can now unite the country.
There is no doubt Rajapaksa's personal popularity is at a high. The Government's well greased propaganda machinery has seen to that by milking the patriotism card to the hilt. But that will not mean he could emerge a runaway victor especially if a general election is held which is due before a presidential poll anyway.
While a presidential election would be a referendum on Rajapaksa's performance thus far, a general election is not essentially one. Local political considerations, personal prejudices against candidates, the 'manaapa poraya' all come into play and the end result is that the President may end up with a Parliamentary majority that is less comfortable than the one he already enjoys. With provincial elections he seems to be testing the waters, dissipating the human and financial resources of the Opposition, and hoping that morale boosting victories will be infectious throughout the country. And he knows, that even if he can win with a slender majority, the perks and privileges he can offer as bait for long-jumpers and double-crossers is readily at his command.
But general elections must be held by 2010 and that is not that distant a date, and an election next year is almost a certainty, unless other constitutional methods are adopted to extend the life of Parliament. Obviously, the President will have one eye on the progress of the armed forces in the North, for he knows that the Eelam War is an emotive issue for the South — and that would be his passport to electoral triumph.
President Rajapaksa's management approach seems to be a hands-off, laid back style of governance dividing his work with a simple formula. Brother Basil will see to the political side of things. Brother Gotabhaya will see to the war effort; and he will see to the public relations side of things. His easy-going style is better illustrated than by his deftness to what's happening at Hulftsdorp Hill where the Judiciary is doing some of the work his Government is supposed to be doing. Unfortunately though, running an effective administration is not a simple case of delegating functions and merely playing the PR role, particularly given the calibre of ministers he has to put up with.
Again, his reputation to pack his administration with the local equivalent of the Tom, Dick and Harrys may not pay the dividends expected, especially when appointments are being made to state enterprises where services to the country are at stake.
A case in point is Mihin Air, where billions have been invested and more state funds are being pumped in. Mihin may carry the President's good name but it may eventually give him a bad name and may turn out to be Rajapaksa's 'Gam Udawa' — because most of the Gam Udawa sites are neglected now and the wild grass is taller than some of the edifices built, but at least there was some development in the rural areas due to those projects whereas as Mihin Air — already dubbed 'Himin Air' — may have nothing to show for its efforts, except a humungous bank overdraft.
The economy is President Rajapaksa's obvious weak spot. And how much, and to what extent can he rely on the 'war' card so that the people will forget about the 'kitchen war' is a matter to be seen. Prices have reached unprecedented levels, and the ministers in charge have given up trying to give excuses. The Rajapaksa Presidency has found it inevitable to 'exploit man by State', something enshrined in the Constitution as a No Can Do for a Government, when it charges higher prices for oil than what it pays for the same thing in the world market.
His Government is clearly living on borrowed cash, when the bubble will burst is the question. Foreign financial analysts have tersely said that Sri Lanka's economy is "an accident waiting to happen". There seems to be an element of panic in the Government, for otherwise one could legitimately ask why it is so sensitive to criticism in the free media. It's looking for ways and means of giving only the good news to the public and creating a feel-good factor in them, however artificial it may be.
Once dubbed 'the reporter' by his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga for allegedly leaking government stories to the media, now in office much of that goodwill appears to have evaporated. No politician lost by having the media on his side and President Rajapaksa will have to work hard in the latter half of his tenure if he hopes to restore the status quo with the Fourth Estate.
Once the celebrations for the third anniversary of the Rajapaksa Presidency are over and done with, the President will undoubtedly take stock of his political future and size up the options. For all the President's popularity he has a serious issue to deal with: the Tamils in the North and East who feel that the President is winning the war but not doing enough in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the minorities.
In winning votes, the President has 'neutralised' the East (which did not vote for him), with the introduction of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) to get him the votes by hook or by crook although that strategy has its own pitfalls with the two factions of the TMVP gunning for each other. The North, presumably, will be tackled later.
The plantations, where Arumugam Thondaman's word is still an unwritten edict, though his influence is waning, will follow the President — and not their traditional ally the UNP, and Rajapaksa will feel that given the right inducements, he could rope in the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress as well.
An election is an option, sooner rather than later as the economic climate gets worse, and the Government seems unable to attract foreign investment, is uninterested in tourists, and finds its exports strangulated by the world economic meltdown and its own inward looking policies.
Given the disarray in the Opposition, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be the front-runner candidate but he will know that a few months hence is a very long time in politics, so he may plan on hunting his prey sooner than most of his opponents would expect him to. And that is hardly surprising because, over the past three years, President Rajapaksa has demonstrated that he is a clever political animal. He has indeed demonstrated that he is no easy push-over.