United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian Jayalath Jayawardena, recuperating at the Sri Jayawardenepura hospital after a heart ailment had an in important visitor: President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who turns 67 today. Newspapers showed pictures of Rajapaksa at Jayawardena’s bedside, clasping his hands and wishing him a speedy recovery. It is not certain whether Opposition UNP Leader Ranil [...]


Mahinda Rajapaksa: Where to from here?


United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian Jayalath Jayawardena, recuperating at the Sri Jayawardenepura hospital after a heart ailment had an in important visitor: President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who turns 67 today. Newspapers showed pictures of Rajapaksa at Jayawardena’s bedside, clasping his hands and wishing him a speedy recovery.

It is not certain whether Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe visited Jayawardena in hospital. Even if he did, the media did not record the event. This difference in the impact of what the two men do is a significant reason why Rajapaksa celebrates the seventh anniversary of his presidency today while Wickremesinghe languishes as the country’s longest serving Opposition Leader.

President Rajapaksa being received by the organisers of the healthy food exhibition at the Viharamahadevi Park yesterday. Pic by Gayan Amerasekera

For Mahinda Rajapaksa, climbing to the top of the greasy pole of politics has not been easy. Although he had a head start, entering what was then Ceylon’s seventh Parliament in 1970 through the seat of Beliatta at the age of twenty four defeating Ranjit Atapattu, it was no cake walk thereafter. When the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was booted out of office seven years later, so was Rajapaksa.

Twelve years of political wilderness followed. Returned to Parliament in 1989 to the Opposition benches, Rajapaksa made a name for himself as a rabble-rouser running the gauntlet against the authoritarian presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa. Still, the Bandaranaikes held sway in the SLFP and there was little love lost even then between Rajapaksa and its leader-to-be, Chandrika Kumaratunga.

During the Kumaratunga presidency, Rajapaksa was accommodated because of his seniority and his family’s long-standing affiliations to the SLFP. The portfolios Kumaratunga entrusted Rajapaksa with were, however, hardly worth writing home about, given his ranking in the party’s pecking order: first, the Ministry of Labour, then the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

All this while, Rajapaksa was doing what he does best: winning friends and influencing people both within the SLFP and also in the wider circle of like-minded political parties that constituted the ruling coalition. Thus, when Kumaratunga had to choose a Prime Minister after the 2004 general election, it was impossible to ignore Rajapaksa.

It is known that then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was to be considered as a temporary Prime Minister in a planned constitutional move that was later going to abolish the executive presidency and make Kumaratunga Prime Minister. Sri Lanka could have had its first Tamil Prime Minister and at the same time, delivered a powerful message to the world. However, Kumaratunga was advised that if she did so, she would provoke the wrath of some of her coalition partners and the Buddhist clergy. There were other power brokers also at work, one in parliament being a controversial businessman close to Kumaratunga. She had told Rajapaksa she would make Kadirgamar Prime Minister for six months and then appoint Rajapaksa.

The wily Rajapaksa said, “You make me Prime Minister for six months and then Kadirgamar”. Not wanting to risk a government that had only a slim majority in Parliament, Rajapaksa was appointed as Sri Lanka’s thirteenth Prime Minister.It was the break that Mahinda Rajapaksa needed. He was again given a relatively insignificant ministry – highways. Rajapaksa did not care. He was PM. In just over a year, in a move that would have had his blessings, the Supreme Court was successfully canvassed to declare that Kumaratunga’s term ended in 2005 and not in 2006 as she had envisaged. More importantly, Rajapaksa also elbowed out the SLFP’s crown prince and his erstwhile friend, Anura Bandaranaike, as the party’s nominee for the presidential election.

The final hurdle in Rajapaksa’s path to the presidency too had its anxious moments. Wickremesinghe, Rajapaksa’s rival was expected to record significant support in the North and East but that didn’t materialise because the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) enforced a boycott in the region at the eleventh hour. The Tigers believed a victory for Rajapaksa would do them good as he was expected to pursue a hardline stance against them which would enable them to gain sympathy for their cause internationally. Rajapaksa’s majority over Wickremesinghe was 180, 000 votes, a margin that could have been overcome had there been a free poll in the North and East.

If the first 35 years of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political journey were arduous, he has since then had the Midas touch. Since assuming the presidency, most of his strategies have paid off yielding handsome dividends and consolidating his position as the country’s most popular politician. Seven years after assuming office he can still stake a claim for this mantle.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term was essentially spent battling the LTTE in the North and East and trying to consolidate his power in Parliament in the South where he was still saddled with a United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) that was a minority in the legislature. The former was dealt with sheer force and an unwavering commitment to a military offensive; the latter was tackled through a series of smart political strategies that saw UNPers queuing up to join Rajapaksa’s cabinet.

Rajapaksa’s crowning glory was his successful prosecution of the war against the LTTE. He went against international opinion and stuck to his guns, literally and metaphorically. He may have angered western powers by doing so, but conversely his popularity rose exponentially within Sri Lanka; he was no longer just another political leader, he was the savior who delivered the country from the three-decade-long scourge of terrorism.

Ever the astute politician, Rajapaksa was quick to cash in on the political dividends of the war victory. A presidential election was called within eight months of the conclusion of the war and this time around Rajapaksa’s majority was a staggering 1.8 million votes, a ten-fold increase over his 2005 majority and that too against Sarath Fonseka, the man who was at the forefront of the military offensive and a joint opposition candidate. A general election followed three months later and the results were equally emphatic: the UPFA won 144 seats, six shy of a two-thirds majority, no mean feat under a proportional representation system.

In the United States of America, where Presidents are limited to two four year terms of office, it is said that a President spends the first four years trying to get re-elected and then spends the next four years trying to ensure his place in history. Rajapaksa need not worry about such issues: his place in his history is already assured and now, due to the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, there is no limit to the terms of office of a President.

The larger than life billboards that hailed Rajapaksa as a modern day ‘Dutugemunu’ in the aftermath of the annihilation of the LTTE did have an underlying political message in them: no matter what he achieves in the rest of his political life, this will be his legacy to the nation. The President needs to be mindful of this as he enters the second year of his second term.

In recent years Rajapaksa has demonstrated that for him, politics is the art of making the impossible possible. Just as much as the LTTE was crushed — an ‘impossible’ dream for many Sri Lankans who believed they wouldn’t see such an event in their lifetime — Rajapaksa has moulded the Constitution to his advantage, divided and decimated the democratic opposition and hasn’t shied away from taking on the judiciary, the academia and the collective might of the international community. In the meantime, an oligarchy is slowly but surely in the making.

Ironically, it is the popularity that Rajapaksa derived from giving political leadership to the successful war effort that invested him with the cloak of electoral invincibility. Rajapaksa’s good fortune was such that this coincided with the internecine infighting within the UNP that rendered it impotent. This has led to Rajapaksa trying out many strategies that less popular leaders would have baulked at — and succeeding, even if it is at the cost of tarnishing his reputation as a democrat and a benevolent leader.

The repeal of the 17th Amendment along with the introduction of the 18th Amendment is a case in point. The 17th amendment, introduced in 2001 with rare bipartisan support in Parliament, provided for the creation of a Constitutional Council and the appointment of several independent commissions such as the Police Commission and the Elections Commission. The 18th amendment, apart from removing the limit on the terms of office of a President, replaced the Constitutional Council with a Parliamentary Council that would be dominated by the ruling party.

Whatever the arguments for and against this move, Rajapaksa adroitly maneuvered parliamentarians to ensure its passage through the legislature. When Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem hesitated to endorse it, he was confronted with a rebellion from his party. He blinked first in the ensuing stand-off and the amendment sailed through, with the help of a handful of UNP turncoats. Rajapaksa’s remark “what use is the presidency if I can’t appoint the OIC of the Tangalle Police station” betrayed his view of the way his government should work.

There are other ‘issues’ such as the incarceration of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake which blot Rajapaksa’s copybook. Both Fonseka and Chief Justice Bandaranayake were at one time, rightly or wrongly, vilified by the opposition for allegedly being Rajapaksa’s allies. Today, they stand accused of many offences and have suddenly been cast as villains. The President is fast acquiring a reputation for dishing out the ‘karapincha’ treatment, that of using people and then discarding them. The list began with the JVP, then Mangala Samaraweera, and Karu Jayasuriya.

In the case of the Chief Justice, he is accused of trying to win her support by giving the husband plum government jobs. But once you have crossed his path the full force of the presidential wrath is there to be seen. There is little that is subtle about what he does. When the Emirates CEO refused seats to London for his entourage he came home and scrapped the partnership. Ambassadors have been fired overnight if they cross his path, even if they do the right thing by the country.

Rajapaksa is also at risk of being accused of winning the war and losing the peace. Sections of the international community, egged on by the Tamil Diaspora, have been clamouring for a probe on alleged ‘war crimes’ committed in the final Eelam war and for meaningful devolution of power. While the former demand is obviously questionable, the latter ought to be reasonable, because successive governments did attempt to evolve political ‘solutions’. Rajapaksa must be admired for his courage to resist probes for ‘war crimes’ but three and a half years after the end of the war and with no electoral pressures to cater to, he has done little to convince the rest of the world that he is sincere in his efforts to formulate a political equation; in fact, when Champika Ranawaka plays Laurel to Wimal Weerawansa’s Hardy in demanding the repeal of the 13th amendment, it is quite the opposite that is conveyed.

Rajapaksa must also be mindful of the enemies within. Such is his grip on the SLFP that there is no hint of overt rebellion against him but the conduct of some of his ministers is more damning than all the coconuts dashed by the collective opposition against him. To cite just a few examples, Mervyn Silva has elevated thuggery to a fine art, S.B. Dissanayake and Bandula Gunwardena win an Oscar for their buffoonery, Susil Premajayantha and Mahindananda Aluthgamage excel in inefficiency and surely no one can beat G. L. Peiris at duplicity. The country is poorer because of their antics but they also extract a terrible price on Rajapaksa’s popularity because he is seen as tolerating such individuals in his cabinet.

Firmly entrenched in power for the next four years, Rajapaksa must be pondering, where to from here? There are hints that he would wish for the baton to be passed on to the next generation from Medamulana. That is a pardonable sentiment but the best laid plans sometime go awry as J. R. Jayewardene, who is closest to Rajapaksa in how he used the presidency, found out.

Indeed, the temptation to compare Rajapaksa’s presidency with that of Jayewardene is hard to resist. Jayewardene came to power unleashing an economic war promising to deliver the country from poverty. He succeeded and on the strength of that, won a second term of office. Rajapaksa rode to power promising to go to war against terrorism and did so with spectacular results. He rode on the resultant wave of popularity to win his second term office.

Jayewardene stripped his principal political opponent Sirima Bandaranaike of her civic rights, attempted to impeach Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon, tinkered with the Constitution and held a referendum instead of a general election to consolidate his power. At the end of his reign, he was not the most loved politician in the country.

Rajapaksa’s critics would point out that Sarath Fonseka has been stripped of his civic rights, Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake has been all but impeached and the Constitution has already been amended to his advantage.

Rajapaksa has said that he yearns for the day when he could return to his beloved Medamulana and mingle freely with the folks there. We are also certain that, by that time, he would want to be remembered as a politician who is still loved by the people.

To achieve that, President Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t have miles to go or many promises to keep. However, he needs to let democratic institutions not only have their say but also have their way. And he might want to keep a tab on that growing oligarchy feeding out of the presidential palace.

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