After spending three thousand two hundred and eighty eight days in office as Sri Lanka’s fifth Executive President, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to issue a proclamation calling for a presidential election within the next four days. It will be, arguably, his most controversial political gamble yet. Rajapaksa cleared the first hurdle in his third [...]


Rajapaksa: Foxier than the Old Fox


After spending three thousand two hundred and eighty eight days in office as Sri Lanka’s fifth Executive President, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to issue a proclamation calling for a presidential election within the next four days. It will be, arguably, his most controversial political gamble yet.

Rajapaksa cleared the first hurdle in his third race for the Presidency on Monday when the Supreme Court opined that there was no legal impediment against him contesting for the country’s highest office for an unprecedented third time. Few expected the court to say anything otherwise, anyway.

Nine years ago, when Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa, assumed office, not many would have predicted that he would still be at the helm of affairs of the state almost a decade later. But he is — and he plans to do so for many more years to come, much to the chagrin of an Opposition that is trying to counter him. Like a champion boxer, Rajapaksa has kept winning round after round in a 15-round bout. The Opposition is like the punching bag now with no strength to take the champion on.

When he became the country’s all powerful Head of State, Head of Government and Commander-in-Chief of its armed forces, Rajapaksa’s Curriculum Vitae was not very impressive. He had been Prime Minister for less than two years – took no part in the war against the LTTE, and the only ministries he had held were Fisheries, Labour and Highways, the latter when he was Prime Minister.

However, Rajapaksa had one advantage: He had honed his political skills in the snake pit of opposition politics. His Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had been driven into the wilderness by J. R. Jayewardene’s juggernaut UNP and later, he was being sidelined within the SLFP itself by the Chandrika Kumaratunga faction because of his friendship with Anura Bandaranaike.

In 2005, even Velupillai Prabhakaran, who virtually decided the outcome of two previous presidential elections by setting off crucial bomb blasts, thought Rajapaksa would be less of a foe than his rival Ranil Wickremesinghe. So, he ordered a boycott of the poll in the North and East. It was his second biggest mistake after killing Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The rest is history.

Winning the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) will always be Mahinda Rajapaksa’s legacy to the nation. It was a task that many believed was impossible and had eluded his predecessors. As President, Rajapaksa has now overseen five years of peace after four years of war.

By the time the war ended in 2009, Rajapaksa had learnt on the job quickly. The agitator and instigator in the opposition had transformed himself into a crafty manipulator in government. J.R. Jayewardene, had he been around, would have blushed at how Rajapaksa was manoeuvring the opposition.

Using the bait of Cabinet portfolios, he lured many stalwarts from the United National Party (UNP) to his Cabinet. Even Karu Jayasuriya, the then second in command of the UNP, fell for the trap and crossed over with sixteen others. Disillusioned with the way Rajapaksa ran his administration, and hurt at the aggressive way he was spoken to, Jayasuriya returned to the UNP but the others have stayed put.

Politically streetwise, Rajapaksa is a master at public relations. He is more at ease at the irida pola (Sunday fair) than when he is addressing the United Nations — whereas it would have been vice-versa for his main rival, Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe. And, he never misses a political trick too.

That is why, after crushing the LTTE in 2009, when the masses were falling over each other to hail him as the re-incarnation of King Dutugemunu and larger than life cut-outs of him dotted the landscape, he cashed in on his popularity. He called for presidential and general elections and won with consummate ease.

Rajapaksa’s strength has been his ability to be all things to all people — and the more you criticise him, the more he reaches out. He is the glue that holds the motley crew that constitutes the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), a loose coalition of eighteen political parties led by the SLFP, even if some of its partners are openly rebelling now.

A president with the common touch: Rajapaksa mingles with the plebs

At the general elections in 2010, 60 Members of Parliament were elected from the United National Front. Today, thirty six have crossed over to the government, most of them having been roped in to ensure a two-thirds majority for the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that showed Rajapaksa, even then, to be confident of continuing in office as long as he was in active politics.

More importantly, that 18th Amendment removed the independent commissions governing the Police, the Judiciary and the Elections and vested most of powers relating to these institutions — including the authority to appoint its heads — with the President. He has used only one criterion for such appointments: loyalty to him.

If Rajapaksa uses a charm offensive to ensure that Parliament remains firmly under his control, he has displayed a streak of ruthlessness outside it, crushing any hint of opposition, encouraging sneaks to ‘rat’ on their institutions and colleagues, with scant regard to dignity and decorum.

The banishing and persecution of Sarath Fonseka and Shirani Bandaranayake and the appointment of their successors is evidence of this.

Rajapaksa’s critics will contend that his style has been one of cronyism, where he rewards persons with positions of power even if they are not the best men and women for the job, expecting absolute loyalty in return.

Rajapaksa’s men commit criminal offences — ranging from ‘monitoring’ MPs to Deputy Ministers to Pradeshiya Sabha chairmen – — and get away. He has made it very plain; “loyalty to me will be rewarded; disloyalty to me will not go unpunished”.

Rajapaksa has resorted to a few strategies to retain his popularity and hold on to power: a constant return to the theme of patriotism and evoking memories of the war, large scale infrastructure development and intolerance to any hint of dissent, especially from within government institutions.

He has relied heavily on the majority Sinhala rural vote bank and thrown to the winds the theory that J.R. Jayewardene espoused when he said to win a Presidential election you need the support of the minorities. The minorities are indeed feeling alienated and Sri Lanka’s image is suffering internationally where it is risking isolation.

The infrastructure development undertaken by the Government is unprecedented. The country now has two highways of international standard, more are being built, albeit at inflated costs with the gravy train going faster than the Yal Devi’ and a Singapore style port city is taking shape in Colombo. Rajapaksa’s native Hambantota district has been blessed with an international port and an airport with accusations that he has knowingly or unknowingly sold out to the Chinese in the process.

If sending a message to the judiciary was Rajapaksa’s intent, he must have succeeded. On November 10, when the Supreme Court conveyed its opinion on Rajapaksa’s eligibility for a third term, a cartoon in a Sinhala newspaper aptly summed up the mood: “naduth hamudurwange, baduth hamuduruwange”! Appointments to the higher courts have been condemned by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka but parachutists are now not shy to wave the Rajapaksa flag. Lawyers have turned the age-old adage that ‘Justice must not only be done; but seen to be done’ to “Justice must not only seen to be done; but must be done”.

A culture of cronyism is creeping in to the bureaucracy as well, to the extent that it is affecting the affairs of the State. The sorry state of the Ministry of External Affairs is a text book example.

The workings of the Ministry are in disarray with a ‘yes man’ as the minister. A ‘Monitoring’ MP running the show and a set of officials paying obeisance to the MP as the Minister looks askance as long as he gets his free trips abroad. The Ministry bungled its brief in Geneva in successive years. This is why the country is at the receiving end of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the whole western world.

Rajapaksa is accused of dragging his feet in the post-war years and of winning the war and losing the peace vis-a-vis the northern Tamils whom he says he liberated, and quite rightly so. His stance on the ‘ethnic issue’ is inconsistent: He once promised India to go beyond the 13th Amendment (’13 plus’) by shooting his mouth off to a visiting Indian External Affairs Minister and then reneged on the pledge, leading to much strife with New Delhi.

Settling the ‘ethnic issue’ requires great tact when the Eelam lobby overseas is hell bent on hurting Sri Lanka but the President must realise he is still in a unique position to reconcile the communities because the Sinhalese will buy a solution that he ‘sells’, whereas they won’t, if it was ‘sold’ by Wickremesinghe.

The branches of the first family tree have also been spreading far and wide, provoking much criticism. Asked about this in a television interview with Al-Jazeera, Rajapaksa guffawed mischievously, saying “The whole country is related to me” and argued that most of his relatives were elected by the people.

But the murmurs of discontent are growing, especially in the SLFP. There is a perception that, with the now 28-year-old Namal Rajapaksa waiting in the wings, there is no room at the top for anyone other than those from the first family. It is a warning that Rajapaksa must learn to heed.

Indeed, the biggest challenge to Rajapaksa may come from within the SLFP. Already, there is speculation that a faction of the SLFP would defect to the opposition, if there are indications that the opposition’s campaign against Rajapaksa has potential for victory at a presidential election. Otherwise, they will remain inside showing him a smiling face by day and cussing him at night.

This is, of course, part and parcel of politicians seeking to ensure their survival for the next half a dozen years but it is also a reflection of how they have felt marginalised by Rajapaksa. Simply doling out dozens and dozens of Cabinet portfolios does not keep everyone happy, the President may find out.

It is no secret that former President Kumaratunga is egging on some SLFPers to defy Rajapaksa and defect. There is no love lost between the two and Kumaratunga will emerge as a key player if the opposition is able to cobble together a coalition of sorts led by a ‘common’ candidate.

What will Rajapaksa do now? He will play to his strengths — his public relations skills, re-living the ‘saviour of the nation’ role and using state resources at his disposal without a care in the world for his campaign. Already, he is having an ‘open house’ (some call it a ‘dansala’) at his alternate official residence, ‘Temple Trees’, where he hobnobs with the hoi-polloi. A former Chief Justice who, on retirement was to become Rajapaksa’s Legal Advisor opined that this was not an election offence of “Treating”!

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man who rid the country of Velupillai Prabhakaran and achieved the impossible, now has Buddhist monks urging him to step down. Protests against a third term for him are slowly but surely gathering momentum. Even his coalition partners are having second thoughts though only a few have dared to say so openly.

Out in the country, the masses are not very happy with the way Rajapaksa has done his job, especially in the last few years. But then, some have been given electricity; others have been given jobs. Public servants have been given pay hikes, scooters and duty free permits. Besides, who else could they vote for when, with only a few weeks to go for the election, the opposition is still struggling to find a candidate?

The abolition of the Executive Presidency has been the platform on which the opposition parties have come together. Paradoxically, the ruling UPFA leaders are praising the Executive Presidency. How much it will be an election issue is hard to say, but for now, Mahinda Rajapaksa seems the lone contender in the race to be the next Executive President of Sri Lanka.

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