The Eight Labours of Rajapaksa, to ‘rule without being president’

Sunday Punch 2 (Sunday Times)

So what are the Eight Labours of Rajapaksa that he will have to do successfully before he can draw out the Sword of Excalibur from the unyielding stone to become Lanka’s imposter king who, while pretending to be merely the prime minister, rules as president?

THE FIRST

Mahinda Rajapaksa will know that his first labour will be to ensure that the rift between the UNP and the SLFP widens till it breaks. This may not be as easy as he thinks. He would have heard Ranil state this week — when asked about the present friction between the two main parties – “this is only to be expected. These are two major parties. One cannot expect all to raise their hands in agreement. There will be disagreements but we shall sort them out.”

He would have also heard President Sirisena declare on Thursday — for good measure — “that dreams to topple the government would remain as mere dreams, and that there would be no room to change the present administration.” He would have taken note of Sirisena’s words “Someone is trying to topple the government. We will not let anyone change the government illegally or by violating the Constitution.” Yes, he will think, if the leaders wise up to his machinations and resolve their differences, it will be kaput for his plan to topple the government. Bu that, he knew, will only make him more determined to engineer the split.

THE SECOND

He will also know that while he tries to create further discord between the two partners he will have to simultaneously foster further dissent within the SLFP and make more SLFP members loyal to Sirisena turncoat and join his faction, thus weakening Sirisena’s own power base.

THE THIRD

Even if he achieves the above two, he will have to persuade, coax or even coerce, President Sirisena to appoint him as Prime Minister.

THE FOURTH

He will also know that even if he succeeds in being appointed prime minister, he will still have to overcome an almost insurmountable hurdle. That of commanding the confidence of the majority of the House, indispensable to getting the government bills he will be introducing passed by a majority. The present composition of the 225 member strong Parliament is UNP 106 seats, UPFA 95 seats, TNA 16 seats, JVP 6 seats, SLMC 1, EPDP 1 seat. His UPFA party has only 95 seats in the House, 18 seats short of commanding a majority. How and from where is he going to get the magic 18 that will enable him to rule the roost?

THE FIFTH

As he gazes at the opposition benches his eye will fall on the JVP members seated before him, staring back at him. Would they come if asked? Probably not, he would think. The JVP has always been independent. The exception they made was to join hands with Chandrika during her second term only to pull the rug under her and leave her stranded in 2004. Besides they have only 6 seats. That would hardly do, for he would still be short of 12. And they couldn’t be trusted to remain even if they came.

THE SIXTH

The TNA had a precious bag of 16 seats. There were rich pickings to be gathered there. But the problem was that the TNA was as intransigent as the Tigers had been. They were determined to remain in the opposition and now that they were the main opposition party with Sampanthan as the Opposition leader, they would be even more ferocious in retaining their privileged status in the house. He also knew that his efforts in October, just three months ago, when he met a group of Tamil journalists and attempted to rebrand himself as a moderate liberal Sinhala leader, had not met with the desired response. Besides it was hardly likely that the Tamils would join him when he was facing a United Nations sponsored war crimes probe into the alleged deaths of over 40,000 Tamil civilians in the last stages of the Eelam war.

THE SEVENTH

But what about the Muslims? There were two camps there. The Hakeem camp and the Bathiudeen camp. Will they join him? Even if they wished, would their zealous communities allow them to do so and threaten them with a fatwa if they dared to even ponder the matter? As part of his rebranding efforts he had met a congregation of Muslims in October and had greeted them with an ‘Assalamu alaikum’ and explained to them he had nothing to do with Bodu Bala Sena.

How could he, he had asked the Muslim representatives gathered at his Battaramulla office, be called a communalist when he had never been one in the past and will never be one in the future. He had told them how his dear father and even his dear forefathers had greatly helped the Muslims to settle down in Hambantota and provided them with all facilities. “The Muslims’, he had declared, “can be assured they will be protected and given all their rights, just as much as the Tamils and the Sinhalese”. But did they, the Believers of Allah, believe him, an infidel in their eyes? One could never say.

What a pity, he will think, that both the Tamils and the Muslims regarded him as a racist and a religious bigot. He will now realise that perhaps the support of all communities were necessary to gain the presidency. How wrong his advisers had been.

THE EIGHTH

With trepidation he would now look at the richest booty of them all. The UNP’s ‘full house’ benches. One hundred and six mangoes waiting to be picked. Some still raw, some yet maturing, some ripe and waiting to fall? No doubt this is where the harvest lies, the green field waiting to be reaped. Even as he had done so, ten years ago. But that was in another time, in another season.

At that time in 2007 he had been able to pull 18 MPs from the UNP, the same amount he needed now to have a majority. Then it had been done to give him not a simple majority – he already had it – but to give him a two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution and bring in the 18th Amendment which allowed him to contest for life after the second term ended.

The UNP MPS then were demoralised. They could look forward only to a life of drought while they saw with envy the happy pastures on the government side. It had been child’s play to steal them under the nose of Ranil. He simply couldn’t stop the exodus. But today it is different. The roles had changed. Today Ranil is not only once-bitten-twice-shy but he is in a commanding position and even his MPs know it is far better to stick fast to home ground than spread wings and fly to uncertain bourns. Perhaps a few, with the right inducements, may turn Judas but, alas, who can tell which way the weather cock may turn except that it turns whichever way the winds blow. And would they turn out to be homing pigeons?

Even if Rajapaksa succeeds in doing all this and more, then what? Would President Sirisena watch askance while all this is happening? Will he let Rajapaksa use his powers to act as the de facto president while he remains, like a mascot in a military parade, fit for only ceremonial occasions? Will Sirisena willingly commit political suicide and be content to play second fiddle, be a pathetic puppet dangling in the hands of a man who has never forgotten that he was betrayed over a hopper diet on his birthday?

And whilst all this usurpation of the public will is taking place, will the people merely watch and clap? Can a parliamentary coup staged in sterile air have a chance of lasting success? These are the factors that Mahinda Rajapaksa must take into account before he starts to bite more than he can chew. And realise that, unlike killing Prabhakaran and winning the Eelam war, toppling a democratically elected government in midterm is quite a different ball game.

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