by Rajan Philips (Sunday Island)
(Cartoons added by TW from Internet)
2016 ended with a whimper for Sri Lankan politics; 2017 has begun not with a bang, but political banter. The banter is about who will topple whom and who is day dreaming. They are all daydreaming, all three of them, Mahinda Rajapaksa, RanilWickremasinghe and Maithripala Sirisena. According to President Sirisena, his former boss, and predecessor, is daydreaming when he (Rajapaksa) says that he will topple the government in one week or two. But Mr. Sirisena did not let the former President finish his dream. It would have been a dreadful end because the dream would have reminded the former President that he could no longer be president, and at the first crack of any unlikely opportunity to topple the government, the best he can do is to become Prime Minister under President Maithripala Sirisena. They could both be dreaming hoppers.
President Sirisena is also daydreaming, but vicariously through the Central Committee of his bifurcated party. The SLFP Central Committee has apparently adopted a resolution naming Maithripala Sirisena as the ‘SLFP’ candidate for the 2020 presidential election. The President was there, but didn’t say yes or no. He was daydreaming. Or, was he having nightmares in broad daylight? He should be. Wouldn’t it be something for Maithripala Sirisena to run as the new incumbent candidate of the same party that sacrificed its former incumbent candidate on the electoral altar the last time around? What would be President Sirsena’s balance sheet on the term that he would have served, and his manifesto for the new term his party is dreaming he would be seeking? Imagine, the same SLFP ministers who silently stood behind Mahinda Rajapaksa as he went down to defeat seeking a third term, now donning Version 2 of the yahapalanaya pacakge to help Maithripala Sirisena win just a second term.
Ranil Wickremesinghe must be having multiple dreams, given the many irons that he has been throwing in as many a fire. He reminds one of Leonid Brezhnev, the former Soviet Leader from 1964 to 1982, second only to Stalin in longevity. There is nothing common between the Sri Lankan PM and the former Soviet boss; the connection is in one of the many jokes about Comrade Brezhnev. The old Soviet society was as well known for its jokes as it was for vodka and swearing, for the jokes were outlets for the people’s political emotions and they reflected the swings in public mood. One Brezhnev joke went like this: Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev and the Communist Party entourage are on a train from the Kremlin to Siberia. The train suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere, at the dead of night. The leaders wake up and inquire from their aides what was going on. The Politbureau is summoned and Stalin goes first: “Send the train engineers to the firing squad and get a new team of engineers”. Khrushchev deadpans: “We must convene the whole Central Committee and take a collective decision.” Finally, Brezhnev: “Let us pretend the train is moving and go back to sleep.”
The Soviet joke captured the people’s mood during the soporific last years of the Brezhnev era, when everything was pretended and nothing happened. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is hardly soporific; if at all he is hyper-active. He has let loose so many initiatives on so many fronts it is very difficult to keep track of them all. But after two years in office, the Prime Minister is not sleeping but pretending that everything is fine and there is nothing to worry about. Wake up in the morning, that is the government’s full term for you, everything would be fine. Yahapalanaya would have been started on all its fronts, but don’t ask how it would end on each front because that would be the end of history for Sri Lanka. The dream must not end.
Full term, but on Rajapaksa agenda
The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government would likely serve out its full term, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it would do so implementing Mahinda Rajapaksa’s agenda that the common opposition so vehemently decried in the two 2015 elections. If you will notice, there is a clear division of labour between the UNP and the SLFP factions of the government (and cabinet) in implementing the Rajapaksa agenda. The UNP is taking care of the economic part of the agenda; the SLFP, the political part of the agenda; and it is a joint venture between the two when it comes to the corrupt parts of the Rajapaksa agenda.
To its credit, or discredit, the UNP leadership in appropriating the economic part of the Rajapaksa agenda has somehow managed to take ownership of all the blunders and corrupt failings that were associated with the original Rajapaksa projects. It is now up to the UNP to not only explain and justify what Rajapaksa started in Hambantota, but also deal with SLFP protestors against the magnified extension of what was started by the previous government. What smarts and what a turnaround! But it is not so much of a turnaround for the SLFP in taking up the political part of the Rajapaksa agenda. The SLFP, despite its division between the government and the opposition, seems united in insisting that the presidential system should not be abolished and that the constitutional changes should be limited to what can be achieved within the ambit of a two-thirds majority in parliament and without requiring a referendum.
On the other hand, it is curious that the SLFP (government) Central Committee that is running shy of facing the local government elections, or a constitutional referendum, is getting ready to face the next presidential election with Maithripala Sirisena as its candidate. If President Sirisena were to go along with the CC resolution, he would be the common SLFP candidate in 2020, and not the common opposition candidate that he was in 2015. He would be Version 2 of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the SLFP CC must be daydreaming to think that such a candidacy could be successful in the next presidential election. While it would not be fair to assume that President Sirisena would abide by the ill-advised and premature SLFP resolution, it is fair to suggest that the President should direct his party in the government to focus on helping him fulfill the agenda that he was elected for by the people in the January 2015 election before publicly daydreaming about the next election.
It is also curious that the SLFP thinking, without daydreaming, is predicated on the assumption that President Sirisena is the only national figure who can again amass the same plurality of votes (Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims) that vaulted him to victory in 2015. But this assumption does not sit well with their positions on the constitution and the recent report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms. It is not just the SLFP position, but the position of the whole government and especially of the two government leaders, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, that is becoming a concern. Here again, the government, inadvertently or otherwise, is following the Rajapaksa example on the recommendations of the LLRC reports.
In that instance, at least Mahinda Rajapkasa formally received the LLRC report and even made headline photos of his trying to read it while reclining on an easy chair. In contrast, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have run shy of even being seen with the new CTF report, leaving it to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to do the honours of receiving the report from the Task Force members. The two leaders were not only not seen, but they also do not want to be heard on the new report and its recommendations. They can both run from the results of their well-intentioned initiatives, but they cannot hide from the commitments that they have been making so handsomely since 2015.