The ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) announced last week (28 July) Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse as its candidate for the coming presidential election, to be held probably within the next 12 months. The announcement comes against the backdrop of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s desperate, but unsuccessful ploys to either amend the Constitution so that she can contest election for the post of President for a third term or change the Constitution to a Westminster system under which she could return to power as Prime Minister.
There was an almost audible, collective sigh of relief among Tamils in Sri Lanka. Most wish to see Kumaratunga gone. They are fervently hoping she has thrown in the towel and is on her way out of the political ring permanently, since the Constitution allows a person to be elected as President for two terms only.
Regrettably, we in The Action Group of Tamils (TAGOT) cannot share this enthusiasm.
The Colombo grapevine is humming with evaluations of Kumaratunga’s hidden agenda. Almost every assessment examines what is behind her SLFP’s decision to pick Rajapakse – and not anoint Kumaratunga’s brother Anura Bandaranaike – as its presidential candidate.
Has the Bandaranaike family decided, some wondered, to hand over its political fiefdom – the SLFP – to others? Is the political baton passing to a post-Bandaranaike leadership? Does this, others dared to hope, mean the end of dynastic, feudalistic politics?
Unfortunately none of them appears to be the case.
Having failed to change the Constitution to her convenience, Kumaratunga is evidently falling back on "Plan B," which is crafted according to the current ground realities. The Sinhala-chauvinist Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has significantly eroded the SLFP’s Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist vote base. And the JVP’s presidential candidate, yet to be nominated, is very likely to cut the political ground from under the SLFP candidate. Worse still, SLFP rule is answerable for the economic woes most dramatically demonstrated by skyrocketing costs of living and falling real incomes.
Kumaratunga must also be aware of the history of regular electoral swings in Sri Lanka. That indicates the time has come round for the next United National Party’s (UNP) President, since an SLFP President (Kumaratunga) has ruled continuously for the past ten years, after riding to power on an anti-UNP wave in 1994.
Clearly, victory for the SLFP candidate is far from certain. President Kumaratunga, if she were the candidate, is the only SLFP politician who stands a fighting chance of success, since she can exploit the powers of the Executive Presidency to her advantage. Defeat is most likely for any other candidate under current conditions. So, in Kumaratunga’s calculations this is not the time to risk the neck of her brother, Anura Bandaranaike, in a contest against the Opposition UNP’s candidate and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe.
Clearly, that would be unwise. If Anura Bandaranaike were defeated, which is very likely, that would truly put an end to the family’s dynastic politics.
But the SLFP has to field a presidential candidate. So it is time to deliver a sacrificial goat.
Rajapakse, as Prime Minister, would take a direct hit for the deepening economic crisis. He is a lame-duck candidate. In Kumaratunga’s calculations, if a SLFP presidential candidate is bound to bite the dust, it better be Rajapakse. His defeat will neutralise a competing centre of power within the SLFP and immensely strengthen her hand. It follows that Kumaratunga will begin manoeuvres to entrench her position in the Party. This is confirmed by reports last week, almost parallel to the news of Rajapakse’s nomination, that the SLFP is considering revising the Party’s constitution to give its leader – Kumaratunga – more powers.
Rajapakse’s defeat also will, by contrast, underline the Bandaranaike family’s electoral credibility. Kumaratunga’s supporters within the SLFP and outside can be expected to make the hypothetical claim that, had she been the candidate, she would have won. Their obvious intention would be to strengthen her brother Anura Bandaranaike’s claim to be the SLFP’s presidential candidate six years (or less) from now.
And what awaits Rajapakse if he is elected President?
He will inherit the draconian powers of the Executive Presidency and soon overshadow Kumaratunga. Is Kumaratunga moving to strengthen her powers as SLFP leader in order to contain Rajapakse, should he become President? Probably.
Kumaratunga, some say, could, between now and the coming presidential election, also gradually slice off presidential powers and transfer them primarily to the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister. In this way, having reduced the Presidency to a ceremonial post by early 2006, she could come back to power as Prime Minister with almost all powers intact.
The problem with this scenario is two-fold. First, whether such carving up of presidential powers is feasible and legal is unclear. Second, if that is done, Kumaratunga will be creating a powerful and, invariably antagonistic, centre of power in Prime Minister Rajapakse. That may undermine her chances of re-entering politics through Parliament (as Prime Minister). Would the anticipated increase in her powers as SLFP leader come to her aid? Time will tell.
Wickremasinghe, if he wins (which seems likely), will be saddled with a moribund economy. And there is not a glimmer of light at the end of that long tunnel.
On the ethnic front, Wickremasinghe (if elected) will continue the proxy war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) through Tamil mercenaries and pursue targeted killings of LTTE cadre.
Kumaratunga correctly anticipates that Wickremasinghe, as President, would fail on the economic and ethnic fronts, probably by the end of the second year of his term. Popular disenchantment will deepen against Wickremasinghe and his UNP.
Does Kumaratunga expect to force fresh parliamentary elections when conditions are ripe for the SLFP to return with a parliamentary majority large enough to push through changes in the Constitution? If not, is she counting on her brother Anura Bandaranaike to replace Wickremasinghe at an opportune moment? Then, would Anura Bandaranaike – if he became President – change the Constitution and willingly sacrifice the awesome presidential powers merely to hand the baton back to his sister? Or, could he in the tradition of medieval Sinhala rulers banish Kumaratunga?
From a Tamil perspective, musical chairs played by Sinhala politicians in Colombo’s corridors of power are of little relevance. Rather, where does so-called "conflict resolution" fit into this Sinhala power struggle?
The honest answer is this: From the standpoint of the Sinhala State and its foreign backers, there is no such thing as "resolving conflict;" there is only "re-establishing domination."
By arming itself through the LTTE, the Tamil National Movement shattered the Sinhala State’s monopoly of armed power and dislodged Sinhala national domination in the Tamil-majority North East Province (NEP). The LTTE consolidated the expulsion of Sinhala power through parallel State structures built and manned by Tamils in the liberated areas of the NEP.
In this context, the sole aim of the Sinhala State is to re-establish its domination in the NEP. For that, it must achieve two objectives:
(a) crush the LTTE’s military capacity and
(b) dismantle Tamil State structures or assimilate them into the Sinhala State.
The purpose, the JVP declared with brutal frankness, is to retrieve the Sinhala Unitary State.
Obviously the State must unleash its Sinhala army in the NEP to achieve these objectives. The question is: how soon?
That may push the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement to announce a Unilateral Declaration of Independence.
Dr. S Sathananthan, Secretary
Posted August 4, 2005