2017 ‒ Mahinda’s Year?

New Year resolutions are the biggest cliche there is. As a new year dawns, we mortals ‒ most of us, anyway ‒ resolve to be fitter, better looking, work harder, etc. so that this year, after years of mundane existence, we’ll at long last be the best version of ourselves that we were always meant to be. (Just like we did at the start of last year. And the year before that). How boring. How decidedly plebeian. Not so for Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In 2017, he wants to topple the Government and become Prime Minister.

The former Commander-in-Chief and now Kurunegala District MP welcomed the new year with a bit of a bang, when he told foreign media correspondents in Colombo that he wants to unseat the current UNP-led Government and replace it with an SLFP-led coalition in the coming months, securing the now constitutionally beefed up Premiership for himself in the process, under a Sirisena presidency. Can he do it?

The protests in Hambantota earlier this week: Rajapaksa’s first salvo in 2017? Image courtesy forbes.com

Two years ago, this could’ve been written off as a bald but otherwise unrealistic aspiration of a defeated man determined to regain power at any cost. But as things stand now, it really doesn’t sound all that far fetched.

Rajapaksa presumably wants to exploit what many see as a slowly but surely widening rift between the UNP, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the SLFP, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, the two main constituents in the so-called Unity Government. In fact, he has expressed his confidence that the increasingly shaky coalition may not last as “they are fighting each other.” And he should know. When it comes to driving a wedge between two ideologically differing but otherwise amicable factions, no one does a better job than Mahinda Rajapaksa. During his tenure as President, the UNP and the JVP were mired in intra-party crises, eventually leading to a mass exodus of stalwarts that cost both parties dearly and benefited him immensely. A shrewd and skillful politician (dare we say tactician) with decades of experience behind him, Rajapaksa can smell a falling out that he can use to his advantage from a mile away. The man practically wrote the book on divide and rule. So, it’s not altogether unbelievable that he can see the same happening with the Yahapalana Government, sooner rather than later.

Even his most ardent critics will agree that Rajapaksa is a skillful politician who’s mastered the art of public relations. Image courtesy News1st

However, there is one stumbling block in his path. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the safety of this Government until at least the next parliamentary elections. Even if the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP manages to get President Sirisena on their side, he cannot dissolve Parliament and remove a democratically elected government at his whim ‒ like then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga did in 2004, forcing the UNP to languish on the opposition benches for over a decade. Sirisena can only dissolve Parliament in the event that Parliament itself passes a resolution with a two-thirds majority requesting him to do so. Either that, or he has to wait till four and a half years have passed since the first sittings. While that’s not a long way away, it’s enough time for this Government to (finally) get its act together and win back the trust of the people. Rajapaksa’s next move, whatever it may be, has to be made swiftly.

One of the most enduring attributes of Rajapaksa is his uncanny ability to win people over. In the last few decades, he has mastered the art of winning hearts and minds, constantly disarming even the harshest of his critics with his relentless charm. And he’s at his sweet-talk best when he’s out of power. Back when he was a virtual nobody in the CBK government, Rajapaksa was well known and respected for being an easygoing, approachable and media-friendly everyman (though of noble stock) the masses could relate to ‒ a far cry from what he turned out to be at the height of his power. When he went on to become Opposition Leader and later Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa was still everybody’s favourite underdog, biding his time under a publicly hostile Kumaratunga, patiently awaiting his turn. He was destined to win. The people needed him to win.

Relations between Rajapaksa and then President Kumaratunga waned as it became clear that he was going to replace her brother Anura as heir apparent to the SLFP. Image courtesy Getty Images

That old charming Rajapaksa, it seems, is looking to make a comeback. Ever the master of PR, Rajapaksa graciously and magnanimously said earlier this week that he has no intention of toppling the Government while his good friend Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was away.

“I assure the prime minister that I won’t topple the government while he is away. Backstabbing is not in my nature. Everything will be done in a democratic manner when he is in the country. There is nothing for him to be afraid of. He can leave for Switzerland and come back safely,” an upbeat Rajapaksa told journalists. This was in response to a comment made by the Premier that Rajapaksa could do whatever he wanted (with respect to toppling the Government) once the former had left for Switzerland on January 17. It’s a testament to the man’s talent at politicking that he could use even a passing comment intended to be a potshot to make himself look good in the eyes of the public. No one can say that Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t know how to play the game.

Last month, it was reported that Wickremesinghe and Opposition and Tamil National Alliance Leader R. Sampanthan approached Rajapaksa, at the behest of President Sirisena, seeking his support for ongoing constitutional reforms as a “senior and respected leader,” particularly with regard to a lasting solution to the national question. While it is not clear what transpired at the meeting, it goes without saying that the support of the Former President ‒ who has at least 50 SLFP members on his side and commands considerable support and admiration among the Sinhala Buddhist masses ‒ is going to be crucial in the event of a referendum vis-à-vis the new constitution. Rajapaksa, for his part, has expressed displeasure at proposals to devolve land and police powers to the provinces. Sampanthan, however, has told The Hindu that Rajapaksa “should have no difficulty in becoming part of the current process.” Naturally, this will all depend on what exactly Rajapaksa has in store for this Government. And right now, he appears to be playing his cards close to his chest, at least for the time being.

Though constantly at loggerheads politically, Rajapaksa and Wickramasinghe are said to be good friends. Image courtesy Asian Mirror

Whatever happens in the next few months, it can be said with near certainty that 2017 is going to be a decisive year for the Yahapalana Government, and the county at large. Given its rapidly growing unpopularity, the decisions it makes in the first two quarters of this year could make or break the alliance, and, at the risk of sounding alarmist, possibly the nation along with it. Mahinda Rajapaksa, it seems, is understandably banking on the latter. And why wouldn’t he be? This could well be his last shot at real power. Can we really blame him?

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