23 November 2014

Maithripala: King in Waiting or Ranil's Pawn?

Early days.  Remember that.  Keep in mind also that in a 40-day run each day counts and that ‘early’ can quickly bleed into ‘late’ and ‘too late’.  That said, let’s consider Maithripala Sirisena’s press conference on Friday November 20, 2014 where he announced he would be the ‘common candidate’ of the Opposition.  

‘මෛත්‍රී පාලනයක්’ [‘Maithree Paalanayak,’ meaning ‘Compassionate Governance’].  What a wonderful signature for a campaign!  Pithy.  Easy on the tongue.  Captures the entire thrust of the project.  Contrasts itself from what the principal opponent is identified with.  Brilliant. 

The candidate is not without credentials.  A long-time party loyalist who enjoys considerable support from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Maithripala Sirisena has more appeal from a wider cross section of the voting population than the other contenders, Karu Jayasuriya, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa (in that order).  The opening remarks, prefaced by a Dhammapada quote, struck the right note.  There was sobriety.  There was humility.  There was purpose.  He sounded presidential.  Then it all went downhill.

It didn’t help that he was flanked by two discredited politicians.  Chandrika Kumaratunga, Victor Ivan will remember, earned the sobriquet චෞර රැජින (The Queen of Deceit).  In eleven years, she not only deceived, but presided over violations not second to any she charges the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime with, not to mention a sorry track record with regard to handling the scourge of terrorism.  Rajitha Senaratne is hardly a heavyweight any more.  Still, it was the ‘Maithree Moment’ and naturally the cameras didn’t pan to those two has-beens. 

All he needed to do was thank those who made his candidacy possible, outline his objectives and leave.  He tried to do more and ended up doing less.  The biggest blunder was to pledge the Prime Minister’s post to Ranil Wickremesinghe.  Unnecessary.  Distracting. And anyway, if it was all about dishing out jobs in a post-Mahinda Sri Lanka, why make such a song and dance about it? 

In essence, Maithripala was saying something like this: ‘Ranil can’t beat Mahinda. I have a better shot.  I will win, step down and hand over executive power to Ranil’.  Now if this was a project to promote Ranil, then the question is, ‘Why on earth is Ranil not contesting?’  Maithripala seeks to win a mandate to rule from the people.  It is not a transferable asset.  If democracy underlines this project (as he claims), then it would go against the basic tenets of the idea.  The UNP, let us not forget, is a party that couldn’t come up with a credible candidate. Not in 2010 and not in 2014/15.  Rewarding the leader of such a party is කඩේ යෑම (shopping, or acting like a domestic aide who does someone’s bidding) to use a Sinhala term that has a lot of political currency.  It is as though the වලව්වේ හාමුදුරුවෝ  (Lord of the Manor) is getting a village boy to pluck some coconuts which he, the Lord, will then sell and deposit the money in a bank.

He could have elaborated on the notion of an interim arrangement or a ‘national government’ that presides over constitutional reform and thereafter seek fresh mandate through a General Election. Instead, he reduced what is essentially a regime-changing exercise into an individual’s political project.  He dwarfed himself.  And his dwarfing got worse when Chandrika had her say.  Hers was an unqualified lament of the worst kind.  There was no මෛත්‍රී there.  There was වෛරය (hatred) and clear revenge-intent.  Hardly the stuff that could bowl the electorate over.  

Now contrast this with an alternative head table composition where the candidate is flanked by Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP), either Champika Ranawaka or Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero (JHU), Ranil and/or Karu Jayasuriya.  That’s formidable.  In contrast, what was ‘on show’ on Friday was pathetic.   Such a panel would indicate the forces arrayed against Mahinda Rajapaksa.  What was on show was a bunch of disgruntled incompetents. 

Maithripala has to look and sound presidential and he doesn’t have too much time to do so. He has to re-articulate the project in clear democratic terms where individuals and their petty political objectives are completely left out of the story.  He has to drop his liabilities.  It is clear that Chandrika Kumaratunga, motivated by whatever, played a crucial role in this maneuver which some people already call ‘a coup’ (a bit early for that).  That’s it.  Her role is over.  At least in the public eye.  Someone commented on Facebook, ‘each time she speaks Maithri loses 10,000 votes’.  That’s exaggeration and not a substantiated claim, but that sentiment does have currency.  Yes, she can address a particular voter segment.  The problem is that when she addresses them, there are others listening. 

Early days. He can still re-constitute his head-table, so to speak.  Maithripala likened Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero to Kudapola Hamuduruwo, acknowledging the key role the thero played in the political upheavals that culminated in him being nominated as the ‘common candidate’.  Now if you have Kudapola Hamuduruwo backing you, it would be plain stupid not to get the Hamuduruwo on stage.  

Similarly, if he thinks an appeal to the SLFP and UNP voter in the form of clinging on to Chandrika’s sari pota and promising Ranil the premiership would do the trick, he’s sadly mistaken.  Voice-cut politics won’t deliver anything.  There’s a campaign to be carried out on the ground and the likes of Harsha De Silva, Eran Wickramaratne and Rosie Senanayake will not do it.  Maithripala needs active JVP support (meaning, not the lukewarm hurrahs that party gave Sarath Fonseka).  

You can have 50 MPs crossing over, but unless they become campaign foot soldiers, that’s just 50 votes you are assured of.  A general sway on the ground will not necessarily follow these political defections.  Hard, tough, persistent campaigning at the grassroots is non-negotiable.  And here the JVP will be a significant factor.  Remember, also, that it would be wrong to ‘use’ the JVP.  They must have a central role in the campaign and they must have prominence in the post-election phase in the event that Maithripala wins.  You can’t promise Ranil the premiership, Chandrika her pound of flesh and toss some crumbs the JVP way. 

 Maithripala Sirisena has a case.  There is widespread disappointment and even objection to the regime.  It’s not about Mahinda Rajapaksa alone.  He is liked. Widely.  Despite his faults.  It is not about the Rajapaksas alone.  Gotabaya and Basil may be resented by senior members of the SLFP, less for wrongdoing than for what they effectively deny.  Few would deny that they work really hard.  It is the Rajapaksavarun (let’s say ‘the Rajapaksa hangers-on’) that are mostly resented.  ‘Intensely’ would be the correct word.  There are not necessarily blood relatives.  It’s the Mervins, Sajins, Dumindas, Rohitha and the countless thugs and thieves in Parliament, Provincial Councils and Local Government Authorities that are insufferable. 

‘What is the President’s greatest strength and what is his biggest weakness?’ is a question to which a retired soldier who now works as a driver and who even today says he will give his life to Mahinda Rajapaksa responded as follows: ‘ලෙන්ගතු කම. හොරු ටිකක් වටකර ගෙන ඉන්න එක’ (his affability or warmth and the fact that he has surrounded himself with rogues).  On Friday night, one of these worthies shot at a political opponent.  That’s not a ‘first’.  It is just one of countless examples of thuggery to which the President has for whatever reason turned a blind eye and thereby creating, reinforcing and perpetuating a culture of impunity. 

That said, incumbency, gratitude for defeating terrorism (which Maithripala himself acknowledged) and sheer personal charm, not to mention all the usual tweak-n-abuse we see at election time, makes Mahinda a tough candidate to defeat.   Maithripala cannot afford to dwarf himself (vis-à-vis Ranil and Chandrika).  He has to understand that the President has almost full control of the state and private media.  In fact, Maithripala has to see himself as the Mahinda Rajapaksa of 2005 and of course see his opponent as the Ranil Wickremesinghe of that same election.  Mahinda won.  Barely.  He did so because all the money that Ranil could pour into his campaign was effectively countered by the one asset that Maithri can secure: the people.  Mahinda could do this because of the JVP.  Numbers. Active. Spirit.  He could do that because he had in the JHU someone who could write his manifesto (Champika Ranawaka).  Mahinda had Wimal, but that was a different Wimal.

‘Early days’, true.  They can fast turn into ‘too late’.  If that happens, Maithripala would be another Sarath Fonseka.  Ranil would remain Leader of the UNP.  A winner all the way.  


Anonymous said...

Classic analysis, well written and synthesised. You have separated the personality doss from the Nation's well being and interests.

This tells the recent history on how Mahinda was supported and egged on to decisively end terrorism. The forces instrumental were the JVP, JHU, MEP, progressive segments of the SLFP along with a host of other patriotic groups in the background.

Wish Mahinda reads your article at this late hour, absorb the essence, and strengthen Nation's victory against all threats. defeat.

Sylvia Haik said...

I am disappointed you have written off Maithripala because his policies are superior to Mahinda Rajapakse and deserve to win but sadly he wouldn't. The Rajapakse regime have a stranglehold on the media and that is the only means the electorate gets the message. Strangely, I will be pleased as this regime will never give up power without the goons and the hangers on bringing the whole nation into chaos and the only people getting hurt would be the innocents, the poor and the defenceless.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

i am disappointed too. maybe i am not articulate enough, but i have not written him off. in fact i insisted that these are early days. i pointed out stuff that seem to me would amount to shooting himself in the foot.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis and right on the money! Perfectly unbiased and that is why ms. Sylvia did not get it. I am no MR fan but it is a shame that once you are so against someone, you cannot enjoy a good reasonable article. Perils of extremism!

Anonymous said...

Great analysis and right on the money! Perfectly unbiased and that is why ms. Sylvia did not get it. I am no MR fan but it is a shame that once you are so against someone, you cannot enjoy a good reasonable article. Perils of extremism!

sajic said...

I think I understand what Sylvia H. is trying to say. I think people are just disgusted with the breakdown of the judiciary and steady decline of law and order.Maitripala does seem to promise a way out, in spite of the incumbent's personal popularity.

Anonymous said...

Really great analysis. Sylvia sadly doesn't have the intelligence to understand that Malinda is doing a big favour to Maithripala and his supporters by pointing out these details he can still rectify, and needs to rectify in order to win.

One thing though - does anyone have any faith in the JVP for doing anything productive in the post-election phase, given that Maithree wins? Do we not remember how sadly they failed when they were given ministries during CBK era? The only role JVP is good at is being in the opposition. Proven fact.

Anonymous said...

"What was on show was a bunch of disgruntled incompetents"

Hehehe.. The disgruntled incompetents did quite a job didnt they? Chandrika took you quite by surprise I guess, much to your remorse, I'm sure.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Chandrika who???

Malinda Seneviratne said...

for the record, the one time i met MS (before the election), i told him that he should not be in anyone's shadow. by that time he had dumped CBK. even today no one else endorses all her claims. :)

Anonymous said...

Kind Sir, we should all clearly differentiate between what really happened and what we would have LIKED to have happened in our mind palaces. I am not a great fan of CBK myself, but there is no denying that she was instrumental in negotiating the best candidate for the common opposition as well as turning the tide in favour of MS in the SLFP stronghold of Gampaha.

I am not arguing or criticising your views Sir, I am no political analyst. Just a humble observer and I enjoy reading your blog. But we should all accept that sometimes even the best of us must eat our own words. I enjoyed reading your articles since the inception of MS as the common candidate, and also it amused me to see the transpiring of your mind from a slightly pro-government stance to an eventual one of neutrality. A great critique sir, I believe, comes from the shedding of personal bias as much as possible, and opening our eyes to what really 'is', and what really 'could be'. I believe, in your eloquent depiction of the situation, it would have done you good, to shed your hatred towards CBK, and judged the situation for its merit. You had mentioned that after Maithris opening remarks in the first media breifing, that things kind of went 'downhill'. CBK said that this was a true 'son of the soil'. Noone can deny that. And that appealed to the masses. And though Kolombians(a word I caught from you) like you weren't impressed by CBKs lament, it truly mightave stirred some heart-strings, the fact that she said she came to save her "Maha Gedara"(the slfp).

Just one more point kind Sir, if I may. you had blandly said that the MS campaign should move away from people like Harsha, Eran and Rosy and go for more 'ground level' campaigning, specifically citing the JVP. The JVP played their harmony in the symphony well, no denying that. But the 'ground level' was actually covered by people like Sajith, Harin and co. I come from Kotte myself Sir, and Harsha, whom you had ruled out of being capable of ground level politics, did a virtuoso job, by doing a house-to-house campaign, and securing the largest margin of victory a UNP led coalition got since Premadasa won in 1989. Thats a good 26 years.

This was not a personal criticism of your criticism(like the famous guththila vichaara vicharaya), but a humble observation of slight points that I feel, you kept a foot step or two in the wrong direction.


Malinda Seneviratne said...

No hatred. She's just bad news in my opinion (and i've said why on numerous occasions). She played a role, sure. She is the only one who is saying she played an important role. i asked one question from MR during the last 'breakfast with editors': who is your principal opponent, maithripala, ranil or chandrika?' he said 'chandrika' immediately. that was the headline in most newspaper the following day. thereafter maithri sidelined her. that, i believe, is my small but most important contribution to the maithripala campaign. it's something that mahinda could have used too (pitched her as the true opponent), but he didn't. so with that one question i offered 'support' to both camps. :)

Malinda Seneviratne said...

harsha is a good man. a good friend. my doubts over him comes from his refusal to run for Western Province Governor. if what you say is true, then it's a pity he did't.

Anonymous said...

My respect to your remarkable ability, to support a campaign by a mere question :D

Sir, to sum up and end my two cents worth in this criticism of yours. It was not the bigger picture we are talking about here, nor the political strategies used by each of the candidates. After all, its very brave of a media-man like you to say 'MS sidelined CBK'. After all, we are just observers and the general public, while to give the devil his due, CBK has a slightly better resume than us when it comes to politics(ancestral political family, opp leader, PM, Executive President, and now king-maker). So its I guess a bit wishful of us to 'assume' what went down, for after all, how little we know, how much we know-not !

However Sir, the point I was trying to hit on was, is with all due respect to your outlook on the initial media-briefing and campaign inauguration; I would beg to disagree on your viewpoint in this matter. The common opposition(led by the political masterminds of our age, MS with 47 years in the arena, RW and CBK herself) obviously wouldave thought about all the possibilities and intricasies and known how crucial the initial step would be. I think it was perfectly carved out, to balance everything. MS started with a dhammapada sermon, and did what he does best, portray himself for who he is, a true man of the soil, and a man of the masses. Despite what you have said and pointed as a major flaw that MS committed, he OBVIOUSLY had to nominate Ranil as PM, for after all, the UNP was going to be the leading force of this coalition, atleast by vote base. Then CBK spoke up, and though the kolombians beg to differ, she I personally feel spoke to the hearts of the digruntled SLFPers. How she was an core slfper, how she never lost an election, how she was sidelined n illtreated by MR(all true). And then she mildly added, that she couldnt see the party being torn apart and her heart FORCED her to come back(this might be more fiction that fact, but was beautifully disguised). Then Rajitha spoke to the less intelligent voters, promising theres many more to come.

In your alternate mainseat, with Ven Rathana, and Anura Kumara sitting I doubt it wouldave had the same effect. They are two of the best speakers in the circuit, but Ven Ratana wudave brought a sense of racism into the campaign I believe and wouldave seriously put a question mark in the minds of minorities. And as for Anura Kumara, put aside the practical problem posed by bringing him there(he wasnt willing to get onto the common candidates stage), it wouldnt have made much of a change as his followers were anyways SET. Very few wouldave turned sides listening to his speech, despite the eloquency in his oratory skills. Your head-table wouldave brought extremism, which was not going to win them a presidential election, hell no.

Forgive me for my lack of articulation in the queens language, and I hope my chopstick english could get through my point to your keen linguistically apt brain.

Thankyou Sir

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Got to disagree. Chandrika's was a litany of woes. Rajitha was as bad, and spoke as though he was the presidential candidate. They both don't know when to drop ego. Had they done that MS would have won by a bigger margin.